The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavā

Revised November 19, 2018; February 11, 2020; August 7, 2022

Introduction

1. The night the Buddha attained the Buddhahood, three unique pieces of knowledge (tivijjā) arose in him, namely:

  • The unique vision with which he was able to recollect innumerable former human existences (pubbenivāsānussati ñāna.)
  • The ability to see beings passing away and reborn according to their kamma (cutupapāda ñāna.)
  • The unique vision to see how to eliminate all kilesa (āsava) or defilements (āsavakkhaya ñāna.)
Āsavakkhaya Ñāna

2. With the attainment of the āsavakkhaya ñāna, ascetic Siddhartha became Buddha Gotama. That was the final step in purifying the mind. That was the fruit of all his efforts, the Path to attaining Nibbāna for any being. Āsavakkhaya (āsava+khaya = cutting off all the āsavā or mental fermentations). Thus Āsavakkhaya ñāna means the knowledge of cutting off āsavā and thus freeing the mind from the ability to generate any defilement.

  • The term āsava comes from “āsravayata āva” (ආශ්‍රවයට ආව) in Sinhala, which means “came to association with.” Thus those habits (“gati“) that one keeps associating with come even closer. As one continues and feeds those habits through successive rebirths, they become āsavā. See, “Āsava, Anusaya, and Gati (Gati).”
  • Āsava (in Pāli, Sinhala, and Sanskrit) also means a distillation to get an extract or essence. Some medicinal concoctions are fermented by keeping a mixture of ingredients underground for many months.
  • We have cultivated (or fermented) some habits (“gati“) over innumerable lives, and that is why they are hard to remove. Only through learning pure Dhamma and persistence in one’s efforts can one break such bad habits and thus eventually remove āsava.  There are four types of āsava, each is associated with a corresponding bad habit.
Connection to Paṭicca Samuppāda

3. The doctrine of Paṭicca Samuppāda, which has eleven factors, namely, avijjā, saṅkhāra, viññāna, nāmarūpa, salāyatana, phassa, vēdanā, taṇhā, upādāna, bhava, jāti, jarā, became clear to him.

  • Going over this Doctrine of Paṭicca Samuppāda in forward and reverse order repeatedly, he attained the Eightfold Noble Path, Ariya Magga, which is also known as Yathābhuta Ñānadassana.

4. Paṭicca Samuppāda clarifies how ignorant beings accumulate defilements (and āsavā) and get trapped in the round of rebirths (Saṁsāra.) Those āsavā are generated and fermented via repeated use of bad habits (“gati“).

  • The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to remove those “gati” (and thus āsavā) from a mind.
Four Stages of Nibbāna Related to the Four Āsavā

5. We all have four significant types of āsavā, even though there are uncountable minor varieties:

  • Diṭṭhāsava (diṭṭhi āsava) is the category that is due to all kinds of false beliefs (micchā diṭṭhi): for example, if someone does not believe in rebirth, there may be cravings such as “I need to enjoy life to the fullest before I die.”
  • Kāmāsava (kāma āsava) is associated with craving sensory pleasures.
  • Bhavāsava (bhava āsava) is the craving for a particular kind of existence, say as a human, deva, or Brahma. Any living being, in any realm, craves for life, to live.
  • Avijjāsava (avijjā āsava) is all cravings that arise due to ignorance. That is the ignorance of the Noble Truth of Suffering (which is NOT merely suffering itself) and the other Noble Truths.

6. The four types of āsavā go away step-by-step as one proceeds on the Path. One can reduce them even before the Sōtapanna stage, but those reductions may not hold in future lives.

  • When one attains the Sōtapanna stage, all four types of āsavā that could trigger “apāyagāmi” actions go away from one’s mind, i.e., one will never be reborn in the four lowest realms.  Diṭṭhāsava (those due to wrong views) disappear entirely.
  • At the Sakadāgāmi stage, kāmāsava and bhavāsava reduce, and a Sakadāgāmi will be born only as a deva or above in future lives; avijjāsava also reduces.
  • Kāmāsava completely goes away at the Anāgāmi stage. Thus one will never be reborn in the kāma lōka (including the deva realm) again. Bhavāsava and avijjāsava also reduce.
  • Bhavāsava and avijjāsava disappear without a trace at the Arahant stage. Thus āsavakkhaya becomes complete.

Removal of āsavā starts with the removal of bad habits and cultivating good habits; see “Habits and Goals,” “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsavas),” and “Saṃsāric Habits and Āsavas.”

Is there a Connection Between Nibbāna and Kamma?

7. Many incorrectly believe that “one needs to deplete all kamma vipāka” to attain Nibbāna. First, kamma vipāka are results of previous actions (either in this life or in previous lives.) Those are kammic energies created and wear away (slowly) only with time. Thus, even an Arahant would still have all such kamma vipaka waiting to bear fruit.

  • None of such kamma vipaka can bring rebirth to an Arahant, as explained in #10 below.
  • However, they can bring vipāka to any physical body until its death. Even the Buddha experienced backpains and was injured by Devadatta. There were eleven such kamma vipāka that he experienced. Those were unavoidably strong kamma for insulting a Buddha in a previous life.
Reducing Bad Kamma Vipāka 

8. Metta Bhāvanā can remove some of the kammic power associated with the previous kamma. However, some kamma bīja or kamma seeds (both good and bad) due to the past kamma may still be there at the time of the attainment of Nibbāna. See, “5. Ariya Metta Bhāvana (Loving Kindness Meditation).”

  •  To get rid of a kamma seed associated with a given kamma, the other party related to that kamma seed needs to be able to receive the merits of Metta Bhāvanā. That person must have a state of mind with alōbha, adōsa, and amōha. But some of those beings may be trapped in the niraya for long times and may not even have a moment of “relief” to receive such merits. That concept is discussed in “Transfer of Merits (Pattidāna) – How Does it Happen?“.
“Everything Happens Due to Kamma” is a Misconception

9. “Everything happens due to kamma” is a misconception. That is a Vedic concept, and is not in Buddha Dhamma; see, “Sankhāra, Kamma, Kamma Bīja, Kamma Vipāka.”

  • We can reduce many previous kamma from bringing their fruits (vipāka) by acting with mindfulness/foresight. Kammic energies cannot bring their vipāka if suitable conditions are not there. For details: “Anantara and Samanantara Paccayā.”
  • For example, an apple seed has the potential to give rise to an apple tree. However, it will not germinate until we plant it in fertile soil and provide water and sunlight. In the same way, a kamma seed (good or bad) can lay dormant for a long time until conditions become right for it to germinate.
  • Thus, if we act with mindfulness (not to set up conditions for possible bad kamma vipāka to bear fruit,) we can avoid many kamma vipāka. For example, going to a bad neighborhood at night could have bad consequences because a bad neighborhood is a fertile ground for bad vipāka to bear fruit.
How an Arahant Avoids Rebirth?

10. What happens is the following. Since an Arahant has removed all āsavā, the “vedanā paccayā taṇhā” step in Paṭicca samuppāda will not take place. Instead, only the kusala-mula Paṭicca samuppāda operates for an Arahant, where there is no “upādāna paccayā bhavo” step.

  • When an Arahant dies, there is no “bhava” grasped by the mind. Therefore there is no “jāti” or birth.
  • Thus, an Arahant could have many unspent kamma Bīja (both good and bad) left, but his/her mind has lost the craving (āsava) to grasp any of them.

Next, “Why is Correct Interpretation of Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta so Important?“……..

Print Friendly, PDF & Email