The Way to Nibbāna – Removal of Āsavā

Revised November 19, 2018; February 11, 2020


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 being 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, Sidharata Gōtama became Buddha Gōtama. 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 or Pāli, 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.
  • Some habits (“gati“) we have cultivated (or fermented) over innumerable lives, and that is why they are hard to remove. Only through learning pure Dhamma and persistence in one’s efforts, one can break such bad habits and thus eventually āsava.  There are four types of āsava, and each is associated with corresponding bad habits.
Connection to Paṭicca Samuppāda

3. The doctrine of Paṭicca Samuppāda, which has twelve factors, namely, avijjā, saṅkhāra, viññāna, nāmarūpa, salāyatana, phassa, vēdanā, taṇhā, upādāna, bhava, jāti, jarā, marana 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 (sansāra.) Those āsavā ferment via repeated use of bad habits (“gati“). And the Noble Eightfold Path is the way to remove those “gati” (and thus āsavā) from the 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 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 are associated with sense pleasures.
  • Bhavāsava is the craving for a particular kind of existence, say as a human, deva, or a Brahma. Any living being, in any realm, craves for life, to live.
  • Avijjāsava 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 in a step-by-step process as one proceeds on the Path. Even before the Sōtapanna stage, one will be reducing them, but those reductions do not hold to 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 people have the misconception that “one needs to deplete all kamma vipāka” to attain Nibbāna. First of all, kamma vipāka are results of actions that had been done previously (either in this life or in previous lives.)

  • 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).”
  • Even the Buddha had eleven kamma vipāka left that resulted in backaches and an ulcer-like ailment close to Parinibbāna, among others. 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 needs to 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. I will discuss this in a separate post, but the critical idea discussed in, “Transfer of Merits (Pattidāna) – How Does it Happen?“.
Another Way to Understand

8. What really happens is the following. With the removal of āsavā, the akusala-mula Paṭicca samuppāda with “vedanā paccayā taṇhā” step stops working. Instead, now kusala-mula Paṭicca samuppāda cycles with “vedanā paccayā adhimokko” will operate.  There is no “upādāna paccayā bhavo” step in the kusala-mula Paṭicca samuppāda cycles.

  • Thus 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.

10. “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.” The āsavakkhaya ñāna is the key to Nibbāna.

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

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