Saṃsāric Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsava)

Revised December 7, 2016; November 17, 2023

Our character (gati), behavior, and cravings (āsava) sometimes have causes from past lives. It is easier to break bad habits when one understands the causes and consequences.

  • In the “Moral Living” section, we discussed how to get rid of bad habits, incorporate good habits, and thus achieve goals; see “Habits, Goals, and Character (Gati).” We saw that one’s behavioral patterns or habits can form one’s character (gati). Here we will see that some of these habits are not formed in this life but may have origins in previous lives. In a way, these are only “discernible things” we carry from life to life; see, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream”.

1. Habits (“gati” in Pāli and Sinhala) are acquired by repeated use. Habits can be neutral (one can make a habit of brushing teeth on the top left), good (exercising at a scheduled time), bad (smoking).

  • The more one can stick to a set habit, the more that habit becomes ingrained in the mind. Riding a bike or learning to drive is a habit to learn. Initially, it is hard, but once the habit is formed, it is done almost automatically; it becomes an ingrained “gati“.

2. Bad habits can be stopped by consciously trying to disrupt the habit. Initially, this takes a lot of effort, so assessing the consequences and convincing the mind of the dangers of a bad habit is important at the very beginning.

  • Replacing a bad habit with a good (at least less harmful) habit is also important. Instead of smoking, one could chew on a chewing gum when one gets the urge.

3. Habits also help mold the character (gati) of a person. We see very different character qualities among people: kind and malicious, calm and agitated, thoughtful and easily excitable, etc. It is easy to see that people with “bad character qualities” are those with one or more prominent bad habits.

  • But the good news is that no one is “inherently bad.” There are causes (reasons) for a person to have bad habits/character, and once those causes are removed, one becomes a person with good habits/character.
  • The best example is Angulimala, who lived during the time of the Buddha and killed close to a thousand people. The Buddha was able to show him the consequences of his behavior, and he was able to attain the Arahantship within a few weeks!

5. It is not only humans that display such personal characteristics; animals have them, too. Some dogs are vicious, while others are adorable; some are more loyal than others, etc.

  • These are habits/character (gati)  that have been molded over multiple lives, but most character (gati) CHANGES happen only during a human life because the human mind is the most capable of CHANGING habits. Animals, for example, are more like robots (not wholly).

6. Bad habits are formed via bad judgments arising from a defiled mind covered by the five hindrances. And bad habits lead to actions that further strengthen those same habits.

  • Once a certain bad “gati” becomes established, it can even lead to birth with that “gati,” i.e., will be destined for “dugati” (du + gati), which is another name for the apāyā (the four lowest realms). For example, someone who behaves and acts like an animal could well be reborn an animal.
  • The cycle needs to be broken to stop this self-feeding process. But as long as the hindrances are there, it is likely that sooner or later, new bad habits will be formed.

7. Those beings that are in the apāyā can be put into four major categories according to the proportions of greed and hate that are in their sansaric “gati” (of course, ignorance is in all of them) :

  • Pretas [Sanskrit], petas [Pāli], i.e., hungry ghosts, have “greedy” gati.
  • Those in the lowest realm, niraya (hell), have gati dominated by hate.
  • Animals have “gati” with both greed and hate. Therefore, the Pāli (or Sinhala) word for animals is “thirisan” (=”thiri”+”san” or three defilements). Remember that ignorance is always there.
  • Those in the asura (“a“+”sura,” where “a” means “not” and “sura” means proficient or capable; thus, asura means those who depend on others and are lazy) realm have the habit of doing as most minor as possible and exploit others’ hard work.

8. Similarly, one who cultivates good habits is destined for a “good” rebirth (sugati = su + gati), i.e., the human realm or above. For example, one who does not indulge in sense pleasures and cultivates compassion and loving kindness could be reborn in the Brahma realms where there is relatively less suffering and mostly jhānic pleasures.

  • Devas (realms 6-11) are compassionate and do not have hateful thoughts. But they like to enjoy sensory pleasures.
  • Brahmā (realms 12-31) do not have either greed or hate.
  • Humans (realms 5) COULD have all three. However, the unique aspect of the human realm is the ability to purify one’s own mind, REMOVE all three, and become an Arahant (attain Nibbāna). This is done by following the Noble Eightfold Path and removing all “bad habits” one has.

Of course, Devas and Brahmā both have ignorance and thus could be reborn in any realm when they die (unless they had attained the Sotāpanna stage).

9. Once ingrained in the mind, habits can be carried over repeated rebirths, from life to life. One who is easily tempted by alcohol is likely to have had that habit in their previous lives.

  • One who forms that habit in this life (even if he did not have it before) is likely to carry it over to the next life. Similarly, one who cultivates generosity in this life is likely to have that habit in the next life as well.

10. If those bad habits keep building up life after life, they get fermented and solidified and thus will become deeply embedded in one’s psyche. We all carry deeply ingrained sansaric habits associated with one or more of defilements. These are called mental fermentations or deeply embedded cravings (“āsava” in Pāli or Sinhala).

  • Some āsava lay hidden (sleeping), called “anusaya.” With a strong enough “trigger,” an ingrained anusaya can be brought to the surface. Anusaya is the hardest to get rid of.
  • When one continually acts in ways to strengthen one’s gati (character), that makes the corresponding āsava and anusaya even stronger.

11. Thus, it is clear why breaking bad habits is critically important, not only for the benefit of this life but also for future lives.

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