Difference between revisions of "Kleshas"

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! English/Sanskrit term used<ref>This column indicates the English words used by each of these teachers as a translation for the term ''kleshas''.</ref>
! English/Sanskrit term used<ref>This column indicates the English words used by each of these teachers as a translation for the term ''kleshas''. Note that some teachers prefer to leave the term untranslated.</ref>
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Revision as of 17:32, 14 May 2018

Translations of
English afflictions,
destructive emotions,
disturbing emotions,
negative emotions,
mind poisons,
Pali किलेस (kilesa)
Sanskrit क्लेश (kleśa)
Burmese ကိလေသာ
(IPA: [kḭlèθà])
Chinese 煩惱
Japanese 煩悩
(rōmaji: bonnō)
Khmer កិលេស
Korean 번뇌
(RR: Beonnoi)
Mongolian нисванис (nisvanis)
Tibetan ཉོན་མོངས།
(Wylie: nyon mongs;
THL: nyönmong
Thai กิเลส

Kleshas (Sanskrit, also kleśa; Pali: kilesa; Tibetan: nyon mongs), in Buddhism, are mental states that cloud the mind and manifest in unwholesome actions. Kleshas include states of mind such as anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy, desire, depression, etc. Contemporary translators use a variety of English words to translate the term kleshas, such as: afflictions, defilements, destructive emotions, disturbing emotions, negative emotions, mind poisons, etc.

In the contemporary Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist traditions, the three kleshas of ignorance, attachment, and aversion are identified as the root or source of all other kleshas. These are referred to as the three poisons in the Mahayana tradition, or as the three unwholesome roots in the Theravada tradition.

While the early Buddhist texts of the Pali canon do not specifically enumerate the three root kleshas, over time the three poisons (and the kleshas generally) came to be seen as the very roots of samsaric existence.


Cause of suffering

In the Buddhist view, the kleshas (or defilements) are said to be the cause of suffering. Bhikkhu Bodhi explains:

The Buddha locates the cause of suffering in the bonds of our own minds. Hence the stress in the teaching on honest self-assessment... As part of a diagnosis of the origin of suffering, the Nikāyas are replete with catalogues of the various defilements to which the mind is prey. In [ the Aṅguttara Nikāya] we find many such groups, which are usually given metaphorical names to indicate how they affect us: taints, hindrances, floods, fetters, and so forth. Bhiikkhu Bodhi. Introduction Introduction to the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha

Cessation of suffering

In the Buddhist view, when the mind is purified of the kleshas, then one attains the cessation of suffering, which is nirvana. In the sutras of the Pali canon, this process is often referred to as extinguishing the "fires" that cause suffering. These fires are typically identified as the fires of attachment (raga), aversion (dvesha) and ignorance (moha or avidya).[lower-alpha 1] In this case, the three "fires" are considered to be the three root kleshas; from these three, all the other kleshas arise.

For example, Rupert Gethin states:[1]

Literally nirvāṇa means ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ [...] What the Pali and Sanskrit expression primarily indicates is the event or process of the extinction of the ‘fires’ of greed, aversion, and delusion. At the moment the Buddha understood suffering, its arising, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation, these fires were extinguished. This process is the same for all who reach awakening...

Contemporary Buddhist scholar Ajahn Sucitto emphasizes that when these fires are extinguished, the mind is freed. Ajahn Sucitto states:[3]

The metaphors associated with nibbāna often liken it to the blowing out of a fire. When it is no longer burning, the fire has “nibbāna’d”—the elements on which it was based are no longer in a state of combustion... That is, when the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion are extinguished, the mind is free to operate in terms of its fullest capacity.

The path to the cessation of suffering


Contemporary glosses

The table below provides brief descriptions of the term kleshas given by various contemporary Buddhist teachers and scholars. Note that contemporary teachers and translators use a variety of English words and phrases in order to translate the term Sanskrit term kleshas into English.[6] For example, kleshas has been translated as: afflictions, passions, destructive emotions, disturbing emotions, etc.

English/Sanskrit term used[7] Description Source
Afflictive emotions In general, any defilement or emotion which obscures the mind. They are often summarized as three: ignorance, attachment and aversion. All other negative predispositions are produced on the basis of these three. Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen (2009). A Complete Guide to the Buddhist Path. p. 451 (from the glossary)
Afflictions Mental factors that produce states of mental torment both immediately and in the long term. The five principal kleshas, which are sometimes called poisons, are attachment, aversion, ignorance, pride, and jealousy. Longchen Yeshe Dorje (Kangyur Rinpoche) (2010). Treasury of Precious Qualities. p. 492 (from the glossary)
Conditioning Factors or Mental Afflictions The processes that not only describe what we perceive, but also determine our responses. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (2008). The Joy of Living. p. 115
Mental afflictions In Tibetan a mental affliction is defined as a mental process that has the function of disrupting the equilibrium of the mind. They all have that in common, whether or not there is a strong emotional component to it. Goleman, Daniel (2008). Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Kindle Locations 2553-2555.
Destructive emotions Fundamentally, a destructive emotion—which is also referred to as an ‘obscuring’ or ‘afflictive’ mental factor—is something that prevents the mind from ascertaining reality as it is. With a destructive emotion, there will always be a gap between the way things appear and the ways things are. Goleman, Daniel (2008). Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Kindle Locations 1779-1781.
Defilements These are unskilful factors such as greed, hate, delusion, opinionatedness and lack of moral concern. Whereas the term ‘hindrance’ refers to five sticking points, ‘defilement’ is often used without any definite list, but to refer to any function of the mind which is led by unskilful factors. Ajahn Sucitto (2011). Meditation, A Way of Awakening. Amaravati Publications. p. 263. (from the glossary)
Kleshas Kleshas are the strong conflicting emotions that spin off and heighten when we get caught by aversion and attraction. Pema Chodron. Signs of Spiritual Progress. Shambhala Sun.
Kleshas Kleshas are properties that dull the mind and are the basis for all unwholesome actions. The three main kleshas are passion, aggression, and ignorance. Chögyam Trungpa. The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation. Edited by Judy L. Lief. Shambhala. p. 134 (from the glossary)
Kleshas The basic idea is that certain powerful reactions have the capacity to take hold of us and drive our behavior. We believe in these reactions more than we believe in anything else, and they become the means by which we both hide from ourselves and attempt to cope with a world of ceaseless change and unpredictability. The three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance are the classic Buddhist examples, but others include conceit, skeptical doubt, and so-called "speculative" views... Mark Epstein. Going on Being: Buddhism and the Way of Change, a Positive Psychology for the West. http://www.quietspaces.com/kleshas.html
Kleshas The emotional obscurations (in contrast to intellectual obscurations), usually translated as "poisons" or "defilements." The three main klesas are ignorance, hatred, and desire. The five klesas include these three along with pride and envy.

Thrangu Rinpoche (1993). The Practice of Tranquility & Insight: A Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Mediation (p. 152). Snow Lion. Kindle Edition. p. 152 (from the glossary)

Afflictive emotions ...those mind states that cause suffering, such as depression, fear, hatred, anger, jealousy and so on – it’s a long list! Joseph Goldstein. The Emerging Western Buddhism: An Interview with Joseph Goldstein.

Pali literature

In the Pali Canon's discourses (sutta), kilesa is often associated with the various passions that defile bodily and mental states. In the Pali Canon's Abhidhamma and post-canonical Pali literature, ten defilements are identified, the first three of which – greed, hate, delusion – are considered to be the "roots" of suffering.

Sutta Pitaka: Mental hindrances

In the Pali Canon's Sutta Pitaka, kilesa and its correlate upakkilesa[8] are affective obstacles to the pursuit of direct knowledge (abhiñña) and wisdom (pañña).

For instance, the Samyutta Nikaya includes a collection of ten discourses (SN 27, Kilesa-saṃyutta) that state that any association of "desire-passion" (chanda-rāgo) with the body or mind[9] is a "defilement of mind" (cittasse'so upakkileso):

"Monks, any desire-passion with regard to the eye is a defilement of the mind. Any desire-passion with regard to the ear... the nose... the tongue... the body... the intellect is a defilement of the mind. When, with regard to these six bases, the defilements of awareness are abandoned, then the mind is inclined to renunciation. The mind fostered by renunciation feels malleable for the direct knowing of those qualities worth realizing."[10]

More broadly, the five hindrances – sensual desire (kāmacchanda), anger (byāpāda), sloth-torpor (thīna-middha), restlessness-worry (uddhacca-kukkucca), and doubt (vicikicchā) – are frequently associated with kilesa in the following (or a similar) manner:

[A]ll those Blessed Ones had first abandoned the five hindrances,
defilements of the mind that weaken wisdom ....[11]
  sabbe te bhagavanto pañcanīvarae pahāya
cetaso upakkilese paññāya dubbalīkarae .....[12]

Additionally, in the Khuddaka Nikaya's Niddesa, kilesa is identified as a component of or synonymous with craving (taṇhā) and lust (rāga).[13]

Abhidhamma: Ten defilements and unwholesome roots

While the Sutta Pitaka does not offer a list of kilesa, the Abhidhamma Pitaka's Dhammasangani (Dhs. 1229ff.) and Vibhanga (Vbh. XII) as well as in the post-canonical Visuddhimagga (Vsm. XXII 49, 65) enumerate ten defilements (dasa kilesa-vatthūni) as follows:

  1. greed (lobha)
  2. hate (dosa)
  3. delusion (moha)
  4. conceit (māna)
  5. wrong views (micchāditthi)
  6. doubt (vicikicchā)
  7. torpor (thīna)
  8. restlessness (uddhacca)
  9. shamelessness (ahirika)
  10. recklessness (anottappa)[14]

The Vibhanga also includes an eightfold list (aṭṭha kilesa-vatthūni) composed of the first eight of the above ten.[15]

Throughout Pali literature, the first three kilesa in the above tenfold Abhidhamma list (lobha dosa moha) are known as the "unwholesome roots" (akusala-mūla or the root of akusal); and, their opposites (alobha adosa amoha) are the three "wholesome roots" (kusala-mūla or the root of kusal).[16] The presence of such a wholesome or unwholesome root during a mental, verbal or bodily action conditions future states of consciousness and associated mental factors (see Karma).[17]

Mahayana tradition

Three poisons

The three kleshas of ignorance, attachment and aversion are referred to as the three poisons (Skt. triviṣa) in the Mahayana tradition and as the three unwholesome roots (Pāli, akusala-mūla; Skt. akuśala-mūla ) in the Therevada tradition. These three poisons (or unwholesome roots) are considered to be the root of all the other kleshas.

Five poisons

In the Mahayana tradition, the five main kleshas are referred to as the five poisons (Sanskrit: pañca kleśaviṣa; Tibetan-Wylie: dug lnga).

The five poisons consist of the three poisons with two additional poisons: pride and jealousy. The five poisons are:[18][19]

Poison/Klesha Sanskrit Pali Tibetan[18] Description Alternate translations
Ignorance moha
gti mug
ma rig pa
Lack of discernment; not understanding the way of things Confusion, bewilderment, delusion
Attachment rāga lobha 'dod chags Attachment or desire for what we like Desire, passion
Aversion dvesha dosa zhe sdang Aversion for what we don't like, or for what prevents us from getting what we like Anger, hatred
Pride māna māna nga rgyal Having an inflated opinion of oneself and a disrespectful attitude toward others Arrogance, Conceit
Jealousy irshya issā phrag dog Being unable to bear the accomplishments or good fortune of others Envy

Six root kleshas of the Abhidharma

The Abhidharma-kośa identifies six root kleshas (mūlakleśa):

In the context of the Yogācāra school of Buddhism, Muller (2004: p. 207) states that the Six Klesha arise due to the "...reification of an 'imagined self' (Sanskrit: satkāya-dṛṣṭi)".[21]

Mahaparinirvana Sutra

The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra lists approximately 50 kleshas, including those of attachment, aversion, stupidity, jealousy, pride, heedlessness, haughtiness, ill-will, quarrelsomeness, wrong livelihood, deceit, consorting with immoral friends, attachment to pleasure, to sleep, to eating, and to yawning; delighting in excessive talking and uttering lies, as well as thoughts of harm.

Two obscurations

Mahayana literature often features an enumeration of "two obscurations" (Wylie: sgrib gnyis), the "obscuration of conflicting emotions" (Sanskrit: kleśa-avaraṇa, Wylie: nyon-mongs-pa'i sgrib-ma) and the "obscuration concerning the knowable" (Sanskrit: jñeya-avaraṇa, Wylie: shes-bya'i sgrib-ma).[22]

Alternate translations

The term kleshas has been translated into English as:

  • Afflictions
  • Mental afflictions
  • Mental disturbances
  • Afflictive emotions
  • Conditioning factors
  • Destructive emotions
  • Defiled emotions
  • Defilements
  • Dissonant emotions
  • Disturbing emotions
  • Disturbing emotions and attitudes
  • Negative emotions
  • Dissonant mental states
  • Kleshas
  • Passions
  • Poisons
  • Mind poisons
  • Worldly desires[23]

See also


  1. Nirvana is described as extinguishing the fires of attachment (raga), aversion (dvesha) and ignorance (moha or avidya).
    • Rupert Gethin states: "Literally nirvāṇa means ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ [...] What the Pali and Sanskrit expression primarily indicates is the event or process of the extinction of the ‘fires’ of greed, aversion, and delusion. At the moment the Buddha understood suffering, its arising, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation, these fires were extinguished. This process is the same for all who reach awakening, and the early texts term it either nirvāṇa or parinirvāṇa, the complete ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ of the ‘fires’ of greed, aversion, and delusion. This is not a ‘thing’ but an event or experience."[1]
    • Paul Williams states: "[Nirvana] means 'extinguishing', as in 'the extinguishing of a flame', and it signifies soteriologically the complete extinguishing of greed, hatred, and fundamentally delusion (i.e. ignorance), the forces which power samsara."[2]
    • Ajahn Sucitto states: "By the extinguishing of the “three fires” of greed, hatred, and delusion, nibbāna gives tangible results in terms of other people’s welfare."[3]
    • Smith and Novak state: "Nirvana is the highest destiny of the human spirit and its literal meaning is “extinction,” but what is to be extinguished are the boundaries of the finite self and the three poisons that feed that self: “The extinction of greed, the extinction of hate, the extinction of delusion: this indeed is called Nirvana.”"[4]
    • Bhikkhu Bodhi states: "The state of perfect peace that comes when craving is eliminated is Nibbāna (nirvāṇa), the unconditioned state experienced while alive with the extinguishing of the flames of greed, aversion, and delusion."[5]
    • Donald Lopez states: "[Nirvana] is used to refer to the extinction of desire, hatred, and ignorance and, ultimately, of suffering and rebirth."[web 1]
    • See also Gombrich Richard Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benāres to Modern Colombo. Routledge


  1. 1.0 1.1 Gethin 1998, p. 75.
  2. Williams 2002, pp. 47-48.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Ajahn Sucitto 2010, p. 163.
  4. Smith & Novak 2009, pp. 51-52.
  5. Bhikkhu Bodhi 2011, p. 25.
  6. Epstein, Mark (2009) http://www.quietspaces.com/kleshas.html
  7. This column indicates the English words used by each of these teachers as a translation for the term kleshas. Note that some teachers prefer to leave the term untranslated.
  8. Beyond the etymological relationship between and semantic closeness of kilesa and upakkilesa (e.g., see Rhys Davids & Stede, 1921-25, p. 139, entry for upakkilesa at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.0:1:3657.pali), the below-referenced Samyutta Nikaya collection entitled "Kilesa-saṃyutta" (SN 27) does not use kilesa in its actual suttas but, in fact, upakkilesa. Bodhi (2000), pp. 1012-14, 1100 n. 273, specifically makes note of the lexical differences between these two Pali words and chooses to translate kilesa as "defilement" and upakkilesa as "corruption." Similar, in Bodhi (2000), p. 1642, SN 47.12, upakkilesa is translated as "corruption" whereas, as indicated below, in Bodhi (2005), p. 416, this same Pali word in the same sutta is translated as "defilement." Consistent with Bodhi (2005), as seen below, Thanissaro (1994) also translates upakkilesa as "defilement."

    The related correlate sankilesa (or saṅkilesa) is also translated as "defilement" by Bodhi (e.g., 2000, pp. 903-4; 2005, pp. 55-6), Thanissaro (2004) and Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-5, entry for "Sankilesa"). In SN 22.60 (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 903-4), sankilesa is contextualized by: "By being enamoured with [form], [beings] are captivated by it, and by being captivated by it they are defiled." In this sutta, sankilesa is juxtaposed with purification (visuddhi) which is contextualized by: "Experiencing revulsion [in the impermanence of form's pleasure], [beings] become dispassionate, and through dispassion they are purified."

  9. In particular, this saṃyutta contextualizes kilesa vis-à-vis the six internal and external "sense bases" (ayatana) and their mental concomitants (the six classes of consciousness, contact, feeling and craving, see the section on the "six sextets"), the six primary "elements" (dhātu, cf. mahābhūta), and the five "aggregates" (khandha).
  10. SN 27.1 (trans. Thanissaro, 1994). Note that the phrase that Thanissaro translates as "defilement of awareness" here is cetaso upakkileso; Bodhi (2000), p. 1012, simply translates this as "mental corruption" (underlining added for clarity).
  11. Translation from Bodhi (2005), p. 416. Bodhi (2005, pp. 417, 457 n. 58) states that this is from SN 47.12, as well as DN 16 and DN 28. A similar phrase can be found in DN 28, etc.
  12. Pali, based on a search for "pahāya cetaso upakkilese," retrieved from "BodhgayaNews" at http://www.bodhgayanews.net/pitakaresults.php?title=&start=0&to=10&searchstring=pahāya%20cetaso%20upakkilese (32 matches found).
  13. See Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-5), pp. 216-7, entry for "Kilesa," retrieved 2008-02-09 from "University of Chicago" at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.1:1:579.pali.
  14. Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-5), p. 217; and, Nyanatiloka (1988), entry for "kilesa," retrieved 2008-02-09 from "BuddhaSasana" at http://www.buddhanet.net/budsas/ebud/bud-dict/dic3_k.htm.
  15. Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 217.
  16. In addition to frequent reference in the Abhidhamma and post-canonical Pali literature, references to the unwholesome roots (akusala-mūla) are sprinkled throughout the Sutta Pitaka. For instance, in the Digha Nikaya, it can be found in DN 33 (D iii.215) and DN 34 (D iii.275); in the Majjhima Nikaya, it is the first of several topics discussed by Ven. Sariputta in the well-known Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta ("Right View Discourse," MN 9); and, in the Itivuttaka, a brief discourse on three unwholesome roots starts off the "Section of the Threes" (Iti. 50). However, in none of these Sutta Pitaka texts are the three unwholesome roots referred to as kilesa. Such an association appears to begin in the Abhidhamma texts.
  17. Nyanatiloka (1988), entry for "mūla," retrieved 2008-02-09 from "BuddhaSasana" at http://www.buddhanet.net/budsas/ebud/bud-dict/dic3_m.htm.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Padmakara (1998), p. 336, 414. (from the glossary)
  19. Longchen Yeshe Dorje (Kangyur Rinpoche) (2010). p. 492
  20. Guenther (1975), Kindle Location 321.
  21. Muller (2004).
  22. Dorje, Jikdrel Yeshe (Dudjom Rinpoche, author), translated and edited: Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (1991). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Boston, USA: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-199-8, p. 107(Enumerations).
  23. Translation of the Japanese the term Bonno: http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/cgi-bin/wwwjdic.cgi?9T

Web references


External links

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