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Kleshas (Skt. kleśa; P. kilesa; T. nyon mongs ཉོན་མོངས།; C. fannao; J. bonnō 煩惱) 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.

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. These three root kleshas (and the kleshas generally) are seen as the very roots of samsaric existence.

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 Sanskrit term kleshas into English. For example, kleshas has been translated as: afflictions, passions, destructive emotions, disturbing emotions, etc.

English/Sanskrit term used[1] Description Source
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. Insight Newsletter, Fall/Winter 2003/2004.
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. Daniel Goleman (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. Daniel Goleman (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 (2008), Going on Being: Life at the Crossroads of Buddhism and Psychotherapy (Wisdom: Somerville), 107
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)

Relation to suffering

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 Anguttara Nikaya] we find many such groups, which are usually given metaphorical names to indicate how they affect us: taints, hindrances, floods, fetters, and so forth.[2]

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:

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...[3]

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

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.[5]

The path to the cessation of suffering

The buddhist path presents the methods to overcome suffering by reducing and finally eliminated the kleshas from our mind. The is considered to be a gradual process, and a variety of methods are presented within Buddhism to achieve this goal.

Pali tradition

Three unwholesome roots

In the Pali tradition, the three unwholesome roots (Pāli, akusala-mūla; Skt. akuśala-mūla ) are identified as:

  • Moha - delusion
  • Lobha - greed, unwholesome desire
  • Dosa - anger, agression, hatred

The three unwholesome roots are considered to be the root of all the other kleshas. These are equivalent to the three poisons that are identified in the Mahayana tradition, though there are subtle differences in how the two traditions define each term.

Five hindrances

The five hindrances (Pali: pañca nīvaraṇāni; Sanskrit: pañca nivāraṇa; ) are identified as mental factors that hinder progress in meditation and in our daily lives.[8]

The five hindrances are:[8][9][10][web 2][web 3]

  1. Sensory desire (kamacchanda): the particular type of wanting that seeks for happiness through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical feeling.
  2. Ill-will (vyapada; also spelled byāpāda): all kinds of thought related to wanting to reject, feelings of hostility, resentment, hatred and bitterness.
  3. Sloth-torpor (thīna-middha): heaviness of body and dullness of mind which drag one down into disabling inertia and thick depression.
  4. Restlessness-worry (uddhacca-kukkucca): the inability to calm the mind.
  5. Doubt (vicikicchā): lack of conviction or trust.

In the Pali tradition, these factors are identified specifically as obstacles to stages of concentration within meditation practice (called the jhānas). In the Mahayana tradition, the five hindrances are identified as obstacles to samatha (tranquility) meditation. Contemporary Insight Meditation teachers identify the five hindrances as obstacles to mindfulness meditation.

Fourteen unwholesome mental factors

Within the Pali tradition, the Abhidhammattha-sangaha enumerates the fourteen unwholesome mental factors:

Sanskrit tradition

Three poisons

In the Sanskrit tradition, the three poisons (Skt. triviṣa) are identified as:

  • Moha (or avidya) - ignorance, stupidity
  • Raga - attachment, greed, unwholesome desire
  • Dvesha - anger, aggression, hatred

These three poisons are considered to be the root of all the other kleshas. These are equivalent to the three unwholesome roots of the Theravada tradition, though there are subtle differences in how the two traditions define each term.

Five poisons

In the Sanskrit 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:[11][12]

Poison/Klesha Sanskrit Pali Tibetan[11] Description Alternate translations
Ignorance moha
gti mug
ma rig pa
Lack of discernment; not understanding the way of things Confusion, bewilderment, delusion
Attachment raga 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 unwholesome factors of the Abhidharma

The Sanskrit tradition's Abhidharma-samuccaya identifies six root kleshas (mūlakleśa):

Twenty-two secondary unwholesome factors of the Abhidharma

The Abhidharma-samuccaya also identifies twenty-two secondary unwholesome factors. (See link to main article above.)

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[14]

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."[3]
    • 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."[4]
    • 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."[5]
    • 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.”"[6]
    • 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."[7]
    • 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. 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.
  2. Bhiikkhu Bodhi. Introduction Introduction to the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha
  3. 3.0 3.1 Gethin 1998, p. 75.
  4. Williams 2002, pp. 47-48.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Ajahn Sucitto 2010, p. 163.
  6. Smith & Novak 2009, pp. 51-52.
  7. Bhikkhu Bodhi 2011, p. 25.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Fronsdal 2008, The Five Hindrances: Introduction; 2008-10-13.
  9. Traleg Kyabgon 2001, p. 26.
  10. Wallace 2006, pp. 158-159.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Padmakara (1998), p. 336, 414. (from the glossary)
  12. Longchen Yeshe Dorje (Kangyur Rinpoche) (2010). p. 492
  13. Guenther (1975), Kindle Location 321.
  14. 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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