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 Sanskrit tradition, or as the three unwholesome roots in the Pali tradition. These three root kleshas (and the kleshas generally) are seen as the very roots of cyclic existence (samsara).
The table below provides brief descriptions of the term kleshas given by various contemporary Buddhist teachers and scholars. Note that contemporary 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||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. 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.
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...
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.
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.
Categories of kleshas
Traditional texts identify different categories of kleshas and organize them into groups, "which are usually given metaphorical names to indicate how they affect us: taints, hindrances, floods, fetters, and so forth."
Three poisons/unwholesome roots
- moha - ignorance, stupidity, delusion
- raga (Pali: lobha) - attachment, greed, unwholesome desire
- dvesha (Pali dosa) - anger, aggression, hatred
These are called the three poisons (Skt. triviṣa) in the Sanskirt tradition, and the three unwholesome roots in the Pali tradition. There are subtle differences in how the two traditions define each term.
The five hindrances (pañca nivāraṇa) are a set of kleshas that are identified as obstacles to meditation practice in both the Pali and the Sanskrit traditions.
- Sensory desire (kamacchanda): the particular type of wanting that seeks for happiness through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical feeling
- Ill-will (vyapada): all kinds of thought related to wanting to reject, feelings of hostility, resentment, hatred and bitterness
- Sloth-torpor (thīna-middha): heaviness of body and dullness of mind
- Restlessness-worry (uddhacca-kukkucca): the inability to calm the mind
- Doubt (vicikicchā): lack of conviction or trust
More information: Five hindrances
Underlying tendencies (anuśaya)
Underlying tendencies (Skt. anuśaya) are unwholesome mental factors "that lie along with the mental process to which they belong, rising to the surface as obsessions whenever they meet with suitable conditions."
The term anuśaya is translated as "underlying tendency," "proclivity," "predisposition," "latent tendency," etc.
The most common list of underlying tendencies identify six or seven kleshas.
Some of the commonly identified groups of kleshas associated with the Pali tradition are listed below.
Fourteen unwholesome mental factors
Within the Pali tradition, the Abhidhammattha-sangaha enumerates the fourteen unwholesome mental factors:
- Four universal unwholesome mental factors (akusalasādhāraṇa):
- Three mental factors of the greed-group (lobha):
- Four mental factors of the hatred-group (dosa)
- Other unwholesome mental factors
Some of the commonly identified groups of kleshas associated with the Sanskrit tradition are listed below.
In the Sanskrit tradition, the five main kleshas are referred to as the five poisons (Sanskrit: pañca kleśaviṣa; Tibetan-Wylie: dug lnga).
|Ignorance||moha or avidya||Lack of discernment; not understanding the way of things||Confusion, bewilderment, delusion|
|Attachment||raga||Attachment or desire for what we like||Desire, passion|
|Aversion||dvesha||Aversion for what we don't like, or for what prevents us from getting what we like||Anger, hatred|
|Pride||māna||Having an inflated opinion of oneself and a disrespectful attitude toward others||Arrogance, Conceit|
|Jealousy||irshya||Being unable to bear the accomplishments or good fortune of others||Envy|
Six root kleshas
- Attachment (raga)
- Anger (pratigha)
- Ignorance (avidya)
- Pride/Conceit (māna)
- Doubt (vicikitsa)
- Wrong view (dṛṣṭi)
Twenty-two secondary kleshas
The Abhidharma-samuccaya also identifies twenty-two secondary unwholesome factors.
The term kleshas has been translated into English as:
- Mental afflictions
- Mental disturbances
- Afflictive emotions
- Conditioning factors
- Destructive emotions
- Defiled emotions
- Dissonant emotions
- Disturbing emotions
- Disturbing emotions and attitudes
- Negative emotions
- Dissonant mental states
- Mind poisons
- 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."
- 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."
- 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."
- 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.”"
- 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."
- Donald Lopez states: "[Nirvana] is used to refer to the extinction of desire, hatred, and ignorance and, ultimately, of suffering and rebirth."
- See also Gombrich Richard Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benāres to Modern Colombo. Routledge
- 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.
- Bhiikkhu Bodhi. Introduction Introduction to the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha
- Gethin 1998, p. 75.
- Williams & Tribe 2000, s.v. Chapter 2.
- Ajahn Sucitto 2010, p. 163.
- Smith & Novak 2009, pp. 51-52.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2011, p. 25.
- Donald S. Lopez Jr., Nirvana, Encyclopedia Britannica
- In the Sanskrit tradition, this first root is also referred to as avidya
- Traleg Kyabgon 2001, p. 26.
- Wallace 2006, pp. 158-159.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. Chapter 7: Compendium of Categories, "Fetters".
- Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2018b, s.v. Chapter 3: True Origins of Duḵha, "Fetters".
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. Chapter VII: Compendium of Categories, section "Latent Dispositions".
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. anuśaya.
- Padmakara (1998), p. 336, 414. (from the glossary)
- Longchen Yeshe Dorje (Kangyur Rinpoche) (2010). p. 492
Sources for main article:
- Ajahn Sucitto (2010), Turning the Wheel of Truth: Commentary on the Buddha's First Teaching, Shambhala
- Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed. (2000), A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, Pariyatti Publishing
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000b). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-331-1.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi (2011), The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering (Kindle ed.), Independent Publishers Group
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Dalai Lama; Thubten Chodron (2018b), Saṃsāra, Nirvāṇa, and Buddha Nature, The Library of Wisdom and Compassion, Volume 3, Wisdom Publications
- Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press
- Longchen Yeshe Dorje (Kangyur Rinpoche) (2010). Treasury of Precious Qualities. Revised edition. Paperback. Shambhala.
- Padmakara Translation Group (translator) (1998). The Words of My Perfect Teacher, by Patrul Rinpoche. Altamira.
- Smith, Huston; Novak, Philip (2009), Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (Kindle ed.), HarperOne
- Traleg Kyabgon (2001), The Essence of Buddhism, Shambhala
- Wallace, B. Alan (2006), The Attention Revolution, Wisdom
- Williams, Paul; Tribe, Anthony (2000), Buddhist Thought: A complete introduction to the Indian tradition, Taylor & Francis
Sources for contemporary glosses:
- Goldstein, Joseph. (2003) Insight Newsletter, Fall/Winter 2003/2004.
- Goleman, Daniel (2008). Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Bantam. Kindle Edition.
- Epstein, Mark (2008). Going on Being: Life at the Crossroads of Buddhism and Psychotherapy. Wisdom.
- Guenther, Herbert V. & Leslie S. Kawamura (1975), Mind in Buddhist Psychology: A Translation of Ye-shes rgyal-mtshan's "The Necklace of Clear Understanding" Dharma Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen (2009). A Complete Guide to the Buddhist Path. Snow Lion.
- Longchen Yeshe Dorje (Kangyur Rinpoche) (2010). Treasury of Precious Qualities. Revised edition. Paperback. Shambhala.
- Thrangu Rinpoche (1993). The Practice of Tranquility & Insight: A Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Mediation. Snow Lion. Kindle Edition.
- Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (2007). The Joy of Living. Kindle Edition. Harmony.
- The Demons of Defilement: (Kilesa Mara), by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo
- Mind and Life Institute Conference: Science and Wisdom of Emotions Summit (2021)
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