The Nature of Defilements



For the unenlightened being, experiences and situations are normally interpreted and evaluated through the following biases or influences:

    1. The concern around desires for the five kinds of sense objects (kama -- sights, sounds, smells, tastes and bodily sensations).

    2. The concern around the existence and preservation of the self, its identities and desired situations (bhava).

    3. Views, beliefs, and ways of thinking (ditthi).

    4. Delusion or ignorance (avijja): not clearly knowing the meaning of things as they are, which leads to the perception of self.

    The third and fourth conditions, in particular, are obviously related: without wisdom or understanding, it follows that behavior will be guided by habitual and misguided views and beliefs. These two conditions cover very broad areas of influence, including political, social and religious ideals and practices based on temperament, habit, training, and social conditioning. They are related to the first and second biases and exert an influence over them, thus controlling all personal feelings and behavior. They condition everything, from likes and dislikes to means and methods chosen to gratify desires. Ignorance and views are concealed deeply within consciousness and are quietly and continually exerting their influence.

    According to common perception, we are in control of our actions and are able to pursue desires of our own free will. Closer observation will tell us that this is an illusion. If we were to ask ourselves, "What do we really want? Why do we want such things? Why do we act the way we do?" we would find nothing which is really our own. We would find instead inherited behavior patterns, learned from schooling, religious upbringing, social conditioning and the like. Individual actions are simply chosen from within the bounds of these criteria, and although there may be some adaptations made, these will again be at the direction of other influences. Any choices or decisions made are part of a stream of conditions, and these are themselves influenced by other factors. What people feel to be their self is none other than the sum total of these influences or biases. These conditions, in addition to having no self of their own, are powerful forces over which most people have little or no control, so that there is really very little chance for true independence.

    The four qualities mentioned above are called in Pali asava.[16] Translated literally, asava means 'that which floods,' or 'that which pickles or festers,' because these things 'pickle' or poison the mind. They also 'flood' the mind whenever it experiences a sensation, and so we will call them 'outflows.' No matter what may be experienced, be it through any of the sense doors or conceived in the mind itself, these outflows insinuate themselves into and spread their influence over it. Sensations or thoughts, instead of being functions of the pure mind, become instead products of the outflows, in turn polluting subsequent mental states and causing, as a result, suffering.

    The first outflow is called kamasava, the second, bhavasava, the third ditthasava, and the fourth avijjasava. These outflows lie behind the behavior of all unenlightened beings. They create the delusion of self-view, which is ignorance at its most basic level. In this sense they control and direct thinking and behavior. This is the very first level of the Dependent Origination cycle: ignorance is conditioned by the outflows. From there the cycle continues -- with ignorance as determinant, volitional impulses arise accordingly.

    While, under the influence of delusion, most people believe that they themselves are performing actions, the irony is that they are not their own masters at all -- their behavior is totally controlled by intentions which are lacking in reflexive awareness. Essentially, ignorance is blindness to the Three Characteristics as they are shown in the principle of Dependent Origination, especially the third one, not-self (anatta). More specifically, ignorance is not clearly knowing that the conditions usually taken to be an individual or self, 'me' or 'you,' are simply a stream of physical and mental phenomena, constantly arising and ceasing, related and connected by the cause and effect process. This stream is in a state of constant flux. We could say that a 'person' is simply the overall result of the feelings, thoughts, desires, habits, biases, views, knowledge, beliefs and so on, at any particular point in time, that are either inherited from social and environmental factors, such as through learning, or formed from personal, internal factors, all constantly changing. Not clearly knowing this, there is clinging to one or another of these conditions as self or belonging to self. To cling to conditions in this way is in effect to be deceived and controlled by them.

    This is "ignorance as a determinant for volitional impulses" on a more profound level than given previously. As for the remaining headings, from here up until vedana, feeling, there should be no difficulty understanding them from the explanations already given. Therefore we will pass on from there to another important section, "craving (tanha) as a determinant for clinging, (upadana)," another of the sections dealing with kilesa, or defilement.

    The three kinds of craving already mentioned are all expressions of the one craving, and all are commonly experienced in everyday life, but they can only be seen when the workings of the mind are carefully analyzed. At the root of all ignorance is ignorance of things as a natural process of interrelated causes and effects, which gives rise to the perception of a self. This leads to a very important and fundamental desire, the desire to be, the desire to survive, to protect and preserve the illusion of self. Wanting to be is related to wanting to have -- desire is not simply for existence, but existence in order to consume those objects which will produce pleasant feelings. Thus it can be said that desire for existence depends on the desire to have, and desire to have intensifies the desire to exist.

    As craving intensifies, a number of situations may result: if the desired object is not obtained at the desired time, the bhava, or state of existence, at that time becomes intolerable. Life will seem difficult, and this leads to a desire to annihilate the undesirable situation. At the same time, desire to acquire will once again arise, based on fear of no longer being able to experience pleasant feeling, and from there desire to be once more. A second possibility might be not obtaining the desired object at all; a third, obtaining it, but in insufficient quantity; while a fourth might be obtaining it, but then desiring something else. The process may take various forms, but the basic pattern is one of ever-increasing craving.

    When the workings of the mind are examined closely, human beings seem to be embroiled in a constant search for a state that is more fulfilling than what they have. Unenlightened beings are constantly being repelled from the present moment -- each moment of present time is a state of stress, an unendurable situation. The desire to extinguish this situation, to free the self from the present and find a state which is more fulfilling, is constantly arising. Wanting to get, wanting to be and wanting to not be are constantly occurring in the daily life of unenlightened beings (on a level that few are aware of). Personal life thus becomes a constant struggle to escape the present state of being to search for some future fulfillment.

    Tracing back along the process, we find that these desires originate from the fundamental ignorance of things as they really are -- in short, ignorance of the principle of conditionality and Dependent Origination. This ignorance gives rise to the basic misconception of self in one form or another: either seeing things as separate entities, fixed and enduring,(sassataditthi) or as being completely and utterly annihilated (ucchedaditthi). All unenlightened beings have these two basic wrong views at the root of their consciousness, and these give rise to the three kinds of desire. The desire for existence (bhavatanha) springs from the distorted perception of things as separate and enduring entities (and thus desirable and worth attaining). Alternatively, there is the misconception that these separate entities are destructible (and as such are not worth having and must be escaped from), which is the basis for the desire for annihilation (vibhavatanha).

    These two basic wrong views prepare the way for craving. If there was understanding of the stream of events as a process of interrelated causes and effects, the perception of a separate entity which endures or is destroyed would be baseless. All craving is naturally based on these two basic views.

    Fear of loss of pleasant feeling leads to the frantic search for more, and the perception of a separate entity leads to the struggle to procure for that entity and to preserve it. On a coarser level, craving expresses itself as the struggle to seek out objects of desire, life situations which provide such objects, boredom with those objects already obtained, and the despair with, or inability to endure, the lack of new objects of desire. The picture that emerges is of people unable to be at peace with themselves, constantly craving objects of desire and experiencing melancholy, loneliness, alienation and distress in the struggle to escape from unendurable boredom. When desires are thwarted there is disappointment and despair.

    For most people happiness and suffering depend entirely on external conditions. Free time becomes a bane, both individually and socially, a cause for boredom, misery and loneliness. This basic dissatisfaction increases in proportion to the amount of desire and the intensity of the search for sensual gratification. In fact, looking from a more introspective viewpoint, we find that the most important cause for social problems, such as drug addiction and juvenile delinquency, is the inability of people to be at peace with the present moment and their subsequent struggles to escape it.

    In the event of having studied and trained in a religious teaching, and developed right views, craving can be turned in a good direction, aimed at realizing more long-term goals, which entails the performance of good works and, ultimately, the use of craving to abandon craving.

    The defilement (kilesa) which follows on from craving is clinging, of which there are four kinds:

    1. Kamupadana: Clinging to sensuality. Desire and effort to seek out sense objects are naturally followed by clinging and attachment. When an object of desire is obtained, the wish to gratify that desire even more and the fear of losing the object of such gratification will produce clinging. In the event of disappointment and loss, attachment is based on yearning. Clinging becomes even stronger and generates further action in the quest for fulfillment because desire-objects provide no lasting satisfaction. Because nothing can ever really belong to the self, the mind is constantly trying to reaffirm the sense of ownership. The thinking of unenlightened beings is thus constantly clinging to and obsessed with one object of desire or another. It is very difficult for such a mind to be free and unattached.

    2. Ditthupadana: Clinging to views. Desire to be or not to be produces bias and attachment to views, theories or philosophical systems, and in turn methods, ideas, creeds and teachings. When views are clung to they become identified with as part of one's self. Thus, when confronted with a theory or view which contradicts one's own, it is taken as a personal threat. The self must fight to defend its position, which in turn gives rise to all kinds of conflicts. The process tends to bind the mind into tight corners where the functioning of wisdom is impaired. Such thoughts and views do not provide knowledge, but rather obstruct it.

    3. Silabbatupadana: Clinging to mere rules and rituals. The desire to be and the fear of dissolution, together with attachment to views, in turn lead to blind adherence to those practices and methods, such as magic and occultism, which are believed to effectuate the desired result. The desire for self-preservation and self-expression manifest outwardly as blind attachment to modes of behavior, traditions, methods, creeds and institutions. There is no understanding of their true value or meaning. This in effect means that the creation of these methodologies and practices leads to stricture and confusion, making it difficult to effect any self-improvement or to derive any true benefit from them.

    On the subject of silabbatupadana, the late Venerable Buddhadasa, one of the most influential Buddhist thinkers in contemporary Thailand, has given an explanation which may be of interest here:

Practicing moral restraint, or any other form of Dhamma practice, without knowing its aim or reflecting on its meaning, but simply believing that such practices are auspicious and automatically productive of benefit, leads to strict adherence to precepts according to beliefs, customs or examples handed down from previous generations. Rather than penetrating to the real reasons for these practices, people simply cling fast to them through tradition. This is a kind of clinging (upadana) which is very difficult to redress, unlike the second kind of clinging, attachment to views, or wrong thoughts and ideas. This kind of clinging fixes on to the actual forms of practice, its external applications.[17]

    4. Attavadupadana: Clinging to the ego-idea. The feeling of a true self is delusion on its most basic level. There are other factors which enhance this feeling, such as language and communications, which produce an attachment to concepts and a tendency to see the stream of causal phenomena as fixed entities. This feeling develops into clinging when craving becomes involved. Implicit in craving is the clinging to a self in order to obtain the object of desire. Both craving to be and craving to cease are dependent on the perception of self. Fear of disintegration intensifies the desire for being and the struggle to survive, and thus the sense of self.

    Craving is dependent on a powerful and independent self of some form or other. Sometimes it seems that things can be controlled, and this supports the illusion of self, but in fact such control is only partial and temporary. The so-called self is merely one factor among countless other factors within the cause and effect stream. It is beyond any person's power to completely direct or control objects of clinging. The feeling of ownership or control over things may at times seem to be well-founded, but it can never be totally or completely real, with the result that clinging and the struggle to reaffirm the sense of self are intensified.

    Clinging to the self makes it difficult to organize things in conformity with the true cause and effect process. When action is not in accordance with cause and effect, and conditions do not behave in accordance with desires, the self is frustrated and confronted with impotency and loss. Clinging to self is the most fundamental kind of clinging, and is the foundation for all the other kinds.

    With the experience of pleasant feeling, craving follows. This leads to kamupadana, clinging to desired sense objects. Ditthupadana, clinging to views, is present in the form of clinging to the idea that a particular object is good, that only by obtaining it will there be happiness, and that only the methods and teachings which encourage the search for and procurement of this object are correct. Silabbatupadana manifests as clinging to the methods and techniques which are considered necessary for the attainment of the objective. Attavadupadana appears as clinging to the self which is to own the object.

    In short, clinging causes confusion. The thinking of unenlightened beings does not flow smoothly as it should in accordance with reason but is instead irrational, distorted and convoluted. Suffering arises from adherence to the idea of self or ownership. If things were really the self or owned by the self, then they could be controlled at will. But instead they follow causes and conditions. Not being in the power of desire, they become contrary: the self is opposed and thwarted by them. Whenever the clung-to object is attacked, the self is also attacked. The extent of the clinging, that is the influence of the 'self' in our actions, and the extent of disturbance experienced by this self, are all proportional. The result is not only suffering, but a life that is lived and operated under the power of craving and clinging, rather than with wisdom and intelligence.[18]

    From clinging, the process continues up to becoming, (bhava), birth, (jati), aging and death (jaramarana), and from there to sorrow, lamentation, and so on, as has already been explained. Any attempt to find a way out of this predicament is conditioned by habitual thought patterns, and dictated by biases, preferences, and views. Without awareness of the true state of things, the cycle begins once again at ignorance and continues on as before.

    Although ignorance can be seen as the root cause and creator of all other forms of defilements, in terms of their actual expression through behavior, craving plays the more dominant role. This is why in the Four Noble Truths it is said that craving is the cause of suffering.

    Under the blind and confused influence of ignorance and craving, bad kamma is more likely to exceed good kamma. But as ignorance is tempered by skillful beliefs and right thinking, and craving directed and trained by noble aims, good kamma is more likely to exceed bad kamma, and will lead to beneficial results. If craving is wisely directed it becomes a valuable tool in the ultimate destruction of ignorance and defilements. The former way is that of unwholesomeness, unskillful behavior and evil, while the latter is the way to goodness, skill and purity. Both good people and bad people have their own kinds of suffering, but only the path of goodness is capable of leading to the cessation of suffering, to liberation and freedom.

"Sister, a monk in this Teaching and Discipline hears that such and such a monk has realized the deliverance of mind through wisdom, which is void of outflows. He then considers to himself, 'When will I also be able to realize that deliverance of mind through wisdom?' Later, that monk himself, relying on craving, abandons craving. It was on account of this that I said, 'This body is born of craving. Relying on craving, one should abandon craving.'" [A.II.145]

    Given a choice between different kinds of craving, the good kind is the preferable incentive for action. However, the transcendence of both good and evil desires, the path of wisdom, is the ideal path to purity, freedom and perfect happiness.


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16. Asava: three outflows -- kamasava, bhavasava, avijjasava -- are given in D.II.81; S.IV.256; etc. Four outflows -- kamasava, bhavasava, ditthasava and avijjasava -- are given in the Abhidhamma, see Vbh.373. In M.A.I.56 it is said that ditthasava, the outflow of views, can be included within bhavasava, the outflow of becoming, because the desire for being and attachment to jhana states are linked with either the eternalist or annihilationist views. For a general explanation, see Nd2.274; D.A.III.989 (approx); Vin.Tika (Thai edition) 1/476 (unpublished in Romanized Pali). [Back to text]

17. Phra Ariyanandamuni, Luk Phra Buddhasasana (Suvijahn, 1956), p. 60. [Back to text]

18. The four bases of clinging occur in D.III.230; Vbh.375 and elsewhere. Attavadupadana, clinging to [the notion of] self, is essentially clinging to one or another of the five khandhas, as is said in the Tipitaka, "The unenlightened being perceives that form (body) is self, or that self has form, or that form is within self, or that self is within form. He perceives that feeling ... perception ... volitional impulses ... consciousness is the self, or that self has consciousness, or that consciousness is within the self or that self is within consciousness." [Back to text]