What Are Kilesa (Mental Impurities)? – Connection to Cetasika

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What Are Kilesa (Mental Impurities)? – Connection to Cetasika

August 26, 2016; revised June 7, 2020; February 18, 2021; August 24, 2022; re-written August 26, 2022; re-written August 27, 2022; March 29, 2023

We discuss kilesa (defilements) in terms of impure mental factors (asobhana cetasika.)

Kilesā Make a Mind Corrupt

1. Kilesa in Pāli or Keles in Sinhala (where “කෙලෙසෙනවා or kelesanava” means “make something impure”) are related to gati and āsava (in both Pāli and Sinhala.) They are the main reasons we do things (saṅkhāra) to perpetuate the sansāric journey. The closest English translation for kilesa is “impurities accumulated in mind.”

Kilesā gives rise to immoral thoughts or akusala citta via asobhana cetasika, as discussed below. Asobhana cetasika is listed in “Cetasika (Mental Factors).”

Sobhana or asobhana cetasika (moral or immoral mental factors) are what makes a given citta a moral (kusala) or corrupt (akusala); for details, see “Mind and Consciousness.”

As you can guess, sobhana and asobhana mean “beautiful” and “non-beautiful,” respectively.

Kilesā Are Related to “Saŋ

2. There are several posts on related critical concepts of saŋ, saṅkhāra, saṁsāra, etc. See, “What is “Saŋ”? Meaning of Sansāra (or Saṁsāra).”

Also, repeated bad habits cultivate gati and anusaya (hidden cravings/defilements.) All these are related to kilesa and lead to a set of unique kilesa for each living being. Of course, they keep changing.

When one removes all these mental impurities or kilesa (or keles), one attains kilesa parinibbāna or saupadisesa Nibbāna. That person is still “in this world of 31 realms.” That is the state of a living Arahant; they have removed all mental impurities from the mind.

When that Arahant dies, there is no rebirth, and Nibbāna is “complete.” That is Parinibbāna or anupadisesa Nibbāna.

Kilesā And Upakkilesā

3. Kilesa are of different types:

Lobha (excess greed), dosa (ill will), and moha (delusion) are, of course, the primary mental impurities or kilesa.

The others arise because of the primary three and are called upakkilesa (“upa” means “close to”). Several Upakkilesa Suttas describe them variously. “WebLink: suttacentral: Upakkilesa Sutta (AN 5.23)” provides an analogy. Just as gold becomes dull and hard to work if other metals are mixed in, pañcanīvaraṇain makes a citta dull.

WebLink: suttacentral: Upakkilesa Sutta (MN 128)” has a more detailed description. I have linked it to the start of that discussion.

Cetasika Analysis in Abhidhamma

4. Abhidhamma provides a more detailed description of kilesa and upakkilesa in terms of cetasika.

Kilesā and upakkilesā are all asobhana cetasika. The three main asobhana cetasika (lobha, dosa, moha) are kilesa.  The rest are upakkilesa. That observation will help us better identify kilesa and upakkilesa.

The other 11 asobhana cetasika belonging to upakkilesa are the following: Diṭṭhi (wrong views), vicikicchā (inability to sort out moral from immoral), thīna (dullness of mind), middha (trapping of the mind somewhere and losing focus), issa (jealousy), macchariya (tendency to hide wealth), kukkucca (do lowly acts), ahirika (shamelessness in doing immoral), anatoppa (fearlessness in doing immoral), uddhacca (tendency to become offended), and māna (self-importance).

5. Identifying kilesa as asobhana cetasika makes it easier to see how kilesa (mental impurities) are systematically reduced and removed at each stage of Nibbāna.

The Abhidhamma Piṭaka of the Tipiṭaka was finalized after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha. So, in the Sutta Piṭaka, mostly the term kilesa was used.

The Buddha briefly described Abhidhamma to Ven. Sāriputta. It took several generations of Bhikkhus of the “Sāriputta lineage” to fully assemble the Abhidhamma structure. It was finalized only at the third Buddhist Council; see “Abhidhamma – Introduction.”

Some say that the citta/cetasika analysis was “invented” by bhikkhus when compiling Abhidhamma after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha. But they are sadly uninformed. Various types of cetasika that can arise in cittas are discussed in suttas. See, for example, “Kāya Sutta (AN 10.23)” and “Mahācunda Sutta (AN 10.24).”

Removal (Non-appearance) of Asobhana Cetasika with Magga Phala

6. There are four universal asobhana cetasika that are in ALL akusala citta. They are moha (delusion), uddhacca (restlessness), ahirika (shameless of wrongdoings), and anottappa (fearlessness of misdeeds). See “Cetasika (Mental Factors).” It is easy to see that these four asobhana cetasikā (or mental impurities) are completely removed only at the Arahant stage. However, all akusala cetasikā reduce in strength at each stage of magga phala.

The following asobhana cetasika stop arising after the Sotāpanna stage: diṭṭhi and vicikicchā. Furthermore, lobha, dosa, and moha reduce the strength to become rāga, paṭigha, and avijjā.

The above clarification could help one decide whether one has attained the Sotāpanna stage. (See the meanings of those Pāli terms in #4 above.)

At the Sakadāgāmi stage, kāma rāga (which is a part of rāga) and paṭigha reduce in strength (they still keep the same names). At the Anāgāmi stage, both kāma rāga and paṭigha stop arising.

The remaining asobhana cetasika [avijjā, ahirika, anatoppa, uddhacca, mana] stop arising at the Arahant stage.

Many Mental Impurities Removed at Sotāpanna Stage

7. Thus, we can see that many “mental impurities” or kilesa or asobhana cetasika stop arising after the Sotāpanna stage. Still, a Sotāpanna abstains entirely from only one akusala kamma, as discussed in “What is the only Akusala Removed by a Sotāpanna?.”

The Buddha said that the kilesa leftover for a Sotāpanna is equivalent to a thumb-full of sand compared to sand on Earth for an average human. Now we can see why. Many asobhana cetasika stop arising, and all others are reduced in strength at the Sotāpanna stage.

Note that akusala kamma (immoral deeds) are different from akusala citta (immoral thoughts). There are ten akusala kamma and 12 akusala citta. See “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala)” and “Akusala Citta and Akusala Vipāka Citta.”

The mind is a very complex entity, and all these parameters are needed to describe what happens in mind. But they are all inter-consistent. With time, one can grasp various aspects of the mind with these parameters.

All different types of defilements removed or reduced at each stage of Nibbāna are listed in “Conditions for the Four Stages of Nibbāna.” That table provides a complete summary in one place.

Kilesa in Twelve Types of Akusala Citta

8. Let us discuss some practical things when figuring out how different types of cetasika influence our thoughts (citta.)

As shown in #6, moha (or its reduced form avijjā) is in all akusala citta. There are only 12 types of akusala citta, and 8 of them have lobha (or its reduced forms of kāma rāga, rūpa rāga, or arūpa rāga). When one is attracted to a sensory object, one of these eight akusala citta arises.

Lobha and dosa do not arise together. There are only two akusala citta with the dosa cetasika. When repulsed by a sensory object, one of these two akusala cittā arise.

The other two akusala citta do not have lobha or dosa, but only the moha as a root. These two cittā arise not due to greed or hate but purely due to moha (or avijjā, its reduced form).

More details can be found in the post, “Akusala Citta and Akusala Vipāka Citta.”

Kilesā, Asobhana Cetasika, and Immoral Gati

9. Each person’s kilesā are thus a combination of the 14 asobhana cetasika but keep changing/evolving. The goal is to stop them from arising. In practice, this happens by changing one’s gati (habits) and anusaya (hidden cravings); see “9. Key to Ānāpānasati – How to Change Habits and Character (Gati).”

Until the Sotāpanna stage, any of the asobhana cetasika can arise in a person. They may temporarily be subdued or lessened in strength but never removed.

Therefore, these kilesā (or asobhana cetasika) do not always appear; they can stay hidden as anusaya. They can come to the surface when triggered by an external stimulus (like seeing an attractive person or an enemy). This “bubbling up to the surface” is called āsava. See, “Āsava, Anusaya, and Gati (Gathi).”

When in a comprehensive anāriya meditation program (like a meditation retreat), these kilesā (or asobhana cetasika) do not get a chance to come to the surface; they stay hidden as anusaya. The environment at a retreat is such that “temptations” would be minimal. Thus one could be enjoying nirāmisa sukha at such a retreat.

However, when one returns from the retreat, one is exposed to various sensory inputs. That WILL re-awaken the same old akusala citta burdened with asobhana cetasika.

Once Removed at a Magga Phala, Kilesa Cannot Return

10. However, when one removes a part of kilesa (asobhana cetasika) at each stage of magga phala, they are PERMANENTLY removed or reduced per #6 above. No external stimulus can trigger asobhana cetasikā that have been permanently removed.

That is the difference between the temporary relief many have experienced at meditation retreats and the permanent relief upon becoming a Sotāpanna, i.e., between the anāriya and Ariya Paths.

See “Akusala Citta – How a Sotāpanna Avoids Apāyagāmi Citta.”

An Analogy

11. Since all these Pāli words could confuse you at first read, let us use an analogy to clarify what kilesā (asobhana cetasikā) do to our thoughts. Here we compare citta (or thoughts) to a glass of pure water. Most of our thoughts are like clear water. They are not immoral or moral, just neutral. We see, hear, etc., millions of things daily but generate moral or immoral thoughts in relatively few cases.

In this analogy, immoral thoughts are like dirty water. Just like added dirt makes the water cloudy, asobhana cetasikā contaminate a citta. But how do these asobhana cetasikā get incorporated into a citta?

Since a citta arises in a billionth of a second, there is no way to control what kinds of cetasikā get into a citta. It happens automatically, according to our gati/anusaya!

Anusaya Can Be Compared to Mud at the Bottom of the Glass

12. Even though a glass of water has dirt, most of it settles at the bottom. Thus, the water appears relatively clean. Our minds are like that too. Most of the dirt (mental impurities, kilesa, or asobhana cetasika) remain hidden most of the time. They stay as anusaya; see “Āsava, Anusaya, and Gati (Gathi).” Thus anusaya can be thought of as “the dirt accumulated” at the bottom of the water glass.

However, if stirred with a straw, the dirt will make the water dirty.

In the mind’s case, the stirrer is a desired (attractive) or an undesired (repulsive) sense event. Mainly the asobhana cetasika of greed and hate come to the surface (always accompanied by the four universal cetasika mentioned in #6, but could be accompanied by a few more of the other 10 asobhana cetasika, depending on the situation.

The other two related parameters of gati and anusaya contribute to setting up the exact asobhana cetasika that will arise for a given sensory input. For example, an alcoholic only has to see a whiskey bottle to get the urge for a drink. Only a person with ingrained habits (gati) of a thief will steal on impulse, i.e., anusaya will be triggered automatically.

Connection to Pañcanīvaraṇa

13. Another related point is that glass with dirt ALWAYS has some of it mixed in with water, even though most of the “heavy stuff” goes to the bottom. We can compare that “ever-present” muddy color to the pañca nīvaraṇa (five hindrances), which makes our minds “covered” almost at all times.

Just like the dirty water prevents us from seeing what is in the water, a mind covered with pañca nīvaraṇa cannot “see-through.”

These “ever-present” pañca nīvaraṇa are responsible for the “sense of agitation” or “sense of unfulfillment” that is there with us most of the time.

When engaged in a meditation program, the mind can become relatively pure for a considerable time. That is called vikkhambhana pahāna (or pahāna.) That is in contrast to tadaṅga pahāna (suppressing only for a short time) and uccheda pahāna (permanent removal). See “Suffering in This Life – Role of Mental Impurities.”

By the way, while listening to a discourse or reading a Dhamma post, one could get into tadaṅga pahāna. Then the content may become easily understood, and one could momentarily feel the nirāmisa sukha too. That is why one should read these posts when the mind is relatively calm. That makes conditions for tadaṅga pahāna optimum and even extends to vikkhambhana pahāna, i.e., for a day or longer.

Nirāmisa Sukha Appears With Removal/Suppression of Kilesa

14. Now we can see how nirāmisa sukha comes during meditation sessions per the question raised in a previous post, i.e., “Nirāmisa sukha is felt by which citta?”.

Nirāmisa sukha appears when the asobhana cetasika (or kilesa) and pañca nīvaraṇa are SUPPRESSED.

The post “Noble Eightfold Path – Role of Sobhana Cetasika” addresses how a Sotāpanna’s mind automatically blocks certain types of asobhana cetasika.

Why Is It Necessary to Use Pāli Words?

15. I hope everyone will understand my reasons for emphasizing Pāli words. In many cases, it is difficult or even impossible to find a single English word to convey the meaning of a Pāli word (e.g., anicca); these are powerful words that pack a lot of content. Here, there is no equivalent word in English for kilesa.

It is best to use Pāli words (and some Sinhala words like “niveema” or “suva”), but with an understanding of what they mean. See “Why is it Necessary to Learn Key Pāli Words?.” So, don’t be discouraged by these Pāli terms; keep reading to the end, and you will see it start making sense. You can “fill in the gaps” by reading relevant posts afterward.