by Nina van Gorkom | 1999 | 122,172 words

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Chapter 21 - Different Groups Of Defilements Part I

We are inclined to think that our suffering in life is due to causes outside ourselves, to unpleasant events or to other people's behaviour. However, the real cause of sorrow is within ourselves. Our defilements lead to sorrow. The goal of the Buddha's teachings is the eradication of defilements and this cannot be achieved unless right understanding of realities has been developed. All three pans of the Tipitaka, the Vinaya, the Suttanta and the Abhidhamma, have been taught in order to encourage people to develop the way which leads to the end of defilements. If we do not forget this goal, no matter which part of the scriptures we are reading, we can profit to the full from our study.

In the Abhidhamma realities are classified in numerous ways. In the Third Book of the Dhammasangani akusala dhammas have been classified in different groups. The study of these different classifications can help us to see the danger of akusala. However, in order to really know our defilements we should be aware of them when they appear. For example, we know in theory that there is clinging to visible object, sound, odour, flavour, tangible object and to mental objects, but when there is mindfulness we learn that even now, after a moment of seeing or a moment of hearing, attachment can arise and that it is bound to arise again and again. Defilements are not merely abstract categories, they are realities which can appear at any time and there are many more moments of them than we ever thought.

The fourteen akusala cetasikas which arise with the akusala cittas in various combinations can be classified in different groups. Each of these classifications shows a particular aspect and function of the akusala cetasikas. some cetasikas occur in several of these groups, and each time a different aspect is shown. Attachment occurs in all of these groups and this reminds us of the many ways of clinging to different kinds of objects.

One of the groups of defilements is the asavas. Asava can be translated as canker, poison or intoxicant.

There are four asavas (Dhammasangani 1096-1100):

  1. the canker of sensuous desire, kamasava
  2. the canker of becoming, bhavasava
  3. the canker of wrong view, ditthasava
  4. the canker of ignorance, avijjasava

The Atthasalini (I, Part I, Chapter II, 48) explains that asavas flow from the senses and the mind. In all planes where there is nama arising asavas occur, even in the highest plane of existence which is the fourth arupa-brahma plane. The asavas are like liquor which has fermented for a long time, the Atthasalini explains.

The asavas are like poisonous drugs or intoxicants.

The Visuddhimagga (XXIl, 56) states that the asavas are exuding

"from unguarded sense-doors like water from cracks in a pot, in the sense of constant tricking".

The asavas keep on flowing from birth to death, they are also flowing at this moment, Are we not attached to what we see? Then there is the canker of sensuous desire, kamasava. Seeing experiences visible object, and shortly after seeing has fallen away there are most of the time akusala cittas rooted in attachment, aversion or ignorance. When the object is pleasant there is likely to be attachment to the object because we have accumulated such a great deal of attachment.

We are attached to visible object, sound, odour, flavour and tangible object. We are infatuated with the objects we experience through the senses and we want to go on experiencing them. Because of our foolish attachment to what is actually impermanent we have to continue to be in the cycle of birth and death. We have to be reborn again and again until the cankers have been extinguished, The arahat has eradicated the cankers, he does not have to be reborn again. We may not understand that birth is sorrowful, but when fight understanding has been developed we will see that all that is impermanent is sorrowful. We cling to all we experience through the senses, we cling to life. Clinging is deeply accumulated; even the first javana-cittas of our life were lobha-mula-cittas, cittas rooted in attachment, and this is the case for every living being.

The canker of desire for rebirth, bhavasava, is another one of the asavas. The Atthasalini (II, Book II, Chapter II, 370) explains that this "arises by way of aspiring to rebirth in rupa and Arupa forms of life". Even the anagami who has eradicated ail clinging to sensuous objects, can still have clinging to rebirth which is the result of jhana, So long as there is attachment to any kind of rebirth one has to continue to be in the cycle of birth and death.

The canker of wrong view, ditthasava, comprises, according to the Dhammasangani (1009) the conceiving of all speculative theories such as eternalism, annihilationism, theories about the world, the soul and the body. So long as one has not attained enlightenment one tends to cling to the concept of self and this is So deeply rooted that it is extremely hard to eradicate it.

The canker of ignorance, avijjasava, is moha cetasika. It is ignorance of the four noble Truths, of the past, the future or both, and of the "Dependant Origination" (Dhammasangani, 1100), We have innumerable moments of ignorance. Ignorance is dangerous, at the moment it arises we do not realize that there is ignorance.

We are time and again overcome by the asavas. It is hard for us to see their danger. We cannot help being attached to the objects we experience through the senses. How could we prevent ourselves from liking pleasant objects? The Buddha warned people of the danger of sense-pleasures, We read in the Middle Length Sayings (I, no. 22, The Parable of the Water-snake) that the Buddha explained about the things which are "stumbling blocks" to the monk Arittha who had wrong understanding of the Dhamma. The Buddha stated about sense-pleasures:

... Sense-pleasures are said by me to be of little satisfaction, of much pain, of much tribulation, wherein is more peril.

Sense-pleasures are likened by me
to a skeleton...
to a lump of meat...
to a torch of dry gram...
to a pit of glowing embers...
to a dream...
to something borrowed...
to the fruits of a tree...
to a slaughter-house...
to an impaling stake...

sense-pleasures are likened by me to a snake's head, of much pain, of much tribulation, wherein is more peril....

When one is still infatuated with sense-pleasures such words are hard to grasp. We may not like to hear that sense-pleasures are as sorrowful and dangerous as the things the Buddha compares them to. At the moment of attachment the object which is experienced seems to be so pleasant and we fail to see that we are lured by attachment. It is wisdom, panna, which sees the danger of sense-pleasures.

The anagami and the arahat fully understand the danger of sense-pleasures; they have no conditions for the arising of the canker of sensuous desire, kamasava, because it has been eradicated. When understanding of realities begins to develop it cannot yet achieve detachment from sense-pleasures. Some people are inclined to think that they must first of all become detached, before they can begin to develop right understanding of nama and rupa. However, this is not the right way of practice. Right understanding of whatever reality appears, even if it is attachment, should be developed. Only panna which knows nama and rupa as they are can eventually bring about detachment.

The Visuddhimagga states about the asavas that they "exude from unguarded sense-doors". The sense-doors are "guarded" through the development of satipatthana. We read in the Gradual Sayings (Book of the Threes, Chapter II, 16, The Sure Course) that a monk who possesses three qualities is "proficient in the practice leading to the Sure Course" and "has strong grounds for the destruction of the asavas". These three qualities are moderation in eating, the guarding of the six doors and vigilance. We read concerning the guarding of the six doors:

And how does he keep watch over the door of his sense faculties?

Herein, a monk seeing an object with the eye, does not grasp at the general features or at the details thereof. Since coveting and dejection, evil, unprofitable states might overwhelm one who dwells with the faculty of the eye uncontrolled, he applies himself to such control, sets a guard over the faculty of the eye, attains control thereof...

The same is said about the other doorways. The six doorways should be guarded. How does one, when seeing an object with the eye, not "grasp at the general features or at the details thereof'? In being mindful of the reality which appears. This is the way to see realities as they are, to see them as impermanent, dukkha and non-self- However, even the sotapanna who has eradicated the "canker of wrong "view", ditthasava, still clings to sensuous objects. Even someone who has realized the arising and falling away of visible object which appears, of sound which appears, may still cling to them. Clinging has been accumulated from life to life, how then could one became detached at once?

There are four stages of enlightenment, and at each stage defilements are progressively eradicated. Panna has to grow keener and keener in order to be able to eradicate them. The lokuttara magga-citta (supramundane path-consciousness) which, at the first stage of enlightenment (the stage of the sotapanna), experiences nibbana for the first time, eradicates only the canker of wrong view. The sotapanna still has the canker of sensuous desire, the canker of desire for rebirth and the canker of ignorance. He still has desire, but it has become less gross than the desire of the non-ariyan, the "worldling" (puthujjana).

The magga-citta of the sakadagami (who has attained the second stage of enlightenment) does not eradicate desire, but desire has become attenuated more. The magga-citta of the anagami (who has attained the third stage of enlightenment) eradicates the canker of sensuous desire, but he still has the canker of desire for rebirth and the canker of ignorance. The magga-citta of the arahat eradicates the canker of desire for rebirth and the canker of ignorance. The arahat is "canker-freed".

Another group of defilements is the group of the Floods or Oghas (Dhammasangani 1151). There are four floods which are the same defilements as the cankers, but the classification as floods shows a different aspect.

The floods are:

  1. the flood of sensuous desire (kamogha)
  2. the flood of desire for rebirth (bhavogha)
  3. the flood of wrong view (ditthogha)
  4. the flood of ignorance (avijjogha)

We read in the Atthasalini (I, Part I, Chapter II, 49) that the "floods" submerge a person again and again in the cycle of birth and death.

The Visuddhimagga (XXII, 56) states:

... The Floods are so called in the sense of sweeping away into the ocean of becoming, and in the sense of being hard to cross....

The classification of defilements under the aspect of floods reminds us of their danger. A flood is dangerous, it can drown us.

In the suttas the cycle of birth and death has been compared to a dangerous ocean, which has to be crossed. We read in the Kindred Sayings (IV, Salayatana-vagga, Fourth Fifty, Chapter 3, 187, Ocean) :

"The ocean! The ocean!"

monks, says the ignorant worldling. But that, monks, is not the ocean in the discipline of the ariyan. That ocean (of the worldling), monks, is a heap of water, a great flood of water.

The eye of a man, monks, is the ocean. Its Impulse is made of objects. Who so endures that object-made impulse,- of him, monks, it is said,

"he has crossed aver. That ocean of the eye, with its waves and whirlpools, its sharks and demons, the brahmin has crossed and gone beyond. He stands on dry ground"...

When there is no more clinging to the eye and objects, or to all the other realities, one has "crossed over'. Further on we read that the Buddha spoke the verse:

Who so has crossed this monster-teeming sea,
With its devils and fearsome waves impassable,
"Versed in the lore", "living the holy life",
"Gone to world's end", and "gone beyond" he is called.

The arahat has crossed the sea of the cycle of birth and death (samsara), he has gone to the world's end, he has "gone beyond".

The danger of being drowned is real. We are infatuated with visible object, sound, smell, and all the other objects which can be experienced through the six doors. Every time we like one of the sensuous objects we are in the flood of sensuous desire, we fail to see the danger of this flood, we are forgetful. Many times we are forgetful and we do not even want to be mindful. The Buddha reminded people that pleasant objects do not last and that we all have to suffer old age, sickness and death. If we listen to the Buddha's words without developing understanding we cannot grasp their real meaning. If we develop right understanding of all realities which appear we will know more clearly when there is clinging to the objects we experience and we will come to see the danger of clinging.

The floods are eradicated at the different stages of enlightenment, at the same stages as the corresponding cankers.

The Yokes or Yogas are another group of defilements. This group consists again of the same defilements as the cankers and the floods, We read in the Atthasalini (I, Part I, Chapter II, 49) that the "yokes" tie a person to the cycle of birth and death.

The Visuddhimagga (XXII, 56) states about the yoghas (here translated as bonds) :

The Bonds are so called because they do not allow disengagement from an object aria disengagement from suffering (dukkha).

The four yoghas are:

  1. the yoke of sensuous desire, kamayogha
  2. the yoke of desire for rebirth, bhavayogha
  3. the yoke of wrong view, ditthiyogha
  4. the yoke of ignorance, avijjayogha

Thus, the yokes are the same defilements as the cankers and the floods, but the classification by way of yokes reminds us that we are tied to the round of rebirths. The different yokes are eradicated at the same stages of enlightenment as the corresponding cankers and floods.


  1. What is the use of classifying the same cetasikas as cankers, floods and yokes?
  2. Do we have to be detached first before we develop wisdom?
  3. We may agree that sense-pleasures are dangerous, but attachment to them still arises. How can one really see their danger?
June 27, 2001
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