Kleshas | Kleśas

Kleshas | Kleśas
Kleshas | Kleśas

1. Kleshas | Kleśas

Kleśas (Sanskrit: kleśa; Pāḷi: Kilesa), in Buddhism, are mental states that cloud the mind and manifest in unwholesome actions.

Kleśas 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 Kleśas, such as:

afflictions, defilements, destructive emotions, disturbing emotions, negative emotions, mind poisons, neurosis etc.

In the contemporary Mahāyāna and Theravāda Buddhist traditions, the 3 Kleśas of ignorance, attachment, and aversion are identified as the root or source of all other Kleśas.

These are referred to as the 3 Poisons in the Mahāyāna tradition, or as the 3 Unwholesome Roots in the Theravāda tradition.

While the early Buddhist texts of the Pāḷi Canon do not specifically enumerate the 3 root Kleśas, over time the 3 Poisons (and the Kleśas generally) came to be seen as the very roots of Saṁsāric existence.

2. Pāḷi literature

In the Pāḷi Canon's discourses (Suttas), Kilesa is often associated with the various passions that defile bodily and mental states.

In the Pāḷi Canon's Abhidhamma and post-Canonical Pāḷi literature, 10 defilements are identified, the 1-3 of which – greed, hate, delusion – are considered to be the roots of suffering.

Sutta Piṭaka: mental hindrances

In the Pāḷi Canon's Sutta Piṭaka, Kilesa and its correlate Upakkilesa are affective obstacles to the pursuit of direct knowledge (abhijñā) and wisdom (paññā).

For instance, the Samyutta Nikāya includes a collection of 10 discourses (SN 27, Kilesa-Saṁyutta) that state that any association of desire-passion (chanda-rāgo) with the body or mind is a defilement of mind (cittasse'so upakkileso):

Monks, any desire-passion with regard to the eye is a defilement of the mind.

Any desire-passion with regard to the ear... the nose... the tongue... the body... the intellect is a defilement of the mind.

When, with regard to these 6 bases, the defilements of awareness are abandoned, then the mind is inclined to renunciation.

The mind fostered by renunciation feels malleable for the direct knowing of those qualities worth realizing.

/ SN 27.1/

More broadly, the 5 hindrances

  1. sensual desire (kāmacchanda),
  2. anger (byāpāda),
  3. sloth-torpor (thīna-middha),
  4. restlessness-worry (uddhacca-kukkucca),
  5. doubt (vicikicchā)

 – are frequently associated with Kilesa in the following (or a similar) manner:

sabbe te bhagavanto pañcanīvaraṇe pahāya cetaso upakkilese paññāya dubbalīkaraṇe ... .

All those Blessed Ones had first abandoned the 5 hindrances, defilements of the mind that weaken wisdom ...

Additionally, in the Khuddaka Nikāya's Niddesa, Kilesa is identified as a component of or synonymous with craving (taṇhā) and lust (rāga).

Abhidhamma: 10 defilements and unwholesome roots

While the Sutta Piṭaka does not offer a list of Kilesa, the Abhidhamma Piṭaka in Dhamma saṅgaṇi (Dhs. 1229ff.) and Vibhaṅga (Vbh. XII)

as well as in the post-Canonical Visuddhimagga (Vsm. XXII 49, 65) enumerate 10 defilements (dasa Kilesa-vatthūni) as follows:

  1. greed (lobha)
  2. hate (dosa)
  3. delusion (moha)
  4. conceit (māna)
  5. wrong views (micchāditthi)
  6. doubt (vicikicchā)
  7. torpor (thīna)
  8. restlessness (uddhacca)
  9. shamelessness (ahirika)
  10. recklessness (anottappa)

The Vibhaṅga also includes an 8-fold list (aṭṭha Kilesa-vatthūni) composed of the 1-8 of the above ten.

Throughout Pāḷi literature, the 1-3 Kilesa in the above 10-fold Abhidhamma list (lobha dosa moha) are known as the unwholesome roots (akusala-mūla or the root of akusala);

and, their opposites (alobha, adosa, amoha) are the 3 wholesome roots (kuśala-mūla or the root of kusala).

The presence of such a wholesome or unwholesome root during a mental, verbal or bodily action conditions future states of consciousness and associated mental factors (see Karma).

3. Śrāvaka and Mahāyāna literature

3 poisons

The 3 Kleśas of ignorance, attachment and aversion are referred to as the 3 Poisons (Skt. triviṣa) in the Mahāyāna tradition and as the 3 Unwholesome Roots (akusala-mūla) in the Theravāda tradition.

These 3 Poisons (or unwholesome roots) are considered to be the root of all the other Kleśas.

5 poisons

In the Mahāyāna tradition, the 5 main Kleśas are referred to as the 5 Poisons (Sanskrit: pañca kleśaviṣa).

The 5 Poisons consist of the 3 Poisons with +2 additional poisons: pride and jealousy.

The 5 Poisons are:

1) Ignorance (Sanskrit: moha, avidya), (Pāḷi: moha, avijjā)
– also translated as: Confusion, delusion
Description: Lack of discernment; not understanding the way of things

2) Attachment (Sanskrit: rāga), (Pāḷi: lobha)
– also translated as: Desire, passion
Description: Attachment or desire for what we like

3) Aversion (Sanskrit: dveṣa), (Pāḷi: dosa)
– also translated as: Anger, hatred
Description: Aversion for what we don't like, or for what prevents us from getting what we like

4) Pride (Sanskrit: māna), (Pāḷi: māna)
– also translated as: Arrogance, Conceit
Description: Having an inflated opinion of oneself and a disrespectful attitude toward others

5) Envy (Sanskrit: īrṣyā), (Pāḷi: issā)
– also translated as: Jealousy
Description: Being unable to bear the accomplishments or good fortune of others

Six root Kleśas of the Abhidharma

The Abhidharma-kośa identifies 6 root Kleśas (mūla-kleśa):

  1. Attachment (rāga)
  2. Anger (pratigha)
  3. Ignorance (avidya)
  4. Pride/Conceit (māna)
  5. Doubt (vicikitsā)
  6. Wrong view/False view (dṛṣṭi)

Mahā Parinirvāṇa Sūtra

The Mahāyāna Mahā Parinirvāṇa Sūtra lists approximately 50 Kleśas, such as:

attachment, aversion, stupidity, jealousy, pride, heedlessness, haughtiness, ill-will, quarrelsomeness, wrong livelihood, deceit, consorting with immoral friends,

attachment to pleasure, to sleep, to eating, and to yawning; delighting in excessive talking and uttering lies, as well as thoughts of harm.

2 obscurations

Mahāyāna literature often features an enumeration of 2 obscurations:

  1. the obscuration of conflicting emotions (kleśa-āvaraṇa)
  2. the obscuration concerning the knowable (jñeya-āvaraṇa).

4. Contemporary glosses

Contemporary translators have used many different English words to translate the term Kleśas, such as:

afflictions, passions, destructive emotions, disturbing emotions, etc.

The following table provides brief descriptions of the term Kleśas given by various contemporary Buddhist teachers and scholars:

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. The Emerging Western Buddhism: An Interview with Joseph Goldstein./

In general, any defilement or emotion which obscures the mind.

They are often summarized as 3: ignorance, attachment and aversion.

All other negative predispositions are produced on the basis of these 3.

/Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen (2009). A Complete Guide to the Buddhist Path. p. 451/


Mental factors that produce states of mental torment both immediately and in the long term.

The 5 principal Kleśas, which are sometimes called poisons, are attachment, aversion, ignorance, pride, and jealousy.

/ Longchen Yeshe Dorje (Kangyur Rinpoche) (2010). Treasury of Precious Qualities. p. 492 /

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.

/Goleman, Daniel (2008). Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama/

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.

/Goleman, Daniel (2008). Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama/


These are unskilful factors such as greed, hate, delusion, opinionatedness and lack of moral concern.

Whereas the term ‘hindrance’ refers to 5 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. p. 263./


Kleśas are the strong conflicting emotions that spin off and heighten when we get caught by aversion and attraction.

/Pema Chödrön. Signs of Spiritual Progress./

Kleśas are properties that dull the mind and are the basis for all unwholesome actions. The 3 main Kleśas are passion, aggression, and ignorance.

/Chögyam Trungpa. The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation. p. 134/

The basic idea is that certain powerful reactions have the capacity to take hold of us and drive our behaviour.

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 3 poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance are the classic Buddhist examples, but others include conceit, sceptical doubt, and so-called speculative views...

/Mark Epstein. Going on Being: Buddhism and the Way of Change, a Positive Psychology for the West. /

The emotional obscurations (in contrast to intellectual obscurations), usually translated as poisons or defilements.

The 3 main Kleśas are ignorance, hatred, and desire. The 5 Kleśas include these 3 along with pride and envy.

/Thrangu Rinpoche (1993). The Practice of Tranquillity & Insight: A Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Mediation p. 152/

5. Overcoming the Kleśas

All Buddhist schools teach that through Tranquillity (Śamatha) meditation the Kilesas are pacified, though not eradicated, and through Insight (Vipassana) the true nature of the Kilesas and the mind itself is understood.

When the Empty Nature of the Self and the Mind is fully understood, there is no longer a root for the disturbing emotions to be attached to, and the disturbing emotions lose their power to distract the mind.