• āsava (singular): perceptual obscuration
• āsavā (plural): perceptually obscuring states
• kāmāsava: perceptual obscuration due to pursuing sensuous pleasure
• bhavāsava: perceptual obscuration due to pursuing individual existence
• avijjāsava: perceptual obscuration due to uninsightfulness into reality
• sāsava: associated with perceptually obscuring states
• khīṇāsava: one whose āsavas are destroyed
Singular forms of āsava commonly indicate the uncountable noun (‘perceptual obscuration’). Plural forms indicate the countable noun (‘perceptually obscuring states’).
On translating ‘āsava’
• The PED says āsavas ‘intoxicate the mind, bemuddle it, befoozle it, so that it cannot rise to higher things’ but it admits the ‘difficulty of translating the term.’
• Horner says āsava has ‘always been a problem to translators’ (MLS.1.xxiii). She calls it ‘canker’ because ‘I have come on no other translation that seems preferable,’ and by which she means ‘anything that frets, corrodes, corrupts, or consumes slowly and secretly.’
• Mrs. Rhys Davids also accepts ‘canker.’ She says that in canker ‘we lose the liquid meaning, the permeation, as of ink on blotting-paper, and which is kept in view in “intoxicants,” “drugs,” “floods,” “poisons”’ (GS.3.ix).
But because āsavas aredefiling (saṅkilesikā), they are sometimes called ‘taints.’ And sometimes the word is leftuntranslated, for example by Norman (in The Group of Discourses), by Malalasekera (in The Buddhist Dictionary of Pāli Proper Names) and even by the Pāli dictionaries themselves. For example, the DOP renderings are:
• āsavakkhaya: ‘destruction of the āsavas’
• āsavakhīṇa: ‘with āsavas destroyed; free of the āsavas’
• āsavaṭṭhānīya, being a basis or cause of the āsavas
• anāsava: ‘free of the āsavas’
• sāsava: ‘connected with the āsavas’
Primary sense: outflow and intoxicating product
The ‘liquid meaning’ is supported by the primary sense of āsava, which is found as an alternative reading in certain Pāli editions, namely ‘discharge from a sore.’ This is illustrated in the following passage, where the PTS and VRI alternative reading for assandati (to ooze) is āsavaṃ deti (to ‘give an outflow’):
• When a sore is beaten with a stick or
shard, it oozes (or, ‘gives an outflow’) all the more.
☸ duṭṭhārukā kaṭṭhena vā kaṭhalena vā ghaṭṭitā bhiyyosomattāya assandati (āsavaṃ deti) (A.1.127).
However, āsava has another primary sense, namely ‘intoxicating product’ which can be seen in the definition of alcoholic spirits (merayo), as follows:
• Alcoholic spirits means the intoxicating
product of flowers, fruits, honey, sugar’
☸ Merayo nāma pupphāsavo phalāsavo madhvāsavo guḷāsavo (Vin.4.110).
T.W. Rhys Davids was unaware of this definition when in 1899 he said:
• ’Unfortunately, the word āsava has not been yet found in its concrete, primary, sense; unless indeed Buddhaghosa’s statement (at Asl. 48) that well seasoned spirituous liquors were called āsavā be taken literally. It is therefore impossible to be sure what is the simile that underlies the use of the word in its secondary, ethical sense. Perhaps after all it is the idea of overwhelming intoxication, and not of flood or taint or ooze, that we ought to consider’ (Dialogues.1.92 n.3).
When the Buddha was conversing with bhikkhus over the body of the inebriated venerable Sāgata, he asked them:
• But would one have deranged perception (visaññi assā) if one drunk only that
which may be drunk?”
☸ Api nu kho bhikkhave taṃ pātabbaṃ yaṃ pivitvā visaññi assā ti (Vin.4.110).
If āsava is the basis of alcoholic deranged perception, the same term was likely used in reference to the spiritual defilements that are the bases of the mental derangement that we will call ‘perceptual obscuration,’ concerning which the Buddha said:
• Those beings are hard to find in the
world who can claim to be free of mental illness even for a moment except the
one whose āsavas are destroyed.
☸ Te bhikkhave sattā dullabhā lokasmiṃ ye cetasikena rogena muhuttampi ārogyaṃ paṭijānanti aññatra khīṇāsavehi (A.2.143).
The obscuring nature of āsavas
In this Glossary āsavas are called ‘perceptually obscuring states’ (plural) or perceptual obscuration (singular) because of the obscuring role they play in perception, and which is illustrated in paṭiccasamuppāda, as follows:
• With the origination of perceptual
obscuration comes the origination of uninsightfulness into reality
☸ āsavasamudayā avijjāsamudayo (M.1.46-56).
The obscuring role of āsavas is also described in terms of sammūḷho, like this:
• It is through the non-abandonment of
perceptually obscuring states that one is undiscerning of reality
☸ Āsavānaṃ hi aggivessana appahānā sammūḷho hoti (M.1.250).
• It is through the abandonment of
perceptually obscuring states that one is discerning of reality.
☸ Āsavānaṃ hi aggivessana pahānā asammūḷho hoti (M.1.250).
Singulars and plurals
In the scriptures, āsava moves freely between singulars and plurals. For example, the Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta (M.1.55) asks:
• And what is perceptual obscuration? What
is the origin of perceptual obscuration?
☸ Katamo panāvuso āsavo? Katamo āsavasamudayo?
The answer is:
• There are these three perceptually
☸ Tayo’me āvuso āsavā
1) perceptual obscuration due to pursuing
2) perceptual obscuration due to pursuing individual
3) perceptual obscuration due to
uninsightfulness into reality
Horner stays true to the singular/plural, but the result is awkward, and her translation stumbles in the opening questions, which involve an uncountable noun, not a countable noun:
• ‘And what, your reverences, is a canker? What the uprising of a canker?.’.. Your reverences, there are these three cankers: the canker of sense-pleasures, the canker of becoming, the canker of ignorance.’
Bodhi deals with the problem by pluralising:
• ‘And what are the taints? What is the origin of the taints? There are these three taints: the taint of sensuous desire, the taint of being, and the taint of ignorance.’
But Pāli grammars do not support pluralising. This counts against most renderings of āsava because they are unuseable without it, including: ‘intoxicants,’ ‘drugs,’ ‘floods,’ ‘poisons.’
How many āsavas?
In the scriptures there are two categories of āsavas:
1) A broad, undefined category which includes a wide range of defilements. The pañca nīvaraṇā are practically part of this category. This category of āsavas are gradually worn down from stream-entry onwards. We will discuss these points in due course.
2) A narrow, well-defined category which is clearly differentiated from the pañca nīvaraṇā and occurs in the scriptures only in relation to arahantship. In this narrow, well-defined category there are three āsavas: kāmāsavo bhavāsavo and avijjāsavo. Diṭṭhāsavo is controversial. It occurs just once in the scriptures (at A.4.179), and in a note to this passage (NDB n.1649) Bodhi says the word occurs only in the Sinhala edition, not the Roman or Burmese editions. Furthermore, elsewhere in the Sinhala edition, parallel passages make no reference to diṭṭhāsavo. Thus the occurrence at A.4.179 is likely interpolative. Hence, like Bodhi, we discount it.
The connective in kāmāsavo, bhavāsavo, and avijjāsavo
The terms kāmāsavo bhavāsavo and avijjāsavo are commonly translated with the connective ‘of.’ For example, Bodhi says ‘the taint of sensuality,’ ‘the taint of existence’ and ‘the taint of ignorance.’ But the scriptures say the connective is paccayā ‘due to.’ For example, in the Vappa Sutta (A.2.196-7) the Buddha divides āsavas into two groups:
1) āsavas which arise due to harmful conduct of body, speech, or mind (kāya… vacī… manosamārambhapaccayā uppajjanti āsavā) and which do not exist in one who abstains from such endeavours (kāya… vacī… manosamārambhā paṭiviratassa evaṃsa te āsavā vighātapariḷāhā na honti).
2) āsavas which arise due to avijjā (avijjāpaccayā uppajjanti āsavā) and when avijjā vanishes and vijjā arises (avijjāvirāgā vijjuppādā), those vexatious and anguishing āsavas do not exist in him (evaṃsa te āsavā vighātapariḷāhā na honti).
Translating kāmāsavo, bhavāsavo, and avijjāsavo
The twofold division of the Vappa Sutta should be compared to the usual threefold division (D.3.216), namely:
Here, avijjāsavo corresponds to avijjāpaccayā uppajjanti āsavā, and kāmāsavo and bhavāsavo would then necessarily correspond to kāya… vacī… manosamārambhapaccayā uppajjanti āsavā because the division is comprehensive. There are no āsavas outside this twofold division. We infer from this that:
• avijjāsavo means the āsavo that arises due to avijjā.
• kāmāsavo means the āsavo that arises due to endeavour by body, speech, or mind in relation to sensuous pleasure, which we will call ‘the āsava due to pursuing sensuous pleasure.’
• bhavāsavo means the āsavo that arises due to endeavour by body, speech, or mind in relation to states of individual existence, which we will call ‘the āsava due to pursuing individual existence.’
Because we render āsava as ‘perceptual obscuration,’ these become:
• avijjāsavo: perceptual obscuration due to avijjā.
• kāmāsavo: perceptual obscuration due to pursuing sensuous pleasure.’
• bhavāsavo: perceptual obscuration due to pursuing individual existence.
Here the sources of āsavas are not themselves āsavas. Thus avijjāsava does not mean the āsava of avijjā but the āsava due to avijjā; and so on. This is in accordance with paṭiccasamuppāda which says āsava is due to avijjā (avijjāsamudayā āsavasamudayo (M.1.55).
We also see that āsavas are either paccayā uppajjanti āsavā (‘āsavas due to’) or samārambhapaccayā uppajjanti āsavā (‘āsavas due to pursuing’) the former occurring with avijjā the latter with acts of body, speech, and mind (kāya… vacī… mano).
Translating āsavā plural
In the cases above, āsava is in the singular case, indicating a state of perceptual obscuration (singular) due to some condition. But in the Nissāraṇīya Sutta (A.3.245) the āsavas are paccayā uppajjanti āsavā indicating perceptually obscuring states (plural) due to some condition. We have seen above that, when not associated with avijjā, āsavas are samārambhapaccayā uppajjanti āsavā, i.e. ‘perceptually obscuring states that arise due to pursuing.’ But in relation to mental factors like ill will or maliciousness, to have these states is to pursue them. Therefore we will refer to ‘perceptually obscuring states that arise due to ill will or maliciousness’ rather than ‘perceptually obscuring states that arise due to pursuing ill will or maliciousness.’ Accordingly, the Nissāraṇīya Sutta can be translated as follows:
• kāmapaccayā uppajjanti āsavā: perceptually obscuring states that arise due to pursuing sensuous pleasure
• vyāpādapaccayā uppajjanti āsavā: perceptually obscuring states that arise due to ill will
• vihesāpaccayā uppajjanti āsavā: perceptually obscuring states that arise due to maliciousness
• rūpapaccayā uppajjanti āsavā: perceptually obscuring states that arise due to pursuing refined material states of awareness
• sakkāyapaccayā uppajjanti āsavā: perceptually obscuring states that arise due to pursuing personal identity.
Potaliya Sutta: paccayā uppajjanti āsavā
Sutta (M.1.361) is another sutta where the connective is paccayā uppajjanti. It says that ‘whereas vexatious and anguishing perceptually obscuring states would
arise due to killing, there are no vexatious and anguishing perceptually
obscuring states in abstaining from it.’
☸ ye ca pāṇātipātapaccayā uppajjeyyuṃ āsavā vighātapariḷāhā pāṇātipātā paṭiviratassa evaṃsa te āsavā vighātapariḷāhā na honti
The same is said of stealing, lying, malicious speech, rapacious greed (giddhilobho), spiteful scolding (nindāroso), angry despair (kodhūpāyāso) and arrogance (atimāno). Here the words ‘pursuing’ is again redundant. To kill is to pursue killing. To be arrogant is to pursue arrogance.
Ārabhati Sutta: ārambhajā āsavā
The Ārabhati Sutta (A.3.165) says āsavas are ‘born of.’ For example, if someone kills and is conscience-stricken, he should be advised that perceptually obscuring states born of killing are found in him (ārambhajā āsavā saṃvijjanti), and perceptually obscuring states born of an uneasy conscience are developing (vippaṭisārajā āsavā pavaḍḍhanti). But to say that āsavas are ‘born of’ certain conditions is the same as saying they are ‘due to’ those conditions, which is our preferred phrasing.
How pursuit leads to āsavas
The way that pursuit leads to āsavas can be seen throughout the scriptures. For example:
1) There is the quality of loveliness. Much
improper contemplation in that regard is a condition that nourishes both the
arising of unarisen sensuous hankering, and the increase and expansion of
arisen sensuous hankering.
☸ Atthi bhikkhave subhanimittaṃ. Tattha ayoniso manasikārabahulīkāro ayamāhāro anuppannassa vā kāmacchandassa uppādāya uppannassa vā kāmacchandassa bhiyyobhāvāya vepullāya (S.5.105).
2) And what are the issues that should not
be contemplated that he contemplates?
☸ Katame ca bhikkhave dhammā na manasikaraṇīyā ye dhamme manasikaroti?
… Whatever issues that, when he contemplates them:
… unarisen perceptual obscuration due to
pursuing sensuous pleasure arises, and arisen perceptual obscuration due to
pursuing sensuous pleasure increases
☸ anuppanno vā kāmāsavo uppajjati uppanno vā kāmāsavo pavaḍḍhati
… unarisen perceptual obscuration due to
pursuing individual existence arises, and arisen perceptual obscuration due to
pursuing individual existence increases
☸ anuppanno vā bhavāsavo uppajjati uppanno vā bhavāsavo pavaḍḍhati
… unarisen perceptual obscuration due to
uninsightfulness into reality arises, and arisen perceptual obscuration due to
uninsightfulness into reality increases.
☸ anuppanno vā avijjāsavo uppajjati uppanno vā avijjāsavo pavaḍḍhati (M.1.7).
3) In this regard a bhikkhu, properly
reflecting, abides with the faculty of sight restrained through restraint (of
grasping, through mindfulness). The vexatious and anguishing perceptually
obscuring states that would arise if he were to abide with the faculty of sight
unrestrained through unrestraint (of grasping, through mindfulness) do not
arise for him when he abides with the faculty of sight restrained through
restraint (of grasping, through mindfulness).
☸ Idha bhikkhave bhikkhu paṭisaṅkhā yoniso cakkhundriyasaṃvarasaṃvuto viharati. Yaṃ hi’ssa bhikkhave cakkhundriyasaṃvaraṃ asaṃvutassa viharato uppajjeyyuṃ āsavā vighātapariḷāhā cakkhundriyasaṃvarasaṃvutassa viharato evaṃsa te āsavā vighātapariḷāhā na honti (M.1.9).
Sāsavo: ‘associated with perceptually obscuring states’
Sometimes the scriptures use the term sāsavo, which we render as ‘associated
with perceptually obscuring states.’ For example, the Sāsava Sutta (A.5.242) says the factors of the wrong tenfold path
are ‘associated with perceptually obscuring states.’
☸ micchādiṭṭhi… micchāvimutti. Ayaṃ vuccati bhikkhave sāsavo dhammo
Whereas right factors are ‘free of
perceptually obscuring states’
☸ sammādiṭṭhi… sammāvimutti. Ayaṃ vuccati bhikkhave anāsavo dhammo ti.
The Sāsavadhamma Sutta (A.5.275) defines the issue in terms of acts, not path factors. It says that although unrighteous acts, like killing, are ‘associated with perceptually obscuring states’ (sāsavo dhammo) righteous acts, like refraining from killing, are not (anāsavo dhammo).
Here, unrighteous acts include stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, malicious speech, harsh speech, frivolous speech, greed (abhijjhā), ill will (vyāpādo), and wrong view (of reality) (micchādiṭṭhi).
Sabbāsava Sutta: examples of āsavas
We will now give specific examples of āsavas. The Sabbāsava Sutta (M.1.9) lists the first three ties to individual existence (saṃyojanāni):
• the view of personal identity
• doubt (about the excellence of the
• adherence to observances and practices
It says when the noble disciple reflects on
the four noble truths these ties to individual existence are abandoned, and
calls them ‘perceptually obscuring states to be abandoned by seeing’ (i.e. by
seeing the four noble truths).
☸ sakkāyadiṭṭhi vicikicchā sīlabbataparāmāso. Ime vuccanti bhikkhave āsavā dassanā pahātabbā.
These three ties are therefore āsavas, perceptually obscuring states.
Chabbisodhana Sutta: examples of āsavas
The Chabbisodhana Sutta (M.3.32) says an arahant may be asked in what way he knows and sees with regard to the six senses and their objects, that through being without grasping his mind is liberated (from perceptually obscuring states) (imesu chasu ajjhattikabāhiresu āyatanesu anupādāya āsavehi cittaṃ vimuttan ti).
He would reply that through the destruction, fading away, ending, giving up, and relinquishment (khayā virāgā nirodhā cāgā paṭinissaggā) of
• fondness (chando),
• attachment (rāgo),
• spiritually fettering delight (nandi),
• craving (taṇhā),
• clinging and grasping (upayupādānā),
• obstinate adherence, stubborn attachment, and identification (cetaso adhiṭṭhānābhinivesānusayā)
regarding the visual sense, visible objects, etc (cakkhusmiṃ āvuso rūpe cakkhuviññāṇe cakkhuviññāṇaviññātabbesu dhammesu) he knows that his mind is liberated (from perceptually obscuring states) (vimuttaṃ me cittan ti pajānāmi).
Thus fondness, attachment etc are āsavas, perceptually obscuring states.
Dutiya Bhikkhu Sutta: examples of āsavas
The Dutiya Bhikkhu Sutta (S.5.8) equates destruction of perceptually obscuring states to the elimination of rāga, dosa, and moha:
• The elimination of attachment, hatred,
and undiscernment of reality: the destruction of perceptually obscuring states
is spoken of in that way.
☸ rāgavinayo dosavinayo mohavinayo ti āsavānaṃ khayo tena vuccatī ti.
Thus rāga, dosa, and moha are āsavas, perceptually obscuring states.
Sabbāsava and Kuṇḍaliya Suttas: examples of āsavas
Some examples of āsavas can be derived from comparison of texts. For example, the Sabbāsava Sutta says ‘vexatious and
anguishing āsavas would arise if one
were to abide with an uncontrolled faculty of sight.
☸ cakkhundriyasaṃvaraṃ asaṃvutassa viharato uppajjeyyuṃ āsavā vighātapariḷāhā (M.1.9).
The Kuṇḍaliya Sutta (S.5.73) explains what those āsavas are. It says if there is restraint of the sense faculties (from grasping, through mindfulness) (indriyasaṃvaro) one does not long for (nābhijjhati) or get excited by (nābhihaṃsati) or become attached to (na rāgaṃ janeti) delightful objects, nor become disconcerted by (na maṅku hoti), daunted (apatitthinacitto), dejected (adīnamanaso) or unbenevolent (avyāpannacetaso) regarding objectionable objects.
Longing, excitement, and attachment are therefore āsavas, perceptually obscuring states. And so are disconcertedness, dauntedness, dejectedness, and ill will (‘unbenevolence’).
Devadattavipatti and Dutiyalokadhamma Suttas: examples of āsavas
The Devadattavipatti Sutta (A.4.161) says a bhikkhu should abide continuously mastering (abhibhuyya abhibhuyya vihareyya) the eight worldly conditions (acquisition, loss, prestige, imprestige etc), otherwise vexatious and anguishing āsavas will arise (uppajjeyyuṃ āsavā vighātapariḷāhā).
The Dutiyalokadhamma Sutta (A.4.157) explains what those āsavas are. It says that instead of reflecting on the nature of the eight worldly conditions (so ca kho anicco dukkho vipariṇāmadhammo ti), the ignorant Everyman welcomes (anurujjhati) what he likes and rejects (paṭivirujjhati) what he dislikes.
Therefore welcoming and rejecting are āsavas, perceptually obscuring states.
Sampasādaniya Sutta: examples of āsavas
The Sampasādaniya Sutta (D.3.112) says the nine psychic powers, for example multiplying one’s body, are associated with perceptually obscuring statesand with attachment (iddhi yā sāsavā saupadhikā). The association of sāsavā and saupadhikā suggests the two words are associated in meaning, and that attachment (upadhi) is therefore an āsava, a perceptually obscuring state.
Jatukaṇṇī Sutta: examples of āsavas
The Jatukaṇṇī Sutta says:
• For one completely free of greed for denomination-and-bodily-form,
brahman, there are no āsavas by reason
of which he would go into the power of death.
☸ Sabbaso nāmarūpasmiṃ vītagedhassa brāhmaṇa
Āsavāssa na vijjanti yehi maccuvasaṃ vaje ti (Sn.v.1100).
Greed (gedha) is therefore an āsava, a perceptually obscuring state.
Mahācattārīsaka Sutta: examples of āsavas
The Mahācattārīsaka Sutta (M.3.72) says the eightfold path is twofold: one aspect is ‘associated with perceptually obscuring states, that is meritorious and results in attachment’ (sāsavo puññabhāgiyo upadhivepakko), the other aspect is not (ariyo anāsavo). The meaning āsava here is to be found in the word upadhivepakkā, ‘result in attachment.’
If āsavas ‘result in attachment,’ then they are represented by taṇhā because ‘when there is taṇhā, upadhi arises’ (taṇhāya sati upadhi hoti S.2.108). Therefore, as we have already noted above, taṇhā is an āsava, a perceptually obscuring state.
Āsavakkhaya Sutta: examples of āsavas
The Āsavakkhaya Sutta says:
‘Bhikkhus, I declare that the destruction
of the āsavas is for one who knows
and sees, not for one who does not know and see. Knowing and seeing what are
the āsavas destroyed?
☸ Jānato ahaṃ bhikkhave passato āsavānaṃ khayaṃ vadāmi no ajānato no apassato. Kiñca bhikkhave jānato kiṃpassato āsavānaṃ khayo hoti
• This is suffering: knowing and seeing
this (according to reality) the āsavas are destroyed.
☸ idaṃ dukkhan ti bhikkhave jānato passato āsavānaṃ khayo hoti
• ‘This is the origin of suffering’: knowing and
seeing this (according to reality)
☸ ayaṃ dukkhasamudayo ti jānato passato āsavānaṃ khayo hoti
• ‘This is the ending of suffering’: knowing and
seeing this (according to reality)
☸ ayaṃ dukkhanirodhoti jānato passato āsavānaṃ khayo hoti
• ‘This is the practice leading to the
ending of suffering’: knowing and seeing this (according
to reality) the āsavas
☸ ayaṃ dukkhanirodhagāminī paṭipadā ti jānato passato āsavānaṃ khayo hoti (S.5.434).
But knowing and seeing the four noble truths involves the ending of the second noble truth, which must therefore be the āsavas that are destroyed. Therefore the elements of the second noble truth are āsavas.
The full formula of the second noble truth is:
• It is this craving that leads to renewed states of individual
existence, accompanied by spiritually fettering delight and attachment, taking
delight in this and that, namely craving for sensuous pleasure, craving for
states of individual existence, and craving for the cessation of states of
☸ yāyaṃ taṇhā ponobhavikā nandirāgasahagatā tatra tatrābhinandinī seyyathīdaṃ kāmataṇhā bhavataṇhā vibhavataṇhā.
This formula centres on three elements: taṇhā, nandi, and rāga. Therefore, as we have already noted, these three are āsavas, perceptually obscuring states.
Freeing oneself of āsavas: Dutiyahāliddikāni Sutta
Many suttas explain how to free oneself of the āsavas using the word vimutti, which means ‘liberation from the āsavas.’ For example, the Dutiyahāliddikāni Sutta (S.3.13) says vimutti comes from the destruction or relinquishment of nine āsavas:
• Through the destruction, fading away,
ending, giving up, and relinquishment of fondness, attachment, spiritually
fettering delight, craving, clinging, grasping, obstinate adherence, stubborn
attachment, and identification one’s mind is said to be liberated (from
perceptually obscuring states)
☸ yo chando yo rāgo yā nandi yā taṇhā ye upayupādānā cetaso adhiṭṭhānābhinivesānusayā tesaṃ khayā virāgā nirodhā cāgā paṭinissaggā… cittaṃ suvimuttan ti vuccati (S.3.13).
Freeing oneself of āsavas: Santatara Sutta
The Santatara Sutta (It.62) says one is liberated from the āsavas by attaining the ending of perception and sense impression (saññāvedayitanirodhadhātu) which in this quote is called simply nirodha:
• Those who profoundly understand the refined
material states of awareness and are not stuck in the immaterial states of awareness, with the ending
(of originated phenomena), they are liberated (from perceptually obscuring
☸ ye ca rūpe pariññāya arūpesu asaṇṭhitā
nirodhe ye vimuccanti (It.62).
Freeing oneself of āsavas: Pārileyyaka Sutta
The Pārileyyaka Sutta says the āsavas are immediately destroyed when one sees that the components of one’s identity are unlasting, originated, and dependently arisen:
• The ignorant Everyman considers bodily
form to be the (absolute) Selfhood
☸ rūpaṃ attato samanupassati
… That considering is an originated
☸ yā kho pana sā bhikkhave samanupassanā saṅkhāro so
… What is the basis, origin, object of
genesis and production of that originated phenomenon?
☸ So pana saṅkhāro kinnidāno kiṃsamudayo kiñjātiko kimpabhavoti
… When the ignorant Everyman is affected
by sense impression born of sensation and uninsightfulness into reality, craving
☸ avijjāsamphassajena bhikkhave vedayitena phuṭṭhassa assutavato puthujjanassa uppannā taṇhā
… That originated phenomenon is born from
☸ tatojo so saṅkhāro
… That originated phenomenon, that craving,
that sense impression, that sensation, that uninsightfulness into reality is unlasting,
originated, dependently arisen.
☸ sopi kho saṅkhāro… taṇhā… vedanā… phasso… avijjā aniccā saṅkhatā paṭiccasamuppannā.
… When one knows and sees this, there is
the immediate destruction of perceptually obscuring states
☸ anantarā āsavānaṃ khayo hoti (S.3.96).
Freeing oneself of āsavas: Sabbāsava Sutta
Given the wide-ranging nature of perceptually obscuring states it is no wonder that they must be overcome by a range of different methods. This is the subject of the Sabbāsava Sutta, which says perceptually obscuring states are abandoned in seven ways:
1) Contemplating issues that should be contemplated
and not contemplating issues that should not be contemplated
☸ (Sutavā ariyasāvako) ye dhammā na manasikaraṇīyā te dhamme na manasikaroti ye dhammā manasikaraṇīyā te dhamme manasikaroti.
2) Abiding with the faculty of sight… faculty
of mental cognisance restrained through restraint (of grasping, through
☸ bhikkhu paṭisaṅkhā yoniso cakkhundriyasaṃvarasaṃvuto… manindriyasaṃvarasaṃvuto viharati
3) Using the robe, almsfood, abode, therapeutic
requisites, properly reflecting.
☸ bhikkhu paṭisaṅkhā yoniso cīvaraṃ… gilānapaccayabhesajjaparikkhāraṃ paṭisevati
4) Enduring cold, heat… Enduring bodily sense
impressions that are unpleasant, acute, sharp, piercing, displeasing, objectionable,
☸ bhikkhu paṭisaṅkhā yoniso khamo hoti… uppannānaṃ sārīrikānaṃ vedanānaṃ dukkhānaṃ tibbānaṃ kharānaṃ kaṭukānaṃ asātānaṃ amanāpānaṃ pāṇaharānaṃ adhivāsakajātiko hoti.
5) Avoiding wild elephants and horses…
and unsuitable seats, unsuitable alms resorts, and unvirtuous friends that
would make one’s knowledgeable companions in the religious life suspect one of
unvirtuous ways of conduct
☸ bhikkhu paṭisaṅkhā yoniso caṇḍaṃ hatthiṃ parivajjeti… Yathārūpe anāsane nisinnaṃ yathārūpe agocare carantaṃ yathārūpe pāpake mitte bhajantaṃ viññū sabrahmacārī pāpakesu ṭhānesu okappeyyuṃ.
6) Not tolerating arisen sensuous,
unbenevolent or malicious thoughts.
☸ bhikkhu paṭisaṅkhā yoniso uppannaṃ kāmavitakkaṃ… vyāpādavitakkaṃ… vihiṃsāvitakkaṃ nādhivāseti
7) Developing the enlightenment factor of
mindfulness… the enlightenment factor of detached awareness.
☸ bhikkhu paṭisaṅkhā yoniso satisambojjhaṅgaṃ… upekkhā sambojjhaṅgaṃ bhāveti (M.1.7).
Destruction of āsavas starts at stream-entry
Although āsavakkhaya is prominently associated with arahantship, āsavas are in fact destroyed from stream-entry onwards. The three types of individuals who are at least stream-enterers but not arahants are called kāyasakkhī, diṭṭhappatto, and saddhāvimutto. The Kīṭāgiri Sutta (M.1.438) says that for each of these individuals some of his perceptually obscuring states are destroyed (ekacce āsavā parikkhīṇā honti). But before stream-entry, no perceptually obscuring states are destroyed (āsavā aparikkhīṇā honti, M.1.479). We will show below that these āsavas are otherwise known as saṃyojanāni i.e. ties to individual existence.
Destruction of āsavas: gradual process
Although many suttas say the āsavas are destroyed just before arahantship, the Uposatha Sutta (S.3.155) says destroying the āsavas is a more gradual process. The sutta compares the wearing away of āsavas to the wearing away of an adze handle. It says when a carpenter looks at the handle of his adze, he sees the impressions of his fingers and his thumb, but he does not know how much of the handle wore away that day, or how much on previous days. He only knows that when the handle is worn away, that it has worn away.
Likewise, when a bhikkhu abides devoted to spiritual development, no such knowledge occurs to him that so much of his āsavas were destroyed that day, or so much on previous days, yet when they are destroyed, the knowledge occurs to him that they have been destroyed (ettakaṃ vata me ajja āsavānaṃ khīṇaṃ ettakaṃ hiyyo ettakaṃ pare ti. Atha khvassa khīṇe khīṇaṃtveva ñāṇaṃ hoti). According to this, destroying the āsavas is a gradual, barely perceptible process.
Pañca nīvaraṇā: not āsavas
The Upakkilesa Sutta says that to overcome the āsavas one must first suppress the pañca nīvaraṇā:
• When one’s mind is free of these five
defilements, it is pliable and workable and radiant, not brittle, but is properly
collected for the destruction of perceptually obscuring states.
☸ Yato ca kho bhikkhave cittaṃ imehi pañcahi upakkilesehi vippamuttaṃ hoti taṃ hoti cittaṃ mudu ca kammaniyañca pabhassarañca na ca pabhaṅgu sammāsamādhīyati āsavānaṃ khayāya (A.3.16-17).
This implies that the pañca nīvaraṇā are different from āsavas.
Pañca nīvaraṇā: are practically āsavas
But the nīvaraṇas and āsavas have much in common, and although differentiating them is technically justifed, it is problematic to do so, because of their similarlty. For example:
1) Both are defiling and weakening of penetrative discernment:
• Him I call undiscerning of reality,
Aggivessana, who has not abandoned perceptually obscuring states that are
defiling… For it is through the non-abandonment of perceptually obscuring
states that one is undiscerning of reality.
☸ Yassa kassaci aggivessana ye āsavā saṅkilesikā… appahīnā tamahaṃ sammūḷho ti vadāmi. Āsavānaṃ hi aggivessana appahānā sammūḷho hoti (M.1.250).
• Sensuous hankering (and each of the nīvaraṇas) is a spiritual obstruction, a
spiritual hindrance, a spiritual defilement, a weakener of penetrative
☸ kāmacchando āvaraṇo nīvaraṇo cetaso upakkileso paññāya dubbalīkaraṇo (S.5.95).
2) Both nīvaraṇas and āsavas are productive of avijjā:
• With the origination of perceptual
obscuration comes the origination of uninsightfulness into reality
☸ āsavasamudayā avijjāsamudayo (M.1.46-56).
• What is the condition that nourishes
uninsightfulness into reality? The five hindrances, one should reply.
☸ ko cāhāro avijjāya? Pañca nīvaraṇā tissa vacanīyaṃ (A.5.116).
3) In our analysis above, certain factors found to be āsavas are also nīvaraṇas. For example, the first of the nīvaraṇas is kāmacchanda; and we have shown above that chanda is an āsava. The fifth of the nīvaraṇas is vicikicchā, which we have shown above is also an āsava.
4) The other three nīvaraṇas are linked to āsava via vimutta. We have shown in the Vimutta section that vimutta means ‘liberated from āsavas.’ The third and fourth of the nīvaraṇas are thīnamiddhaṃ and uddhacca kukkucca. These are treated like āsavas in this quote:
• My mind is (temporarily) liberated (from perceptually obscuring states).
I have abolished lethargy and torpor and thoroughly dispelled restlessness and
anxiety. My energy is aroused. I pay attention as a matter of vital concern, not sluggishly.
☸ cittañca me suvimuttaṃ thīnamiddhañca me susamūhataṃ. Uddhacca kukkuccañca me suppaṭivinītaṃ. Āraddhañca me viriyaṃ aṭṭhikatvā manasikaromi no ca līnan ti (S.5.76-7).
The second nīvaraṇa is ill will, and this is shown to be an āsava via cetovimutta:
• If the liberation (from perceptually
obscuring states) through (unlimited) universal love is developed and
cultivated, it is impossible, out of the question, that ill will would plague
☸ Aṭṭhānametaṃ āvuso anavakāso yaṃ mettāya cetovimuttiyā bhāvitāya bahulīkatāya… atha ca panassa vyāpādo cittaṃ pariyādāya ṭhassatī ti (D.3.248).
Temporary and unshakeable liberation from āsava
That āsavas once destroyed do not return is proven by the stream-enterer’s situation. Some of his āsavas are destroyed (ekacce āsavā parikkhīṇā honti M.1.438) and the rest will certainly follow because he does not take an eighth (human) existence even if very negligently applied (to the practice) (kiñcāpi te honti bhusaṃ pamattā na te bhavaṃ aṭṭhamamādiyanti). This, therefore, is a feature of some āsavas: once destroyed, they do not return, even in succeeding lives.
But other āsavas are liable to return. This is implied in these two quotes, because cetovimutti means liberation from the āsavas:
1) To whatever extent there are unlimited liberations
from perceptually obscuring states, the unshakeable liberation (from
perceptually obscuring states) is declared the chief among them.
☸ yāvatā kho bhante appamāṇā cetovimuttiyo akuppā tāsaṃ cetovimutti aggamakkhāyati (S.4.297).
If some liberations from perceptually obscuring states are ‘unshakeable,’ then others are shakeable i.e. some āsavas are liable to return.
2) Then Venerable Godhika, abiding
diligently, vigorously, and resolutely applied (to the practice) attained temporary liberation (from perceptually
obscuring states). But then Venerable Godhika fell away
from that temporary liberation (from
perceptually obscuring states).
☸ Atha kho āyasmā godhiko appamatto ātāpī pahitatto viharanto sāmayikaṃ cetovimuttiṃ phusi. Atha kho āyasmā godhiko tāya sāmayikāya cetovimuttiyā parihāyi (S.1.120).
So, some āsavas are liable to return. These quotes therefore show that liberation from the āsavas is not necessarily unshakeable. The same point is seen in the Sabbāsava Sutta, which describes various modes of behaviour in which āsavas might arise, and if these modes of behaviour are avoided, then those āsavas do not exist. For example:
• In this regard a bhikkhu, properly reflecting,
does not tolerate an arisen sensuous thought. He abandons it, dispels it, puts
an end to it, eradicates it.
☸ Idha bhikkhave bhikkhu paṭisaṅkhā yoniso uppannaṃ kāmavitakkaṃ nādhivāseti pajahati vinodeti vyantīkaroti. Anabhāvaṃ gameti.
… The vexatious and anguishing āsavas that would arise if he were not
to dispel these things do not arise for him when he dispels them.
☸ Yaṃ hissa bhikkhave avinodayato uppajjeyyuṃ āsavā vighātapariḷāhā. Vinodayato evaṃsa te āsavā vighātapariḷāhā na honti (M.1.11).
According to this, āsavas may or may not arise according to the standard of one’s practice. So even if they disappear, they may later reappear.
This contradiction of reappearing versus non-reappearing āsavas stems from the two categories of āsavas mentioned above, firstly, the broad, undefined category which practically includes the pañca nīvaraṇā, and secondly, the narrow, well-defined category which does not. Āsavas that are liable to reappear belong to the former category, whereas it seems that āsavas which are removed permanently are otherwise called saṃyojanāni, i.e. the ties to individual existence. We have already seen that the first three such ties are specifically called āsavas. These and the other seven ties to individual existence fall into two groups, as follows:
1) There are these five ties to individual
existence in the low plane of existence
☸ Pañcimāni bhikkhave orambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni. Katamāni pañca:
• view of personal identity
• doubt (about the excellence of the teaching)
• adherence to observances and practices
• sensuous hankering
• ill will
☸ vyāpādo (S.5.61-62).
2) There are these five ties to individual
existence in the middle and high planes of existence. What five?
☸ pañcimāni bhikkhave uddhambhāgiyāni saṃyojanāni. katamāni pañca?
• attachment to the refined material states
• attachment to immaterial states of
• uninsightfulness into reality
☸ avijjā (S.5.61-62).
Āsavas and rebirth
That āsavas play an important role in rebirth is evident in these quotes:
1) Perceptually obscuring states that are
defiling, and which lead to renewed states of individual existence, suffering, unpleasant
karmic consequences, and future birth, old age, and death;
☸ ye āsavā saṅkilesikā ponobhavikā sadarā dukkhavipākā āyatiṃ jātijarāmaraṇīyā (M.1.250).
2) ‘Those perceptually obscuring states through which I might have
become a deva… a heavenly
musician… a deity… a human being have been
abandoned by me, chopped down at the root, completely and irreversibly
☸ Yesaṃ kho ahaṃ brāhmaṇa āsavānaṃ appahīṇattā devo… gandhabbo… yakkho… manusso bhaveyyaṃ te me āsavā pahīṇā ucchinnamūlā tālāvatthukatā anabhāvakatā āyatiṃ anuppādadhammā (A.2.38).
3) What is the variety in perceptually obscuring states?
☸ Katamā ca bhikkhave āsavānaṃ vemattatā
are perceptually obscuring states leading to hell, to the
animal realm, to the realm of ghosts, to the human realm, and to the heavenly
☸ atthi bhikkhave āsavā nirayagāminiyā… tiracchānayonigāminiyā… pettivisayagāminiyā… manussalokagāminiyā… devalokagāminiyā… ayaṃ vuccati bhikkhave āsavānaṃ vemattatā (A.3.414).
Āsavas and unpleasant karmic consequences
Āsavas lead to renewed states of individual existence, suffering, unpleasant karmic consequences (āsavā saṅkilesikā ponobhavikā sadarā dukkhavipākā M.1.250). This can be illustrated with the following quotes concerning taṇhā, which we have said above is an āsava.
• The more such beings pursue sensuous
pleasure the more their craving for sensuous pleasure increases and the more they
are tormented by sensuous passion
☸ Yathā yathā kho māgandiya sattā kāmesu avītarāgā kāmataṇhāhi khajjamānā kāmapariḷāhena pariḍayhamānā kāme paṭisevanti tathā tathā tesaṃ sattānaṃ kāmataṇhā ceva pavaḍḍhati kāmapariḷāhena ca pariḍayhanti. (M.1.507-8).
• For one who abides attached, tethered (to
individual existence), undiscerning
of reality, contemplating sweetness, the five grasped
aggregates are heaped up in the future. Craving that leads to renewed states of individual existence, accompanied by spiritually
fettering delight and attachment, taking delight in this and that, grows.
Tassa sārattassa saṃyuttassa sammūḷhassa assādānupassino viharato āyatiṃ pañcupādānakkhandhā upacayaṃ gacchanti. Taṇhā cassa ponobhavikā nandirāgasahagatā tatra tatrābhinandinī sā cassa pavaḍḍhati.
… One’s physical and psychological sufferings,
torments, and anguishes increase.
Tassa kāyikāpi darathā pavaḍḍhanti cetasikāpi darathā pavaḍḍhanti kayikāpi santāpā pavaḍḍhanti cetasikāpi santāpā pavaḍḍhanti kāyikāpi pariḷāhā pavaḍḍhanti cetasikāpi pariḷāhā pavaḍḍhanti
… One experiences physical and
so kāyadukkhampi cetodukkhampi paṭisaṃvedeti (M.3.287).
Illustration: āsavā, perceptually obscuring states
In seeing a visible object with mindfulness
muddled, focusing on the agreeable aspect, one experiences it with a mind of attachment
and persists in cleaving to it.
☸ Rūpaṃ disvā sati muṭṭhā piyaṃ nimittaṃ manasikaroto
Sārattacitto vedeti tañca ajjhosa tiṭṭhati
The perceptually obscuring states develop,
the origin of individual existence, leading to renewed states of individual
☸ Tassa vaḍḍhanti āsavā bhavamūlā bhavagāmino ti (Th.v.98; S.4.76).
Illustration: āsavānaṃ, perceptually obscuring states
This, bhikkhu, is a designation for the
Untroubled: the elimination of attachment, hatred, and undiscernment of reality.
☸ Nibbānadhātuyā kho etaṃ bhikkhu adhivacanaṃ rāgavinayo dosavinayo mohavinayoti.
The destruction of perceptually obscuring
states is spoken of in that way.
☸ Āsavānaṃ khayo tena vuccatī ti (S.5.8).
Illustration: sāsavo, perceptually obscuring states
One thing to be profoundly understood: sensation
associated with perceptually obscuring states is productive of grasping.
☸ Katamo eko dhammo pariññeyyo? Phasso sāsavo upādāniyo (D.3.272).
Illustration: sāsavaṃ, associated with perceptually obscuring states
Whatever bodily form there is, past,
future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or sublime,
far or near,
☸ yaṃ kiñci bhikkhave rūpaṃ atītānāgatapaccuppannaṃ ajjhattaṃ vā bahiddhā vā oḷārikaṃ vā sukhumaṃ vā hīnaṃ vā paṇītaṃ vā yaṃ dūre santike vā
associated with perceptually obscuring
and productive of grasping
this is called the aggregate of grasped
☸ ayaṃ vuccati rūpūpādānakkhandho (S.3.47).
Illustration: āsavesu, perceptually obscuring states
And what is diligence (in the practice)?
☸ Katamo ca bhikkhave appamādo
In this regard a bhikkhu protects the mind
against perceptually obscuring states and against statesassociated with
perceptually obscuring states.
☸ Idha bhikkhave bhikkhu cittaṃ rakkhati āsavesu ca sāsavesu ca dhammesu (S.5.232).
Illustration: āsavā, perceptually obscuring states
And what are the perceptually obscuring
states to be abandoned by enduring?
☸ Katame ca bhikkhave āsavā adhivāsanā pahātabbā?
In this regard a bhikkhu, properly
reflecting, endures cold, heat, hunger, and thirst; the touch of horseflies,
mosquitoes, wind, sun, and snakes. He endures ill-spoken, unwelcome words and
arisen bodily sense impressions that are unpleasant, acute, sharp, piercing, displeasing,
objectionable, and life-threatening.
☸ Idha bhikkhave bhikkhu paṭisaṅkhā yoniso khamo hoti sītassa uṇhassa jighacchāya pipāsāya ḍaṃsamakasavātātapasiriṃsapasamphassānaṃ duruttānaṃ durāgatānaṃ vacanapathānaṃ uppannānaṃ sārīrikānaṃ vedanānaṃ dukkhānaṃ tibbānaṃ kharānaṃ kaṭukānaṃ asātānaṃ amanāpānaṃ pāṇaharānaṃ adhivāsakajātiko hoti.
The vexatious and anguishing perceptually
obscuring states that would arise if he were not to endure these things do not
arise for him when he endures them.
☸ Yaṃ hissa bhikkhave anadhivāsayato uppajjeyyuṃ āsavā vighātapariḷāhā adhivāsayato evaṃsa te āsavā vighātapariḷāhā na honti.
These are called the perceptually obscuring
states to be abandoned by enduring.
☸ Ime vuccanti bhikkhave āsavā adhivāsanā pahātabbā (M.1.10).
Illustration: āsavānaṃ, perceptually obscuring states
Five things developed and cultivated lead
to the destruction of perceptually obscuring states:
☸ āsavānaṃ khayāya saṃvattanti
In this regard a bhikkhu is one who
• abides contemplating the unloveliness of
☸ asubhānupassī kāye viharati.
• perceives the loathsome nature of
☸ āhāre paṭikkūlasaññī.
• perceives disgust for the whole world (of
☸ sabbaloke anabhiratasaññī.
• contemplates the unlastingness of all originated
☸ sabbasaṅkhāresu aniccānupassī.
• and for whom the perception of (the ever-present
possibility of) death is well-established within himself.
☸ maraṇasaññā kho panassa ajjhattaṃ sūpaṭṭhitā hoti (A.3.83).