Translations of
English defilement,
Pali kilesa
Sanskrit kleśa, klesha
Japanese 煩悩
Thai กิเลส
Glossary of Buddhism

The Buddhist term kilesa (Pali; Sanskrit: kleśa or klesha) is typically translated as "defilement" or "poison". In early Buddhist texts the kilesas generally referred to mental states which temporarily cloud the mind and manifest in unskillful actions. Over time the kilesas, and in particular the "Three Poisons" of greed, hatred, and delusion, came to be seen as the very roots of samsaric existence.

Pali literature

Pali Canon

    Vinaya Pitaka    
Khandhaka Pari-
    Sutta Pitaka    
    Abhidhamma Pitaka    
Dhs. Vbh. Dhk.
Kvu. Yamaka Patthana

In the Pali Canon's discourses (sutta), kilesa is often associated with the various passions that defile bodily and mental states. In the Pali Canon's Abhidhamma and post-canonical Pali literature, ten defilements are identified, the first three of which – greed, hate, delusion – are considered to be the "roots" of suffering.

Sutta Pitaka: Mental hindrances

In the Pali Canon's Sutta Pitaka, kilesa and its correlate upakkilesa[1] are affective obstacles to the pursuit of direct knowledge (abhiñña) and wisdom (pañña).

For instance, the Samyutta Nikaya includes a collection of ten discourses (SN 27, Kilesa-sayutta) that state that any association of "desire-passion" (chanda-rāgo) with the body or mind[2] 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 six 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."[3]

More broadly, the five hindrances – sensual desire (kāmacchanda), anger (byāpāda), sloth-torpor (thīna-middha), restlessness-worry (uddhacca-kukkucca), and doubt (vicikicchā) – are frequently associated with kilesa in the following (or a similar) manner:

[A]ll those Blessed Ones had first abandoned the five hindrances,
defilements of the mind that weaken wisdom ....[4]
  sabbe te bhagavanto pañcanīvarae pahāya
cetaso upakkilese paññāya dubbalīkarae .....[5]

Additionally, in the Khuddaka Nikaya's Niddesa, kilesa is identified as a component of or synonymous with craving (taṇhā) and lust (rāga).[6]

Abhidhamma: Ten defilements and unwholesome roots

While the Sutta Pitaka does not offer a list of kilesa, the Abhidhamma Pitaka's Dhammasangani (Dhs. 1229ff.) and Vibhanga (Vbh. XII) as well as in the post-canonical Visuddhimagga (Vsm. XXII 49, 65) enumerate ten defilements (dasa kilesa-vatthūni) as follows:

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

The Vibhanga also includes an eightfold list (aṭṭha kilesa-vatthūni) composed of the first eight of the above ten.[8]

Throughout Pali literature, the first three kilesa in the above tenfold Abhidhamma list (lobha dosa moha) are known as the "unwholesome roots" (akusala-mūla); and, their opposites (alobha adosa amoha) are the three "wholesome roots" (kusala-mūla).[9] 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 (Buddhism)).[10]

Visuddhimagga: "Round of defilements"

12 Factors   3 Rounds
aging-death   aspects of
becoming   kamma
clinging   kilesa
feeling   vipāka
sense bases  
formations   kamma
ignorance   kilesa
Figure: The "three rounds" of
Dependent Origination (Vsm. XVII, 298).

In the 5th c. CE commentarial Visuddhimagga, in its discussion of "Dependent Origination" (Pali: paticca-samuppada) (Vsm. XVII), it presents different expository methods for understanding this teaching's twelve factors (nidana). One method (Vsm. XVII, 298) divides the twelve factors into three "rounds" (vaṭṭa):

  • the "round of defilements" (kilesa-vaṭṭa)
  • the "round of kamma" (kamma-vaṭṭa)
  • the "round of results" (vipāka-vaṭṭa).[12][13]

In this framework (see Figure to the right, starting from the bottom of the Figure), kilesa ("ignorance") conditions kamma ("formations") which conditions results ("consciousness" through "feelings") which in turn condition kilesa ("craving" and "clinging") which condition kamma ("becoming") and so on.[11] Buddhaghosa (Vsm. XVII, 298) concludes:

So this Wheel of Becoming, having a triple round with these three rounds, should be understood to spin, revolving again and again, forever; for the conditions are not cut off as long as the round of defilements is not cut off.[12]

As can be seen, in this framework, the round of defilements consists of:

Elsewhere in the Visuddhimagga (Vsm. XXII, 88), in the context of the four noble persons (ariya-puggala, see Four stages of enlightenment), the text refers to a precursor to the attainment of nibbana as being the complete eradication of "the defilements that are the root of the round" (vaṭṭa-mūla-kilesā).[14]

Mahayana literature

Three Poisons

In Mahayana Buddhism, the mūla kleśa (English: root poisons) of the Twelve Nidānas are:

  1. ignorance (Sanskrit: Avidyā; Tibetan: ma rig pa)
  2. attachment (Sanskrit: Upādāna; Tibetan: len pa)
  3. craving (Sanskrit: Tṛṣṇā; Tibetan: sred pa)

In other enumerations of the mula kleśa, hatred or anger (Sanskrit: dveṣa; Tib.: ཞེ་སྡང་ zhe sdang; 瞋 Cn: chēn; Jp: jin; Vi: sân) is substituted for ignorance.

These three mula kleśa are rendered into English as the "Three Poisons" and are symbolized by the Gankyil.

These three klesas specifically refer to the subtle movement of mind (Sanskrit: citta) when it initially encounters a mental object. In Buddhist conceptions of the mind, "mental object" refers to any object which the mind perceives, be it a thought, emotion or object perceived by the physical senses. If the mind initially reacts by moving towards the mental object, seeking it out, or attaching to it, the experience and results will be tinged by the upādāna klesha. Unpleasant objects or experiences are often met by aversion, or the mind moving away from the object, which is the root for hatred and anger to arise in relation to the object.

Five Poisons

The Five Poisons (Sanskrit: pañca-kleśa; Tibetan: Japanese: go-shō), also known as the Five Disturbing Emotions are:

  1. Passion (desire, greed, lust, etc.)
  2. Aggression (anger, hatred, resentment etc.)
  3. Ignorance (bewilderment, confusion, apathy etc.)
  4. Pride (wounded pride, low-self esteem etc.)
  5. Jealousy (envy, paranoia etc.)

All Buddhist schools teach that through Tranquility (Samatha) 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.

Six Defilements of Vasubandhu

Vasubandhu articulates an array of Six Kilesha rendered in English as the "Six Basic Defilements" or "Six Primary Afflictions" within the Abhidharma-kośa. The Six Kilesa are:

  1. Greed (Sanskrit: rāga),
  2. Hatred (Sanskrit: pratigha),
  3. Ignorance (Sanskrit: avidyā),
  4. Arrogance (Sansk rit: māna),
  5. Doubt (Sanskrit: vicikitsā), and
  6. False Views or Opinionatedness (Sanskrit: dṛṣṭi).[15]

In the context of the Yogācāra school of Buddhism, Muller (2004: p. 207) states that the Six Kleśa arise due to the "...reification of an 'imagined self' (Sanskrit: satkāya-dṛṣṭi)".[16]


Two obscurations

In the Mantrayana, an enumeration of "two obscurations" (Wylie: sgrib gnyis) are codified. The "obscuration of conflicting emotions" (Wylie: nyon-mongs-pa'i sgrib-ma, Sanskrit: kleśa-varaṇa) and the "obscuration concerning the knowable" (Wylie: shes-bya'i sgrib-ma, Sanskrit: jñeyāvaraṇa).[17]

Other literature

The third śloka of Patañjali's Yogasūtra (a Hindu text) explicitly identifies Five Poisons (Sanskrit: pañca-kleśa):

अविद्यास्मितारागद्वेषाभिनिवेशाः पञ्च क्लेशाः॥३॥
Avidyāsmitārāgadveṣābhiniveśāḥ pañca kleśāḥ//3//[18]

This may be rendered in English as:

  • Ignorance (in the form of a misapprehension about Reality) (ávidyā),
  • egoism (in the form of an erroneous identification of the Self with the intellect) (asmitā),
  • attachment (rāga),
  • aversion (dveṣa) and
  • fear of death (which is derived from clinging ignorantly to life) --abhiniveśa-- (abhiniveśāḥ)

are the five (pañca) Kleśa-s or Afflictions (kleśāḥ)//3// [18]

See also


  1. Beyond the etymological relationship between and semantic closeness of kilesa and upakkilesa (e.g., see Rhys Davids & Stede, 1921-25, p. 139, entry for upakkilesa at, the below-referenced Samyutta Nikaya collection entitled "Kilesa-sayutta" (SN 27) does not use kilesa in its actual suttas but, in fact, upakkilesa. Bodhi (2000), pp. 1012-14, 1100 n. 273, specifically makes note of the lexical differences between these two Pali words and chooses to translate kilesa as "defilement" and upakkilesa as "corruption." Similar, in Bodhi (2000), p. 1642, SN 47.12, upakkilesa is translated as "corruption" whereas, as indicated below, in Bodhi (2005), p. 416, this same Pali word in the same sutta is translated as "defilement." Consistent with Bodhi (2005), as seen below, Thanissaro (1994) also translates upakkilesa as "defilement."
  2. In particular, this sayutta contextualizes kilesa vis-à-vis the six internal and external "sense bases" (ayatana) and their mental concomitants (the six classes of consciousness, contact, feeling and craving, see the section on the "six sextets"), the six primary "elements" (dhātu, cf. mahābhūta), and the five "aggregates" (khandha).
  3. SN 27.1 (trans. Thanissaro, 1994). Note that the phrase that Thanissaro translates as "defilement of awareness" here is cetaso upakkileso; Bodhi (2000), p. 1012, simply translates this as "mental corruption" (underlining added for clarity).
  4. Translation from Bodhi (2005), p. 416. Bodhi (2005, pp. 417, 457 n. 58) states that this is from SN 47.12, as well as DN 16 and DN 28. A similar phrase can be found in DN 28, etc.
  5. Pali, based on a search for "pahāya cetaso upakkilese," retrieved from "BodhgayaNews" atāya%20cetaso%20upakkilese (32 matches found).
  6. See Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-5), pp. 216-7, entry for "Kilesa," retrieved 2008-02-09 from "University of Chicago" at
  7. Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-5), p. 217; and, Nyanatiloka (1988), entry for "kilesa," retrieved 2008-02-09 from "BuddhaSasana" at
  8. Rhys Davids & Stede (1921-25), p. 217.
  9. In addition to frequent reference in the Abhidhamma and post-canonical Pali literature, references to the unwholesome roots (akusala-mūla) are sprinkled throughout the Sutta Pitaka. For instance, in the Digha Nikaya, it can be found in DN 33 (D iii.215) and DN 34 (D iii.275); in the Majjhima Nikaya, it is the first of several topics discussed by Ven. Sariputta in the well-known Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta ("Right View Discourse," MN 9); and, in the Itivuttaka, a brief discourse on three unwholesome roots starts off the "Section of the Threes" (Iti. 50). However, in none of this Sutta Pitaka texts are the three unwholesome roots referred to as kilesa. Such an association appears to begin in the Abhidhamma texts.
  10. Nyanatiloka (1988), entry for "mūla," retrieved 2008-02-09 from "BuddhaSasana" at
  11. 11.0 11.1 Strictly speaking, in this framework the Visuddhimagga (Vsm. XVII, 298) does not explicitly identify "birth" (jāti) and "aging-death" (jarāmaraa) with results (vipāka). Nonetheless, in the preceding paragraph (Vsm. XVII, 297), Buddhaghosa writes: "And in the future fivefold fruit: the five beginning with consciousness. These are expressed by the term 'birth'. But 'ageing-and-death' is the ageing and the death of these [five] themselves" (Ñāamoli, 1991, p. 599, v. 297; square-brackets in original). Thus, "birth" and "ageing and death" become correlates or expressions of the five-fold "results" sequence.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Ñāamoli (1991), p. 599, v. 298.
  13. Cf. the paracanonical Nettipakaraa's "round of suffering, round of action, round of defilements" (dukkhavaṭṭo kammavaṭṭo kilesavaṭṭo) (Nett. i.95).[1]
  14. Ñāṇamoli (1991), p. 715.
  15. "Kleśa." A Dictionary of Buddhism (2003, 2004). Source: [2] (accessed: January 5, 2008)
  16. Muller (2004).
  17. Dorje, Jikdrel Yeshe (Dudjom Rinpoche, author), translated and edited: Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (1991). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Boston, USA: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-199-9, p. 107(Enumerations).
  18. 18.0 18.1 Patañjali et al. (2007) Source: [3] (accessed: November 23, 2007)


External links

International Nath Order (INO) perspectives

lo:ກິເລດ ja:煩悩 pt:Klesha ru:Клеша sr:Килеса th:กิเลส

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