Simple question, but I would like to know- what are the defilements, according to Theravada Buddhism? I keep hearing this term and would like to find out what it means, according to the original teachings of the Buddha. Thank you

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In simple words, defilements are like little clouds that descend on the head -- and when you look around through one of them, you see everything in a different color or blurry or distorted.

That's what they are, they are glitches that affect your interpretation and evaluation. The problem with defilements is that subjectively they are indistinguishable from reality, it just looks like that's the way the external object actually is -- not a cloud over your head. Or you may get really angry with someone and yell at them, thinking your anger is justified - but it really just a defilement, a temporary madness.

In the original Buddha's teaching, as recorded in Pali Canon, the major types of defilements are:

  • lobha -- usually translated as desire or greed -- that's the defilement that suddenly makes some things appear very likable.
  • dosa -- usually translated as anger or hatred -- that's the defilement that makes some things appear very wrong.
  • and moha -- usually translated as ignorance or delusion -- that's the defilement that makes you confused about what's what.

The traditional metaphor is that these three are like the three base paints that mix in various proportions to create the innumerable variety of defilements observed in real life.

  • Thank you: I'd heard of "dosa = aversion", but not the next part of the equation i.e. "dosa = 'appears wrong'". – ChrisW Sep 23 '15 at 8:41
  • Thanks for the answer! I was under the impression that greed, anger and delusion are the three unwholesome roots. Are the unwholesome roots and defilements one and the same? Or do the defilements spring forth from the roots? – Ian Sep 23 '15 at 19:36
  • The traditional metaphor is that the three roots are like the three base paints and the various defilements are like the innumerable colors that can be mixed from those three. So they all are of the same nature, it is just that the major three are the easiest to explain. – Andrei Volkov Sep 23 '15 at 20:03

The term is used differently in different places in Theravada literature. In the 27th Samyutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, there are ten Suttas that talk about the kilesas, and the term is equated with desire-passion (Chanda-rago). For example, the first Sutta reads:

At Savatthi. "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."

and the other nine suttas are the same, but just apply this stalk formula to different thigs such as forms, consciousness, contact, etc.

You might want to bookmark the following site that gives excellent definitions for common Buddhist terms: http://www.budsas.org/ebud/bud-dict/dic_idx.htm or download the PDF of this dictionary from: http://urbandharma.org/pdf/palidict.pdf. I have a hard copy of this dictionary and it is the most used book in my collection. An excellent resource for beginners and intermediate level.

Here is the definition of kilesa (defilements) from that source:

kilesa: 'defilements', are mind-defiling, unwholesome qualities. Vis.M. XXII, 49, 65: "There are 10 defilements, thus called because they are themselves defiled, and because they defile the mental factors associated with them. They are: (1) greed (lobha), (2) hate (dosa), (3) delusion (moha), (4) conceit (māna), (5) speculative views (diṭṭhi), (6) skeptical doubt (vicikicchā), (7) mental torpor (thīna), (8) restlessness (uddhacca); (9) shamelessness (ahirika), (10) lack of moral dread or unconscientiousness (anottappa)." For 1-3, s. mūla; 4, s. māna; 5, s. diṭṭhi; 6-8, s. nīvaraṇa; 9 and 10, s. ahirika -anottappa.

The ten are explained in Dhs. 1229f and enumerated in Vibh. XII. No classification of the kilesa is found in the Suttas , though the term occurs quite often in them. For the related term, upakkilesa (q.v.; 'impurities') different lists are given - (App.).

Defilements are like when you want to calm down or want to be peaceful, or want to be at ease, or want to focus, you can't because something else is bothering you.

That something else is call defilements.

Defilements are impurities in one’s mind. Just like a cloth can be stained and dirty, a mind can be exploited. According to the Vatthupama Sutta: The Simile of the Cloth (MN 7 PTS: M i 36) there are 16 defilements. (1) Covetousness and unrighteous greed are a defilement of the mind; (Abhijjhāvisamalobho cittassa upakkileso) (2) ill will is a defilement of the mind; (byāpādo cittassa upakkileso) (3) anger is a defilement of the mind; (kodho cittassa upakkileso) (4) hostility... (upanāho...) (5) denigration...(makkho...) (6) domineering...(paḷāso...) (7) envy...(issā...) (8) jealousy...(macchariyaṃ...) (9) hypocrisy...(māyā...) (10) fraud...(sāṭheyyaṃ...) (11) obstinacy...(thambho...) (12) presumption...(sārambho...) (13) conceit...(māno...) (14) arrogance...(atimāno...) (15) vanity...(mado...) (16) negligence is a defilement of the mind (pamādo cittassa upakkileso)

  • Please provide a link to the sutta. – Lanka Sep 13 at 12:07

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