In Buddhism, kleshas are mental state that cloud the mind and manifest in unwholesome actions.
Kleshas include states of mind such as anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy, desire, depression, etc.
In the contemporary Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist traditions, the three kleshas of ignorance, attachment, and aversion are identified as the root or source of all other kleshas. These are referred to as the three poisons in the Mahayana tradition, or as the three unwholesome roots in the Theravada tradition.
Are Kleshas Obstacles or Opportunities for Enlightenment?
Buddhism has plenty of words for what human beings do wrong—defilements, neurotic behavior, obscurations, obstructions, evil deeds, kleshas, and so on. The beauty of Buddhism, though, is that it doesn’t focus on blame. The focus of Buddhism is samsara, which is not a sin but simply a mistake, a mistake that starts out small and gets very, very big. When you begin with the view that a mistake has been made, you can stop trying to apprehend the wrongdoer and put your effort into finding out how the mistake occurred in the first place. In the beginning, the real nature of the mistake can elude us, and we may think that there is “something wrong with us.” It takes the patience and diligence of mindfulness to see our “defilements” for what they really are—and to see how they differ from who we really are.
Klesha, a Sanskrit term that predates Buddhism, refers to an obstruction or impurity, something that gets in the way or clogs things up. In the center of the wheel of life, the pictorial depiction of samsara, three animals are shown that represent the three “poisons,” the root kleshas at the rotten core of samsara: a pig representing ignorance, a rooster representing attachment, and a snake representing aggression. The Buddhist catechism, the abhidharma, provides a much more detailed catalogue of our infirmities, outlining six root kleshas and twenty subsidiary kleshas (or upakleshas).
Like a pair of very clever and highly skilled con artists playing off each other, karma and klesha conspire to make life miserable.
Disruptive as they are, kleshas are temporary; they come and they go. But because they team up with karma, they become tendencies. Like a pair of very clever and highly skilled con artists playing off each other, karma and klesha conspire to make life miserable. Karma, the sum total of past actions, habituates us to seeing things in a certain way and imparts a momentum to all our activity. Klesha exploits that momentum by giving us a pre-packaged set of responses—ignoring, embracing, rejecting, and countless variations on those themes—that ensures we will never have to experience a fresh moment of openness.
If our klesha activity is somehow interrupted, we can experience openness and freedom. When that openness and freedom expands, we call that realization. And yet, even those who are realized exhibit something that looks an awful lot like what we call kleshas. They get angry. They are passionate. They seem to be oblivious to things at times. For practitioners, who seek to emulate their teachers, questions arise: Am I being asked to get rid of the kleshas, to simply manage them better, or to somehow transform them?
The kleshas would generally be called “emotions” in Western psychological language. And when we think of flesh and blood human beings, we tend to think of them as beings with emotion, sentient in the fullest sense of the term. For example, the great allure of Renaissance painting was the depiction of affetti (emotions) and moti mentali (motions of the mind). Suddenly, the figures lived, because they showed emotion. It’s unlikely that as practitioners we would want to get rid of something so central to life as a person’s passion, or even their indignation. Clearly, we have a conundrum.
If the kleshas are not dealt with, there is no progress on the path, and yet if a practitioner tries too hard to rid themselves of klesha—to create a superhuman klesha-free being— ultimately, they are frustrated. They are, as the great teacher Marpa said, “throwing their mind in the river,” running away from the very thing that will allow them to find who they are. So, what is the interplay between kleshas and genuine, human realization; how do we eliminate, transform, or transcend our human foibles and become even more fully human at the same time? Our panelists explore the relationship between realization and defilement, based on their own experiences, and their experiences with their teachers and students.
Buddhadharma: In this discussion, we would like to explore the nature of our defilements and how we deal with them through meditation practice. Are the kleshas utterly removed, are they lessened, or are they transformed in some way? What does progress on the path look like when viewed in terms of our defilements?
To start with, perhaps we could talk about what people expect will happen to their defilements when they undertake the practice of meditation.
Blanche Hartman: Most of the people I meet come to meditation because they are experiencing a lot of pain and confusion, which of course arises from their karmic activity. So in the beginning they need to see what’s happening before they can start to relinquish any of it. They need to see how completely unruly their mind is. It takes a while before they can effect any reduction in the disturbances.
When I encountered Suzuki Roshi, I saw my habits clearly for the first time. He seemed a lot more settled than I was, which made me think I could learn a lot from him about what to do about these habits. But that doesn’t mean that I could immediately let go of them, or let go of all of them even now, after thirty-six years.
Guy Armstrong: I agree with Blanche. Most people do come to meditation because of disturbances in the mind. But over the first few years of practice most people report feeling a lot more confident working with those disturbances and perceive an actual reduction in them. At certain times in practice, they can also feel the kleshas increase and get stronger. That seems to result from having greater awareness of the kleshas and paying more attention to them, because you see more clearly what was covered up.
Ringu Tulku: It helps to appreciate how difficult it is to uproot kleshas and just how long it could take. To totally uproot the kleshas is supposed to take very long time, according to the Buddhist tradition. Sometimes it is said that to become totally enlightened takes countless eons. On the other hand, the main purpose of meditation, as well as all the practices related to it, is to uproot the kleshas. If nothing happens to the kleshas, the practice isn’t working.
At the outset, however, perhaps it is best if we don’t think in terms of the kleshas, but more simply in terms of making our mind a little calmer. After all, when we first start to practice, we experience our mind like a waterfall, which can be overwhelming. We might feel we are worse off, but we are actually better off, because we are aware of the waterfall. For once, we know what’s going on.
Buddhadharma: When we hear of “countless eons,” it can sound almost mythological, particularly if we get upset sitting through two cycles of a traffic light. It doesn’t give us much encouragement.
Blanche Hartman: Suzuki Roshi used to call this “the instant age.” We expect instant everything. We come with all kinds of expectations, and one of the things we learn early is that with expectation comes disappointment. As someone said, when you find yourself disappointed, you might consider who made the appointment. Some people, not finding instant results, or quick results, wander off and look somewhere else. But those who stick around for a while begin to notice some relief after a year or two, as Guy said.
Guy Armstrong: Westerners aren’t used to a system that looks at things over long periods of time. So as teachers, it’s helpful for us to adjust our aim a little bit. Instead of pointing students to the removal of the kleshas from the very beginning, we need to focus students on being unbothered by the kleshas. The true sense of equanimity is not that the emotions go away, but that when we meet any emotion, we find that we have the capability to be with it—without being afraid or running away, or without letting it force us to do foolish things.
Blanche Hartman: The important thing is to learn to become aware of the klesha arising and not to jump immediately into acting it out.
Ringu Tulku: If at first we cultivate that kind of relaxation and refrain from creating too many negative situations, we get into less trouble. Then we can try to cultivate the opposites of the kleshas a bit. The Buddha said do no evil and try to do positive things, and then tame the kleshas in your mind. Although the klesha is that which generates the negative actions, it has to be worked on gently, step by step.
Guy Armstrong: When kleshas are directly experienced in our practice and our life, the energies that they bring up are quite frightening to the untrained person. To feel that one is in the grip of anger, or in the grip of fear or strong desire, scares us. Our culture hasn’t trained us how to be with them, so we need a lot of guidance and support in opening and softening, in realizing that we can feel these energies within our minds and bodies and hearts without their actually damaging us. Little by little, we can become more comfortable with feeling the energies directly. Therefore, the mind can remain undisturbed even when the klesha is present.
Blanche Hartman: Not buying into them is a very key point. In the Mahasatipattana Sutra, it says, “When anger arises, the monk says, ÔAnger has arisen.’ ” Generally, that’s not our experience. Our experience, before practice, is that when anger arises, we erupt. To begin by being aware—“Oh, this is anger”—can give us space so we don’t erupt and cause all the karmic consequences that involves. There’s a great bumper sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think,” which I pass on to all my students. We have a lot of thoughts that could get very destructive if we believe them to be true. If we can just see them as thoughts, they don’t cause as much distress.
Buddhadharma: It seems when we discuss klesha activity, it is helpful to understand it as a continuum, from the first moment a klesha arises to full-blown action.
Blanche Hartman: The karmic results of a thought arising and of punching somebody in the nose are different. The resulting stress and the resulting disturbance are much greater if you act it out. It’s very important for us to notice there’s no way we can act without experiencing a result. When we become very clear about that, it helps temper our actions.
Ringu Tulku: Recently, I was reading a sutra called the Definitive Vinaya, which comes from the Maharatnapuka collection of Mahayana sutras in the Chinese Tripitaka. It equates the three basic kleshas—ignorance, attachment, and anger—to the elements of earth, water, and fire. I find it very helpful to look closely at the different natures of the kleshas and to see how they can be worked with.
Ignorance is like earth. It’s the ground of all the other kleshas. As long as ignorance persists, we cannot get rid of kleshas and get out of the samsaric state of mind. But it does not have any emergent negative reaction. It is in the background. Therefore, it is something you work on slowly, step by step. While its effect is clearly negative, it is neither dramatic nor tragic.
Attachment is like water. Our life is filled with attachment and it adapts itself to whatever situation we are in. It has negative aspects—it creates lots of suffering and pain. But it also has some positive aspects—it is associated with love and compassion. It will not dry out very quickly, but it doesn’t have the immediate and fearsome destructive energy of anger.
Anger, which is like fire, burns and burns. It burns you, it burns the other person, it burns everybody around. It has the most negative effect of all. At the same time, it flares up quickly and can quickly die. Therefore, it can be a little easier to deal with. But at the same time, because of its strong negative effects, it is also the most emergent of the defilements. Therefore, the sutra says anger is the first and most important thing we need to work on. So, right at the outset, if we work with anger, we can have an immediate effect for the good.
Guy Armstrong: From the Theravada point of view, the practice and teachings of sila, discipline, are a way to safeguard our actions. The kleshas are strong internally. By exercising restraint—through the precepts, right speech, the other aspects of the eightfold path, and so forth—we inhibit the action of the klesha, and we stop spreading suffering around so much. As Blanche was saying, that limits the karmic impact on us and others.
Learning on the cushion how to relate with these states inwardly does tend to give us a little more space when they arise in daily life.
At the same time, it can be very humbling to see that as much as we try to meditate and keep our good intentions, our words and actions do get away from us. In that case, we simply have to make space to realize we’re human. Learning on the cushion how to relate with these states inwardly does tend to give us a little more space when they arise in daily life. That little bit of space gives us more choices about whether to remain quiet, whether to speak, and if we speak, what to say. We start to develop the fine art of letting go inwardly while being restrained outwardly. It’s quite a dance to try to do both of those at the same time, but that’s how the inner silent work and the work on the outer relationship operate together.
Buddhadharma: What about the chain reactions you set off when your klesha activity manifests? Suddenly you have people responding with their own klesha activity.
Blanche Hartman: That’s how you learn that it’s not a free ride. If you’d like to relieve tension by blowing off steam, you’re going to get burned too. It’s going to bounce back. That’s why Zen training occurs in a close group situation, where you live, sit, chant, and work together. You’re always bumping into each other and that brings up stuff that could stay buried for a while if you didn’t have constant interaction. Suzuki Roshi’s son used to call it “potato practice.” You dig up some potatoes and they’ve all got dirt on them. But you don’t have to pick up each one and scrub them; you put them in a bucket with some water and you stir it, and they bump into each other and clean each other up. Bumping into each other really helps you to deal with things in your everyday life, because at that point, your everyday life is happening in the middle of the retreat.
Buddhadharma: If you can work with kleshas in the immediate sangha, there’s more possibility you could work with it in the mahasangha.
Blanche Hartman: Yes, I think so. The immediate sangha brings it into stronger focus, because you’re so close together.
Ringu Tulku: Once we see the kleshas, it is very important that we stop thinking they are good for us. Usually we think a klesha is something useful. For example, if we get angry, we think we are being righteous and protecting ourselves. We need to see very, very clearly that that’s not the case. If I am angry, it’s neither good for me nor for others. If we don’t have this basic understanding, we will not have the incentive to really work on the defilements.
Is karma—cause and effect—an indispensable teaching, then?
Blanche Hartman: Absolutely. If I know that my actions always produce consequences, it makes me pay much more attention to the actions I choose. Karma is central to the Buddhist teachings.
Guy Armstrong: As Rinpoche suggested, we end up harming ourselves as much as we harm someone else when we give expression to the kleshas. In the Theravada teachings, we say that when we’re angry, it’s like wanting to pick up a hot coal and throw it at someone—when we pick it up, we immediately burn our own hand.
Buddhadharma: So far we have been talking about kleshas as something to get rid of, a nuisance. But don’t the kleshas provide us with the very path to travel on? Can they not be seen as an opportunity?
Guy Armstrong: When we look honestly at the impact of the kleshas, we feel them as a burden, and we sincerely wish it were otherwise, but for the time being they are definitely there. Given that situation, how can we keep a right attitude toward ourselves and toward these states as they arise?
For one thing, it’s helpful to realize that they can actually strengthen our dharma practice. By working with the kleshas, we learn lots of beautiful qualities, like humility and patience. The forbearance we practice just to be with a klesha without doing anything with it, strengthens our compassion. We see how the kleshas make us suffer, and therefore we understand the impact they have on others, which strengthens our determination to purify our hearts further. As we have success in doing that, it gives rise to faith and confidence as well.
Ringu Tulku: As Guy pointed out, the klesha can never be seen as something good from the Buddhist point of view, because it creates trouble. Nonetheless, it does present an opportunity. A klesha can be transformed, and from the Vajrayana point of view, kleshas are, in essence, wisdom. But that does not mean to say that the klesha is good.
In the end, kleshas are not something we “get rid of.”
Our basic nature is the enlightened state of our mind, and its natural quality is wisdom. Kleshas occur when we are not able to express that natural quality. They are a reflection of not being able to understand or express our pure wisdom mind, and yet they are also not other than that wisdom mind. There is merely an obstruction. When we can clear that obstruction, then the kleshas arise as wisdom. In Vajrayana, we talk about three methods for dealing with kleshas: abandoning, transforming, and transmuting. In the end, they are not something we “get rid of.”
Blanche Hartman: Suzuki Roshi often said a bodhisattva should be very happy about having difficulties, because difficulties give you a way to practice. Whenever you have a problem, there is where your practice is. When you see yourself getting caught by a klesha, there is where your practice is.
Ringu Tulku: Seeing the problems caused by the kleshas also helps to generate compassion. If we don’t see problems, we find no reason to have compassion.
Buddhadharma: If we measure success in working with defilements in terms of outward behavior, do you think there is much difference between the people who have been practicing for forty years in our Western Buddhist communities and the average person on the street?
Ringu Tulku: Sometimes people say that Buddhist centers actually have the worst type of people [laughter]. Of course, many people come to a Buddhist center with very big expectations. They hear Buddhists talk about compassion, understanding, loving-kindness, peace, and things like that. So they expect that everyone there will fully embody all those virtues, and when they walk in, they can get the shock of their lives. Yet this is a little bit like going to a hospital and being surprised that there are so many sick people. Those who come to Buddhist centers are not people who are already perfect. They are people who feel there is a big need for them to work on the negative things.
Someone once asked the Buddha why so many of his students seemed not to have changed at all. In response, the Buddha asked the questioner where he was from, to which the questioner responded, “I am from Gaya.”
“Do people ever ask you the way to Gaya?” the Buddha inquired.
“Of course they do, and I tell them. It’s no secret,” he replied.
“Do they all reach Gaya?” the Buddha asked.
“It depends. Those who actually go there, reach there. Others do not,” he answered.
“Just so with me,” the Buddha said, “I have attained enlightenment and I understand the way there. People ask me and I tell them everything. But those who actually travel there, reach there. Others do not.”
We all try to practice, but we find it very hard to work on our deep-seated attachments. And yet, I see students who make lots of progress, and there are even some extraordinary stories. Very recently, a woman of about thirty who was dying of cancer practiced very intently until she was too weak to do formal practice anymore. In the hospital, in the presence of her mother and friends, even though she was very weak, she was lighthearted and cheerful, and she said, “I am not afraid. I have complete confidence in the practice.” She died with a clear smile on her face. Everybody was impressed, including her mother, who is not a Buddhist. I see many such incidents that demonstrate the effects of practice.
Guy Armstrong: We can look at ordinary people in daily life, people who don’t have strong spiritual practices, and find that there are beautiful people in many walks of life. I assume their good conduct causes them to have many lovely qualities, and it’s a beautiful thing to see. But rather than compare myself to them, I would rather ask the question, where would I be today if I hadn’t taken up this practice thirty years ago? An old dharma buddy of mine and I were talking the other day about this, and he said, “Oh, I think I’d be a very angry and disaffected political radical.” And I said, “Yeah, I think I’d be a cynical person working in the computer industry somewhere.” Looking at who we are and where we might have been is maybe a better comparison to draw.
Blanche Hartman: I agree. I find it most valuable to compare myself to the person who came to practice. When I met Suzuki Roshi, he’d been practicing for fifty years and that’s why he was so very attractive to me. He seemed to be able to accept everyone completely, without any reservation, including me—and I was quite a mess when I came to practice. My best friend had died suddenly of a brain tumor. She was fine, then she had a headache, then she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, went into a coma, and died very quickly. I myself fell quite ill with a severe infection and almost died. After those two events, I was absolutely terrified, because I realized my own impermanence. That’s when I turned to practice.
Twenty years later I had a heart attack and almost died, and my response was altogether different. When I walked out of the hospital, I thought, “Wow, I’m alive. I could be dead. The rest of my life is a gift.” My life has always been a gift; it’s just too bad I didn’t notice it until then. And the only way I can account for those two very different responses to recognizing my own mortality is that in between I had been sitting zazen for twenty years. That was a very dramatic kind of verification that something had happened over those years of practice.
Guy Armstrong: It’s also true that some of the fruits of practice may not be visible on the surface for years, or possibly lifetimes.
Buddhadharma: If measuring the taming of the kleshas through the outer actions of students is difficult, measuring it with respect to teachers is much more so. Many renowned teachers have often exhibited bursts of anger or passion, or simply seem to have habits that, to all appearances, seem like klesha activity. How do we account for this?
Blanche Hartman: On a couple of occasions, I recall Suzuki Roshi getting angry. It seemed to me to be frustration at how slow we were to catch on and how little time he had. I recall one sesshin in which the person rang the bell one hour early, realized his mistake, and went running, saying, “Go back to bed! I rang it an hour early. I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I did it an hour early.”
Only two students and Suzuki Roshi came down to the zendo. When everybody else finally came down, he said in this terrible voice, “You’re all badgers and foxes sleeping in your zazen caves.” And he jumped down and started hitting everybody, going around the zendo saying, “When the bell rings, come to the zendo,” and a variety of other things, while he was going whack, whack, whack, all the way around the zendo. It sure looked like anger to me, but I think it was actually a very effective teaching as well. I think the anger came first and the teaching came second. There were certainly other occasions when he had strong reactions like that. I think we could be pretty frustrating.
Guy Armstrong: I think it’s true that people are able to share dharma teachings effectively well before all their kleshas have been removed, and occasionally the teacher’s kleshas will break out just as much as they would with an ordinary person. Part of the problem is that when a teacher is always in a certain role in relation to students, it makes it difficult for them to speak honestly about their own level of development. Sometimes it may not seem appropriate to reveal to students the areas in which they’re not fully developed yet.
That’s why I think it’s very important that teachers have a peer group within which they can talk honestly about their own practice and the things they’re working with. In the absence of their peer group, where they can share honestly, teachers can start to believe in or get too identified with their role and what they are teaching. As a result, they can believe they’re farther along the path than they are, and they can present themselves to the students as being farther along than they are. That’s where it gets dangerous. Some degree of honesty and sharing about one’s own imperfections is really necessary to keep teachers on an even keel.
Blanche Hartman: Whether we share them or not, our students see them. So we may as well share them.
Ringu Tulku: It’s also true that the exercise of compassion is not always so soft and nice. It can be expressed in a very rough-and-tough fashion. Out of compassion, the teacher may have to be a disciplinarian, be stern, offer punishment, and even show anger toward students—that kind of fierceness could help the students to behave better. It’s not completely necessary that the teacher actually be angry, but that the teacher show the anger.
Not every teacher is at the same level. I have had the opportunity to train with very great masters, teachers of teachers. You could really see and feel how realized they were, but all teachers are not at that level. This has to be understood very clearly. Students might assume that whatever problems the teacher has are being handled. They might project that the teacher is highly realized, beyond their actual ability.
Buddhadharma: It could be quite a danger for a teacher, particularly one who’s in the early stages of development, if they get confused between the students’ projections of them and where they actually are.
Blanche Hartman: That’s why Guy’s point about peers is vital, particularly for teachers in the West, who have probably been teaching for one lifetime, not many, and who are not surrounded by many fully trained teachers, as teachers in Asia might be. We really do need to have our peers around to keep us from getting caught in our students’ projections. It’s awfully nice when people think we are doing so great, and it’s awfully tempting to believe some of it!
Guy Armstrong: Indeed. Praise is one of the armies of Mara.
Buddhadharma: Many teachers have encouraged their students to teach as a way of learning, resulting in a system of people who are not fully processed going out to teach. Can teaching be a way of learning to deal with the kleshas, which will mean that people make some mistakes along the way? Or is that too dangerous a way to operate?
Ringu Tulku: In most instances, a teacher also has a teacher. I still have my teacher. Even though I teach, I myself will never be without a teacher. If my teacher passes away, I can have another teacher. I never cease to be a student. No teacher is a perfect teacher. You cannot be, unless you are completely enlightened. But when you have something to share, and there are not many people who can share this kind of thing, you should teach. So, even though some of my students are not very advanced, not very knowledgeable, I encourage them to share whatever they understand to the people who understand less. A problem only arises if you become too proud and start to think of yourself as a teacher, not a student. I never think of myself as a teacher. I think of myself as a student who is sharing my little bit of understanding.
Buddhadharma: So you experience the occasional klesha, would you say?
Ringu Tulku: Of course. Why not? Constantly.
Guy Armstrong: I heartily agree that the safeguard is remaining a student. Some of the Western teachers whom I’ve seen get into difficulties didn’t have close contact with a teacher whom they looked up to and respected. Such mentoring is vitally important. Any time someone is put in a teaching role, there are going to be difficulties, but with the proper environment, we all have been able to learn from the problems we’ve encountered in that role. They’ve been very helpful for our growth as students.
Buddhadharma: Would you say that in teaching situations you have felt intense kleshas arising?
Guy Armstrong: Definitely. One of the biggest defilements I experience in teaching is comparing mind. I look around at all the other great teachers I work alongside of, or encounter along the way, and I see all their beautiful qualities and ask myself why anybody is going to listen to me. This kind of comparing mind is often one of the sticky places for me.
Blanche Hartman: I also feel that no matter how long I am a teacher, I never quit being a student. I never expect to be fully realized and never want anyone to imagine that I am. I make it very clear to people that we’re all practicing together. I might have been practicing a little longer and so I might be able to share some of the mistakes I’ve made to help others avoid them. I really appreciate that we have built into the Zen Center mandala several ways in which those who have teaching responsibilities meet as peers.
I still, of course, relate to my own teacher and check in with him. For those people whose teachers are now dead, like those who were Suzuki Roshi’s students, it’s even more important that they stay in a peer relationship with their dharma brothers and sisters. Like I said before, we can bump into each other and see defilements clearly. That’s why the sangha is one of the three jewels.
GUY ARMSTRONG is a guiding teaching of the Insight Meditation Society and a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council.
RINGU TULKU RINPOCHE is a lama in the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism. He is the author of Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness and The Rime Philosophy of Jamgön Kongtrul the Great.
ZENKEI BLANCHE HARTMAN (1926-2016) was a senior teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center. She was co-abbess of the center from 1996 to 2003.