The Defilements

Defilements are unwholesome adventitious accretions derived from the roots of delusion, greed, and aversion. They are not inherent with the ‘pure’ mind. They are the hindrances that prevent the mind from clear insights, not allowing things to be seen as they really are, like looking through tinted or distorted lenses. Sometimes, they are likened to clouds covering the moon, or muddy and agitated water that does not allow one to see the bottom. Other similes to show that their nature is separate from the ‘pure mind’ is liking them to the impurities found in unrefined gold[i], or stains on a soiled cloth.[ii]

Since defilements arise from unwholesome roots they can only yield unwholesome fruits. And more defilements means more associated suffering, and less wisdom.

So what mental states are the defilements? In Vatthupama Sutta: The Simile of the Cloth, the Buddha listed 16 mental qualities:

“And what, monks, are the defilements of the mind? (1) Covetousness and unrighteous greed are a defilement of the mind; (2) ill will is a defilement of the mind; (3) anger is a defilement of the mind; (4) hostility…(5) denigration…(6) domineering…(7) envy…(8) jealousy…(9) hypocrisy…(10) fraud…(11) obstinacy…(12) presumption…(13) conceit…(14) arrogance…(15) vanity…(16) negligence is a defilement of the mind.[iii]

Sometimes, this list was grouped into the five hindrances: sense-desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness-and-worry, and doubt.[iv]

Since the defilements are seen as present since time immemorial. Removing them requires not only effort, but also wisdom.

“Monks, the ending of the fermentations [asavas] is for one who knows & sees, I tell you, not for one who does not know & does not see.”[v]

This means that we have to know what they are, how to recognize them, and have a strategic approach to remove them. The simile of removing impurities in gold implies effort is needed, like that required for smelting gold, to remove the defilements. Only when the impurities have been removed do we have suitable material to work with. Similarly, only when the defilements have been removed can we have a mind that is poised for higher knowledges and enlightenment.

For ways to subdue and remove the defilements (which are the same as the hindrances) see my article on the hindrances. And for further reading:

  1. How they can be recognized, along with their ‘neat’ tricks, read Teachings from the Silent Mind by Ajahn Sumedho.[vi]
  2. How to make use of the defilements, read Demons of Defilement by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo in.[vii]

Written by Quyen Ngo


[i] A.I.253-55

[ii] MN 7. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.007.nypo.html#fn-mn-007-2

[iii] MN 7. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.007.nypo.html

[iv] S.V.92-3 and A.III.16

[v] MN 2. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.002.than.html

[vi] Ajahn Sumedho. Cittaviveka: Teachings from the Silent Mind, 1999

[vii] Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo. Demons of Defilement. https://accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/lee/demons.html

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Quyen Ngo

Quyen Ngo

Quyen Ngo is a Buddhist studies scholar.​ He has a master’s degree in Buddhist Studies and is an author of a number of books and articles on meditation and Buddhism. He has done numerous meditation retreats around the world.

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