Āsava(s) together with latent tendencies (anusaya), fetters (saṃyojana) and hindrances (nīvaraṇa) constitute the unwholesome cognitive and emotive aspect of mind. What bind beings in the cycle of samsāra are these unwholesome psychological contents eradication of which brings about the absolute peace of mind (nibbāna).
The term āsava is formed with the prefix ā and the verbal root √sru (to flow). Literally it means ‘that which flows (out or on to)’, ‘outflow’ & ‘influx’. Different scholars give different renderings of the term into English. Some of the renderings are: ‘cankers’, ‘taints’, ‘corruptions’, ‘intoxicant biases’, ‘ideas which intoxicate the mind’ etc.
Āsava is such an important topic that the discussion of it occupies a number of passages in the entire Pāli canon. In most cases it is discussed as an unwholesome mental constituent that intoxicates the mind of beings and thus they are unable to rise themselves to higher things. It is some kind of unwholesome mental force that exists in the mind of unenlightened men. And it flows out to the external world through the six (sense) organs of the body. Thus it makes people ‘losing the way and falling into the cycle of birth and death’.
Āsava(s) are compared to a swift stream into which all unenlightened beings are being drifted away. To get rid of the stream one must get onto the raft of dhamma. Pāli canon mentions of various ways following which one can get rid of āsava(s). We shall discuss those ways later. Before that we shall know what those āsava(s) are. The passages in the Pāli canon frequently mentions of three āsava(s), namely; (1) kāmāsava – canker of sense desire, (2) bhavāsava – canker of existence, and (3) avijjāsava – canker of ignorance. There is also a list of four āsava(s). In this list the one that is added is diṭṭhi-āsava – the canker of views. Scholars are of the opinion that the list of three is probably older than that of the four.
Āsava(s) are sometimes compared to kilesa for they contribute to defile the thoughts of beings and thus produce evil. They are also enumerated in the sense of fetter for they tie beings down and keep them from enjoying the true freedom of mind. And as it is mentioned above āsava(s) are also to be understood as a swift stream or flood (ogha) for they carry beings away in the ocean of saṃsāra.
Some of the many ways mentioned in the Tipiṭaka to overcome āsava(s) are briefly presented below. The āsava(s) could be overcome by ‘reflecting on the loathsomeness of the body, food etc. and contemplating on impermanence and death’. They could also be overcome by ‘following the noble eightfold path’; ‘cultivating five spiritual faculties’; ‘practicing mindfulness of breathing’ etc. However, the most effective way to overcome āsava(s) is through the understanding of four noble truths.
The Buddha says “the destruction of canker is for him who knows and sees, not for him who does not know and see.” Thus in the Sabbāsava Sutta of Majjhimanikāya and the Āsava Sutta of Aṅguttaranikāya, seven ways of eradicating cankers are systematically enumerated. It is interesting to note that in both the discourses āsava(s) are explained totally from a different perspective than the āsava(s) mentioned above. From the description of āsava(s) in these two discourses we know that in our everyday life we always encounter āsava(s). The discourses also provide us with appropriate methods of overcoming those āsava(s) which we will discuss in the subsequent paragraphs of the essay.
The seven ways of overcoming āsava(s) are given below. Āsava(s) should be abandoned (1) by seeing, (2) by restraining, (3) by proper use, (4) by enduring, (5) by avoiding, (6) by removing and (7) by developing. The statement that ‘the destruction of āsava(s) is for him who knows and sees and not for him who does not know and see’ demonstrates that if anyone is not aware of his present being it is not possible for him to destroy āsava(s). Not just being ordinarily aware of one’s own being but being aware with wise attention (yoniso manasikāra). In other word being aware of one’s own being with unwise attention (ayunoso manasikāra) is not encouraged. Because by doing so one’s unarisen cankers (of sensual desire, of being and of ignorance) arise and arisen cankers develop.
A man who attends to things unwisely is an untaught ordinary person, who has no regard for the noble ones or true men. He is unskilled and undisciplined in dhamma. Such a person is indeed ignorant of the real nature of existence as impermanence, unsatisfactory and non-substantiality. Having no knowledge about the three fundamental characteristics of existence he dwells in complete illusion (moha/māya). He regards impermanent as permanent, suffering as happiness, non-substantiality as substantiality and impure as pure. This happens due to the absence of correct vision regarding the real nature of existence which is to be understood as avijjāsava in this context. The grossest illusion in the life of a man is ‘believing in the existence of self’ (sakkāyadiṭṭhi). Venerable Nyanatiloka in his Buddhist Dictionary says, “(the view that) has most misled and deluded mankind is the personality-belief, the ego-illusion”. This ego-illusion mainly is of two kinds, namely; (1) eternity belief – sassatadiṭṭhi, and (2) annihilation belief – ucchedadiṭṭhi.
However, in the Sabbāsava Sutta the ego illusion is explained to be manifested in 16 ways in the mind of beings. As for example the individual thinks; ‘was I in the past? was I not in the past? what was I in the past? how was I in the past? having been what, what did I become in the past?’ etc. Thus he thinks in the same way with regard to his future and present being. When he thinks in this way there arises in him one of following six views. They are:
- Self exists for me
- No self exists for me
- I perceive self with self
- I perceive not self with self
- I perceive self with not self and
- It is this self of mine that speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions; but this self of mine is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and it will endure as long as eternity.
These are all speculative views that arise in the mind of beings due to ignorance and unwise attention. The Buddha says, “This speculative view, bhikkhus, is called the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views, the fetter of views.” The untaught ordinary beings wander about in the saṃsāra experiencing all sorts of agony due to being fettered by the fetter of views. The only way to overcome such fetter as this is by attending wisely to the four noble truths.
As we have seen earlier āsava(s) are sometimes called ‘outflow’ because they flow out through the six sense organs to the external world and produce evil. This should clearly be understood with reference to the perceptual process enumerated in the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta. In summery there it says that it is natural that the mind and matter will interact with each other. The six sense organs will come into contact with the six sense objects. The problem occurs when we try to make it personal by putting our ego-consciousness. When we react with the natural process of perception with our judgmental attitude of either liking or disliking, we subsequently become the helpless victim of the process and thus experience constant agony. The phrase used to describe this aspect of our mind is ‘conceptual proliferation’ – papañca-saññā-saṅkhā. Therefore, constant guarding of sense doors (indriya-saṃvara) is encouraged by the Buddha.
The next three types of āsava(s) enumerated in the sabbāsava and āsava sutta(s) are āsava(s) that have extreme practical significance in the life of men and that could be eliminated just by being little bit aware of the situation one is in. It is a fact that to survive in life everyone needs the four requisites, namely food, clothing, lodging and medicine. An individual is overcome by āsava(s) regarding these four requisites when he, forgetting the real purpose, uses them improperly. According to the Buddhist understanding food should be taken to terminate the old feeling of hunger without arousing new feeling. Elsewhere in the canon the moderation (mattaññutā) in eating is also elaborated. Both the overconsumption and fasting are discouraged by the Buddha. Instead the middle way in the consumption of not only food but of everything is explained as an ideal mean which facilitate to the progress of the spirituality. Clothing too is to be used not for the show off (as it is the case for most people) but to protect one’s boy from gadflies, mosquitoes, wind, the sun etc. and also to conceal the private parts. It is the same for lodging and medicine too. They are to be used for leading a healthier life so that the individual can progress in the spiritual path. However, in today’s materially progressed modern world the rich people live a life of extreme luxury, while a great number of poor people suffer from the lack of having four requisites. Thus inequality is an obvious phenomenon in the world.
The next two of the three āsava(s) are enduring and avoiding. In life we face certain situations which if we are unable to endure or avoid, suffering becomes inevitable for us. The text mentions of things such as; cold, heat, hunger, thirst, creeping things, wild bull, horse, dog, elephant etc. However, besides these unpleasant things, in society we come into contact with people or environment that are not so friendly and act like enemy. In such situation if we have any chance of leaving for more agreeable environment, that is ok, but if we do not have any other option than living in such environment, it is better to endure it without reacting. For we can not alter the situation anyway.
The last two ways of overcoming āsava(s) are by removing and developing. Certain unwholesome mental factors namely the thoughts of sensuality (kāmavitakkaṃ), of ill-will (vyāpādavitakkaṃ), and of cruelty (vihiṃsāvitakkaṃ) are āsava(s) that should be overcome by removing. And the removal of these unwholesome mental factors is possible with the development of certain wholesome mental qualities. The immediately following and the last way of overcoming āsava(s) mentioned is the way of developing. What are the wholesome mental qualities should be developed by one? They are the seven factors of enlightenment (satta-bojjhaṅga), namely; 1) Mindfulness (sati), 2) investigation of the law (dhamma-vicaya), 3) energy (viriya), 4) rapture (pīti), 5) tranquility (passaddhi), 6) concentration (samādhi), and 7) equanimity (upekkhā). They are called the factors of enlightenment because they, if properly practiced, lead to the enlightenment.
Therefore from the above discussion we come to the conclusion that to lead a peaceful and happy live everybody needs to overcome āsava(s). We have seen that the Sabbāsava Sutta and the Āsava Sutta very clearly and systematically present the ways to overcome āsava(s) in our day to day life. The most important thing for one who wishes to overcome āsava(s) is to be aware of his present being, as the texts say, by ‘knowing’ and ‘seeing’. And the awareness should be accompanied by wise or proper attention. Buddhism always emphasizes on the investigation into the causes of what is happening into and around an individual and act accordingly. For it is his attitude and understanding of nature that determines his experiences – be it good or evil.
DN = Dīghanikāya
MN = Majjhimanikāya
SN = Saṃyuttanikāya
AN = Aṇguttaranikāya
It = Itivuttaka
Vibh = Vibhaṇga
Ps = Paṭisambhidamagga
NBD = Nyanatiloka’s Buddhist Dictionary
PED = Pali English Dictionary (of Rhys Davids)
- Malalsekera, G.P. (et al, ed.) (1997). Encyclopaedia of Buddhism. Sri Lanka: The Government of Ceylon.
- Rhys Davids, T.W. and Stede William. (eds.) (1997). Pali and English Dictionary. New Delhi: Asia Educational Services.
- Ven. Nyanatiloka, 1988 (1952), Buddhist Dictionary (Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines), Kandy: BPS.
- Buddhadatta, A.P. Concise Pāli English Dictionary, Dehiwala: Buddhist Cultural Centre.
* All the references made are of PTS edition unless otherwise stated.
 Premasiri, P.D. Mind in ‘Encyclopaedia of Buddhism’, p. 06.
 Rhys Davids, T.W. and Stede William. (eds.) (1997). Pali and English Dictionary, London: PTS.
 Venerable Nyanatiloka, 1988 (1952), Buddhist Dictionary, Kandy: BPS.
 Concise Pāli-English Dictionary of A.P. Buddhadatta.
 EPB – Vol II, p. 202.
 Some of the passages that discuses the three āsava(s) are: M.I, 55; A.I, 165; III, 414; S.IV, 256; V, 56, 189; It.49; Vbh.364.
 Passages that discuss four āsava(s) are: D.II, 81, 84; A.I, 165; Ps.I, 94 etc.
 āsava in NBD and PED.
 A. III, 83.
 S. V, 28.
 S. V. 236: faith, vigor, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.
 S. V, 203.
 S. V, 434; M. I, 07.
 Nyanatiloka, p 52.
 M. I, 8. (Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation is adopted here).
 M. I, 111-112.