Asrava – The Root of the Matter.

The presentation of the term ‘ignorance’ (Sanskrit: ‘avidya’) within both early (and later) Buddhist texts, (Suttas), and commentaries (shastras), gives the impression that this term acts as a ‘first cause’ within the system of Buddhist thought.  However, the very same texts also convey the reality that the Lord Buddha himself did not advocate a ‘first cause’ in his philosophy, and that such a concept runs counter to the established Buddhist notion of conditioned origination.  The received version of the Chain of Origination contains twelve links, but the number of links is not consistant throughout the Buddhist texts, with such variations often lacking ‘ignorance’ as the first link in the chain.  The more logical ‘craving’, ‘desire’ and ‘thirst’ are usually sited as the driving force behind re-becoming.  Ignorance, within the Buddhist, has to be defined as ‘not knowing’.  It is not just the ordinary ‘not knowing’ of facts and figures associated with worldly knowledge, but rather is used to depict the state of ‘non-enlightenment’ itself.  In this state, ignorance is itself conditioned by ‘asrava’.  Asrava can be translated as an intoxicant that pollutes and poisons, and that causes, by its presence, a ‘leakage’ of defilement into the stream of conscious awareness – indeed, the Chinese translation of this term is ‘漏’ (lou4).  The asrava are of four kinds; sensuous, becoming, views and ignorance, although in early Buddhist texts, only three are often mentioned, with the asrave of defiled views not being included.  It is interesting to note that the asrava originate both from within the mind, and from the external environment acting upon the mind, and that the Buddhist teaching is presented in such a way so as to suggest that the inner mind and outer environment are linked, and only appear to be separate in the unenlightened state.  The Asrava are probably the result of the requirement of psychological adaptation to an ever evolving social environment.

The Buddhist representation of knowledge does not allow for a definite beginning or a conclusive ending to material existence.  Such investigations are considered by the Buddha to unprofitable as a pursuit, as the answers to such question can not be known.  The seeking of unanswerable (and therefore abstract) questions does not calm the mind or allow for the over-coming of greed, hatred and delusions.  Seeking the abstract only serves to distract the mind from the effective contemplation of its own essence.  The human condition, according to the Buddhist teachings, is a situation whereby the mind is undisciplined and immersed in the mire of its own lack of self-knowledge.  This is the case irrespective of the magnitude of a particular intellect.  Profound cleverness on the part of an individual does not exempt them from the Buddha’s judgement.  A clever mind may well know much about the world and how one phenomena relates to another phenomena, and how a particular phenomenon is produced, enhanced or destroyed through the appropriate manipulation, but in all this knowing, the Buddha’s wisdom of self-knowing is completely absent.  A clever mind is not an enlightened mind.  A clever person may well attract all kinds of positive accolades as well as immense wealth and social standing, and yet none of this is relevant when viewed through the rubric of Buddhist interpretive thinking.

The Buddha’s enlightenment stems from introspection – it is the mind looking at itself.  The attention of the mind is withdrawn from external objects and the thoughts and feelings such objects usually inspire.  This means that simply cognising physical and mental events, (i.e. the worldly path), is not enough.  Ordinary education, as a means of knowledge acquisition, only serves to direct and order thoughts toward a particular object or subject.  No ordinary system of education allows for the discovery and testing of the essence of the mind itself.  There is no delving into the psychic structure, but only the emphasising of specific uses of the psychic substance itself.  The world, as an advancing civilisation, builds its entire edifice upon the progress of economic and technological development.  The Buddha’s philosophy stands in stark contrast to this model of continuously unfolding human intelligence, and a corresponding, improving physical world.  Through necessity, human beings respond to their environment so that they may survive.  From this continuous requirement to respond, physical structures and cultural norms are established which are inherited by off-spring – as if these developments were always in existence – rather than brought into existence by previous generations.  Fresh minds are imprinted by this developed externality, and this in turn, triggers new and interesting intellectual re-positionings, so that each generation builds upon the achievements of the previous.

The need to survive is the base desire that pushes this great endeavour forward without end.  Eventually, inner and outer development results in the formations of advanced, or high cultures, whereby a certain strata of the population is freed from the drudgery of the concerns of manual labour and has the leisure to exercise the intellect in others ways that are not directly applicable to, or limited by the necessity of everyday survival.  Invariably, these systems of thought often have no direct bearing on everyday matters, but consist of structures of abstraction only, usually referring to a theoretical reality such as that represented by theology (religion), and philosophy.  It is interesting to note that the Buddha’s system has no interest in the physical survival or development of the species, and is equally dismissive of conventional religion and abstract philosophy.  The Buddha’s philosophy appears to be an anti-philosophy.  This does not mean that the Buddha is opposed to thinking, but rather that he has arrived at his particular understanding of existence by not following the physical drive for survival, or the psychological habit of the development of ever more elaborate interpretations of the world.  This is to say that when the Buddha speaks of ‘freedom’, he is using the term in a specific manner to imply an absolute existential freedom from all ordinary modes of human existence which are based upon the desire to survive.  Physical survival and psychological domination of the process of survival are of one and the same nature.  The need to survive entails the desire not to die.  Once this is established as the base human attribute, human beings, in either groups or as individuals, start to compete amongst themselves.  This competing, as it often involves death, maiming and enslavement, leads to the development of hatred.  As this cycle of continuous development through competition appears to have no end, and considering the participants appear unable to see their predicament, or think their way out of it, the abusive structure is held together by a species-wide delusion.  The natural state of the development of human society ensures that greed, hatred and delusion, as psychological traits (and corresponding behaviours), are passed on from one generation to the next, thus ensuring the cycle of suffering (samsara), as conveyed through the Buddha’s teachings.

Social development has determined, to a definite degree, corresponding psychological responses to the environment that have become historical in nature, and common throughout the human species.  This may well imply that the human mind, in its originality, served purely as a device for interaction between the individual and the environment, and between the individual and his own thoughts and emotions – and that the forces of human history has produced within an interpretive response, which when analysed can be discerned into three distinct streams psychic phenomenon – greed, hatred and delusion – which although presented as three separate entities, are in fact three aspects of the same internal response to developing outer circumstance.  In reality, the traditional presentation of lists in Buddhist philosophy is often reversed in order from the probable and actual utterances, as the Buddha originally taught them, due, it is believed, to various memory strategies employed by those whose job it was to remember the Buddhist discourses in their entirety, at a time before the discourses were rendered into the written word.  Therefore this particular list could read ‘delusion, hatred and greed’ in reality, and other a much more convincing basis for the presence of hatred and greed, arising, as seems likely, from the morass ‘not-knowing’.  This ‘not-knowing’ is delusion, and it is its exact opposite – knowing through enlightenment – that puts an end to both hatred and greed.  It is also correct to point out that the attainment of the states of non-greed and non-hatred, although highly extolled by the Buddha, and certainly preferable to greed and hatred, nevertheless are not considered to be representative of perfect enlightenment, whilst delusion is present.  This suggests that ‘delusion’, (that is the ‘not knowing’ or ‘non-understanding’ of the essence of the reality of life – without conditioning), is the foundational ignorance that gives rise to all its varied attributes in Buddhist philosophy.

The Buddha explored the inner terrain of his mind thoroughly.  He lived in a society that had a very strong theocratic religious tradition, and whose assumption of an atman was pivotal to all its philosophical underpinnings.  An atman – or universal breath – evolved from a divine essence and existed within each individual.  When the individual’s body died, his atman migrated, (was ‘breathed’) into a new body.  This permanent entity was the possession of the divine power that created it.  This divine power created the world into a caste system, and breathed human beings ‘out’ to man it, at the various levels.  The Buddha – being of the kingly caste – was socially advantaged, but he saw his material wealth, (and the well being it caused), as a hindrance on the path to self-transcendence.  As a consequence gave up his privileged life, his social rank, and his wife and child.  This act was not in accordance with the Brahmanic thinking of his day.  Such an act was considered against the will of the divine power (Brahma).  However, in this act the Buddha makes a radical statement with revolutionary consequences.  He applies himself to the path of meditation, and through a profound enlightenment, re-interprets the gods as being of less importance than humanity, re-structures the theory of karma, so that each individual is actually responsible for his or her actions, (as opposed to a the whims of a god), taught that re-birth only exists in the realm of the deluded, (and that the enlightened are free of it), and that there is no permanent soul or atman.  In the realm of spiritual philosophy, this last attribute is unique, and serves as the inspiration for chain of dependent origination, which attempts to explain becoming and re-becoming from the perspective of having no permanent atman.

In the developed (and received) chain of dependent origination, there is the presentation of three distinct lifetimes in twelve links, with each re-becoming explained in a different way, but all powered by desire for becoming.  Each explanation is mutually inclusive of the other two methods of explanation, and the Buddhist teaching is fully represented.  Essentially, through the craving of desire, a physical body is formed and takes life.  Life is suffering – as the Buddha teaches – because permanency is sought in impermanency, (changelessness in the changeable), and behind the outer show of the events of life, no permanent ‘self’ can be found.  Society, although ever present in one form or another, is never static.  The illusion is that wealth and material plenty are forever existent and that this situation will never change.  Not only does society continuously change, but the members that comprise it are continuously being born, living out their individual life spans, and then passing away at the point of death – nothing is permanent whatsoever.  The acquiring of what appears to be social security through effort is defined through the juxtaposition of social chaos and the breaking down of law and order.  An apparently ordered society allows for commerce and culture to proceed at a regular pass as the months move through the year, and the years move through the decades.  Human beings are born into any variant along the social scale, from disordered (and poor), to ordered (and very wealthy).  Neither position is stable and free from change.  Human beings seek the physical shelter of a good abode, and the psychological shelter of protection against random or unexpected changes.  The experience of change can be both physically and psychologically painful and full of suffering.  The destruction of thought forms based upon the ideal of permanency is suffering in the mind.  Often, faced with the reality that nothing in the physical world is free of change, (and therefore free of suffering), many turn to established religions as a means to find a permanent spiritual entity called an atman or a soul.  This idea, (although comforting for those who believe in it), believe in it with no proof of its existence.   Such a belief is accompanied by a theocracy that seeks to justify a soul theory with no actual evidence of its existence.  As fear of change often serves as the basis for a belief in a soul theory, and as there is not the comfort of seeing the soul itself, even this belief is riddled with contradictions and fears.

Ignorance begins this chain of conditioned events, but this represents a philosophical quandary for Buddhist thought.  As, according to the Buddha’s teaching, there can be no ‘first cause’, beginning the chain with ignorance is a problem, unless of course, ignorance itself has a cause.  The received chain of twelve links is probably a later development, as the early Buddhist sutras contain references to chains of becoming with less links in the chain, with these chains not always beginning with the state of ignorance.  Although ignorance (avidya), is a state whereby an individual exists within a state of ‘not-knowing’, it is usually desire, (i.e. sexual desire), that leads to the state of physical life.  Ignorance as a singular state is representative of non-enlightenment, rather than birth and re-birth.  Although it is true that those in the ignorant state are re-born, and those who are not in it – i.e. those already ‘enlightened’ – do not produce the conditions for re-birth, nevertheless it is desire, craving and thirst which give rise to the conditions through which re-birth occurs.  Ignorance is used in this context, at the beginning of the chain, as a generic rhetorical device to explain that a lack of insight is instrumental to greed, hatred and delusion continuously repeating in an endless cycle of suffering.   However, with the formulation of such a chain, the monks who devised it (long after the physical passing of the Buddha) had to create in such away so as to produce a coherent document that conveyed the essential Buddhist doctrine.  Ignorance on its own simply produces the state of ‘not-knowing’, and cannot logically produce any other state.  It is a state that represents what is absent and not what is apparent.  Ignorance is signified by what is lacking, and not by what is present.  In the Buddhist tradition, however, ignorance is not merely the lack of conventional knowledge – that is the lack of awareness of the logical lists of facts that comprise established academic subjects, or of practical modes of endeavour, but rather, the Buddha uses the term ‘avidya’ in a specific manner.  Vidya (वेद) is of course Sanskrit for ‘knowledge’, and refers to both secular and spiritual wisdom.  It is gained through the use of the intellect applied to a subject of study, or through meditation, when applied toward a particular spiritual (yogic) objective.  The Buddha’s philosophy rejects these definitions of ‘knowing’, regarding such knowledge as incomplete and lacking.  This kind of knowledge, the Buddha teaches, does not end the cycle of samsara and the endless rounds of re-birth, and is therefore merely another manifestation of ‘knowing’ that does not escape the realms of material and spiritual suffering.  True knowledge for the Buddha comprises of the direct perception that it is greed, hatred and delusion which dominate and condition human existence, and the understanding of the concept of conditioned suffering (dukkha) as found in the Four Noble Truths, and the links of the Chains of Dependent Origination.  The Buddha considers these insights to be true ‘vidya’, or ‘spiritual knowledge’, and all other knowledge to be the product of a mind, as of yet, unrealised.

The state of avidya is, therefore, the unenlightened state and is placed at the beginning of the received Chain of Origination because it is within this state that re-birth is said to occur.  It is a statement that the concept of Buddhist re-birth is applicable to those who exist in a state of non-enlightenment.  The non-enlightened state of greed, hatred and delusion creates the appropriate inner and outer conditions for the continuous reformation of physical re-becoming, through the cause and effect agency of karma.  Once this foundation is established, then desire, thirst and craving take over the actual driving force of re-becoming, but as these are already attributes of an unenlightened mind, (i.e. an ‘ignorant’ mind), it appears philosophically superfluous to state ‘ignorance’ twice as a foundation to human suffering in the physical realm.  Ignorance has to be of a particular kind to fuel the re-birth process, and not merely an abstract statement of ‘not knowing’ in general.  In this respect, the Chain of Dependent Origination does not require the placement of an abstract reference to ‘ignorance’ at its beginning, as all the aspects that are mentioned, lay specifically within the realm of deluded ignorance.  Ignorance is implicit to desire, thirst and craving, as it is to greed, hatred and delusion.  Furthermore, as Buddhist philosophy does not allow for a distinct and unconditioned ‘first cause’, the inclusion of ‘ignorance’ at the beginning of the received chain should ideally include the conditions that give rise to ignorance itself – that is the concept of ‘asrava’.

Asrava (आस्राव) is a Sanskrit term that carries the meaning of pollution, flow, flux, poisonous or infected stream, fermentation, intoxicating or corrupted biases, effluent, and corrupting interaction with the world.   In early Buddhist Suttas there are listed three asrava, but occasionally four are mentioned.  For sake of clarity, all four will be listed here:

1)     kamasrava – infected stream of sensual (sexual) desire.

2)     Bhavasrava – infected stream of (re-birth) becoming.

3)     Drishthiasrava – infected stream of (attachment) to views.

4)     Avidyasrava – infected stream of (not knowing) ignorance.

Although asrava implies a poisonous concoction that intoxicates, the Buddhist usage suggests that these poisons ‘leak’ into the conscious process and as a consequence, influence all expressions as tainted by their presence.  In the early Suttas that only convey just three asrava, invariably it is the ‘drishthiaasrava’ that is missing.  That is, the concept that suggests that attachment to views is an asrava appears to be a later addition, and that originally the list comprised only of desire, becoming and ignorance.  If the list is reversed, then ignorance leads to becoming, and becoming leads to sexual desire.  However, attachment to views has always been a Buddhist taboo, which is fully expressed within the Kalama Sutta, where the Buddha does not allow attachment to any kind of view whatsoever, and is covered, along with every other kind of asrava (and extrapolation) in the Sabbasava Sutta – the ‘All Fermentation’ teaching.  The later clearly shows that ‘fermentations’ or corruptions arise from within the mind due to delusive habit, and are also created by the physical environment, should a monk decide to dwell in a bad place amongst unworthy people.  The leakage of poisonous fetters appears to be both from the inside out (solely through mind generated habit), and generated from within the external environment, which, through contact with the body senses, triggers asrava to formulate within the psychic fabric.  Of course, the mind habit of asrava, although existing in a chain of continuous corrupt thought formations, exists as an original reaction to conditions within the environment, and although the human mind may well be infested by desire, re-birth, views and ignorance, it is correct to assume that all such fetters have their genesis through contact between human society and the senses, which includes the human mind.  An extrapolation of this observation suggests that the ‘psychic’ and the ‘material’ are essentially linked, and only appear separate in the deluded state.  The Buddha is teaching that through the agency of karma, a physical body and an external world is created.  This external world, being karmically related to the mind that creates it, directly corresponds to the inherent structures of that mind, and vice verse.  Mind and world reflect one another.  Karma, in the Buddhist sense, is defined as actions in the physical world that stem from volition.  Not all examples of cause and effect are karmic in origination, as these non-karmic chains of events have no human volition as their originator.  The example of the disease of ‘cancer’, for instance, may be the result of a mind that thinks and lives in a certain manner, but it can also be the result of a body cell simply malfunctioning for no other reason than a faulty biological structure and process.  The point is that asrava leak both ‘into’ and ‘out of’ the mind, and that meditative attention is the only way to uproot and prevent their influence.  This two-way leakage is also suggested by the Chinese term used to translate ‘asrava’.

The development of the Chinese ideogram ‘漏’ (lou4), that is, the Chinese transliteration of the Pali term ‘asrava’, although probably not formulated as a specific Chinese ideogram for an unfamiliar Buddhist Indian term, nevertheless does appear to have come about during the approximate time period of the introduction of Buddhism to China – roughly 200 BCE-200 CE.  As it was chosen to represent the meaning of ‘asrava’, and considering the careful attention to detail this process usually involved, it is probable that the Chinese rendering can be used to shed some light on the original intended meaning of ‘asrava’.

A more thorough assessment of the ideogram ‘漏’ (lou4) involves the following particles and their respective meanings:

Left-hand particle:

水 (shui3) = Water, lakes, rivers, liquid, etc.

Middle Particle:

尸 (shi3) = Corpse, direct, preside.

Right-hand Particle:

雨 (yu3) = Rain falling from the sky.

尸 and 雨 combine to make the phonetic particle ‘屚’ (lou4), which depicts ‘dripping’, (this is where the idea of ‘clepsydra’, or measuring time through water regulation arises), although it also looks like the act of urination.  尸 is a person sat down and facing left.  When ‘雨’ is added to the underneath of the person – 屚 – it looks as if water is dripping down from the bottom area.  This is interesting, as the act of urination is also depicted this way – 尿 (niao4) – water flowing from the bottom area.  Both concepts depict a waste product ‘coming out’ of the body.  Further negative connotations are suggested by the fact that 尸 also refers to a dead body (where positive qi has left), as well as a living person representing a dead person during a religious ritual.  There is both ‘death’ and ‘liquid waste’.  This symbolises a highly negative ‘output’, originating from ‘within’ the human body.

However, a living person representing a dead person ‘尸’, opens themselves up to the possible pollution of negative qi entering themselves from the outside, that is from the environment.   With the inclusion of ‘水’ (shui3), or an external water source, there is a suggestion of falling water upon a person – either as a corpse or living being.  This kind of leak originates from ‘outside’ the human body.  Taken together, the Pali term ‘asrava’ appears to be translated into Chinese as a leak of polluting water that originates from both ‘within’, and from ‘outside’ of the human body – with the added, over-all negative implication of the concept of death, and the corruption such an association would imply.  An asrava is an essential pollutant that is powerful and addictive in the extreme.  With regard to knowledge, ignorance is assured to the nature of the addictive state of a mind state that does not allow for the development of either tranquillity or insight.  This intoxicating state of anti-knowledge ensures that ‘ignorance’ and ‘darkness’ are the norm and that enlightenment – its antithesis – remains an unattainable, distant and uncaused condition.  Ignorance corresponds to the outer structures and behaviours which are the consequence of deluded thought and action.  Like is drawn to like with an irresistible pull of familiarity.  Ignorance to ignorance, deluded viewpoint to deluded viewpoint, desire for becoming, to desire for becoming, and sensuality to sensuality.   Ignorance is the state of not knowing.  For this to be a real state there must be a body of knowledge that is not known, but which definitely exists.  Ignorance is the obscuration of the light of this knowledge and a state that does not benefit from insight – it is anti-insight.  Deluded viewpoints are simply viewpoints that are comprised of faulty logic and which are based upon premises that have no bearing to the world as viewed through the enlightened mind.  They are worldly in the sense that they exist in the external environment, and that an individual, not knowing what the correct ‘enlightened’ viewpoint is, chooses to subscribe to these viewpoints, thus creating further bad karma.  Desire for becoming is the uncontrolled preference for physical incarnation, and the underlying assumption that a bodily existence equates with a permanent self.  This asrava does not see the impermanence of the physical form, or understands and comprehends the suffering that such an existence attracts.  Physical existence is to exist in a society of human beings.  The urge for this originates within the environment, and the deluded mind is drawn toward physicality, so that the ‘inner’ reflects the ‘outer’.  Sensuality, which is sexual attraction, is the means by which physical life begins.  In this asrava, however, procreation is not the emphasis, but rather a possible result.  This asrava sees no further than the momentary experience of sexual pleasure in either its emotional or physical forms.  This experience, although obviously appearing within the mind, has to have an external image that actually inspires the inner delusion.  Sexuality within the environment is internalised within the mind.  With the removal of the physical stimulus, the desiring waves within the mind eventually fade away.  This asrava is so addictive that it is very difficult to over-come.  The mind can sustain sexual imagery a long time after physical stimulus is removed.

Asrava may be defined as the origin of ignorance, desire, re-birth and wrong views.  Asrava is the origin of ignorance in the mind and the environment, as desire, re-birth and wrong views are merely aspects of the ignorant state of being.  Asrava is not ‘uncaused’, but rather is caused in the mind and in the environment by deluded thoughts and actions.  One deluded thought and action conditions the formation of the next set of deluded expressions.  The environment influences the mind, and the mind influences the environment.  One conditions the other.  Ignorance is both an isolated ‘unknowing’ of the nature of reality, and at the same time a broad amalgamation of deluded viewpoint, desire and behaviour.  Ignorance, although placed first in the received Chain of Dependent Origination, is not actually the ‘first cause’, but rather the direct creation of the Asrava.  Asrava gives birth to the state of ignorance.  Asrava ‘is’ ignorance.  It is a highly addictive, intoxicating and polluting outpouring of the mind that is indicative of the unenlightened state of being.  Asrava are so powerful that they appear to be real and the highest statement of the nature of being.  This is obviously an incorrect viewpoint.  Within the mind the asrava appear out of the empty nature of the psychic fabric.  .  At their root, the asrava emerge as if from nothing, even though they are conditioned from moment to moment.  The Buddha teaches that a high level of awareness has to be cultivated so that the asrava can be cut-off and destroyed at their root.  The student of the Buddha’s Dharma can sit and meditate so that the insight becomes strong enough to ‘see’ that which must be destroyed before it pollutes the mind and the environment.  A mind can be purified through concentration and the taint of asrava diminished completely, even if the environment continues to exhibit conditions suitable to asrava arising.  Developed concentration can over-come the pressure of environmental conditions.  Asrava are both essence and function in the mind.  They are considered pollution not only because of the intoxicating content of their function, but also because their functioning serves to obscure clarity of mind.  This obscuration is the essence of ignorance, and according to the Buddha, the cause of all experience of suffering.

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