Saturday, January 28, 2012


Okay, the topic of this week’s post was “supposed” to be loving-kindness – the last of the four sublime abodes to be addressed in this series. Regular readers will note that during the course of my exploration of the other three (compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity) I also delved into their respective near enemies (pity, comparison, and indifference). And so it was that I fully intended to eventually address attachment, the near enemy of loving-kindness (Kornfield, 1993). As I sat down to start writing, however, I immediately realized that attachment really deserves top billing here – if only by virtue of it being one of the most misunderstood of all Buddhist concepts. I’ve actually spoken with people who have “tried to get into Buddhism but just couldn’t get past the whole non-attachment thing.” Apparently non-attachment, for many, means living a passionless existence – devoid of romantic love, deep caring, pleasure, and commitment. So, please bear with me; I’ll be getting to loving-kindness eventually. For the time being, though, let’s get utterly and completely wrapped up in this thing called attachment. (Humor intended.)

The Many Things That Trip Us Up Along the Path

Perhaps a proper exploration of attachment requires us to begin with an examination of the kleshas, of which there are many. Klesha (klesa) is a Sanskrit word meaning defilement, passion (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 181; Rahula, 1959, p. 144), hindrance, or impairment (Zimmer, 1956, pp. 294-295). According to Zimmer (1956), “klesa denotes anything which, adhering to man’s nature, restricts or impairs its manifestation of its true essence” (p. 294). Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) note the proximate and far-reaching effects of the kleshas, stating that, in addition to “prevent[ing] practitioners from attaining neighboring or complete [meditative] concentration” (p. 251), they “dull the mind and are the basis for all unwholesome actions and thus bind people to the cycle of rebirth” (p. 181).

Kornfield (1993) discusses numerous kleshas such as anger, fear, boredom, judgment, sleepiness, restlessness, and doubt (pp. 83-101). Others are: craving, desire, hatred, delusion, pride, rigidity, and shamelessness, as well as believing in such false views as eternalism, nihilism, the existence of the self, or the nonexistence of karmic consequence (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, pp. 181-182). Some practitioners consider five of these kleshas, collectively, to be the so-called five hindrances – desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and compunction, and doubt (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 251). Regardless of how many kleshas we might identify, however, or how we might decide to group them, three stand out as the roots from which all other hindrances or defilements can be traced.

The Three Really Big Ones

If we think of all of the aforementioned hindrances as just so many tree roots protruding from the ground, ready to trip up the unsuspecting spiritual sojourner when they least expect it, then we might also trace all of those pesky and troublesome roots back to three main ones. The Sanskrit term akushala-mula is one that refers to these “unwholesome roots” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 7). Kushala (kusala), in a more literal sense, means wholesome, good, or having merit, whereas akushala (akusala) means unwholesome, bad, or having demerit (Rahula, 1959, pp. 142, 144). The words take on a more specific Buddhist flavor, however, in reference to karmic results being bad or good, as the case may be; i.e. leading to the continuation of samsaric existence rather than its cessation (Rahula, 1959, p. 32). This is the context in which Sangarakshita (1980) discusses kushala and akushala as being in reference to actions that are either skillful or unskillful, respectively (p. 129).

And just what are these three unwholesome roots? Let’s provisionally refer to them as attachment, aversion, and delusion – collectively comprising what are referred to by some practitioners as the three poisons. These three poisons are prominent in variations of the repentance verse chanted in many Zen centers. Perhaps a quick look at this verse will provide us with some much needed context. Yoshida (1979) translates the Verse of Repentance as follows:

All the wrong karmas made by me

Were created from beginningless

Attachment, aversion and delusion

Born of the body, mouth and mind

I now repent all of them wholeheartedly.

Attachment, Aversion, and Delusion – A Deconstruction of Terms

Regular readers of this blog will almost certainly have a sense as to why some Sanskrit words are used by English speakers without translation. Words such as nirvana, sunyata, and duhkha have no perfect English correlates, and trying to crash on ahead as if they do inevitably leads to grave misunderstandings. Thus, it might be good to examine the Sanskrit words that have given rise to such translations as attachment, aversion, and delusion before we assume that we really know what they have to tell us about how to live our lives.


The three poisons or unwholesome roots are perhaps most commonly known individually as either greed (lobha), hatred (dvesa), and delusion (moha) (Sangarakshita, 1980, p. 129; Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 7); or as desire (raga), hatred (dvesa), and delusion (moha) (Young, 1998-2010). Ironically, moha, the Sanskrit word usually translated as delusion, is fairly clear. It even seems to encompass elements of the existential ignorance conveyed by avidya, which, by the way, is the first link in the twelvefold chain of dependent origination – the topic of a series of previous posts. For example, the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon search results for moha include: “darkness or delusion of mind (preventing the discernment of truth and leading men to believe in the reality of worldly objects).”

Dvesa also seems to be fairly straightforward as long as we consider some subtler nuances of the word. In addition to hatred, a Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon search turns up dislike, repugnance, and enmity. Zimmer (1956) also considers disinclination and distaste (p. 295), to which we can add aversion (Chakrabarti, 1999, p. 52; Young, 1998-2010) and antipathy (Young, 1998-2010).

A Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon search for lobha, yields: desire, longing, covetousness, cupidity, and avarice. A similar search for raga, on the other hand, yields: passion (especially love); affection, sympathy, or desire for; as well as interest, joy, or delight in. To this list, Rahula (1956) adds lust (p. 145). It seems safe to say then that lobha is colored more by a desire for things pertaining to material gain, whereas raga is colored more by a desire for that which the senses might delight in – especially that which pertains to matters of romantic love. Things become clearer still when we note that Chakrabarti (1999) describes raga as “the desire to experience something frequently and repeatedly” (p. 52). Now, that’s sounding a lot like attachment! Young (1998-2010) essentially agrees, stating that “raga (desire) is the drive to repeat pleasant sensations.” So, it does seem as though we’re triangulating our way toward a discernible meaning of this word, attachment.

The Spectrum of Attachment and Aversion

I think we can boil down the multitude of words that we’ve considered here so far into one simple concept: pulling some things toward us and pushing others away. Perhaps, then, it would be instructive to think of a spectrum like the one below on which aversion extends to the left and attachment to the right. Left and right are arbitrary, of course. I was merely associating aversion with the negative realm. If it works for you, you might also think of the magnitude of the attachment or aversion in a numerical way.

Aversion (the negative realm), Equanimity (the zero point), and Attachment (the positive realm)

You’ve probably already caught onto the fact that the zero point on the spectrum represents equanimity, the sublime abode discussed in the previous post. Recall that equanimity is that state wherein we are neither pulled in one direction or the other; there is nothing that we need nor anything to cast off; we are perfectly content right where we are, just as we are. Oh, and what exactly is it that makes us think that we’re not already perfectly okay right where we are, just as we are? Well, that would be delusion, of course.

Perhaps I should sign off for now at this point of semi-closure. I know I haven’t addressed the fundamental questions raised as we wrestle with how to deal with our attachments. Please be patient. I have to leave something to write about for the next week!


Chakrabarti, K. K. (1999). Classical Indian philosophy of mind, The Nyaya dualist tradition. State University of New York Press.

Conze, E. (1967). Buddhist thought in India, Three phases of Buddhist philosophy. Ann Arbor Paperbacks, The University of Michigan Press.

Conze, E., Horner, I. B., Snellgrove, D., & Waley, A. (1964). Buddhist texts through the ages. Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, Publishers.

Hamel, S., Leclerc, G., & Lefrancois, R. (2003). A psychological outlook on the concept of transcendent actualization. The International Journal For The Psychology of Religion, 13(1), pp. 3-15.

Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (2010). Practical advice for meditators. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010,

Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart – A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. Bantam Books.

Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality, 3rd edition. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., as excerpted in Notable Selections in Human Development, 2nd Edition (Diessner, R. and Tiegs, J., eds.) McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.

Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (2011). Head & heart together: Bringing wisdom to the brahma-viharas. Access to Insight, 17 April 2011,

Yoshida, R. (1979). Verse of repentance (tr. Yoshida, R.). Missouri Zen Center website.

Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

Young, S. (1998-2010). How meditation works: An introductory overview of techniques for mental development within the Buddhist traditions of Theravada, Tantra and Zen and including reference to Christian contemplative practice.

Zimmer, H. (1956). Philosophies of India (ed. Campbell, J.). Meridian Books, New York.

Image Credits

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. Hello! What a great post! Definitely something to consider as I go about my daily life. This is quite timely, as I've become involved with a lovely gentleman (older than me, but still younger than you! ;D). That's my excuse for not commenting of late. It's good to be back!

    Hope you're well!

  2. Congratulations, Kristen! Oh, well you're likely to really enjoy my upcoming post, then, totally dedicated to attachment and romantic love. It won't be this next one but it will be the following one. Gosh, I hope I don't end up STUCK on this topic for too long. ;D

    Older than you but STILL younger than me, eh? Hmmm... :D