What are kleshas?

Bringing Obstacles to the Path By Thrangu Rinpoche

The practice of Shamatha or Tranquillity is how to calm down coarse thoughts and kleshas and the practice of Vipashyana or insight is how to see the nature of your mind just as it is and in that way eradicate defects and increase qualities.

Generally speaking we can divide all things into bewilderment and that which is un-bewildered.

Bewilderment or ignorance is what we call samsara, or cyclic existence. That which is un-bewildered is what we call nirvana.

The function of the practice of Vipashyana is to recognize that nature which exists beyond and before bewilderment. When you see that, then you see the fruition which is without defects and includes all qualities. But although you have recognized this nature, until you actually attain that fruition, you still have to deal with adversity; thoughts, kleshas, suffering, illness and so on.

So the next subject, what I’m going to talk about now is how to deal with adversity through the practice of meditation. This is called “bringing adversity to the path.”


1. Bringing Thoughts to the Path

There are six types of adversities which need to be brought to the path. The first adversity is thought. Now thoughts continue to arise for us and sometimes they are extremely intense. These intense thoughts can be virtuous or non virtuous; they can be pleasant or unpleasant. In any case, if we follow the thought we become more bewildered, which leads to more fixation, which leads to more problems. If we apply the remedy to the thought, the thought is pacified, which leads to both temporary and ultimate happiness. So when we’re meditating with a relaxed mind, whether we are practicing Shamatha or Vipashyana, when thoughts arise and distract us this obstructs our meditative state of stillness, so therefore it can be an obstacle. The remedy to this is how to bring thoughts to the path.

When we are meditating, eventually a thought will arise. It could be a weak thought or an intense thought, it could be a virtuous thought or a negative thought. In any case the situation is the same. It seems necessary to do something about this and there are three things we usually think of that we might do about thought.

  • The first thing is that we need to recognize that the thought has arisen, and once we recognize that the thought is present we need to somehow restrain the thought, in other words get hold of it. Finally we need to apply an antidote, a wisdom that serves as an antidote to that thought. But here, this is not what is done. That is not how we bring thoughts to the path.
  • Another thing that we think we might have to do is to recognize that a thought has arisen and then examine it, we question the thought, try to see what it is like. Here, revealing the nature of the thought through analysis is also not what is done.
  • A third thing that may occur to us is that when the thought arises we just acknowledge its having arisen and then let go of it and it will dissolve. That is also not bringing the thought to the path.

Bringing thoughts to the path consists of: When the thought arises, you recognize that it has arisen, but you don’t try to stop it or get rid of the thought, nor do you follow the thought. In other words, you don’t try to alter the thought or the presence of the thought in your mind in any way. You don’t examine or analyze the thought. All you do, is in a relaxed way look directly at it. When you look directly at the thought, the substance of the thought will disappear. But even before the thought has disappeared or dissolved, you will see its nature, which is beyond conceptual apprehension. As soon as you see the nature of the thought, even though the thought is still present, it has become meditation. That is how to bring thoughts to the path.

When you attempt looking at thoughts as a beginner, particularly with intense thoughts, you may find this uncomfortable. It may seem somewhat unnatural to you, but if you continue to apply it, it will eventually become quite natural and be an effective way to enter into meditation even in the midst of thought. Once you are experienced with this, then you will have the habit of, as soon as a thought arises, looking directly at its nature and it will become quite easy.


2. Bringing Kleshas to the Path


The second type of adversity to be brought to the path is kleshas or mental afflictions. Kleshas are thoughts, but they are a specific type of thoughts that are particularly problematic. We consider them problematic or even poisonous because they cause us suffering and indirectly they cause others suffering as well. According to the Buddha’s teachings in both the sutras and the tantras, all kleshas or mental afflictions can be summed up in five categories, and those can be further reduced to three. These are usually referred to as the five poisons or the three poisons because they are poisonous if they are not remedied.

  • The first klesha is attachment, which can be attachment to anything such as food, wealth, pleasure and so on. This is poisonous because being attached to something causes suffering.
  • The second klesha is aggression. Aggression has many varieties such as hatred, holding a grudge, spitefulness, malevolence and so on. All of these are varieties of the same basic klesha.
  • The third klesha is apathy, which is a state that arises from ignorance or mental dullness.
  • The fourth klesha is pride, which in this case is holding yourself to have qualities which you don’t possess.
  • And the fifth is jealousy, which is being unable to tolerate the good things that others enjoy. It’s being bothered by the good qualities of others, being bothered by the wealth or pleasure of others and so on.

These five types of kleshas do not normally arise simultaneously. The reason we consider the kleshas problems is that they can simply ruin our lives. They can certainly ruin our practice of dharma and especially our practice of meditation.

So the first step, of course, is recognizing that a klesha has arisen. Normally we don’t recognize even that. Normally when a klesha arises it takes hold of us before we are even prepared to admit that it has arisen. At this point, having learned what the kleshas are and having come to admit that they arise has prepared you to recognize and acknowledge them when they do arise. Although you recognize the arising of the klesha, and although normally we consider kleshas poisonous and problematic, you don’t try to stop or get rid of the klesha when it arises. The approach here is identical to that with thoughts in general.

When the klesha arises and you recognize such-and-such klesha has arisen in my mind, you don’t try to chase it out or stop it, nor do you indulge it. You don’t need to stop it because the nature of the klesha is empty, the same as the nature of thought, the same as the nature of mind. So therefore once you have recognized the arising of whatever klesha it is, then you simply look directly at its nature without altering anything, without attempting to alter your mind or the klesha. As you look at its nature you will experience and recognize its nature. In order to do this of course your mind needs to be somewhat relaxed, but also you need to have a lucid awareness.

Seeing its nature is the same as in the previous case with thoughts in general. While the klesha does not particularly disappear, because its nature is recognized it is no longer poisonous or problematic, and even while it is still present, before it has vanished it becomes an aid to meditation. 


3. Bringing Gods and Demons to the Path


The third type of adversity to be brought to the path is gods and demons. Now gods and demons here, is a term for a category of experience that includes more than simply gods and demons. What is called gods and demons here includes all kinds of hallucinations and paranormal experiences, which some people tend to regard as the influence of actual external beings which we would classify as gods and demons. Or other types of experiences that we have that are not particularly paranormal but still involve intense fear. So basically what is called gods and demons here means experiences of intense fear.

Now fear can arise for a good reason. There may be something to be afraid of. But sometimes fear arises for no apparent reason. We just suddenly become afraid and this can reach a point even of terror, or can simply remain as an instance or attack of anxiety. Whether or not you view this as the activity of gods and demons it is still a problem, because this anxiety and even terror, is by its very nature disturbing and unpleasant.

How do you deal with it? You deal with it in exactly the same way as thoughts and kleshas. The first step is to recognize the presence of the anxiety or fear in your mind. Then, you don’t try to stop it or get rid of it, nor do you indulge it. You simply look directly at its nature with a mind that is otherwise utterly unaltered. As you look at its nature, you directly experience its nature. You experience that in fact it has the same nature as your mind, the same nature as thoughts and kleshas. It has no substance. When you recognize that the anxiety or fear has no substance, in one way you recognize that there is nothing to be afraid of. Now the fear in one sense is still there. The fear hasn’t vanished, but it has become meditation, because its nature is recognized. And becoming meditation, even before it vanishes, it is no longer what we could really call fear.

By using the method of bringing fear, or gods and demons to the path, what would otherwise be adversity is not only pacified, and pacified through the recognition of its nature, but in fact it actually becomes a source of benefit to one’s meditation.


4. Bringing Suffering to the Path

The fourth type of adversity to be brought to the path is suffering. A great deal of our suffering is connected with sickness and death. But here, because they are so significant they are enumerated separately as the fifth and sixth. Suffering here means situations other than sickness and death. Basically it refers to two situations. One is when you are miserable, and the other is when you see the misery of others and that produces misery or depression in yourself. The question here is how to deal with both in meditation.

Actually there are really three situations because there are two possible reactions that practitioners tend to have towards the misery or suffering of others. These reactions occur when you witness the suffering from illness, misery, deprivation, poverty and so on, of others.

One reaction that practitioners tend to have is one that is uncompassionate; where when you see the suffering of someone else your real reaction is fear that the same thing might happen to you. You think, “What would I do if that happened to me? I’d better practice so it doesn’t.” That is what is called here the Hinayana reaction to the suffering of others.

The second type of reaction that is characteristic of practitioners is a compassionate one; where you see that the being is miserable and you realize that there must be a lot of beings all over the place who share that same misery, and you intensely desire, almost intolerably so to help them and you want to do something about it.

Whether the situation here is your own misery or the feeling of sadness that comes from witnessing the misery of others and being afraid of it, or the situation of sadness that comes from seeing the suffering of others and wanting to help it, the situation is fundamentally dealt with the same way. You recognize the presence of this sadness in your mind and you look at its nature. Looking at its nature you see that it is empty, it has no substantial existence. While the sadness is still present, it is transformed into meditation, and being transformed into meditation it is no longer a problem.


5. Bringing Sickness to the Path


The fifth type of adversity to bring to the path is sickness. Now sickness of course is a type of suffering, but it is enumerated separately because it is so intense. The idea here is how to use meditation to deal with an unavoidable experience, the suffering of sickness. But the idea is not to use meditation to replace medical treatment.

Sickness can be either physical or mental and arises for us because our bodies are composites, therefore impermanent, therefore subject to illness. We do experience physical and mental illness of various degrees at various points in our lives. When these arise, our usual reaction is simply that we cannot stand it. It makes us miserable. The approach here is neither to indulge in endless thinking about how bad it is, nor to deny how bad it is. You simply look directly at the sensation of illness, the sensation of pain or discomfort. By looking at it you see its nature. This does not mean that the sensation will cease. The sensation, of course, is extremely intense, and therefore it is vivid and clear. When you look directly at its nature, the clarity or vividness of the sensation is not diminished, but because you experience its nature, the experience of illness or pain becomes a state of meditation. This means that while the illness or pain does not cease through seeing its nature, it is no longer quite the problem it was, no longer quite the source of misery it was.

This is also called bringing sickness down off its pedestal, which means bringing sickness down to a level where it is not controlling you and is not such a problem. There are two ways to do this.

  • One is to look directly at the sensation of sickness or pain and see its emptiness, its nature.
  • The other way is to look at the nature of the mind that is experiencing the sensation.

In either case the result is the same, and bringing sickness to the path in this way will actually help a great deal.

You might wonder how you can prepare for this, how you can practice this as a technique when you’re not ill. The way to prepare for this is actually to pinch yourself – a little bit of skin, which hurts if you’ve ever tried it. It hurts, but not that much. So it’s good to start with. If you look at the nature of the pain of pinching your skin, if you look directly at it, you’ll see that it is empty. It has no substantial existence. While you are observing or experiencing its emptiness, the pain is still there. The pain has not stopped, it still hurts, but because you are experiencing the emptiness of the pain, although it still hurts, it’s not a problem. When you develop stability in that, then gradually you will be able to deal with actual illness and more and more intense degrees of discomfort.


6. Bringing Death to the Path


The sixth adversity to bring to the path is death. Death is something that is definitely going to happen to each and every one of us. Once you have been born a human being there is no way to avoid the experience of death. Everyone who has been born either has died or will die, and so we will also. Death is something that inspires tremendous fear and sadness in us, and as a result we often try to avoid thinking about it and live in denial of death. Denial of death of course is useless, since it’s going to happen anyway one day what we need to do is cultivate some method through which we can transcend both fear and denial and go through death without fear and suffering. It is actually possible to do this, and since we have no choice but to experience death, we really must find a way to get through it. There are many methods for doing this, but here the approach is based on Shamatha and Vipashyana.

Basically, what we call death consists of three different experiences or stages. There is the approach of death, there is dying and there is after death. The suffering of the approach of death is a combination of possibly sickness and primarily fear. It is the fear of loss, the fear of losing your life and everything that goes along with that. It also may entail a fear of what’s going to happen to you after you’ve died. In any case, the way to deal with the fear of approaching death is basically the same as how to bring gods and demons to the path, because it is a type of fear. So you look directly at the fear and you recognize its nature to be emptiness.

The second experience of death is the experience of dying. Throughout your life, your body and mind have been united or combined. Death consists of the separation, the gradual separation of your mind from your body. Therefore it’s an experience different from anything you’ve undergone in this life, and as a result, being a completely new experience it will be unfamiliar and could possibly be terrifying. The approach here is to prepare yourself for that experience, so that you can look at the nature of it while it is occurring with a relaxed mind.

Then the third part is after death, when your body and mind, having separated are experiencing things even stranger, even more novel than dying itself, and this is what is called the after death interval, or bardo. Because it is completely new to you, it is also apt to be terrifying. So in the same way, you prepare yourself for it so that your mind can be relaxed and look at the nature of the experience itself at that time.

Death is usually accompanied by great sadness and suffering and when that starts to happen, when you start to feel that way, you need to reflect upon what death really is. The first thing you need to remember is that you are not alone in dying, everyone dies, so that there is no point in fearing death, since it cannot be avoided. Now, simply thinking in this way will help to stabilize your mind somewhat. With regard to the intense sadness that death inspires in us, particularly if we are the one who is dying, you have to remember that there is no reason to be that sad about it, because death is, by definition, the most natural thing in the world, which happens to everyone. So initially you encourage yourself by trying to gain a perspective on what is happening to you. That will somewhat reduce the intensity of the sadness and suffering, enough so that you can recognize in a conscious way the appearances or experiences which will occur as you come closer and closer to the actual moment of death, which is the actual separation of your mind from your body. By not panicking about death quite so much your mind will be relaxed enough to be able to notice these experiences.

The value of this is that at the culmination of the process of dying, when your mind is no longer biologically seated in your body, you will experience the fundamental nature of your mind, or of all things. If you have previously experienced this in meditation, then you will be able to recognize it, and in general if your mind is calm through the dying process then you will enter the interval between lives not in a state of panic. That will help you a great deal because it will make you more able to consciously choose your subsequent rebirth.

Now there is an actual technique for preparing for these experiences. While we cannot actually experience while we still have a body the exact appearances that arise in the bardo, we can experience something that is similar in nature and slightly less intense. As far as preparing for the visual appearances that accompany or immediately follow death, the technique is to close your eyes very, very tight, so that your eyelids, your upper eyelids in particular, are actually pressing on your eyes. As you squeeze your eyes shut quite tightly, first of all, because your eyes are closed, you’ll see darkness. But then within the darkness, because of the pressure on the eyes, you will start to see a light. It’s of various colours, green, blue, yellow, red, or whatever; and various shapes. These are a little bit of what you see in the bardo immediately after death.

Now when you do this as a practice, initially what you see is quite surprising. You can’t think of a reason why you should be seeing these things simply by squeezing your eyes. But what you see is the natural light, or natural display of dharmata, which is the nature of your mind and the nature of all things and has no existence outside yourself. As you look at this light or these appearances, while they don’t disappear, because the condition for their having occurred or arisen is still being applied, you’re able to see their nature. In other words, you are able to recognize that they’re not external to yourself.

Also in the bardo there are sounds that are in nature similar to these lights or appearances. You can prepare for that with a similar technique, which involves gritting your teeth so that your jaw is somewhat clenched. If you do this in an appropriate environment, first of all you won’t hear anything. But if you do it long enough, eventually you start to hear a hum that eventually starts to become something of a roar, or a roaring sound. This is called the empty sound of dharmata. By familiarizing yourself with these appearances and sounds, then when you actually experience them in their full intensity in the bardo, you will be prepared and your mind will be relaxed.

Those are the six adversities to be brought to the path. These six techniques teach how to deal with adversities that affect this life and affect meditation. But for them to work, you need to apply them. You can’t just forget them. You are extremely fortunate to be practicing Mahamudra meditation, to be studying it and receiving instruction, and to be interested in it in the first place. As I mentioned earlier, Mahamudra is very convenient to practice. It does not involve anything that does not fit into a conventional lifestyle, so please do whatever formal practice of Mahamudra you can. Even if you do it only for very, very short periods of time, by practicing regularly for the rest of your life, you will benefit yourself tremendously.

Some people, because of considerations of time or other circumstances find themselves unable to practice and then may become unhappy and sad. But don’t feel too bad about that either, because even having had contact with these teachings, having the motivation to study and practice these teachings will eventually benefit you greatly as well.

Questions & Answers


Question: My question is on attachments and relationships, specifically with loved ones and how one can be a good father, husband, mother, brother, friend and yet maintain non-attachment.

Rinpoche: Well, attachment and love are fundamentally different. Attachment is selfish, attachment makes us use people and love is a concern for the welfare of others. Whether it’s your family, your spouse, or anyone else, it’s a concern that things go well for others, that they be happy, that they have what they need, that they acquire an education, and so on. So there is no conflict with being a loving husband and father. Attachment is something entirely different.

Question: I’m confused about compassion. You suggested that we should not feel compassion any more, but I feel sad if somebody is poor like in the pictures that you have there. That is compassion in me, I do not want to kill that so that I can maybe donate. I don’t understand that.

Rinpoche: What you are referring to is bringing suffering to the path. The instruction was not to avoid compassion or to get rid of compassion. It was how to deal with the misery that arises in our mind when we feel compassion but feel frustrated when we can’t achieve everything we want. So it’s not the case that you want to get rid of compassion. In fact, you need compassion very much, but you do want to be able to work with compassion without being disturbed by it.


© Copyright Thrangu Rinpoche & Zhyisil Chokyi Ghatsal Publications 2002.