“Ānanda, when I’ve comprehended the mind of a person, I understand: ‘Both skillful and unskillful qualities are found in this person.’ After some time I comprehend their mind and understand: ‘The skillful qualities of this person have vanished, but the unskillful qualities are still present. Nevertheless, their skillful root is unbroken, and from that the skillful will appear. So this person is not liable to decline in the future.’ Suppose some seeds were intact, unspoiled, not weather-damaged, fertile, and well-kept. They’re sown in a well-prepared, productive field. Wouldn’t you know that those seeds would grow, increase, and mature?”
What is meant by the root?
What is meant by “So this person is not liable to decline in the future.”
The unwholesome roots are greed, hatred, and delusion and the three wholesome roots are their opposites. They form the focus of part of the third foundation of mindfulness, contemplation of mind states, referring to introspection regarding one’s own state of mind. Awareness of the mind states of others only occurs as a consequence of developed concentration.
"Even if a monk is not skilled in the ways of the minds of others. he should train himself: ‘I will be skilled in reading my own mind.’—AN 10.51
"The first three among the states of mind listed in the satipatthãna instruction are lust (rãga), anger (dosa), and delusion (moha), the three main roots of all unwholesome mental events.The basic principle underlying the contemplation of these unwholesome roots, which also underlies the distinction between worldly and unworldly feelings in the previous satipaììhãna, is the clear distinction between what is wholesome and what is unwholesome. Systematic development of this ability nurtures an intuitive ethical sensitivity which constitutes an important asset in one’s progress on the path and a reliable guide to proper conduct in daily life.
Taken in an absolute sense, a mind without lust, anger, and delusion is the mind of an arahant.This way of understanding is in fact the most frequent usage of the qualification “without lust”, “without anger”, and “without delusion” in the discourses. Thus contemplation of the mind appears to be not only concerned with momentary states of mind, but also with the overall condition of the mind. Understood in this way, to contemplate mind unaffected by lust, anger, or delusion would also include awareness of the degree to which these three unwholesome roots are no longer “rooted” in one’s mental continuum."—“Satipatthana,” Analayo
In the german translation (Nyanatiloka/Nyanaponika online at palikanon.com) they use “Triebfeder” which is something like “main spring” instead of “root”, meaning a basic impulse, from which, for instance, the momentane balance of wholesome & unwholesome characteristics of a person might be changed in future (by the inner psychic dynamics of the person itself).
For me, this understanding is completely natural: when I look at persons in my near, see nice and unnice things in that person, but also know, there is some basic “energy”, “moment” (for instance by trauma, or by ability-to-trust) which shall either promote the “nice” or the “unnice” things in that person in case when circumstances become critical some other time…
It’s a technical term, as paul1 has already said, for the underlying greed, hate, and delusion. The metaphor points to the fact that they still exist even if there is no sprout above ground to be seen.
The sutta contrasts the actual presence of greed, hate, and delusion as active forces in the mind, with the underlying roots. The notion of indriya or “faculty” contains the idea of “potential”. A faculty is some kind of power or capacity that may be hidden but will manifest under the right conditions. I wrote on this in my essay on SN 46 here:
So the point is that, even though they may not have those bad qualities right now, they may well have them in the future.
To relate the three unwholesome roots to the strategy employed by the noble eightfold path to overcome them, beginning with the interaction between right view and right intention:
“The moment the cultivation of the Noble Eightfold Path begins, the factors of right view and right intention together start to counteract the three unwholesome roots (desire, anger, delusion). Delusion, the primary cognitive defilement, is opposed by right view, the nascent seed of wisdom. The complete eradication of delusion will only take place when right view is developed to the stage of full realization, but every flickering of correct understanding contributes to its eventual destruction. The other two roots, being emotive defilements, require opposition through the redirecting of intention, and thus meet their antidotes in thoughts of renunciation (desire), good will, and harmlessness (anger).”—“The Noble Eightfold Path,” Bikkhu Bodhi
MN 19 describes how the unenlightened bodhisatta rid his mind of sensuality, ill-will, and harmfulness (two of the unwholesome roots). The eradication of ignorance was not completed until the enlightenment itself when the four noble truths were penetrated:
“Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking & pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with renunciation, abandoning thinking imbued with sensuality, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with renunciation. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with non-ill will, abandoning thinking imbued with ill will, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with non-ill will. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with harmlessness, abandoning thinking imbued with harmfulness, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with harmlessness.”
Appropriate attention and the three roots- AN 3. 68