58 - Dogen's Bendowa Part 2: Inconceivable Dharma, Practice, and Realization
60 - Taking Refuge and Precepts: The Significance of Becoming a Buddhist – Part 1

In this episode I introduce the Buddha’s teaching of the three poisons. According to the Buddha, the root of all evil – that is, all unskillful, selfish, harmful actions of body, speech, and mind – is greed, hate, delusion, or some combination these three negative states. Taken together, these are called the “three poisons” and are our unhelpful response to things we like (greed or craving), things we don’t like (hate or aversion), and our fundamental – mistaken – belief in the inherent existence of self. First, I explain more about the nature of unskillful or evil karma from a Buddhist point of view. Then I then define more carefully each of the poisons and talk about how to end or mitigate them and thereby attain peace and liberation.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Skillful and Unskillful Karma (Actions)
The Roots of Unskillful Karma
Greed, Hate and Delusion Defined
Our Fundamental Delusion about Self
The Buddha’s View of Karma: A Complex Causal Stew
The Three Poisons and the Cosmology of Transmigration
What to Do About the Three Poisons
What If Our Society Practiced with the Three Poisons?
Sources

 

Skillful and Unskillful Karma (Actions)

I’ve discussed in past episodes how the main spiritual preoccupation of the Buddha’s time was the question of whether our actions affect our future fortunes, and if so, how (see Episode 6: Arising of Buddhism Part 2). The term for the connection between volitional actions and consequences was “karma,” and the Buddha taught that our future conditions are indeed largely determined by our actions (note – this includes actions of body, speech, and mind, so even thoughts count). He observed that certain kinds of actions tended to result in positive consequences (this was wholesome, skillful, or “kusala” karma) and certain actions tended to result in negative results (this was unwholesome, unskillful, or “akusala” karma).

In his book In the Buddha’s Words, Bhikkhu Bodhi describes these different types of karma. Wholesome karma is “action that is spiritually beneficial and morally commendable; it is action that ripens in happiness and good fortune.” The Buddha further taught there were two kinds of kusala karma: Mundane wholesome karma that leads to good results in this life and perhaps the next (good rebirth), and world-transcending karma that leads to enlightenment and liberation from the round of rebirths. Unwholesome karma, according to Bhikkhu Bodhi, is “action that is spiritually detrimental to the agent, morally reprehensible, and potentially productive of unfortunate rebirth and painful results.”[i] (Note: It’s not necessary to believe in transmigration, or literal rebirth, in order to get something from Buddhist teachings on karma or the three poisons; read my comments about this issue in Episode 28.)

The Roots of Unskillful Karma

According to the Buddha, skillful or wholesome karma can also be distinguished from unskillful (unwholesome) karma by its roots. In other words, you don’t have to perform an action and then wait to see its results before you know whether it was skillful or not; you can reflect on the underlying cause or motivation for the action. You know the action’s unskillful – even if you don’t see immediate negative consequences – if the root of the action is one of the “triviṣa,” or three poisons – greed (or craving), hatred (or aversion), or delusion (or ignorance).

In the Pali Canon Sammaditthi Sutta, or Sutta on Right View, the Buddha’s disciple Sariputta explains how being able to discern skillful from unskillful actions, and recognizing the three poisons, are essential to right view. Right view, or right understanding, is in turn a critical part of the Buddhist Eightfold Noble Path, as I describe in Episode 36. Sariputta says:

“When a disciple of the noble ones discerns what is unskillful, discerns the root of what is unskillful, discerns what is skillful, and discerns the root of what is skillful, it is to that extent that he is a person of right view, one whose view is made straight, who is endowed with verified confidence in the Dhamma, and who has arrived at this true Dhamma.

Now what is unskillful? Taking life is unskillful, taking what is not given… sexual misconduct… lying… abusive speech… divisive tale-bearing… idle chatter is unskillful. Covetousness… ill will… wrong views are unskillful. These things are termed unskillful.

And what are the roots of what is unskillful? Greed is a root of what is unskillful, aversion is a root of what is unskillful, delusion is a root of what is unskillful. These are termed the roots of what is unskillful.”[ii]

Greed, Hate and Delusion Defined

Greed, or lobha, can also be translated as craving, sensuality, or desire. Basically, we encounter something we like. Perhaps we become attached to it and can’t imagine ourselves without it. Driven by this motivation, we seek more of what we want, hold on to it, or protect it.

Hate, doṣa or dveṣa, can also be translated as aversion, ill-will, or hostility. This arises when we encounter something we don’t like, or which causes us discomfort or fear – we want to move away, or get rid of the offending stimulus. According to Buswell and Lopez in the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, emotions considered “derivative” of aversion include anger, enmity, agitation, envy, and harmfulness.

Delusion, moha, is a state of belief in something false, and can also be translated as confusion, foolishness, or benightedness (in a state of pitiful or contemptible intellectual or moral ignorance, typically owing to a lack of opportunity[iii]). Moha is also more or less synonymous with ignorance (avidya).

The Buddhist poison of delusion is a little more complicated than greed or hate. Ignorance in general isn’t helpful to skillful action, but in Buddhism, delusion usually refers to a very particular false belief. For example, in the next section of the Right View Sutta I quoted from earlier, Sariputta goes on to describe a disciple of the Buddha who has discerned what’s unskillful, abandoned what’s unskillful, and thereby put an end to suffering and stress and become a person of right view. Sariputta says such a person has:

“entirely abandoned passion-obsession… abolished aversion-obsession… [and] uprooted the view-&-conceit obsession ‘I am…’” [iv]

Our Fundamental Delusion about Self

In this sutta passage, passion-obsession is craving or greed, aversion-obsession is hate, and delusion is very specifically the “view-and-conceit-obsession ‘I am.’” In the Buddhist view, this is the fundamental delusion on which almost all other delusions and unskillful karma depend. The “view-and-conceit-obsession ‘I am.’ means clinging to idea of an inherently-existing, independent, enduring self-nature. Another way this is described in original Buddhism is “I-making and my-making” – making extra mental assumptions and connections that are unnecessary, unfounded, and which lead to suffering.

I discuss the Buddha’s teaching of not-self, or anatta, at length in Episode 14, so here I’ll just summarize: Anything we identify as self or belonging to self we become obsessed with. If we lose it, or it changes beyond recognition, or it ends, we see ourselves as having perished at least in some way![v] The Buddha didn’t actually say there was no self, just that letting go of thinking “this is me, this is mine,” avoided a whole lot of trouble. He wanted us to avoid getting obsessed with self altogether (even if we’re thinking it doesn’t exist, or it’s formless, or eternal, or the same as the universe, etc.).

Delusion or ignorance in Buddhism can certainly also mean not understanding other critical aspects of the Eightfold Noble Path – such as what leads to suffering and what doesn’t, and the path of practice that can lead to greater wisdom and ultimately to liberation. In addition, a delusion like racism can certainly be the root of unskillful action, so the term isn’t limited to our fundamental delusion about the nature of self. However, you could argue that our fundamental delusion – and our associated obsessive self-interest and fear of loss or threat – underlies or is an essential aspect of all other harmful delusions.

The Buddha’s View of Karma: A Complex Causal Stew

You might think that, because the Buddha taught that greed, hate, and delusion are the root of all unskillful action, he had a view of human beings as fundamentally weak or tainted – as if greed, hate, and delusion were the Buddhist version of original sin. However, the Buddhist view of moral causation is amazingly free of blame. You might think of the Buddha’s observations about karma as being objective or even scientific, in a sense: Through his remarkable powers of discernment and vision, he saw how one thing leads to another, and then described a vast, universal process of causation that has no beginning, and therefore no place to lay the blame.

I like how Buswell and Lopez put this in the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism: “When sensory contact with objects is made ‘without proper comprehension’ or ‘without introspection,’ craving (lobha), aversion (dvesa) and delusion (moha) arise.”[vi] “Without proper comprehension” means without understanding the true nature of self (or, to put it in the terms of original Buddhism, the skillfulness of refraining from I-making and my-making). When we’re like this, or when we’ve forgotten what we’ve previously comprehended, craving, aversion, and more delusion are the natural result – they just happen, like a chemical reaction.

The Buddha’s full teaching on karma describes twelve “ingredients” that need to be present for the whole cycle of unskillful karma to be perpetuated. This is usually called the 12-fold “chain” of dependent origination,[vii] but I personally find it difficult to appreciate this teaching if I struggle to see why the Buddha presented the “chain” in the order he did (as one element being the direct cause of the next in the list)… I find it more useful to think of dependent origination as being the Buddha’s description of a sort of “causal stew;” if every ingredient is present, you keep cooking up unskillful karma. (So here I’ll play with the traditional order of the 12-fold chain a little bit.)

To very roughly and briefly summarize, the twelve ingredients are:

  • Name-and-Form (a body)
  • Six Sense Media (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind)
  • Contact (between the six sense media and a stimulus)
  • Consciousness (ability to register and comprehend a stimulus)
  • Feeling (very simply and specifically: like, dislike, or indifference)
  • Ignorance or Delusion (that is, the fundamental kind, about self)
  • Craving (or aversion, which is basically craving for something to go away)
  • Fabrications (mental and emotional, based on fundamental ignorance or delusion)
  • Clinging (acting on craving or aversion)
  • Becoming (further development and growth of the whole situation – think of the stew simmering)
  • Birth (the creation of something new – a new cause, desire, idea, delusion, situation, object of possession or identification, etc.)
  • Aging and Death (whatever comes into being eventually disintegrates and ends, causing sorrow and lamentation)

The Three Poisons and the Cosmology of Transmigration

I just gave you metaphorical interpretations of birth, aging, and death in the 12-fold chain of dependent origination, but the conspicuous presence of these terms refers to cosmological worldview of Buddha’s time. Fortunately, it’s not necessary to believe in literal transmigration or rebirth in order to benefit from this teaching, but it is helpful to consider it in the context of that cosmological view. (I tend to think of imagery like transmigration as being profoundly metaphorical – that is, “just” a metaphor in one sense, but as conveying a vivid truth in another sense, like myth.)

The early Buddhists saw the world of existence as being very complex: There were fortunate realms of rebirth that included great peace and pleasure, but there were also very difficult and painful realms (a total of six realms in all, as I discuss in Episodes 29-31). The believed that no matter how good your circumstances were in this life, the results of your good karma would eventually run out, and at some point, after one of your deaths, you’d find yourself in one of the unfortunate realms. Once there, you could build up your good karma again, but eventually – over the course of countless lifetimes – you’d cycle through the process of gain and loss more times than you could count. Despite the possibility of having some good times along the way, many ancient Indians saw this endless cycle as discouraging, and had a sense of being trapped in it. The Buddha’s 12-fold chain of dependent origination explains how we get stuck in the process and end up being reborn – literally – again and again.

As long as we’re on the topic, traditional images of the six realms of existence show the 12-fold chain of dependent origination around the outside edge. This image as a whole is often called the “wheel of life” or the “wheel of samsara” (samsara being the world of suffering and transmigration) because there’s a sense that beings cycle around and around on it. At the very center of the image is the three poisons: Greed represented by a rooster, hate by a snake, and delusion by a pig. Even the three poisons go round and round, as each animal is shown biting the tail of the next.

The message is clear: at the root, or center, of the whole cycle of suffering is the three poisons. This makes sense even if you only consider the realms of existence to be various states we experience of the course of a single lifetime, or even over the course of a day.

What to Do About the Three Poisons

The process of karma portrayed by the wheel of samsara is seen as having powerful momentum, but there is a way to end the generation of suffering. If there wasn’t, the Buddha wouldn’t have bothered to teach. In fact, just about everything the Buddha taught had to do with learning to discern unskillful karma, abandon it, and thereby attain peace and liberation from suffering.

How, specifically, does addressing greed, hate, and delusion figure into Buddhist practice? To answer that, I refer you back to the 12-fold chain of dependent origination. Essentially, all we have to do is remove one ingredient from that causal soup, or one link in that chain, and the whole process of the production of suffering comes to a grinding halt.

There are two critical weak links in the chain where we have an opportunity to break it, and those two links are essentially the three poisons. (Ignorance is one link, while craving and aversion share another link, being essentially two sides of the same karmic coin.)

The first place we can break the chain of dependent origination is at the link between feeling (that is, like or dislike) and craving/aversion. Through our practice of meditation and mindfulness, we turn the light of attention inward and notice this aspect of the karmic process. We watch ourselves experience pleasure followed by a desire for more. Almost as if the feeling is a command from on-high, it dictates our direction – sometimes regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. A feeling develops into a craving, which feels even more compelling, and before we know it, we’re acting on it.

Over time, mindful observation of our internal experience and processes makes it seem as if time has slowed down. Instead of it seeming as if the chain reaction of feeling-craving-clinging happens almost instantly, we find ourselves able to watch the process unfold in detail – and eventually, if we choose to, we can experiment with other possibilities. In the case of craving, we can notice a feeling, and instead of attributing some kind of inherent truth to it, or seeing it as a self-centered emergency, we can sit still and see if it passes. It usually does. This doesn’t mean we never move toward something we like, or away from something we don’t like, but once we know we’re not compelled to do so, the feeling doesn’t develop into a craving. Similarly, we can even experience a craving, if it’s gotten that far, without necessarily engaging in clinging. We can decide what’s best to do in any given situation instead of being driven to satisfy our desires even when it causes harm to self and other.

The second link we can break in the karmic process is fundamental ignorance. Through meditation, mindfulness, and study, we challenge our delusions about self. When we begin practice, we may not even believe we’re deluded in this regard! We just follow the advice of others who seem a little happier and wiser than we are, and experiment with what happens when we manage to refrain from I-making and my making. Time and time again the Buddha explained how be free: Just don’t assume anything to be the self – not the body, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness, anything!

Of course, this is easier said than done, but one of the fruits of practice is a gradual (or sometimes sudden) softening or falling away of your small, petty, constrained sense of self. You begin to feel centered and calm in the midst of the unfolding process of your life, without having to grasp at things, internal or external, to make you feel real or substantial. You feel less compelled to guard boundaries or possessions out of self-preservation, and consequently feel less separate from other beings. No longer so obsessed with “I am” and all that entails, you’re more at peace and experience more freedom of choice. You’re much less likely to get sucked into acting out craving and aversion, thereby perpetuating negative karma.

What If Our Society Practiced with the Three Poisons?

I’ll leave you with a thought: the Buddha’s teachings on karma and the three poisons are useful for individuals, but they could also be powerful tools for improving our societies.

What if societies recognized and accepted that, just like individual human beings, they’ll end up being driven by craving, aversion, and delusion unless they pay close attention and take appropriate measures? What if they saw it as their responsibility to anticipate the arising of the three poisons, and quickly recognize them when they do? Instead of clinging to the delusion that our societies will naturally end up benevolent and sustainable, how about admitting greed, hate, and delusion are like diseases that will take hold and spread unless we are proactive and remain constantly diligent?

It’s not a matter of blame, as if only willfully mean and consciously vicious people are susceptible to the three poisons. Greed, hate, and delusion are simply what happens unless we consciously practice – and they often arise even when we do. What would practice look like for our societies?


Sources

Bodhi, Bhikkhu. In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005.

Buswell, Robert E. Jr., and Donald S. Lopez Jr. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014.

 

Endnotes

[i] Bhikku Bodhi pg 146
[ii]“Sammaditthi Sutta: Right View” (MN 9), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.009.than.html.
[iii] Google Search dictionary
[iv] “Sammaditthi Sutta: Right View,” Ibid
[v] “Maha-nidana Sutta: The Great Causes Discourse” (DN 15), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.15.0.than.html.
[vi] Buswell and Lopez (lobha)
[vii] “Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of Dependent Co-arising” (SN 12.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.002.than.html.

 

58 - Dogen's Bendowa Part 2: Inconceivable Dharma, Practice, and Realization
60 - Taking Refuge and Precepts: The Significance of Becoming a Buddhist – Part 1
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