91 – The Three Poisons

The three poisons of hatred, greed, and ignorance, can be thought of as the root source from which all unskillful actions arise. In this podcast episode, I will discuss the Buddhist teaching of the three poisons and how we can use this teaching to develop a more skilfull relationship with the greed, hatred, and ignorance we encounter in our own lives.

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Transcript:

[00:00] Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 91. I am your host Noah Rasheta. Today, I’m talking about the three poisons.

[00:12] Keep in mind that one does not need to become a Buddhist in order to benefit from Buddhist teachings and concepts. The goal of these ideas is to help you to befriend who you already are. In a lot of classical Buddhist depictions of the wheel of Samsara, some of you may have seen this, if you know the symbol of Buddhism is a wheel with eight spokes. The spokes represent the eightfold path. And often in the middle of this depiction it’ll show three different animals, usually a pig, a rooster, and a snake. These three animals represent the three poisons.

[01:01] So, I wanted to talk about the three poisons. This is a common teaching in Buddhism, the three poisons. But, I want to unravel this a little bit and talk a little bit about the words that we use to describe this. Because poison, I don’t know about you, but usually when I think of poison, I’m thinking of something that you consume and it kills you. I think most people would probably think, “Oh, well, this isn’t … I don’t need to be concerned about a poison in my life because I’m not dying. I’m not dead. So, obviously I haven’t had the poison.” So, I think that it can make it a little bit more difficult to really identify with this teaching because most of us don’t go around thinking, “Oh, I’m being poisoned right now.”

[01:51] So, the word that’s used to describe the three poisons is actually a word that can be translated also to unskillful. We talk about this word unskillful a lot in Buddhist teachings and this seems to fit better than, to me, for poison. Because then what you’re talking about is that these three unskillful things, or these roots of unskillfulness, are the root from which all unskillful or harmful actions spring forward.

[02:27] So talking about it in this context, what we’re talking about is these three, let’s call them …. Well, instead of thinking of poison in a sense of something that kills you, think of poison of something that’s causing unnecessary discomfort or pain in your life. And if you think about it in that context, then I think this all makes a little bit more sense. So what it’s trying to get at is the understanding that greed, hatred, and ignorance … Those are commonly referred to as the three poisons. Greed, hatred, and ignorance are often the source of a lot of discomfort, and pain, and unnecessary suffering. So, let’s explore this a little bit.

[03:13] I like to think about the analogy of imagine yourself on a giant hamster wheel. And there you are, and you’re running, and running, and running, just like a hamster does. We have these three unskillful mental conditioning things going on. So, think of ignorance is essentially running on the hamster wheel and not realizing that the reality of all things. The reality is you’re on a hamster wheel and it goes nowhere. You don’t realize that. That to me is a good way to visualize ignorance.

[03:52] Then we have greed or desire. This is, again, on the hamster wheel is that you’re running towards something. What are you running towards? You think that you’re finally going to get to the thing you’re running towards. That’s greed. Then on the flip side of it, there’s the hate, which is also aversion. It’s essentially you’re running from the thing that you think that, “Man, if it ever catches up to me, then life is going to be bad.” So here we are on this hamster wheel of life running towards the things that we think are going to fix everything, running away from the things that we think are going to ruin everything, and then there’s ignorance, which is realizing you can’t ever reach what you’re trying to get after and you can’t ever get away from the thing you’re trying to get away from. That’s the ignorance part is you’re on a hamster wheel. You’re just running.

[04:47] Now, I like to think of this in terms of, what are some of the things that we run towards? It can be a prestige, fame, fortune. There are so many things that we run towards. I often joke about this with a good friend of mine, Kevin. We’ve had this inside joke for years where when something happens in life like, “Hey, I just got a new car,” or, “I just got a new job,” we always joke about this with each other and say, “Now I can finally be happy.” It’s been an inside joke for years because what we’re joking about is recognizing you don’t ever finally you can be happy. You’re always chasing after whatever the next thing is, and it’s always … It’s been our inside joke for a long time.

[05:35] So whatever that thing is that you’re like, “Oh, now life is going to be good,” if you really believe that, that’s the ignorance part again. It’s realizing, no, you’re on a hamster wheel. It doesn’t stop. And sure, you may be content for a little bit, but then you’re going to be chasing after the next thing and the next thing.

[05:52] And then again, on the flip side of that, what are the things that we run away from? A lot of them. We’re running away from feeling pain, from feeling embarrassed, from looking … being unliked. We’re running away from discomfort in the sense of like losing a job, or ending a relationship, or … There’s so many things that we run from and we think, “Man, if that thing never happens to be, then life will be good.” And some of them are the big things, like not wanting to lose a family member or a loved one. Now, I think deep down we all know that’s unavoidable and at some point we’re all going to contend with that, the loss of a family member or a loved one. But, we still seem to be running on this treadmill pretending like it’ll never happen if we can just run fast enough, hard enough.

[06:43] So again, getting back to these three things, I want to talk about them each a little bit. So, it’s understood in Buddhism that as long as our thoughts, our words, and our actions are conditioned by these three … I’m going to call them the three poisons because that’s what everyone calls them. But again, keep in mind what they are and what they mean. So when our thoughts, words, and actions are conditioned by the three poisons, they’re essentially going to generate harmful actions and reactions that are caused on ourselves and others. So, we try to combat these things with following the full path and trying to see life clearly as it really is, trying to see reality as it is.

[07:37] So let’s start with the first one, ignorance. Again, this is not … Ignorance has a negative connotation, and sometimes we think someone who’s ignorant is someone … I don’t know. We looked down on ignorance. But really, what it’s getting to here is not knowing. That’s all it is. And there’s nothing wrong with not knowing. If you don’t know that you don’t know, then you’re just going through life thinking everything’s good, right?

[08:07] So what I think is helpful for with this understanding of ignorance is, first of all, realizing we’re all ignorant. All of us. If you ever reached the point where you’re thinking, “Man, I’m glad I’m not ignorant anymore,” be careful because you don’t know the things that you don’t know. And if there are things that you don’t know that you don’t know, then you’re always ignorant, right? And we’re all caught up in that. There are certainly levels, but to think even the smartest …

[08:39] I don’t know. Let’s just take another animal, for example, a lower intelligence animal, if it’s even appropriate to word it that way. The smartest chicken, to think, “Wow, I’m smarter than all these other chickens,” but compare that thing to a higher intelligence, like a dog, or a dolphin, or a human, it’s just not comparable. But for some reason we think humans, here we are at the very top, so the smartest human now there you go. That’s the very top. But it’s not. It’s just the very top of what we know intelligence to be. But, imagine a scale that goes from a chicken to a human. Now, imagine that same scale from a human to something to intelligence at that same scale higher. Then we’re nothing again.

[09:29] So anyway, what I want to get at with that is that when we’re talking about ignorance, it’s essentially a form of blindness. It’s not being able to see things as they really are. This is specifically in the context of space and time. In the context of space and time, we are bound by where we are in space and time, and that is here and now. And if I’m here, I cannot see what it’s like to be there because I’ll never be there. Wherever I am, it’s here. And the same with time, right? I cannot know what it’s going to be like then because it’s always now.

[10:09] So, that’s what’s being implied here with ignorance is that we can only see from the unique position in space and time where we each are. And know there’s no possible way to not know, to not be able to see beyond here and now because that’s just where we are. We’re here now. We’re not there and then. We cannot be there. We make approximations, but we’re blinded in terms of space and time. So, think of it that way.

[10:43] So, there’s a sense of ignorance when it comes to seeing reality as it is because how can I see reality as it is if I’m bound in space and time to here and now? So, this ignorance manifests as a belief that things are fixed, and that things are permanent. And that if I know what it’s like here, I must know what it’s like there. And if I know what it’s like now, I know what it’s going to be like forever. That is a big complication. This is, in Buddhism, it’s like, well, this is a problem because what happens then is you start to feel this tendency. It gives rise to this belief and a permanent sense of self, the me that is separate from everything else, the me that is ongoing and permanent that will transcend, and that causes a lot of unnecessary suffering for ourselves and others. It’s also what gives rise to the next two poisons, which are hate and greed. If I perceived myself to be fixed and permanent, then it becomes of paramount importance for me to get the things that I need and to avoid the things that I don’t want, right? So, greed and hatred arise out of this.

[12:03] Let’s talk about hatred first. Again, I think it’s helpful to think of hatred in the context of aversion. These are the things that we’re running away from. Hatred or aversion arises from ignorance because we don’t see the interconnectedness of all things. Instead, we experience ourselves as being apart from something, so we’re running away from something as if that’s not a part of us. When we see ourselves as separate from everything else, then we start judging things to be either desirable and I want more of that or undesirable and I want to avoid that. That’s where the aversion comes in. It also manifests in … You know, if you’re thinking of the hamster wheel again as the analogy, if you’re running towards something, anything that gets in the way of you getting the thing that you want, that aversion arises and you become aggressive to that circumstance or the person, whatever it is that’s getting in between you and the thing that you want.

[13:10] So, how do we work with this hatred, this aversion towards the things that we don’t want? Don’t think of this in terms of eliminating hatred. It’s not that. These things arise naturally because of how we are. So rather than thinking, “I want to eradicate aversion,” think of it in terms of, “How can I change the relationship I have with the aversion I have to the things that I feel aversion towards?” To me, that can be really helpful.

[13:44] An example I always give, I know that may sound silly to some people, but I have a terrible fear of snakes. I’ve tried many things to get rid of the fear but none of it has really worked. I get this. I can grasp it intellectually that it’s unreasonable, so what I’ve worked with is changing the relationship that I have with the aversion or with the fear. On a recent family trip we were in Morocco. And if you go to Marrakesh in the main square, they have snake charmers there. They play their little flutes and all these snakes are there. It was really difficult for me to go and stand there and watch, but I was able to do it. My daughter wanted to have one of the snakes put on her neck, and she did. I took pictures and I stood right next to her. It was a really big deal for me keeping my composure.

[14:39] But, it’s not that I’ve worked to eliminate the hatred. I tried that for a long time. What I’ve worked to do is to change the relationship I have with the fear. I’ve befriended the fear in the sense of the fears there. I feel it, and it’s not going away, at least … I mean, it might on its own and I won’t know how that happened. But, so when I experience it, I recognized, “Okay, here’s this fear. It’s okay to feel this. It’s all right,” and I’m used to the feeling now. So, all of the sensations, the physical sensations are there, like the hair standing up on the back of my neck and my stomach feels like it gets into this tight little pit. And I’m okay with all these feelings. I expect them. That’s what it’s going to be like, and it will feel like this until we walk away. But meanwhile, we’re here and I’m still able to function in spite of what I’m feeling.

[15:35] So, imagine this in the sense of other things, other forms of aversion. It could be something like if you get jealous when your friends or people that you know get something that you want. That may be a natural feeling that arises that instead of thinking, “Oh, I shouldn’t feel this way,” what you’re recognizing is, “Okay, this is how I feel. It’s natural that this arises. I may not fully understand why this arises.” But rather than trying to get rid of that feeling, change the relationship you have with the feeling. “Okay, here’s that feeling again. I’m going to sit with this feeling, and I’m going to become more comfortable with it,” so changing the relationship that you have with it.

[16:20] I think it’s common for us to feel aversion or hatred towards the things that frighten us or that seem to pose a threat to us. And the antidote to hatred is a loving-kindness. So again, it’s not loving-kindness towards … I’ll use the snake as an example. Well, I don’t know if that’s a good example because I recognize that I have no ill will towards the snake itself. So, but it’s not loving-kindness towards the snake that I’m thinking. It’s loving-kindness towards my fear of the snake, if that makes any sense.

[16:57] Imagine again the example of when you feel angry that a friend got a promotion and you didn’t. Instead of thinking, “Oh, I should love this friend. I should love this friend,” that may be fake and it’s not really doing anything for you. But what you can do is say, “Loving kindness towards the feeling of aversion I’m having right now.” Play with that and see how that feels. Because what you may find is a sense of self-compassion that arises and then a sense of compassion that spreads out from you and the feeling of aversion that you have to the person that you’re feeling the aversion towards or the circumstance that you’re feeling the aversion towards and it kind of spreads out from there.

[17:35] So let’s move on to greed or desire. Now we’re on the hamster wheel. We’re running. What is it that we’re running towards? In Buddhist teachings, geed often refers to the desire or the attraction we have to something that we think is going to gratify us or make us somehow better or greater. This is the thing, again, that once we finally get it’s like, “Okay, now life is going to be good. Now I can finally be happy.” So, this greed or desire, it can take a lot of different forms. A good example of this, again, is wanting to acquire things that elevate our status. It may be wanting the certain outfit that makes me look this certain way because then it’ll make me feel liked and popular, but it could be having the right title at work so people will respect me. It could be having enough money that people will deem me as successful, and respect me, and want to be my friend. So again, it’s that thing that we’re chasing after that we think if we could just finally get this, then life is going to be good.

[18:41] The problem with it is that it often puts us at odds with other people because it’s like we’re in this competition of trying to, “I’m trying to get this, and you’re trying to get that. Let’s see who gets it first.” And it makes it seem like life is a competition when in reality it’s not. Life isn’t a race. It isn’t a test. We’re not competing against each other. We’re just here experiencing what it is to be alive and we turn it into something that it’s not when we do this.

[19:12] Having the strong sense of desire to run towards the thing that we think that we want can often put us in a position where we’re okay with manipulating and exploiting others because we’re trying to make sure that we get what we want to make ourselves feel more secure by obtaining the thing that we thought that we needed. Ultimately, this, ironically, makes us more and more isolated and it gives a stronger and stronger sensation of separation from others.

[19:42] So, the antidote to greed or desire in Buddhist teachings is generosity. The idea of generosity isn’t just, “Oh, give your stuff away.” It’s recognizing that if there’s no permanent fixed self, what is this thing that I want? I think this is evident with in family relationships, especially parents and children. When a parent gives to a child, whether it’s their time, or energy, or actual resources like the food that you worked hard to earn your money to buy, you don’t think of it as, “Oh, here’s this … ” You know, it’s this … You don’t think of it as this big deal. It’s like, “Of course I’m giving to my kids,” because we understand there’s no separation between us and them. We view our kids as part of us.

[20:44] Now, imagine extending that same sense of interconnectedness or interdependence to other people and to other living beings. In a lot of these Buddhist practices, that’s exactly what you’re trying to do, is extend it from the sense of self, realizing the illusion of self. You can see this in immediate family and friends, and then extend it out from there to acquaintances, strangers, people you don’t like and ultimately all living beings. But what’s, what’s essentially happening there, what you’re trying to accomplish is seeing reality as it is, is seeing all things as interdependent and all things as connected. When you really start to see it that way it starts to change the relationship that you have with yourself and with other people. And that is the antidote to this greed or desire.

[21:37] It’s like, well, if there’s one cake in the room and there’s four of us, and I’m just thinking, “I want that cake for me,” it would be approaching us and saying, “Hey, let’s split this. Let’s all enjoy this cake.” I don’t know if that’s the best example. That’s a very simplified example, but that … With that example, that may seem very obvious, like, “Well yeah, that’s what I would do,” but we don’t do that with a lot of things with, with time, with energy, with pursuing something at all costs. It’s like, “I have to have that, not you.”

[22:11] Now, imagine being able to be in the workplace and you’re aspiring to this position that you want, but having the ability to look around and say, “Oh, you know what? So-and-so actually might be better for that than me.” I mean, who does that, right? But imagine being able to do that, to think, “Well, the greater good for the company is so-and-so should have that position. They would be better at that than me. I should probably be doing this thing and this thing over here. I would be best at that.” What if we all thought that way?

[22:41] Now again, that would obviously have its own complications because we all think differently. And you might be thinking, “Oh, so-and-so might be best for that,” and they might be thinking, “Oh, no. So-and-so’s best for that.” So, I’m not saying that’s the solution. I’m just saying imagine being able to see things a little bit differently like that where it’s not always you, you, you, me, me, me. That’s essentially what we’re trying to combat with this sense of desire or greed.

[23:09] Now for me, it’s been helpful in my own life to joke with it. Like I said, I have this inside joke with my friend. I catch myself. I mean, part of what makes it funny is that there is a tinge of really feeling that when you get something. It’s like, “Oh, now things are going to be good,” and then I catch myself in that moment and I make a joke of it. I’m like, “How funny to think that now I can finally be happy.” But somewhere inside, that stems from an actual real feeling that was saying, “Okay, now you can relax a bit. Things are going to be good because you finally got this.” So, I like to catch it, kind of mock it a little bit and then laugh.

[23:47] Again, the point here isn’t to eradicate that feeling and say, “Okay, well I’m going to become numb and I’m not going to feel any happiness when I obtained these new things.” That’s not the point. That’s not natural. I don’t think that’s helpful for you or for anyone else. But to try to see it as it really is and say, “Okay, now that I’ve achieved this or I’ve obtained that do I have the sense of, ‘Okay, now life is finally good?'” If I catch that in me, for me, that’s an invitation to pause and reflect on that. Why do I feel this way? Why did I think that this would be the thing that changes everything?

[24:20] And even if I recognize, “Well, it does change things for a little bit because today things are a little bit easier than they were yesterday because of this or that,” that’s fine. But do I feel a sense of permanence? Do I feel that sense of clinging that’s like, “I would have done anything to make this happen”? If so, I really try to analyze that. Why did it feel that way? What am I thinking I’m after? Why am I after it? What would happen if I finally get it? Then what? I’m trying to understand myself in the context of all of this.

[24:48] So if I could wrap this up with the three poisons, what I would say is, like with all these teachings, the whole point of understanding this is having a tool to understand myself better. I want to understand what are the things that I’m chasing after? What are the things that I’m running away from? And in what way am I ignorant about how that mindset is causing me and the people that I love or people around me, unnecessary suffering? And that’s it. That’s my whole approach with this teaching of the three poisons.

[25:23] So, my invitation to you would be the same. It would be make this an introspective practice where you analyze and you understand in yourself what the things are that you’re chasing after and what the things are that you’re running away from and why. What would happen if that thing finally caught up to you? You lost your job, for example. I have a friend who’s going through a really difficult time right now. One of his big anxieties or fears that he’s encountering is this aversion towards losing his business. That’s obviously something I’ve gone through and I understand. I had all those same feelings, so I was able to say, “Well, what helped me in that time was just ask yourself, ‘Okay, so what if I do? If this thing that I’ve been running from finally does catch up to me, then what?’ And play with that a little bit.”

[26:15] Again, all from the context of just understanding yourself. Why am I so scared of this? Why am I running from this? If this thing finally catches me, then what happens? That’s been a really helpful tool for me to experiment within my head. If this thing that I fear finally catches up to me, then what? Often, you’ll find that it’s not as bad as you thought it was.

[26:40] And similarly, the thing that you’re chasing after, working with that introspectively, you’ll often find it’s probably not as good as you thought it was going to be. Yeah, you got the thing you wanted. Now what? So what? Play with that and see what happens. Again, this is all to help, not to change the feelings and say, “I don’t want to feel desire. I don’t want to feel aversion.” It’s to change the relationship you have with the things that you desire and the things that you feel aversion towards all the while minimizing the ignorance a little bit because everyday you’re understanding yourself a little bit better and the context of being interdependent and not separate or independent, and also in terms of being impermanent and constantly changing instead of thinking that it’s fixed and things are always this way.

[27:30] So, that’s all I wanted to share on this topic. Again, if you want to learn more about Buddhism, and mindfulness, and these topics from a very general standpoint, there are several good books out there. I like recommending mine. Secular Buddhism is one book. No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners is another one, which is now available on Audible. So, Secular Buddhism and No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners are both available in paperback, Audible audio book version, and also a PDF or digital, like for your Kindle. Then, there’s The 5-Minute Mindfulness Journal, which is a great way to practice some of this stuff, introspection.

[28:11] And as always, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others. Write a review. Give it a rating on iTunes. You can join our online community on secularbuddhism.com/community. And if you’d like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click the donate button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.