Three poisons

Greed, hatred and delusion are referred to in the Buddhist tradition as the three poisons. Translations are never an exact science so to tone down the language a bit we may think of them as desire, aversion and ignorance.

In many ways, these lie at the heart of so many of the problems we can create for ourselves. We spend much of our lives trying to skilfully navigate a path that steers us towards the things our hearts desire whilst avoiding anything unpleasant. For most of us this happens routinely and affects the decisions we make each day. In some cases, we can see individuals where desire or aversion has taken such a strong hold they’re prepared to go to extreme lengths to get what they want or avoid what they don’t want. In the end this can create a lot of problems for us can’t it?

But what of the third poison, what of ignorance? What part might that play?

Well, in many ways this poison lies at the root of the other two. In this case ignorance is really ignorance of the way it is. It’s the belief that there is a separate self or ‘me’, rather than one complete whole. As long as this delusion remains in place then it affects much of our actions. It affects our outlook, the way we see the world. It creates fear around the desire to protect and hold onto ‘my things’, ‘my health’, ‘my body’. We believe in the personality as a thing, in fact some of us are quite proud of our personalities aren’t we? Even when we do something we feel to be wrong we can justify it by saying, ‘Well, that’s just me. That’s just the way I am.’

So when we see life in this way, it becomes a struggle doesn’t it? We seek to add to our lot, to make sure we have enough. We’re always on the look out for trouble or anything that can take what we’ve worked for or gained away from us; guarding all our things like treasure.

When we hear words like, ‘It is the nature of all things to change’, we might agree with the broad idea but we don’t relate it back to how we act or behave. If we did we’d see that all the things we have, even this form will pass away or become separated from us in time. So why cling on so tightly? The tighter we hang on, the more it hurts when we have to let go. But this is the nature of life isn’t it?

As long as we feel there’s a separate self, as long as there’s a belief in a ‘me’ to whom life is happening, then that’s really just one more possession, perhaps our most precious possession. And it brings with it a great deal of suffering. Because life won’t give us everything we want. And it will in time take from us everything we hold dear. That’s just the way it is.

But if we see this, if we look around and notice this is what’s happening, then there’s less of a tendency to hang on. When we receive something, we don’t add it to our heart, we appreciate it in the knowledge that this is just the way it is for now. Whether it’s an object or a job or our appearance or even our youth or health, we can appreciate these things but we don’t hold on too tightly. Because one day they’re going to go.

The other side of this is that when we see this it can stop us wanting too much. When we see there’s no real separate self, it means there’s nothing to add, nothing to take away. It’s all one thing, just moving, just arising in this way. And there’s no need to cling or attach or avoid because in this life as it arises everything has its own cause. If it wasn’t caused to be this way, then it wouldn’t be this way. Whatever has arisen, however we feel about it, it’s arisen because of this simple fact hasn’t it? It’s been caused to be this way. It is this way.

And our actions are causes too aren’t they? However we act we will receive that result, and no other result. That doesn’t mean that we act to gain a reward, because this is just one more desire. But if we act skilfully and see the nature of things then we bring a lot of ease into our lives just by this simple means. It won’t necessarily affect or control other things or people around us but perhaps we will see that over time it can have an effect on others.

When we act in a way that recognises there’s no separate self, we naturally act more equanimously towards others, because they’re not seen as separate either. When we see all is one this is called love isn’t it? The more our heart recognises all is one, the more it opens, the more it feels at peace and at one with everything around us. So when we cure the poison of ignorance or delusion in the separate self, we find the cure to the other poisons as well. And we can find peace.

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