Breaking the vicious cycle of three poisons

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Greed, hatred, and delusion of every kind are unwholesome. Whatever action a greedy, hating, and deluded person heaps up—by deeds, words, or thoughts—that too is unwholesome.” (Anguttara Nikaya 3:69) These words summarily express what the Buddha regarded as unwholesome actions, or misconducts, for us humans. Known together as kilesa, or “three poisons”, greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha) are the root causes of human misery and suffering: “Bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, and mental misconduct. These three qualities lead to one’s own affliction, the affliction of others, and the affliction of both.” (Anguttara Nikaya, 3:17)

Why does the Buddha talk about greed, hatred, and delusion as three poisons, as unwholesome actions? As is represented by his concept of paticca-samuppada, or “dependent origination”, the idea about three poisons, too, is derived from, and reflect, a systems view of the world held by the Buddha. First of all, the Buddha conceives of us humans as a system consisting of three types of actions—bodily, verbal, and mental actions, which are expressed in the first quote above as “deeds, words, and thoughts”. Through these three types of actions, we humans interact with the world around us, which consists of the natural, the social, and the spiritual environment. To be more specific, we humans interact with the natural environment through our “deeds” in satisfying our material needs such as food, clothing, and shelter, with the social environment through our “words” with which we communicate with our fellow human beings, and with the spiritual environment through our “thoughts” with which we formulate our concepts and ideas about the world around us. Three poisons of “greed, hatred, and delusion” are thus the unwholesome manifestations of our “deeds, words, and thoughts” in our interaction with the natural, the social, and the spiritual environment.

While our deeds, words, and thoughts tend to lead to greed, hatred, and delusion, we cannot totally suppress them, for our existence in the conventional world is defined by our bodily, verbal, and mental actions. Whether a certain action is regarded unwholesome or wholesome is, in a way, a matter of degree, for our actions range from foolish ones to wise ones. Thus, the Buddha talks about what kinds of actions define a fool, and what kinds a wise person: “Bhikkhus, one who possesses three qualities should be known as a fool. What three? Unwholesome bodily action, unwholesome verbal action, and unwholesome mental action. … one who possesses three qualities should be known as a wise person. What three? Wholesome bodily action, wholesome verbal action, and wholesome mental action.” (Anguttara Nikaya 3:2)

Our bodily actions, or deeds, in our interaction with the natural environment become unwholesome when greed takes over as the motivation behind our deeds, for greed would lead us to exploit natural resources beyond what is needed for sustainable living. Our verbal actions, or words, in our interaction with the social environment become unwholesome when hatred enters in the choice of our words, for hateful words would not only hurt the feelings of those to whom they are addressed but would also destroy the communal foundation of our societies. Our mental actions, or thoughts, in our interaction with the spiritual environment become unwholesome when delusion guides the formation of our thoughts, for delusional thoughts cloud our vision of the world around us and prevent us from seeing reality as it truly is.

Reflecting, as they do, the Buddha’s systemic view of the world, three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion are systemically connected with one another. Delusion, for example, in the form of a thought clouded by envy towards those who are materially better off than we are leads us to hatred in expressing that thought about them in derogatory words, and to greed in transforming that thought into a desire to employ whatever means necessary to acquire wealth for ourselves. Conversely, greed about material wealth breeds envy towards those who are materially better off than we are, which is transformed into hatred towards them, and into delusion about the way they have acquitted their wealth. Once we are trapped in the vicious cycle of greed, hatred, and delusion, it is very difficult for us to escape from it that causes affliction for ourselves and for others. But escape we must if we are to find happiness for ourselves and for others.

How, then, can we escape from the vicious cycle of greed, hatred, and delusion? Since they are connected to one another through paticca-samuppada, or dependent origination, eliminating one poison will lead us to the elimination of the other two in a chain of causality. As we are an animal species endowed with the capacity to think, a good starting point would be to try to eliminate delusion. Consider, for example, the idea that progress is possible for us humans in the sense of increasing material standards of living. This idea was once considered a sound idea, even an enlightened one by influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. However, that same idea has now been shown to be a delusion in view of our increasing awareness about the finite carrying capacity of the natural environment. Eliminating that delusion is the first step we must take if we are to call forth concerted actions among individuals and nations to eliminate hatred and greed towards building a sustainable world with more equitable distribution of wealth.