The Three Poisons

Life is suffering. It is the first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. And the second is that the cause of this suffering is the ego that craves, desires, and attaches. The third is there is the way to eliminate the ego, which leads us to the fourth.

The fourth is the introduction of the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration, which should be in the Middle Way.

If the cause of the suffering of our life is the ego, to be insightful, then what could be the attributes of our ego on earth? While we generally mention the ego that craves, desires, and attaches, Buddha categorized them as the Three Poisons:

  • Confusion (Moha in Pali and Sanskrit)
  • Greed (Lobha in Pali; Rāga in Sanskrit)
  • Anger (Dosa in Pali; Dveṣa in Sanskrit)

In this world, we are in the midst of confusion and ignorance. Even we don’t know the fact that we don’t know. We think we see a lot. And by this attitude, we are so judgmental and arrogant. With such ignorance, everyone thinks he or she knows better, as the result, we blame one another endlessly, even by shouting at one another.

Once we realize the danger of this first poison, we could restore the genuine humbleness and humility, which is indispensable for us to truly work together to address all the problems in our lives.

As Socrates said, realizing the fact that we know nothing more except our ignorance could be one of the humble starts. We could mitigate this first poison. This Bible verse is also well-known.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.

Proverbs 9:10

The second poison is our greed. We are so greedy, which is endless, even exponential. Our bloody history shows a series of evidence. We killed, slaved, invaded, colonized, exploited, and manipulated others for our endless, ever increasing desires.

Do we destroy and eat the part of our body when we are hungry? Of course, we don’t. But the truth is that we do it on a larger scale. We destroy others and environments without knowing these are also part of ourselves. Our greed is such self-destructive.

And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.

Luke 12:15

And the third poison is anger. Let us look at our face! When there is full of rage, there is also suffering. Some would say the so-called wrath of justice. And yet, we are not wise enough to see the difference.

Most of the cases, we are angry because we are in our confusion and greediness. For justice, we don’t have to be angry. We don’t have to be judgmental, either. We must assert what is supposed to be right respecting others.

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.

James 1:19-20

Buddhism uses three animals to describe the Three Poisons:

  • Confusion as a pig
  • Greed as a bird
  • Anger as a snake

Interestingly the symbol of the first poison reminds me of this verse. A swine means a pig, which does not understand the value of the pearl (wisdom) but tramples it.

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

Matthew 7:6

A snake also reminds me of a serpent in the Bible, which deceived Eve in the Garden of Eden to eat the fruit of knowledge, which entailed the suffering of our life. And a serpent biting His heel is indeed the symbol of His death on the Cross.

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

Genesis 3:1

And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

Genesis 3:14-15

We are confused because we don’t know what is right and wrong, even we don’t notice we are confused. We are so greedy to save our lives only by destroying our neighbors and environments, which are part of ourselves. We are angry because we are confused and greedy. People are seriously divided and hate one another.

The Three Poisons control us, which is so sad. Let us seek the opposites of the Three Poisons:

  • Not Confusion but Wisdom
  • Not Greed but Generosity
  • Not Anger but Loving-kindness

Image by Arek Socha (top)

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