From the Buddhist perspective, people are not inherently good or evil. Buddhists don’t believe in good and evil as being natural forces out in the universe but as inner states of mind.
Buddhism teaches us to search inward to find the source of all the good things we say, feel, and do. You will discover that it is we ourselves—our own minds—that are the origins of evil-doing.
According to Buddhist teachings, the sources of what we typically think of as evil are greed, hatred, and delusion. These unwholesome traits are referred to as “the three poisons,” or “the three fires.” The Pali word for the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion is called kleshas.
Instead of bringing peace, the poisons of the heart only bring pain and suffering. We are slaves to our own basic self-centeredness, the poisons, and the suffering they bring. This doesn’t make you a bad person. The poisons are a way to preserve, protect, and appease this false sense of self.
The metaphor as poisons refers to how unhealthy and troublesome thoughts and emotions can be if they’re not understood, addressed, and corrected. External things like money, fame, and power can’t bring everlasting happiness or fulfillment. Chasing after these material things will only set you up to experience unnecessary suffering. These types of things are nice to have for a while, but the peace and fulfillment you’re seeking will not be found in material things.
Greed is a burning desire, an insatiable hunger, yearning, and longing to get more of what we want, whenever the opportunity arises, no matter the harm that is done to other people. Greed creates in us a ravenous desire to strive toward unattainable goals. It produces the false impression that if we could just have the things we want—money, romance, power—our suffering would end, and we would find the happiness we’ve been yearning for. If one of these goals is met, we lack any type of long-lasting satisfaction. In the face of failure, greed again arises, desires increase, and we again start looking for external sources to bring us happiness.
When you are influenced by greed, you will never be content. You always want more, bigger, and better to fill that inner craving.
Greed isn’t necessarily only concerned with material things either. People want to try to change others to obtain the things they desire, such as attention or affection. We falsely believe if this other person could change, we would be at peace and find happiness. Greed is a vicious cycle that will only bring you suffering and unhappiness.
An effective way to combat greed is to try to understand it. The first step is recognizing our desire and asking ourselves “Why?” Why is your desire so strong for this thing or person? Why is the need to achieve it so important to you? Feelings of desire are natural, but the problem arises when we become dominated and blinded by them. This can be especially harmful when you don’t understand the intent or cause of why you feel how you feel.
Greed can present itself in destructive and compulsive traits. Following your desires will affect your personal life, leading you to harmful behavior and mental confusion.
Hatred may present itself as anger, hostility, dislike, aversion, or ill-wish. When influenced by hatred, you will harm anyone or anything that gets in the way of obtaining what you want. Anyone who poses—or may potentially pose—any type of threat to you will be eliminated in any way.
Buddhism teaches hatred is a poison because of its power to consume your time and energy rapidly. With aversion, we are constantly resisting, denying, and avoiding any type of feelings, situations, or people we don’t like. You will plunge into the repetitive behaviors of constantly finding conflict in any situation and enemies everywhere you go. A mind consumed with hatred is never calm, always neurotic, and occupied with plotting your next revenge.
Hatred will cause you to deny, resist, and push away your own inner fears, pain, and loneliness, treating them as your internal enemy.
Feelings of hatred are natural, and from the Buddhist perspective, not a moral issue. The concern is not whether it is right or wrong. But clinging to hatred will only create unnecessary suffering for you and those around you. It’s important to understand the feeling and why we feel it.
What other emotions may be involved with your hatred? Are feelings of depression, loneliness, or shame in some way producing the emotion of hatred to arise? Rather than avoiding the agonizing truth, Buddhism teaches us to embrace any feelings we experience, even hatred. Your goal should be to understand the causes and conditions that permit feelings of hatred from emerging. In order to gain this understanding, turn inward rather than act on destructive impulses.
Delusion is a byproduct of ignorance—ignorance of our true nature. It is the inability to understand the nature of reality. Delusion is the misperception of reality to be as it actually is or the way things actually are. You are not in harmony with yourself, others, or your life.
Delusion causes the misunderstanding of the interdependent and inter-permanent nature of life. You’re constantly looking for external sources for happiness, satisfaction, and the answers to all your problems. The delusion of a permanent self-independent from the rest of the world can be dangerous. The false perception will only fuel your suffering.
Delusion is a poison because it prevents you from seeing things as they truly are, which is necessary to reach enlightenment. To combat delusion, it’s important to recognize the nature of both reality and self.
The three poisons have been referred to as “torments of the heart” because that’s exactly what they cause: torment. They cause you inner and outer harm producing disconnection and separation.
Do not take these poisons personally or identify with them. They are not fundamental traits. Only aspects of nature demanding to be seen and removed. Looking at the poisons this way can encourage you to react to painful emotions with kindness, compassion, and wisdom—things we must practice.
You don’t have to be a slave to your self-centeredness, the poisons, and the suffering they create. Would you like to cleanse your mind of ego and these three poisons?
Here are some ideas to get your detox started.
Antidotes to the Three Poisons:
Mindfulness calms the “torments of the heart.” The first step is recognizing the poisons that are present and affecting your life. You need to become aware of how they feel, to situations in life they present themselves, and how they are affecting our relationships and decisions. This will make you conscious of the poisons in your life, and only then can something be worked on, shifted, or changed.
The second step is to recognize your poisons as they are and to fully experience them. Avoiding pain is a form of ignorance. You need to experience these feelings just as they are, without criticizing yourself or attaching to the idea that the feeling is wrong or should be otherwise. In the third step, you recognize the true nature of these feelings and the assumptions you have about them. Will these feelings bring you peace? Do these feelings define who you are? Can they be changed? Investigating these feelings deeply will condition your mind, recognizing they are not permanent and do not define you and will bring you everlasting happiness and peace.
2. Heart Practices
Practicing love, generosity, kindness, and meditation can be great remedies for the three poisons of the heart. In the Buddhist tradition, the practice of tonglen can free you from the fear of never having enough. Tonglen also means “taking and sending.” The practice reverses your normal thought process of avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. While tonglen is typically practiced to relieve the pain of someone you care about, it can be used when you’re feeling stuck too. With each breath in, we take in others’ pain (or our own), and with each breath out you send relief.
Sharing internal or external resources with others helps you to realize you have enough and you are enough. Simple acts of generosity help you recognize you have more than you need and the abundance of beauty you have available to you at every moment. Heart practices such as generosity and loving-kindness can free you from the selfishness of greed and stubborn hatred.
3. Letting Go
The real cause of the suffering the poisons is the human nature to grasp and hold tightly to everything familiar. It’s what you think you need. Whether the feelings are good or bad, you will cling to what feels most normal to you.
Your greed, hatred, and delusional ignorance don’t have to define you. Let go of the things and people causing you these types of feelings. Nothing is permanent. Let go of what isn’t bringing you peace. Attachment, aversion, and ignorance are all the same—you think you need them as defense mechanisms, perhaps, but you don’t. Of the things you are holding so tightly, which are you afraid to let go of?
The power of letting go is remarkable. It is the most freeing part of ridding your mind of these poisonous traits. You will never find peace or happiness until you can truly let go of the trauma in your past. This doesn’t mean you forget. It only means you forgive yourself, let the emotions slowly pass, and are ready to move on to a happier life.