The Three Poisons

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the causes of bad behavior. Given the way that things are now, how can anyone¬†not think about the causes of bad behavior?

In the Western tradition, this kind of thinking can go two ways: talking about psychology, or generalizing about evil. But Buddhists look at bad behavior from a different angle.

Why do people act in ways that increase their own suffering and/or cause suffering in others? The Buddhist answer is that people are affected by the Three Poisons: the three roots of unhealthy behavior. These three are translated into English in various ways, but I’m going to use craving, aversion, and ignoring.

Craving and aversion are familiar moral “evils”, even in Western thought. Craving is wanting something in an unwholesome way; it lines up with the Christian deadly sins of Greed, Lust and Gluttony. (I’ve talked about the deadly sins before.) Craving is the urge to fulfill our desires even when we should realize it’s going to be bad for us or someone else.

Aversion is the flip side, corresponding to deadly sins like Wrath and Envy. We hate or fear something so much that we go to extremes to reject it: fight or flight.

The third poison is the one I’ve been thinking about the most: ignoring. We cause suffering to ourselves and others because we ignore things.

We ignore our own feelings and the feelings of others. We ignore the probable consequences of our actions. We ignore the real consequences of our actions. We ignore how other people have different experiences and viewpoints than we do, so their reactions to our behavior will differ too.

Although I’ve translated the name of the third poison as “ignoring”, another common translation is “delusion”. If we’re ignoring significant aspects of the world, we aren’t seeing things as they are; we’re deluded. And if we’re deluded, it’s no wonder we make bad choices. How can we get things right when we’re seeing things wrong?

This leads to one of the major reasons for meditation: to pay attention to what’s actually going through your head. If you learn to pay attention to your mind and body, you start to notice when you’re ignoring things: when you’re in denial about something, or skipping over inconvenient truths. The more you notice that you’re ignoring things, the less you’ll let yourself do it, and the less you’ll poison yourself and others.

On that note, I’ll step off my soapbox…but sometime soon, maybe I’ll talk a bit more about meditation.