The 3 Poisons: Greed, Hatred, and Confusion
Tanya Rampersad, ND
Buddhism has a long tradition (approximately 2500 years) of rigorousness of study and dedication of generations of practitioners studying the mind.
Abhidhamma is the Buddhist science of the mind1 – a way of seeing and understanding the self, suffering, and the causes and elimination of suffering. As practitioners, we are also concerned with suffering – its causes and its alleviation. In Buddhism, the 3 poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion are considered to be unskillful and the root cause of all unnecessary human suffering.2,3 Likewise, we see in our offices how poorly-informed decisions and unwholesome mental habits affect people’s mental and physical well-being. We can read about greed, hatred, and delusion from many sources, but from my own teachers (Achariya Doug Duncan and Cecilie Kwiat) I learned to recognize them in myself and others. The purpose of this article is to cover these 3 root poisons (greed, hatred, and delusion) as “personalities,” or types, and discuss remediation. Because Buddhism has its own specific language, I will start with some basic Buddhist terminology.
- Mind – Also known as consciousness, the mind is the factor that knows, perceives, experiences. According to Buddhist philosophy, the true nature of the mind is clear and pristine, pure experience.1
- Object – Anything that is perceived by the mind. An object can be something tangible, like a sight, sound, touch, taste, or any other physical experience, or it can be mental. Mental objects can be things like ideas, imaginings, feelings, memories, and other thoughts.4
- Greed – Attachment of the mind onto an object of desire, which turns into clinging. It is a state of wanting and believing that lasting happiness will be obtained by acquiring the object of desire.
- Hatred /aversion – Wanting to be removed or separated from the object. There is resistance to the object, and this resistance takes the form of the desire to destroy the object (anger) or run from it (fear). Hatred ranges from slight aversion to destructive rage.4
- Delusion/ignorance – False beliefs and wrong views. A persistent and insidious false view is the belief in a lasting, separate, unchanging self … the concept of “I,” “me” or “mine” being separate and independent from others. Although this view abounds, it is considered false and unskillful.
The Greed Type
This is the person or state of mind that wants things. They say yes to things because they imagine how well it will fulfill their desires. They tend to exaggerate the benefits of obtaining their object of desire. Greed personalities want to enjoy themselves. If they are enjoying themselves, they will consider how to make their experience even better. Clearly, they will be inclined towards excesses. The greed-dominated mind tends to glaze over details, thinking only of the benefits of securing the object, and neglecting the potential pitfalls, obstacles, and negative consequences. They can do very well in business because they imagine all the benefits of their plans and courses of action, and so they proceed, expecting good results.
There are endless things to want, so it is easy to move from desire to desire with temporary satisfactions and disappointments in between. This condition is not easily remedied, because there is an enjoyment – albeit temporary – in obtaining the object of desire. In its more obvious and developed forms, however, greed will incite distrust, discomfort, and possibly disgust from others, which clarifies the point that the state is not wholesome. If a greed type is thwarted from obtaining the object of their desire, anger can quickly ensue.
The Hate Type
Hatred, or aversion, is the flip side of greed; while the greed type attempts to pull things in, the hate type is always trying to keep things out. The person whose first response is “No” to any request or suggestion, is a hate type. Hate types are averse to change, to being disturbed, and they expect the worst. The focus, when this poison dominates, tends to be narrow and precise. People tend to know exactly what it is that disturbs them or what they hate, and can focus in with intense concentration. Because they foresee and expect negative outcomes, hate types tend towards pessimism and cynicism.
They are realists, however, because things in fact tend to not go the way they are planned; every silver lining has its cloud, and there are negative consequences to almost every action. In group-planning situations, a hate type will quickly point out all the problems, all the potential difficulties, and all the ways a plan might not work. If left solely up to a hate type, new projects would likely not be started, but there would still be something wrong with the way things are.
The Confused Type
The confused type does not know what course of action to take; they are perpetually in a state of indecision. They may appear lost or spacey, and they are often unsure of what they really want. The confusion is a defense against being truly committed or present, and also against self-responsibility and the uncertainty borne of taking action based on ignorance. They don’t know which stand to take, and therefore refuse to take one. In group situations, the confused type will wait for others to offer suggestions and opinions before offering their own. This is because their remarks are actually based on what other people think and say. Clearly, the confused personality is easily swayed by popular opinion. There are confused-hate types who wait for advice or opinions from those around and then proceed in the opposite direction. There are also confused-greed types, who wait for the same, but go along with the group. At the center of this state is the “I” concept – “I don’t know,” “I don’t know what to think,” “I don’t know what to do”… but it is still all about the “I.”
In reality, these poisons are modes of reacting to the world, in an attempt to secure happiness. The reason these methods cannot secure happiness is that they are rooted in ignorance. Nobody is completely or solely a greed type, hate type, or confused type.
All of us can understand these 3 poisons, because being human, we experience them all, often in combination and on a regular basis. Most of us will have a dominant mode, the poison we prefer when we are out of options or feel threatened, and we will try out the other poisons to see how well they fulfill our needs. Because these states will never fulfill us, but only keep us locked in suffering, it is important that we see these roots in ourselves, understand them, and know how to take corrective measures.
These 3 poisons are somewhat different from each other, but at their root is ignorance – ignorance of the true nature of reality. When ignorance is dispelled, so too are the 3 poisons. Dispelling ignorance means dispelling belief in a self (among other things) and the object (something outside the self that has a “thing” quality). In place of ignorance, there is only experience, with no individual “self” owning the experience. Seeing the true nature of reality and dispelling ignorance can take years of mental training and discipline, and we cannot expect everyone to be able to commit to this path. Thankfully, there are other approaches to correcting these unproductive mind states.
Treating Like with Like
In this approach, we can take the mind state and amplify it or the effects. For example, if one believed that having sex will make him or her happy (a greed state), an exercise in dispelling the greed state might include having sex for 24 or even 48 hours straight, without breaks. At some point, there is too much of a good thing, and the reality of the unsatisfactoriness of the object becomes clear and will have to be acknowledged.
Hate types would embrace the hate, really amp it up, hate the object more, obsess about it, and then, when the hate cannot become more intense, hate the fact that they are hating the object, and even hate the hating of the object. At some point, there is just the experience of hatred and hopefully some clarity about its nature. Clearly, caution is recommended when suggesting these exercises, especially if there is mental instability present or a tendency to destructive behavior.
Treating Like with the Opposite
A more popular and digestible option for treating the poisons is to cultivate the opposing, more wholesome mind state.
The wholesome quality opposing greed is generosity. Generosity can be practiced in many ways: we can give away our time, our money, or our well-wishes. In order for generosity to be perfected, there can be no clinging to anything, no ownership. Another way of viewing generosity, though it seems contrary, is to consider that ownership is complete – you have everything and therefore can give anything away. No amount of things or acquisition will ever be enough for a greed state; however, when the feeling of satisfaction and completeness is present, nothing more is needed. It can be difficult at first to start giving, which is why this is a practice; we start small and increase as we progress. Giving can be to charities we believe in, strangers, or institutions, but ideally is not done for credit or something in return. The simple practice of giving can improve a sense of happiness and well-being, and loosen the choke-hold we have on our possessions and our desires.
The wholesome quality opposing hatred is loving kindness, which is generally an internally-generated state. Imagination can help tremendously with this practice. We can imagine a pinky-orange glow coming from our heart (eventually our whole body) that extends to other beings. We can also think thoughts like, “May I be well and happy, may the people in this room be well and happy, may the people in this city be well and happy” while visualizing an expanding orb of this loving kindness. The goal is to generate a feeling of the loving kindness that we extend to others, eventually to those we dislike. To make things simple, we start with loving kindness to ourselves; when we have this established, we extend it to our loved ones and friends, then to those we are neutral about (eg, a delivery person or a clerk); then when we are ready, we extend the feeling to those with whom we have conflict. When loving kindness is present, hatred cannot be present, so this is simple substitution.
The quality opposing confusion is assuredness. Practicing assuredness would, again, start with smaller decisions and progress from there, but the individual must be willing to commit fully to those decisions without revisiting or questioning. Here, the individual must be able to decisively employ cutting off doubts and uncertainty when the confusion or questioning arises. Here, again, imagination is a useful tool. The image of a sword that cuts off an unwholesome mental trail provides a sense of empowerment and finality. Over time, the individual may take on bigger and more important decisions, but decisions like what to cook for dinner, what to order at a restaurant, or what to wear might be appropriate starting points.
I find, with exercises like these, that it is helpful to suggest frequent, small doses, such as practicing a loving-kindness meditation for 1 or 2 minutes, 6 times per day. The frequency helps imprint the pattern on the mind, and giving the client an exact number of visualizations to do in a day keeps the mind trying to track the number. It is a good idea to ask the client to be prepared to report on their experience during the follow-up visit.
Tanya Rampersad, ND, is a graduate from Bastyr University (2003) and is practicing in Calgary, Alberta. She has been practicing and studying Buddhism for 11 years in the Vajaryana tradition. Her practice is multifaceted, incorporating bodywork, homeopathy, and biotherapeutic drainage, along with counseling. She has found that Buddhism has given her a degree of clarity regarding suffering and a number of practical tools that are useful with patients.
- Goleman D, Thurman RA. MindScience: An East-West Dialogue. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications; 1991. Description available at: http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/mindscience. Accessed January 18, 2016.
- Itivuttaka: The Group of Threes. Translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu T. Access To Insight (Legacy Edition). Last revised November, 2013. Available at: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/iti/iti.3.050-099.than.html#iti-050. Accessed February 10, 2016.
- Kalama Sutta: The instruction to the Kalamas. Translated from the Pali by Thera S. Access To Insight (Legacy Edition). Last revised November, 2013. Available at: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.soma.html. Accessed February 10, 2016.
- Mendis NK. The Abhidhamma in Practice. Access To Insight (Legacy Edition). Last revised November 30, 2013. Available at: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/mendis/wheel322.html. Accessed February 10, 2016.