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Three Poisons - the Source of the Problem

"At the root of human misery, Buddhism sees three destructive impulses: greed, anger and foolishness, which it terms the 'three poisons.' These are the essence of all the delusions and negative workings of life that impede the realization of our full potential for happiness and creativity."

Three PoisonsAs the problems of our planet grow deeper and more complex, the possibility of humanity untangling the destructive web that we have woven can seem less and less easy to believe in. The hope that Buddhism offers to this pervasive sense of uncertainty is the perspective that since the ills of our world have been created by human beings, it is within our power to solve them. Both the problem and the solution lie with us.

Buddhism began as a bold, humane confrontation with the fact of suffering. Its original impulse is not one of retreat or escape from life's challenges and contradictions. Rather, Buddhist practice could be broadly characterized as the struggle to draw forth and shine the light of human wisdom on life and society. A thorough understanding of the causes of human misery is a departure point for this philosophy. Thus Nichiren writes, "One who is thoroughly awakened to the nature of good and evil from their roots to their branches and leaves is called a Buddha."

At the root of human misery, Buddhism sees three destructive impulses: greed, anger and foolishness, which it terms the "three poisons." These are the essence of all the delusions and negative workings of life that impede the realization of our full potential for happiness and creativity.

Of the three, foolishness is most fundamental, as it facilitates greed and anger. Foolishness here means ignorance (passive or willful) of the true nature of life. It is blindness to the reality of our interrelatedness--not merely our connectedness to and dependence on each other, but the connectedness of the unfolding of each of our lives to the unfolding of the very life of the universe; the fact that each of us is a vital component of life itself and a nexus of immense possibilities. Because it obscures life's true, enlightened nature, this ignorance is also referred to as "fundamental darkness."

Our deepest sense of fulfillment lies in the experience of this connectedness and in actions that uphold it. Under the influence of such ignorance, however, we look for fulfillment through acquisition and possession (of objects, fame, power, and so on). Greed is the uncontrolled impulse to fulfill these desires, even at the cost of the unhappiness of others. Inevitably, such pursuits lead only to a sense of frustration.

Anger is the violent impulses that spring from the same egocentric orientation. It is not only explosive rage, but also resentment, envy--all the insidious, ultimately self-destructive emotions of the wounded ego.

These poisons thus undermine our individual happiness, impede our relationships and hinder the unfolding of our unique creative potential. Their influence, however, goes beyond this. On a societal level they well forth from the inner lives of individuals and become the cause of conflict, oppression, environmental destruction and gross inequalities among people. One Buddhist text expresses it this way: "Because anger increases in intensity, armed strife occurs. Because greed increases in intensity, famine arises. Because foolishness increases in intensity, pestilence breaks out. And because these three calamities occur, earthly desires [delusions] grow more numerous and powerful than ever, and false views increasingly flourish."

From the perspective of Nichiren Buddhism, the three poisons are an inherent aspect of life and can never be completely eradicated. In fact, a religious approach based on eliminating these poisons from one's life may simply breed hypocrisy. Buddhist practice in the Nichiren tradition can be described as a process of continually transforming the energy of these deluded impulses and redirecting it toward the creation of value. In a more general sense it is through the spiritual struggle to continually orient our lives toward respecting others and working for the broader good of all that we are able to transcend and transform these poisons. In this process, the destructive energy of anger, for example, is sublimated into a protective force that can counteract injustice, preventing us and others from merely being swept along by outside forces or being taken advantage of by those with ill intent.

Dialogue based on a will to genuinely connect with people in an attitude of respect and mutual encouragement is a powerful key in this transformative process.

Ultimately, establishing peace and security on our planet relies on an inner transformation within the lives of individuals. As the UNESCO constitution states, "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed." The sense of responsibility to continually seek to develop our potential for creative good is the crux of personal empowerment and beginning of the broader transformation of the planet.

[Courtesy October 2005 SGI Quarterly]

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