The Three Poisons

I heard a Dhamma talk this week in which the idea that there is such a thing as an “appropriate poison” was proffered. He was speaking of the Three Poisons: greed, hatred and delusion. He gave an example of “appropriate greed” as the desire to develop the path. He gave two examples for “appropriate aversion.” One was the fear that he felt when coming upon a rattlesnake while hiking. The other was a woman who was being threatened by a man in her life. He said that the fear was “appropriate” because it kept him and her safe.

This is a confused lack of understanding of very different qualities.

The Buddha never spoke about the Three Poisons as being of any benefit. A poison’s only job is to kill something, or at best to make it sick. The Buddha was very careful about how he used language. It is pretty clear what a poison is. It is something that is dangerous and to be avoided.

When the Buddha spoke of greed, he was not speaking about the wholesome desire to cultivate the path. The simplest way to think of greed is sense craving. A more complex way to think of greed is as craving and clinging, two of the links in the chain of dependent co-arising. This is the Buddha’s detailed analysis of how suffering is created. The Buddha listed three types of craving and four types of clinging. The three types of craving are craving for sense pleasures, craving for existence, and craving for non-existence. The four types of clinging are clinging to views,  clinging to rights and rituals, clinging to sense pleasures, and clinging to a doctrine of self.

Thus, you can see that in the Buddha’s teaching, he is pretty clear about with is meant by “greed.”

The Buddha did speak about the need to have desire in order to develop the path factors. However, desire to cultivate the path is not greed. Rather, it is an aspect of Right Intention. The Buddha often spoke of worldly and unworldly – of transcendent – aspects to mental factors. Worldly desire is the desire for sense pleasures. Unworldly desire is the desire to cultivate virtue, concentration, and wisdom.

As for “appropriate aversion,” there is a difference between aversion and wisdom. Wisdom is what keeps you from being bitten by a rattlesnake. Wisdom is what keeps you from putting yourself in harm’s way. Wisdom is what keeps you from speaking when it will not be of any benefit.

The objective in practice is to tease out the wisdom from the aversion. You don’t need the anger, fear, anxiety or hatred. They just get in the way of the wisdom. People who handle dangerous animals learn to be calm and equanimous, otherwise the animals pick up on their fear and become more aggressive. Martial arts expects learn to stay calm and clear-headed, because it makes them better able to be skillful in the execution of their craft.

The traditional antidote to greed is generosity; greed is what we want, and generosity is what we give. The antidote to aversion is loving kindness. And the antidote to delusion is wisdom. These three things, generosity, loving kindness and wisdom, can be called the Three Antidotes. The Three Poisons can only do harm, but the Three Antidotes are the cures.

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