Letting Go of the Three Poisons
Welcome to you all. It is a great joy to be with you today. These Sundays when we are together give me a wonderful opportunity to experience the Dharma. I hope you have this feeling too. Thank you.
This morning I would like to share some thoughts on what we call the three poisons - Greed, Anger, and Ignorance. And maybe some ways to “let go” of these poisons. Deep down one of these is always there when things go wrong. The Buddhist path is a path toward freedom from these afflictions. We’ve talked about these many times before. And while they seem to ebb and flow in our lives. Even when we make progress on The Path - they return in ever more subtle ways, that’s why we bring them to mind often.
Its pretty easy to think - “Well, I don’t have these afflictions”.
When was the last time you were greedy? take a moment and recall. Bring it to mind. Its a matter of degree. If I share I am not being greedy, but if I share less than I could that is greed insinuating itself in my life.
When was the last time you were angry? Take a moment and recall. Bring it to mind…. what happened? If you are thinking and saying to yourself, “I don’t get angry” - a little more reflection is needed.
What happened? How did the red wave overtake you?
When was the last time you caught yourself unawares or even in a delusion? This is a hard one.
We immediately think. “I’m never ignorant”. It is natural to bridle at this inquiry. But it is in the nature of delusion to be - elusive. When I am seeing things as I want them to be, not as they are that is delusion.
I’m probably going to interchange ignorance or delusion through my talk - they are the same thing for today.So for now and in everyday of our lives, I want to show how our Buddhist path serves to antidote us from these poisons through true entrusting in Amida Buddha’s primal vow and chanting the Nembutsu.
The unwholesome feelings of greed and hatred always occur associated with ignorance or delusion.
So the Buddha declares:
“All unwholesome states [of mind] have their root in ignorance, they converge upon ignorance, and by abolishing ignorance, all the other unwholesome states are abolished.” SN 20:1
Ignorance does not mean a simple lack of knowledge. It is the lack of right understanding of the Four Noble Truths: Ignorance of fact that we can live Joyfully , Ignorance of the reason that we do not, Ignorance of the fact that there can be an end to suffering and Joy flows in, and Ignorance of the path that leads to Joy.
From the Dhammapada chapter 12: The Self - Atta Vagga
"By oneself, indeed, is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself, indeed, is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one purifies another."
Buddhism teaches us that these poisons are something we create, not something we are or an outside force that infects us. The important point is that we are empowered to effect our lives. When we set an intention and follow it with diligence - good results come. This is not a matter of moral judgment. It is a matter of mindfulness of the effects created by what we do.
The sorting humanity into "good" and "evil" is a dangerous trap. When others are thought to be evil, it becomes possible to justify doing them harm. Anger is fostered. THEY are different from US. or They cause Our suffering. In that thought are the seeds of genuine evil. The Buddha's teaching of the Four Noble Truths tells us that suffering is caused by greed, or thirst, and greed is rooted in the delusion that we are isolated and separate. We should not fall into the habit of thinking of ourselves and of others as good or bad. Ultimately there is just action and reaction; cause and effect - the Law of karma.
The Buddha repeatedly taught that the reason we are not joyful is due to Greed, Anger, and Ignorance. The poisons cause harm both to yourself and to others. We use the word “unwholesome” to characterize all actions of body speech and mind that bind sentient beings to Samsāra, the round of rebirth and suffering. “Wholesome” thoughts and actions are those that free us to be joyful. Wholesome actions are sources of benefit for both ourselves and our community
These wholesome and unwholesome roots should be of great concern to us. They mold our character and our destiny and determine the nature of our rebirth. They can habituate us to our delusion or free us to be joyful.
These three poisons: GREED or thirst, HATRED (ill- will) and DELUSION (ignorance). Maybe you have seen paintings with three animals - the Snake the Rooster and the Pig - ceating each other’s tail in a circle. The Rooster symbolizes Greed, The Snake Hate, The Pig Ignorance.
The Rooster - Greed is the cause of many unfortunate acts. The five greedy desires are for: wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep. Greedy desires are endless and can never be satisfied. Greed is a state of lack, need and want. GREED is always seeking more satisfaction, but it is insatiable. It literally grows the more - whatever - we get - the more we want.
We need to notice that our culture often values greed or desire - People who have lots of stuff are considered successful. So we measure everyone. There is some implication of virtue or strength to those who materially succeed. <We do see that this does not result in joy - only more wanting.> Sometimes we use the word thirst here for greed.
When we cling to desire we are trapped. And I think the Buddha was teaching non-clinging - not non-feeling. We all have desires. The Buddha had desires - to share the teaching, to help others find a joyful life. But he was not grasping after them. He calmly went about the good work of teaching and fostering the sangha, even when confronted with fantastically challenging circumstance. His cousin tried to divide the sangha and become the next leader. When more traditional religions were threatened by these ideas they hatched a plot to have the Buddha implicated in a murder. He calmly responded that this was not what happened. His desire to teach did not spurred him to to anger or revenge. We will always feel these feelings. When we don’t get what we want and we cling to these desires - we may experience grief, sadness, despair, envy and jealousy—states of hatred, anger, and violence. But when we don’t clinging to them joy flows in.
[To antidote and overcome greed, we learn to cultivate selflessness, generosity, detachment, and contentment. If we are experiencing greed, strong desire, or attachment and we want to let it go, we can contemplate the impermanence or the disadvantages of the objects of our desire. We can practice giving away those things we would most like to hold onto. We can also practice acts of selfless service and charity, offering care and assistance to others in any way we can, free of all desire for recognition or compensation. In truth, there is no objection to enjoying and sharing the beauty, pleasures, and objects of this material world. The problems associated with greed and attachment only arise when we mistakenly believe and act as if the source of our happiness is outside of us.]
That brings us to The Snake -
Hatred and anger towards ourselves and others is a poison. Its true origins are internal, we have frustrated desires and wounded pride. External circumstances do exist, but making anger out of them is our thing. Buddhist psychology extends the range of what we call hatred beyond simple anger to include emotions of disappointment, dejection, anxiety and despair - these are all reactions to impermanence, insecurity and imperfection embedded in our experience of samsara.
What did Yoda say?
“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. “
Anger is a caustic substance in the mind. We don’t agree that there is something called “righteous” or “justified” anger. Anger is always a poison. It limits our ability to apply Right action to a situation and blinds us to what is really going on.
“By doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember to throw and so first burns himself.”
Visuddhimagga IX, 23.
Anger is unpleasant but kind of seductive in a way. As we can see from the internet, there is something about finding fault with others that feeds the ego. We often protect and cultivate our anger. This is a very dangerous thing to do. The Buddha described an angry person as follows...
"The person possessed of anger; discoloured,
Does not have sound sleep.
Even when experiencing the beneficial
He mistakes it as mischief.
Then he harms another
By thought, speech and deed
As result, he will suffer.
Loss of property (fines or punishment).
Crazed by wrath he behaves thus
That invites ill-repute.
His relatives, friends and acquaintance
Shun him, for his temper - hot.
Anger fathers misfortune
Anger maddens one's mind
It is a danger that rises from within
But we do not realize it.
The angered knows not what is right
Nor does he see what really is
Surrounded by darkness he dwells
Who now does anger defeat?
Captivated and maddened by anger
He does what is unwholesome with ease
But in time when anger is spent
Regret, as one burnt by flames."
Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya
[To antidote and overcome hatred, we learn to cultivate loving-kindness, compassion, patience, and forgiveness. When we react to unpleasant feelings, circumstances, or people, with hatred, anger, or aversion, we can use these sublime antidotes to counteract the poisons. Here we learn to openly embrace the entire spectrum of our experiences without hatred or aversion. Just as we practice meeting unpleasant experiences in the outer world with patience, kindness, forgiveness, and compassion, we must also practice meeting our own unpleasant feelings in the same way. Our feelings of loneliness, hurt, doubt, fear, insecurity, inadequacy, depression, and so forth, all require our openness and loving-kindness. Our challenge in spiritual practice is to soften our habitual defenses, open our heart, and let go of hatred, aversion, and denial. In this way, we can meet and embrace ourselves, others, and all inner and outer experiences with great compassion and wisdom.]
The Pig - Delusion or ignorance is a belief in something false and distorted.
Why do we use the pig? Imagine him in his pig sty, rooting around for potato skins. Thinking of the farmer as his benefactor - Happy is a pig in his sty. When in reality he is destined for Easter dinner and his benefactor is his executioner.
If we don't believe that causes have effects - Karma - then we commit offences frequently, we will suffer from the results. Delusion, in the form of ignorance is a state of confusion. False views, can take on a fanatical or obsessive character. The mind becomes rigid and closed.
The truth of suffering is hidden by The Four Great Delusions:
seeing permanence in the impermanent,
seeing happiness in what is truly suffering,
Separateness in what has no self existence,
and seeing beauty in the unbeautiful.
These distortions, powerful universal manifestations of ignorance and delusion, close off understanding why we suffer and how we can be joyful. We see these propagated in our society every day. Millions are spent on feeding us these delusions through the media. But we also - like the piggy - harbor and even foster them ourselves.
Remember the image of the three animals chasing their tails in a circle. Both greed and hatred are always linked with delusion. They are grounded upon delusion and produce more delusion as we pursue the objects we desire or hate. It is the delusion beneath our attraction and aversion that really blinds us. They are chasing their tails in a circle.
The basic delusion, from which all its other forms arise, is the idea of a permanent self: my belief in the permanent separateness of my self. Believing in this I-me-me-my self - must be clearly understood as a delusion - a wrong view. I am not permanent - I am not separate. I am just this moment in the flow of everything.
The master Dogen, said this of no-self:
To study Buddhism is to study yourself; to study yourself is to forget yourself; to forget yourself is to be awakened and realize your intimacy with all things. Can you see you are one drop, at one with an ocean? You are but one small point on a large, warm blanket. Itivuttaka 68
[To antidote and overcome delusion, we cultivate wisdom, insight, and right understanding. Learning to experience reality as it is, without the distortions of our self-centered desires, fears, and expectations, we free ourselves from delusion. Deeply sensing and acting in harmony with the interdependent, impermanent, and ever-changing nature of this world. We realize that all living beings are inseparably related and that lasting happiness does not come from anything external we free ourselves from delusion. As we develop a clear understanding of karma, knowing the positive, wholesome actions that bring happiness and the negative, unwholesome actions that bring suffering, we cultivate the wisdom, insight, and right understanding that free us from delusion.]
Our founder, Shinran Shonin and his master Honen Shonin point to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. Dharmakara vowed:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten quarters who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and call my Name, even ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment.
Amida's Vow does not distinguish between people based on any Characteristic. It doesn’t say it is for young or old, or good or evil. Shinjin ("true entrusting") alone is necessary to receive the Vow that saves all sentient beings who are weighed down by their delusions. The Bonbunin - the goof-balls among us.
The very purpose of the Primal Vow and the construct of The Buddha’s Pure Land is to save all who are burdened by greed, hatred and ignorance. Amida Buddha’s original motivation is to provide a path for sentient beings who are so burdened they are unable to shake these poisons.
Shinran was a person who reflected deeply on what he was. After twenty years on Mt. Hiei - he confessed that because he was so filled with evil, no matter how diligently he tried to do good, there was nowhere for him to go in the next life but hell. Through deep self-reflection he realized what he really was. This was Shinran’s subjective evaluation of himself; from years of meditation and reflection. He was a bonbu - a goof ball.
“My mind is full of snakes and scorpions,
And since even the good I try to do
Is tainted with the poison (of my self-centered effort),
It must be called the practice of an idiot.”
That is how deeply he looked into himself, and realized how the three poisons were always present. When I look closely I see that.
“Amida Buddha made His Vow out of compassion for us who are so filled with passions that we cannot free ourselves from samsara by any practice...”
Shinran deliberately shows us that the transformation of the Primal Vow takes place in the present. We are freed from the poisons right now. When we truly trust in great compassion and infinite wisdom of the universe. It works right now. Not in some dim future or a distant past.
The moment we receive shinjin, hard and diamond like, Amida’s light embraces and protects us, cutting us off completely from the cycle of birth and death. This means we are freed from the three poisons.
Shin Buddhism gives us three simple antidotes to Greed, Anger, and Delusion. They are Gratitude, Trust and Listening.
Gratitude - If we approach our daily life with gratitude we antidote and overcome greed. You can’t be grateful and greedy at the same time. If we are experiencing greed, strong desire, or cloying attachment we can say the Nembutsu in deep gratitude.
Trust - To antidote and overcome hatred, we learn to cultivate trust, loving-kindness, compassion, patience, and forgiveness. When we react to unpleasant feelings, circumstances, or people, with hatred, anger, or aversion, we can use these wonderful antidotes to counteract the poisons. If I say the Nembutsu I can’t be hating at that moment. It’s not possible. Amida loves and embraces all. Even more the wicked. That’s who he wants to help.
Listening - In Shin Buddhism we call it Deep Hearing - To antidote and overcome delusion, we cultivate wisdom, insight, and right understanding. We listen. We allow ourselves to see that Great Compassion and Great Wisdom are all around us. That they are there for us. And that we are ok, just as we are.
Learning to experience reality as it is, without the distortions of our self-centered desires and fears, we free ourselves from delusion. Deeply hearing and acting in harmony with the interdependent and impermanent nature of this world—realize that all beings are inseparably related and that lasting happiness does not come from anything external. Listening to Amida’s call - The call of the infinite - This listening frees us from delusion.
After thinking on these three poisons and recognizing how slyly and how often they insinuate themselves in our thoughts, I can see the Three Poisons more clearly. Even for a great being such as the Buddha they offered considerable difficulties. The Buddha taught the Dharma of the 4 Noble Truths and the 8 Fold Path as an antidote to these poisons.
At first Shin Buddhism may seem preoccupied with recognizing our Bonbunin nature, but this does not lead to a guilt-laden, depressed state of mind. That is because Buddhism links the quest for truth with the development of the compassionate heart, the heart of concern for all beings...compassion and wisdom are inseparable. If I am wise enough to see I have consumed the Three Poisons and compassionate enough to know that I am ok just as I am,I am made whole.
For a regular Bonbunin - or goof ball such as myself - the three poisons seem lethal. Just seeing this is an important step. I realize that greed, hatred, and ignorance, permeate samsara. And they resides in me. When I turn toward Amida Buddha with Deep Trust - I am no longer afraid. When I approach life with gratitude it washes away greed. When I Listen Deeply to the compassion and wisdom of the universe, delusion melts away.
- Namu Amida Butsu Namu Amida Butsu Namu Amida Butsu -
Mara Comes for Tea -
Retold from Thich Nhat Hanh's Heart of Understanding
Reading 20 april 2014
One day the Buddha was sitting in meditation in his cave on Vulture Peak while his trusted disciple, Ananda, was outside collecting food for their next meal. Ananda looked up from his chores when he saw, coming toward the cave, the Buddha's nemesis, Mara. Mara was a demon king who sought to prevent the Buddha from reaching enlightenment under the Bhodi tree. Since then he had continued to be a perpetual thorn in the Buddha's side, so to speak, cultivating greed, desire and hatred in men. Ananda new this and was immediately enraged by his appearance at the Buddha's cave.
Ananda approached Mara: "Get out of here! The Buddha does not wish to have his cave invaded by demons!"
Mara replied: "Go and ask him for yourself. I simply wish to speak with your master."
Reluctantly and nervously Ananda did as the demon king asked and entered the Buddha's cave. "World Honored One, the demon king, Mara approaches your cave and seeks an audience with you. I have already told him to leave but he insisted I ask you myself."
The Buddha's eyes opened from his meditation and he smiled, widely. "Mara is here? Really? It has been so long since we have spoken. Yes, yes, ready some tea and invite him in and we'll talk."
Dumbfounded, Ananda did as the Buddha asked, putting a pot on the fire to boil and then going outside to tell Mara that he was welcome in the Buddha's cave. "As I knew I would be, little Ananda," said the demon king arrogantly, brushing past the Buddha's humble disciple.
When Mara entered the cave the Buddha sprang to his feet, nearly leaping into the air with excitement. "Mara, my good friend, it has been so long since we have seen each other. Please sit, have some tea and tell me why you have come to visit."
Ananda was very nervous now and listened to the conversation between his master and the demon. Mara sipped his tea slowly and then spoke. "Buddha, things are not going well. I wish to be something else. Something other than a Mara."
"But, Mara, you are so good at being Mara. Remember when you sent images of sense pleasures and warnings of how difficult it would be for me to fully reach enlightenment when I sat beneath the bodhi tree? That was a fantastic job of being Mara. I really had to struggle to get where I am now. I truly owe you a debt of gratitude."
Now Ananda was getting very fearful. He did not like the idea of Buddha having a debt of gratitude to Mara. This was very upsetting but he listened further.
"Well, I suppose you are right," said Mara, "but being Mara I always have to be sneaking around in the shadows, talking in riddles and half-truths. It is such hard work always trying to think of the best things to say and do. I just...I think it would be easier to be something else. And the worst part: my disciples have heard about your the Dhara and are talking of non-duality, peace, justice, non-violence...it is so frustrating being Mara. I think it would be much better if you took my disciples. Maybe we could switch for a while? You could be Mara and I could try being Buddha?"
At this request Ananda's heart really began to pound. He knew that his master had just said he owed Mara a debt and he also knew how profound his master's compassion truly was. He had seen him give to others when he had almost nothing. He was terrified that he would now become the disciple of Mara and the Buddha would become a demon king. No worse thought was imaginable.
The Buddha thought. He sipped his tea. And then he spoke: "Mara, do you think it is just frustrating being Mara? Being the Buddha is equally...no, doubly frustrating, I guarantee. You think you have trouble with your disciples? Mine put words in my mouth and write them into sutras that I have never said. I teach them about non-attachment to material things and what do they do? They build stupas and erect shrines in my name! They even build enormous statues of me out of gold just to pray to even though I have told them time and time again that I am not a god. And they sell trinkets in temples with my words blazed upon them. It is an absolute pain. But I do not give up being Buddha because that is what I am."
Mara sighed and vanished into the shadows. Ananda felt slightly relieved but continued to worry that one day Mara would get what he ultimately wanted.
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