I think what makes Buddhism unique — what makes it Buddhism — is its diagnosis of what causes suffering, which is called the second noble truth.
Looking at the other noble truths, most religions acknowledge the pervasive reality of suffering, that it can end (if not in this life, then after), and that wisdom, compassion, and ethical living are a path to less suffering.
But why do we suffer at all? This is where Buddhism stands alone, offering a real-world explanation that is simple, testable, and, to my mind, irrefutable.
What is it like to detox our mind of ego and these three poisons? We already know.
According to Buddhism, the fundamental cause of suffering is ignorance, our mistaken view of reality. The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent. That’s another way of saying that everything dies. But we hold on to the belief, or at least the hope, that something in us won’t die, something permanent at our core we call soul, atman, ego, or just “me.”
We are slaves to this nonexistent “me.” The way we try to preserve, protect, and please the self is through the three poisons. We want things that are good for it. This is called attachment, passion, or lust. We repel things that are bad for it. This is called aversion, aggression, or anger. And things that don’t have any effect on us, we don’t care about. This is called indifference or ignorance (in a different sense than the fundamental ignorance that causes the whole problem).
The poisons are symbolized by three animals: rooster (want it—attachment), snake (don’t want it—anger), and pig (no effect on me—don’t care). These metastasize into what are called the eight worldly concerns, ways we divide the world into what’s good for us and what’s not. Traditionally these are described as four pairs—happiness and suffering, fame and insignificance, praise and blame, gain and loss—but in reality the worldly concerns are infinite, because ego divides up everything that way.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we seek out suffering or there’s anything wrong with happiness or pleasure. The problem is that we are slaves to our basic self-centered orientation and the poisons and suffering it creates.
What is it like to detox our mind of ego and these three poisons? We already know.
Think of someone you love unconditionally. Someone whose suffering you would gladly take on, someone you would give all your happiness to. In that moment of pure selflessness, you feel love and wisdom and freedom from the poisons. You feel that’s who you want to be. You feel that’s who you really are. It is.
Narayan Helen Liebenson calls the three poisons “torments of the heart.” Mindfulness eases their pain.
The Pali word for the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion is kilesas. This is translated in a number of ways: as poisons, toxins, defilements, stains, vexations, or afflictions. But I lean toward an alternative translation: torments of the heart.
Instead of bringing connectedness and ease, the three poisons torment us. They reinforce patterns of disconnection and separation. We need to attend to them seriously because of the inner and outer harm they cause, and the lack of inner freedom that occurs when we are unconscious of them.
The teachings of the Buddha offer a liberatory path.
We don’t have to take the kilesas personally and identify with them, as in “I am an angry, greedy, deluded person.” The kilesas are not inherent traits but rather aspects of nature that ask to be seen and dissolved. Viewing greed, hatred, and delusion in this way encourages us to respond to these painful emotions with kindness, compassion, and wisdom.
Our practice encourages us to learn how to stop reinforcing the habit patterns that cause us to be greedier, angrier, and more confused. After all, we get better at whatever we practice. If we respond to greed with craving for greed to cease, greed increases. Reacting to hatred with hatred causes more hatred.
Greed is wanting more of what we like, hatred is wanting to get rid of what we don’t, and both are based on the delusion of not knowing where to find happiness and relief from our suffering. This is our human dilemma, and the teachings of the Buddha offer a liberatory path. Practicing kindness, compassion, and wisdom allows the kilesas to dissolve. So we need to take the poisons seriously but not personally.
Practicing Mindfulness of the Kilesas
The practice of mindfulness is designed to look directly at the kilesas and be conscious of them, instead of simply allowing them to be embedded in habits of suffering. We need to study them within our hearts and in all aspects of our lives. We have to become aware of how they feel in the body, in the content of our thoughts, and how they manifest in our relationships and daily life.
The first step is to acknowledge that a kilesa is occurring. We may first experience it as an ache in the heart, a burning in the body, or a clouding in the mind. Just to recognize a kilesa as a kilesa is a big step. It’s the beginning of bringing a habit into conscious awareness. Only when something is conscious can it be worked with, shifted, and changed.
The second step is to allow ourselves to fully experience the kilesa as it is, without craving or attachment to the idea that it should be otherwise. The third step is to investigate its true nature and the beliefs we have about it. Do we think the kilesa is permanent and who we really are? Do we believe happiness will come from our acting it out? Investigating in such a way deconditions the mind and brings true and lasting peace. We just have to practice in this way over and over again!
On a lighter, personal note, I’d like to offer an example of how I practice. Over the past few years, I’ve been adjusting to the presence of a dog in my home—a dog who snores. At first, each time her snoring woke me up, I would feel annoyed. “Doesn’t this (admittedly adorable) dog know I am trying to sleep?” I would think. Practicing meant acknowledging the annoyance, accepting that it was occurring, and investigating its temporary not-self nature. The snoring hasn’t stopped, but my annoyance has, and we are both at peace.
Practices of the heart, says Melvin Escobar, are healing medicine for the sicknesses of greed, hatred, and delusion.
The traditional heart practices of generosity, loving-kindness, and tonglen are powerful medicines for the unwholesome effects of the three poisons.
Greed, or craving, is rooted in the delusion of scarcity, and so it can be remedied with the practice of generosity, or dana. Sharing internal or external resources with others moves us away from the fear of not having what we need. Generosity makes us aware of the bounty of material and immaterial treasures available to us in each moment. The practice of giving—whether possessions, money, time, or our presence—helps us recognize that we have more than we need. When we are able to feel like we have enough, that we are enough, greed and craving naturally subside.
Avoiding pain is a form of ignorance.
Hatred, or aversion, is rooted in the delusion that some people or groups are separate from us. This can be remedied with the practice of loving-kindness, or metta. By consciously cultivating goodwill for both ourselves and our “enemies,” we neutralize the impact of this poison and open a space in which we can become aware of the true roots of hatred in our own wounds. As James Baldwin said, “One of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Avoiding pain is a form of ignorance, which is also rooted in the delusion of a separate self. It can be remedied with the practice of tonglen, in which we take in the suffering of others and send them healing and benefit.
Among the causes and conditions of ignorance, this clouding of our mind–heart, is trauma. Our society suffers from a wide range of unprocessed individual and collective traumas. Indeed, we are currently experiencing the collective trauma of a global pandemic, while just beginning to reckon with the intergenerational effects of colonialism and racial caste. Among the hallmarks of trauma, regardless of its severity, is that we are cut off from our internal and external resources by the belief that we are not only alone in our suffering, but to blame for it. This self-blame is actually a form of hatred turned inward, which exacerbates the delusion of separation.
Tonglen helps neutralize the poison of ignorance by deepening our capacity to be with suffering, both our own and others’. In one version of tonglen practice, we imagine taking in the suffering of others with our in-breath and transforming it into healed energy, which we radiate through our out-breath. This simple yet powerful practice helps us become aware of the shared and collective nature of suffering. Over time, the delusion of a separate self, which ordinary life engenders and trauma intensifies, begins to dissolve, awakening our hearts to the interdependent nature of our existence.
The heart practices of dana, metta, and tonglen counteract each of the poisons while working comprehensively to cultivate healing in ourselves and in the world. Whenever we feel attachment, aversion, or confusion, we can use these heart practices to connect to the freedom that is available in every moment and in every breath.
3. Letting Go
The real cause of the poisons and the suffering they cause is grasping, the way we hold on to everything so tightly. The path to freedom, says Koun Franz, is renunciation.
From the moment Siddhartha left his palace until now, Buddhism has been, at its heart, a practice of renunciation. We tell the Buddha’s story as if he gave up everything for the spiritual path, but of course, he didn’t, not really. He put down one life direction so that he could grasp a new one, a spiritual dream wrapped up in visions of transcending the body. Eventually, he had to let go of that, too. It’s the same for all of us.
Each of the three poisons—attachment, aversion, and ignorance—points to the problem of grasping, of holding on. In the case of attachment, it’s obvious. Whether it’s money or identity or just our own explanation of how things are, there are things we can’t seem to let go of.
This isn’t about good and bad.
Aversion is just the other side of the coin. We have an aversion to what we don’t want because we’re trying to hold on to the way we want things to be. And ignorance, in order to sustain itself, requires a kind of contraction around our current view of what reality is, or what it should be, or maybe what it can’t be. It’s a closing of the fist around a particular story.
So the question at the start of the Buddhist path, and at every step after, is simply this: of the things you are grasping, which are you afraid to put down?
Whatever you say, your answer reveals who you think you are. Is it stuff, like those boxes in the basement you never open but can’t bring yourself to throw away? Is it a story about yourself—about what you’re becoming, or what you can’t change? Perhaps it’s a belief system that acts as a kind of security blanket. Maybe it’s Buddhism itself.
This isn’t about good and bad. What you’re holding on to is not a problem in itself. This is about what you think you need, what you’re afraid to let go of. Nothing you are holding on to right now is something you can’t put down. Nothing. Your hopes, fears, beliefs—you think they make you you, but until you liberate them, you’ll never be liberated from them. Attachment, aversion, and ignorance are the same—you don’t need them either, but you don’t know who you are without them.
Like Siddhartha, we all live in palaces, but they are palaces of the mind. They are big enough that we can wander through them forever, exploring who we are, revisiting our favorite rooms. Every little detail feels crucial. Why would we leave? But in the end, a palace is just walls, and not seeing beyond walls means we don’t know where we really are. We don’t know who we really are. We’re prisoners of the things—the stuff, the opinions, the identities—we think we need.
Siddhartha had to leave, and so do we. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. We just put down one thing at a time until it gets easier, and then we put down more, and more, until we can step, naked and empty-handed, through the gates and into the world. Renunciation is just the choice to be free.
The truth of interbeing — that everything is merely the creation of everything else—cuts the three poisons at their root, says Sister True Dedication.
Interbeing is a term invented by Thich Nhat Hanh to describe the profound interconnectedness of all things: that nothing can exist by itself alone; it can only ever inter-be with everything else.
So when in Buddhism we speak of “no self” or “emptiness,” what we actually mean is that there are no such things as permanent, separate, self-entities. Everything is a composite—made entirely of non-self elements. And just as a flower is made only of non-flower elements (sunshine, rain, seed, soil, and so on), so are you and I made only of non-us elements.
The same is true of the so-called three poisons. The craving, anger, or misperceptions we might experience today have all come to be because of infinite causes and conditions. They are not separate entities. Looking deeply into the three poisons with the insight of interbeing helps us identify how they came to be and what holds them in place today. This enable us to transform them at the root.
For example, you may have the idea that “I’m an angry person.” But are you sure? In the light of the insight of interbeing, your anger may have something to do with your parents’ anger, or your partner’s. It may have been “fed” by the anger and frustration in the collective consciousness around you, or by the things you’ve watched, read, or heard.
I know that resistance is a victory.
It’s important not to see the three poisons as separate things—they are intimately connected with the other afflictions we experience. For example, hatred may inter-be with fear (we’re afraid of the other side, and so we hate them; we want to eliminate them). Or perhaps the feeling of craving inter-is with anxiety (we crave something because we want to cover up anxiety).
Take the tendency to consume in an addictive or compulsive way. This is very natural in our times. The energy of mindfulness gives us a chance to intervene in this action and restore our agency and free will. Perhaps the feeling that triggered the craving is almost imperceptible, but with mindfulness we can at least ask the questions: “What am I really hungry for? What am I thirsty for? What am I avoiding? What do I really want right now?”
Craving has arisen for a reason. It’s not a “thing” of itself. In the light of interbeing, we have a chance to get curious about it. Sometimes I even ask myself, “Who is reaching for something to cover up the pain?” These questions become like koans. In my practice, I’ve discovered that my craving for food comes from my paternal grandfather. And sometimes, the sudden wish for a strong drink comes not so much from me (I haven’t drunk alcohol for over a decade), but from my paternal grandmother seeking something, anything, to numb her pain.
Consuming has, for many generations, become a form of pain management. So if we want to shift these habits, there’s a lot of energy we’re up against, but just knowing the scale of it already makes the challenge more navigable.
I’ve found that the practice of complete stopping—relaxing the body, following my breathing, and letting go—can be a key to freedom. Sometimes we can even talk to our ancestors within us. In the moment of stopping, I can release the grasping, listen to what’s going on inside, and realize what I really need to take care of. Even though the odds are against me, every time I’m able to stop, change track, and meet those deeper needs, I know that resistance is a victory—for myself, my friends, and my ancestors. In the light of interbeing, one small action can transform the whole situation, even across space and time.
As destructive as they are, the true nature of the poisons is wisdom, teaches Judy Lief. When we experience that, they are transmuted into medicine.
The role of Buddhist practice altogether is to tame the mind and quell the uproar of negative emotions.
Such emotions are powerful. They can easily overtake us, and once they do they lead quite naturally to harmful behavior toward ourselves or others. So the question is, how do we work with such emotions to prevent or lessen the harm they cause?
Traditionally, the many and diverse forms of negative emotions are traced to a primary trio: passion, or clinging to what you want; aggression, or pushing away what you do not want; and ignorance, or pretending not to see what you prefer to avoid. Overall, negative emotional energies are marked by grasping and struggle and by a strong sense of subject and object, or duality.
In the Vajrayana, a tantric Buddhist tradition, there are many ways to work with these negative emotional energies, which proliferate like invasive weeds. One approach is to cut the weeds down. That works for a while, but they keep coming back. A more effective approach is to dig them up, to uproot them. For instance, by sharpening our awareness and slowing down our mind’s speediness through meditation, we can catch these emotions as they first emerge, before they blow up and overwhelm us.
The basis of transmutation is a sense of primordial sacredness.
But over time, as we gain greater familiarity with our particular emotional patterning, we can be less aggressive in our approach. We don’t have to look at everything in terms of chopping or digging. We know what to do and we don’t need to go to battle. We realize these emotions are not so solid. We are onto them. We see through them, at least to an extent. They are what they are, and we can deal with them.
All of these practices for dealing with negative emotions prepare the ground for working with the Vajrayana practice of transmutation. Transmutation is like alchemy: it is changing poison into medicine, confusion into wisdom.
The basis of transmutation is a sense of primordial sacredness that encompasses both samsara and nirvana, both suffering and enlightenment. For that sense of nondual sacredness to grow, we need to be on the dot—not caught in this or that, past or future.
Transmutation is gentle. In a traditional chant known as the Four Dharmas of Gampopa, we request blessings “so that confusion may dawn as wisdom.” The image of dawning evokes a quality of gradually and naturally seeing things more clearly and genuinely.
In the practice of transmutation, you deliberately heighten or intensify an emotion rather than trying to subdue it. Usually, emotions very much depend on an object—“I hate YOU,” “I want THAT.” But in the practice of transmutation, there is no emoter and no target of that emotion. That division collapses and there is just the emotion itself. We invite the negative emotion to show itself in all its glory, and what gently dawns on us is its true nature—pure wisdom energy. Poison has become medicine.