When the late Stephen Hawking warned that one of Buddhism’s “Three Poisons” threatened us all

The brilliant physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, inspiration and author of so many important works, died today at 76.

Rod Meade Sperry
14 March 2018
Stephen Hawking. Photo by Lwp Kommunikáció / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The brilliant physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, inspiration and author of so many works — most famously, perhaps, A Brief History of Time — died today at 76.

Now, Hawking wasn’t a Buddhist—he was, in fact, an atheist. (Though there are, of course, many Buddhists who would describe themselves that way.) But back in February 2015, he sounded a worldwide alarm about one of Buddhism’s famed “three poisons.”

As the Washington Post reported then, Hawking identified humanity’s aggression as one of the greatest threats to humanity itself. Quoth Hawking: “The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression. It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory or partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.” (Likewise, he said about empathy that it’s the quality he “would most like to magnify[…]. It brings us together in a peaceful, loving state.”)

Aggression is all too familiar to us all, of course, but it has an especially notable place in Buddhist thought. Sometimes rendered simply as “anger,” or “hate,” aggression is referred to as one of Buddhism’s “Three Poisons,” along with passion (alternatively rendered as greed, or desire), and ignorance (or, delusion). So it follows that there’s no shortage of Buddhist wisdom on working with aggression.

Mitigating these poisons begins with us individually — so if you’re interested in doing your part, don’t miss these articles on how to work with anger:

Pema Chodron Lion's Roar Buddhism Anger
Enso Lion's Roar Anger Knots
Loosening the Knots of Anger,” by Thich Nhat Hanh
Rain Anger Lion's Roar Buddhism Emily Horn
RAIN Cools the Flames of Anger,” by Emily Horn
Rod Meade Sperry. Photo by Megumi Yoshida, 2024

Rod Meade Sperry

Rod Meade Sperry is the editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide (published by Lion’s Roar), and the book A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his partner and their tiny pup, Sid.