The Three Poisons- Koun Franz

In our little Zen group, we chant this version of the verse of atonement:

All my past and harmful karma
born from beginningless greed, hate, and delusion,
through body, speech, and mind,
I now fully avow.

It’s a commonly used translation, and a little bit dramatic. When we say “greed”—I don't know about you, but I picture the guy from Monopoly. And when we say “hate,” I picture something seething, something active. When I consider the emotions I feel in a day or a week or a month, a lot of them are not positive, but hate is not really high on that list. It’s not quite the right word. 

Delusion? That’s fine. Everyone experiences delusion, but the word carries a feeling of being confused—it's more than that. So we need better language. When we say “greed, hate, and delusion,” what we're talking about is attachment, aversion, and ignorance

So much of Buddhism is about attachment. The Buddha said that attachment is the source of dukkha, of our sense of dissatisfaction, and that we're feeling it all the time; by that math, attachment is also something we're experiencing all the time. “Greed” makes it sound like I want a pile of gold. That's not what attachment is. It's any kind of clinging; it's anything that I don't want to let go of.

Aversion, of course, is really the same thing; it comes from the same place. Aversion is an attachment to not having a particular thing. We push that thing away. We try to keep it out of view.

Then there’s ignorance. Just recently I heard someone insist that “ignorance” can't be the right word, because if we say “ignorance,” then it means that everything we do out of ignorance is our fault—but by definition, if we do something out of ignorance, it's not our fault, so it has to be something else. I understand that thinking. When we say, “All my past and harmful karma, born from beginningless greed, hate, and delusion,” of course we think we're talking about all the things that are my fault, about blame. But in fact, it's just a very neutral description of how things work.

Why do we cause harm? Because naturally, we attach to things. Naturally, we push things away. And naturally, there are things we don't know. That in itself is not a judgment on the quality of person you are. It doesn't mean you're bad. It means this is why bad things come from good people. 

These three poisons—attachment, aversion, and ignorance—as far as I know, are universal across the Buddhist world; also, they’ve been part of Buddhism from the beginning. They predate all the later exploration of what we sometimes call Buddhist psychology. Yet it's so elegant, so all-inclusive. From the moment you start on the path, you can use this as a lens—you can look at something gone wrong, or at a time when you caused harm, and you can ask, “Well, was there attachment involved? Was there aversion involved? Was there ignorance involved?” In my case, at least, the answer is always, always yes. It's a brilliant elucidation of something that's actually very complex.

It’s best to see the three as a set; it's confusing if we try to isolate them and imagine we have moments of pure attachment or pure aversion. Aversion is a kind of attachment; attachment can often be a kind of aversion. Think of a time when you’ve been faced with someone making a political argument that runs counter to your own opinions. They present evidence, good evidence—disturbingly good evidence—that shakes you up a little bit because it doesn't jibe with what you already think. In that moment, if you're like most people (and I'm like most people), you'll probably do this: you'll attach even more tightly to the story you believed before the conversation. And you'll reject, actively, whatever ideas are coming at you. Both of these are attempts to preserve your ignorance. So it's not just that we have attachment and ignorance, it’s that we have attachment to ignorance because sometimes we don't want to know something new. There are things we don't want to see.

The Three Poisons I DharmaCrafts Blog

We can also see this in something like racism. I might be attached to the idea of being a good person, and of course, good people aren't racist, right? That means any attempt to look at my mind in a nuanced way is going to be met with resistance, because I've already established that I'm a good person; if my mind feels any complexity around this topic, then I'm not as good a person as I want to be. Where there's evidence that I'm wrong, I won't look at it—I need to keep my ignorance. 

In these ways, the poisons feed each other, and usually, at the center, we find ignorance. Ignorance is more seductive than we think. No one thinks they want ignorance; no one thinks they're addicted to it. But by definition, because it's ignorance, we can't imagine being without it. “All my past and harmful karma”—karma is not just things we do, it's the grooves we create for ourselves. It's our ruts. It's the ways in which we make it hard for ourselves to move. 

“All my past and harmful karma, born from attachment, aversion, and ignorance”—next we have the three vehicles—“through body, speech, and mind,” or sometimes they'll be translated as “actions, words, and thoughts.” 

Here, we run into a similar problem. People say, “But thoughts? My mind? That's not fair.” We don't control what we think. We think all sorts of stuff. It just pops up. That’s true, but again, this is not about blame. This is about seeing how things operate. 

The Three Poisons I DharmaCrafts Blog

When we do something bad, we can see that it's bad. And when we say something that's hurtful, hopefully we can recognize that we said something hurtful. But when we just think something? You're going to think all sorts of crazy things. You’ve had the weirdest dreams. You’ve had those thoughts that cross through your mind as you're falling asleep. You've had angry thoughts. You've envisioned things, and you don't know why, but in your mind you’ve done violent things. You just saw it happen in front of your eyes—not really, but it was all there, in detail. Where did that come from? You didn't think those things on purpose. What do we do with that?

Here's the thing: when I hold my tongue and I don't say the things that I kind of want to say, the words I know would just cut the other person in half, but instead I kind of roll them around in my mind, I congratulate myself because I had the class in that moment to not say it. But then maybe I rehearse it a little bit, in my mind, and I get the phrasing just right for the alternate reality where maybe I'm not so classy. In my mind, then, I get to say the zinger. I get to win. When I rehearse that, when I play with that, now I'm playing with karma—not in the sense of actions but in the sense of ruts, because I'm practicing something I don't want to practice. And I don't need my mouth to practice it, and I don't need my body, because in my mind I can still get really good at it. And what will happen the next time is, even if I still keep my mouth shut, I will jump even more quickly to the great thing that could have been said. 

Now karma is accumulating. There's nothing happening, really, but there's a rut that’s getting deeper. So we watch the mind. We notice. When something just arises, we give ourselves a break, but when we indulge that thought, when we practice it, that should give us pause. If it feels like attachment, if it feels like aversion, those are red flags. 

We finish this verse by saying, “I now fully avow.” I acknowledge all of it, completely. There is no attachment in this, no aversion. It’s a neutral statement—it says, I'm looking at my actions with clear eyes, not grabbing on and not pushing away. And I'm admitting it—not just what I've done but how I work, the way I operate in the world. I do this so that the next time the opportunity arises to say something or to not say something, I see. I recognize in myself that in almost any encounter, any opportunity, encountering any object, the first thing I'm going to do, probably, is push or pull. There will be attraction, or there will be aversion. This doesn't make me bad. But the degree to which I don't see it is the degree to which I'm operating from ignorance.

Especially in moments of stress, and especially in moments of disagreement, we can pause and remember we have three things going on all the time. 

  1. There's something we want.
  2. There's something we don't want. 
  3. We don't know everything.

That simple reminder is enough to help us slow down. For me, it might make the difference between me saying the thing or not saying the thing—maybe out loud, maybe in my mind.

It's really simple—like all the best parts of this practice, there's almost nothing to it. But you could work on just this forever and your time would be full.

The Three Poisons I DharmaCrafts Blog

 

Author: Koun Franz


Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.

 

 

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1 comment

Penny Crosson

Penny Crosson

Thank you so much for this wonderful lesson!

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