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Three Poisons

Nam-Mô Bổn Sư Thích Ca Mâu Ni Phật

Today I’m going to talk about the 3 Poisons and their antidotes and then we’ll discuss them.

The Three Poisons are Greed, Anger, and Delusion. They are also called the Three Unskillful or Unwholesome Roots. They are the root of all that poison our lives.  

In the confession, we say:

All the Evil karma created by me since of old,
On account of greed, anger and delusion, 
Born of my body, mouth and mind,
I now confess it

However, I think it is safe to say that for the most part the mind leads and the body and mouth follow. Although at one time or another we all have blurted out something inappropriate or taken hold of something hot and burned ourselves without consciously thinking, the thought was actually there but it was a deluded, ignorant thought - that is, it was stupidity.

The three poisons are products of the mind manifested as selfishness, lies, hateful speech, and thoughtless destructive actions.


Greed is sometimes called ‘grasping’. It is more than selfishness and can take many forms. We may think of it as something having to do with money but more often than not, it has to do with the other thing - a meanness of attitude - an ego that says “me first”. Have you ever taken the last piece of pie, not because you really wanted it but because you didn’t want someone else to have it? Have you ever warned someone about something and when it happened, you smugly said “I told you so” and enjoyed their misery because it fed your ego and your greedy need to be right?

The antidote for the poison of greed is Sympathetic Joy.

Say that you and your friend work together and are up for the same promotion, and he gets it. It would be very easy to tell yourself that he went behind your back and curried favor, that he didn’t deserve it, that you did deserve it and it might even be true. But if that resentment festers, it will destroy your friendship. Instead, just as you might share his sorrow, share his joy. Be as happy for him as you would be for yourself in the same position. When you feel joy, depression dissolves, the body has new energy. Just think how often good things happen to others (a new car, a promotion, the birth of a grandchild, an IRS audit showing a refund due). By practicing sympathetic joy, you can tap into a wellspring of positive energy. (and you’ll be a nicer person to be around because your joy will enhance the other person’s joy).

Admittedly, if someone is happy about something that you have no interest in, it’s a bit harder to have sympathetic joy. But say a wrestling fan tells you how happy he is to get to spend an afternoon talking to Hulk Hogan, translate that into the joy you would have if you got to spend  an afternoon with your favorite celebrity. You might ask, “why would I bother, I don’t even like Hulk Hogan?” But haven’t you noticed that sometimes when someone, you resent, gets something that you wouldn’t normally want in your home, you envy them? That is greed, grasping. This is poison.


Anger, the second poison is sometimes called ‘hatred’  and while they are not necessarily the same, they are equally destructive. When we are angry, we may not even realize it or know the reason why. We overreact and are unreasonable. Frequently, we take our anger out on innocent bystanders, not the person we hate or are angry at. As an example, my sister hated our father. Every time he came to our area,  she would pack up her kids and leave town so he couldn’t get to meet them and by doing so, punish him. And while his feelings might have been hurt, the person her actions damaged the most were herself and her kids. She was damaged because she didn’t face her anger and put it to rest. The kids, who didn’t get to meet their grandfather before he died, never got to learned about the history of the paternal branch of the family. These are all things that those kids, now grown, would like to know and share with their children.

The antidote for this poison is compassion. When you are wishing someone well, you cannot wish them ill at the same moment. The mind just doesn’t work that way, even though it may seem to. It is like your computer running a program while you are using your word processor or checking your e-mail, it’s just going back and forth between the two very fast.

When I first moved to the Vietnam Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, there was a young monk, named Vinh, whose very presence would raise feelings of anger and resentment. Just by coming into the same room with me and without a word passing between us, my breathing and heartbeat would rise and I’d mindlessly become angry. I can’t even say I hated him since I didn’t know him well enough to hate him. I have no idea why I reacted that way and called it a personality conflict. It was making me pretty miserable since I saw him every day. Then I started repeating part of the Metta, the Well Wishing Verses. - (Later I’ll hand out copies of the Metta for you to take home.) - Every time I thought of him, I would silently repeat over and over again “May Vinh be happy and well, may no harm come to him, may he learn compassion”. After a week or so, I realized that it was my lack of compassion that was at the root of the problem and changed the verse to “May Vinh be happy and well, may no harm come to him, may I learn compassion”. And a little while later, I changed it again to reflect the fact that we both had issues. Now I frequently use “May so-and-so be happy and well, may no harm come to him, may we learn compassion”. Since the mind can’t do two things at once, practicing the Metta dissipates ill feelings. Try it, but remember you have to really mean it and not just whisper empty phrases, otherwise it is a waste of time. As you do it, warmly think of that person in a loving manner. By the way, I never did find out why I couldn’t stand Vinh and I don’t think he changed much over the last few years but now we are friends.


Delusion is sometimes called ‘ignorance’, ‘ folly’,  'stupidity'. The antidote for this poison is equanimity which leads to wisdom. To quote a Buddhist dictionary “Equanimity is one of the most important Buddhist virtues. It refers to a state that is neither joy nor suffering but rather is independent of both. It is the mind in equilibrium and elevated about all distinctions.”

Remember the story of the farmer whose son finds a horse. Everyone in the village was excited about it and congratulated the farmer. He replied “we’ll see”.  A few days later the son fell off the horse and broke his leg. All the villagers commiserated with the farmer and he still just replied “we’ll see”. About a week later the emperor’s soldiers came through the village, drafting all the healthy young men into the army. The farmer’s son was the only one left behind and the farmer had nothing to say.

People who are not even handed in their thinking and actions are hard to be around. You can’t always depend upon them. In Jr. High we had  two teachers who were opposite in the practice of equanimity. Mr. Forrest was a tough teacher. You could never get away with anything in his classes, but, even if he was angry, his punishment always fit the crime, and he didn’t give a lighter punishment or better marks to someone he liked. He never made hurtful, inappropriate remarks, either. Mr. Sullivan, on the other hand, was wishy-washy. He’d let us get away with murder and then when he’d had enough, he’d come down hard on the next one acting up, giving them a punishment that was way out of  proportion to the crime. He had pets and if he didn’t like you, he would say the most hurtful, inappropriate things and you never knew where you stood. It goes without saying that Mr. Forrest was well respected and looked up to by all the students although not necessarily liked and Mr. Sullivan was a joke to be feared. 

In some ways equanimity is like walking a tightrope. Balanced, you get to the other end safely, overbalancing or under balancing, you go splat. When we gently vibrate somewhere in the middle instead of wildly swinging between joy and sorrow, like and dislike, we make better decisions and live a happier, more productive life.  

The reason equanimity leads to wisdom is that it allows you a clear view, uncolored by expectations, desires and fears.  You see what you’re looking at just as it is. The mind, not wading through a mire of emotions and conflicts, is no longer deluded. This doesn’t mean that you won’t make decisions that others might consider wrong or even illegal. The difference is that you won’t lie to yourself about why you are doing it and the possible consequences of your actions - and you’ll accept those consequences without whining and blaming someone else. 

Just as it is. What a great phrase! It is accepting yourself and others, just you are. Some people have the mistaken idea that if you accept something, it means not changing it. But that’s not it at all. It means that as long as you are deluded you will make wrong decisions because you are basing those decisions on a faulty understanding. 

Years ago a young neighbor of mine had severe pain every time she ate french fries or chocolate. I suggested that she ask her doctor about her gall bladder since it seemed to be the right symptoms. Her doctor took one look at her and laughed. All he saw was an exhausted nineteen year old with a new baby.  He told her that she had about thirty years before she needed to worry about her gall bladder and sent her on her way with some Maylox.  Three days later, after eating a large bag of Hershey’s kisses she was rushed to the hospital and had her gall bladder removed. The first doctor hadn’t really seen her, just his idea of her. How often do we see what we want to see, not what’s there. That’s why con men do so well because people want to believe them.   


Many times we may want to reform our thinking  and behavior, but part of the three poisons is habit. Habit gets ingrained surprisingly fast. You come home from work  after a very difficult day. Your partner has had an equally stressful day and snaps at you for dumping your stuff on the table and  you snap back. The next night, the same kind of thing happens and you both say something hurtful. The third day, things went well at work for both of you but when you got home you found yourselves snapping at each other for no other reason than that you have gotten into the habit of snapping, sniping and saying hurtful things to each other. And its a hard habit to break. 

The antidote for the three poisons are Love, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity which are sometimes called the Four Sublime Abodes. The word, love, is here used in the Buddhist sense of not so much ordinary human affection, even in sublimated form, but as in a detached and impersonal benevolence raised to the highest possible pitch of intensity. Without Love, Compassion turns to contempt. Without Love, Sympathetic Joy turns to vicarious satisfaction. Without Love, Equanimity turns to heartless indifference. 

Now you might ask if I wasn’t encouraging vicarious satisfaction in the suggestions I made earlier about practicing Sympathetic Joy. The answer is yes and no. Yes, if you’re only doing it to feel good; no, if you’re doing it to head off greed and grasping. You need to understand that Karma, which means ‘deed’ or ‘action’, is the cause and effect within conditions of your life. What you think, say and do, comes back to you and how you react to those effects become new causes and hence there are new effects. How often have you fibbed because you didn’t want to face a situation and then lied to yourself  with “I don’t want to hurt his feelings or make him mad.”? And didn’t it come back to bite you? My great aunt Edith was stuck in Hawaii during World War II. Meat was scarce so her friend made a rather horrid soybean casserole and my aunt gagged down two big helpings, not wanting to hurt her friend’s feelings. Years later, they met in San Francisco and my aunt was invited to dinner. Her hostess proudly carried in a soybean casserole, saying, “I remember how much you enjoyed it last time.” I don’t believe she ever told another fib. You can be honest with one another without using truth as a weapon. People who are cruel, love to use truth to hurt others because then they can say “Well, I was only telling the truth”. See? Here the poison of greed raises its ugly head as it feeds the ego. 

This combination of Love, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity will keep our lives in balance. Without each and every one of them together, we can easily get off on a tangent and not only spoil our own lives but the lives of people around us. 

I won’t lie to you and say that any of this is an easy thing to practice but the rewards are enormous. And just as bad habits become ingrained so do good ones. 

The Four Sublime Abodes of Love, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity not only deliver us from lives poisoned by greed, anger and delusion but also lead us to enlightenment. 

Nam-Mô Bổn Sư Thích Ca Mâu Ni Phật


Given on Sunday, September 7, 2003 to the GLBT  meditation group meeting, San Diego, CA