the three poisons in Buddhism: greed, aversion, and delusion

Digging up the roots of suffering: The Second Noble Truth

Reading time: 7 minutes

In the last post, we looked at the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, which asserts that suffering is pervasive in human experience. It appears in many forms and affects us at every level, from individuals to families & communities, to societies worldwide. This Buddhist teaching offers some insight into the relationship between suffering and some of the challenges the SDGs hope to address. One insight comes from the process the Buddha followed. He approached the problem of suffering like a physician looking at an ailment, seeking to diagnose the problem accurately in order to find a remedy.

With this in mind, the Second Noble Truth turns our attention to the causes of suffering. The Buddha taught that suffering has an origin. Suffering arises from what are called kleshas, or mental afflictions. The most fundamental of these mental afflictions are called the Three Poisons.

Three Poisons, one result

The first of these Poisons is greed. Our attachment to objects of desire drives our suffering. We grasp and cling and refuse to let go of things we believe will bring us happiness. Just as the First Noble Truth leads people to see Buddhism as pessimistic, the Second Noble Truth might seem like a real buzz killer. Easy to see that the Buddha’s trying to take away all the fun, but that’s not the case. We can enjoy life and its many joys. We just need to learn when to let go of the objects of our desire; suffering arises when we fail to do so. 

The next is aversion, which often leads to anger or hatred. Inevitably we come into contact with people, things, or situations we don’t like. When things don’t go our way, we suffer. We complain, resist, fight, fume, tell endless stories of grievance, or lash out at people and the world. Where the energy of greed is to grasp and never let go, the energy of aversion is to aggressively push things away.

There are situations that seem quite clearly worthy of anger and aversion. It can be tempting, especially in tumultuous times like these, to immediately point to extreme examples of “evil” in the world to justify the anger we might be feeling. While many good arguments can be made for how we’re feeling, when it comes to reducing suffering in our lives, it’s helpful to start a bit smaller, to look at our own immediate experiences. 

We can ask ourselves, “Is this helpful? Is this creating more or less suffering in my life?”

The Buddha tells a story about a man walking through the woods when suddenly he is struck by an arrow. He feels immense pain from this wound. As the pain rises, he becomes enraged, thinking “how dare they shoot an arrow at me! I’ll have my revenge!” And soon, the “second arrow” is lodged in the person’s mind: an additional layer of suffering produced by his outrage. This second arrow of mental suffering can endure for even longer than it takes for the physical wound to heal. We can end up carrying resentment over this arrow strike for months, or years.

If we look closely at each of these afflictions, we can see the third root cause underlying both our cravings and aversions: delusion, or ignorance. 

We believe that external objects will bring us happiness. However, it is not the thing, but rather our perception of the thing that creates temporary pleasure. We believe it to be good, tell a story that it will make us happy – and when it fails to do so, or it goes away, we suffer. Likewise, we believe things to be inherently bad, telling endless stories about the irredeemable badness of this person, situation, object, or mineral. However, things in and of themselves are neither good nor bad; they are relative to context, causes, and conditions. For some people, a trip to the beach is heaven, something to be greatly desired. For others, it’s hell; getting scorched by the sun is one of the last things they want to do. They are also constantly changing, as are we. What might be desirable one day can become anathema the next.

These delusions of believing in the ability of external objects to make us happy, or to be the causes of our pain produce no end of suffering in our lives – and in the world.

Dispelling delusions is fundamental to eliminating suffering.

In many ways, this is a crucial foundation of Buddhist practice: learning to recognize what produces suffering, what reduces it, and what creates true happiness. This is a critical lesson for us as individuals, just as it is for society as a whole. If we can learn to identify the root causes of our suffering, we can be more effective—and happier—as people and communities.

How can we do this? One place to start is to identify evidence of craving, attachment, and their underlying delusions, and to examine how these lead to suffering. 

Just enough or never enough?

Picking up from the last post, our attachment to material wealth drives many environmental and social issues, leading to the exploitation of natural resources, people, and animals. Nowhere on earth captures this dynamic more than the United States, where material wealth, luxury, and convenience has reached a scale previously unimaginable in human history—and where a history of exploitation has oppressed Black people and other people of color for centuries. This wealth is both vastly inequitable in its distribution and has massive adverse impacts on people and the planet. Americans’ per capita use of natural resources is the definition of unsustainable. And the long history of racial injustice underlying our economic dominance has only perpetuated suffering at every level.

At the root of American society, and increasingly of nations worldwide, lies an unquenchable thirst for ever-increasing wealth. This is even codified in our economic systems, which seek to achieve limitless growth. This thirst drives suffering in both the seekers of wealth and in those who are unable to obtain it. As this lifestyle of consumption and pursuit of material wealth spreads around the globe, the impacts increase at an exponential scale, with people, animals, and entire ecosystems treated as objects to be consumed—and then discarded.

There never seems to be a point where we can say as a society, “ok, we finally have enough!” 

We can see multiple levels of delusion at the heart of this. We believe that more and more things will make us happy. We believe that our planet (essentially just an island floating in space) can support limitless growth. We believe that some people, animals, or ecosystems are “inferior,” and thus are justified in their exploitation.

Isn’t wealth a good thing, though? 

Here we can also apply the Buddhist teaching above, that things are not good or bad, in and of themselves. We need a degree of material wealth to meet our needs, to be safe, and to provide for the welfare of our families and communities. But the Buddha taught the Middle Way: avoiding the extremes of deprivation on one hand, and indulgence on the other.

The SDGs seek to find a healthy balance between our material needs and the natural limits of a finite planet—eliminating crushing poverty and deep inequities in economic opportunity at one end of the spectrum, and vast overconsumption and exploitation to meet the limitless thirst for growth at the other end. Achieving this is fundamental to building a sustainable world.

We have the technology, we have the wealth, and we have the knowledge to solve these problems. Spiritual traditions like Buddhism can offer guidance and moral logic for why we should commit to this work. In the next post, we’ll start to look at the good news of the Buddhist path: the “cessation of suffering.”