Unveiling the Three Poisons: A Buddhist Guide to Overcoming Greed, Anger, and Ignorance

In Buddhism, pigeons, serpents, and swine symbolize “greed, wrath, and ignorance” correspondingly.

The avian emblem of “greed,” represented by Lin Luhe, epitomizes unscrupulous avarice; the serpent, emblematic of “wrath,” embodies the irritable, ferocious, and cruel Aberdeen; and the swine, emblematic of “ignorance,” signifies an inability to discern between good and evil, exemplified by the protagonist Chen Guilin.

In the cinematic narrative, Grandma bequeaths to Chen Guilin a timepiece adorned with a whimsical swine motif.

Throughout his journey, Chen Guilin, ensnared by the ignorance akin to that of a “swine” and the compulsion to “make oneself known,” eliminates two notorious felons from the most-wanted list, thereby vanquishing the twin demons of “greed and wrath.” Yet, amidst these exploits, he becomes ensnared in the quagmire of “greed” and narrowly avoids succumbing to a cult.

Ultimately, having “made a name for himself,” Chen Guilin voluntarily surrenders, consigning himself to incarceration, and liberating himself from his “madness.”

According to Buddhist doctrine, the root cause of “suffering” lies in the confusion and ignorance surrounding the truth of existence, with the contaminating influence of this ignorance on cognition giving rise to afflictions such as greed, wrath, ignorance, pride, doubt, and erroneous views.

Chen Guilin’s “ego,” aspiring to rival the renown of Zhou Chu, is the impediment par excellence on the path to emancipation from the self.

**1. Perturbed Psyche**

Tracing the genesis of “attachment” back to its source, Buddhism posits a manifold of misconceptions as the progenitors of various psychological afflictions, collectively termed “troubles.”

The nexus of human suffering, according to this tenet, resides in these troubles. Comprising six fundamental varieties—greed, wrath, ignorance, pride, doubt, and erroneous views—they underpin the human condition.

Given their foundational nature, it follows that there exist what Buddhism terms non-fundamental troubles, also known as incidental troubles—lesser tribulations trailing in the wake of their more profound counterparts.

For instance, the concept of “wrath,” as delineated within the framework of fundamental troubles, encompasses a spectrum of emotional responses, extending beyond mere anger to encompass resentment, animosity, vexation, malevolence, and envy. These incidental manifestations serve to elucidate the nuanced facets of the primary affliction.

The notion of “anger” primarily denotes a surge of displeasure in response to adverse circumstances. “Hatred,” conversely, denotes a lingering resentment, born of past grievances.

Consider, for instance, the indignation that arises following a rebuke from one’s employer—an instance of “anger”—as distinct from the lingering resentment—a manifestation of “hatred.”

“Vexation” denotes the persistence of resentment, wherein dwelling upon past affronts engenders a profound sense of disquietude, often manifesting in outward displays of emotional distress.

“Harm” denotes the impulse to inflict physical or verbal violence upon others, spurred by wrath, thereby jeopardizing their well-being.

Instances abound of individuals, spurned by a romantic partner, nursing a wounded ego and seeking retribution—an instance of “wrath” giving birth to malevolent intent.

Conversely, “covetousness,” a facet of greed, entails an avaricious reluctance to part with one’s possessions, while “concealment” involves obfuscating one’s transgressions to safeguard personal interests. Both these tribulations are emblematic of the intertwining of greed and ignorance.

“Deception” involves the propagation of falsehoods to garner acclaim or material gain, whereas “sycophancy” entails the cloying adulation of others to secure advantages, both stemming from a nexus of greed and ignorance.

Beyond these incidental afflictions lie a panoply of troubles, including shamelessness, remorselessness, skepticism, sloth, torpor, restlessness, heedlessness, ignorance, and distraction, underscoring the pervasive turbulence inherent in human existence.

Among the quintet of fundamental troubles—greed, wrath, ignorance, pride, and doubt—referred to as the “Five Hindrances,” the term “hindrance” underscores the inherent inertia and obfuscation they engender. “Shi,” in this context, a truncation of the Buddhist term “Jie Shi,” connotes entanglement or fetters, emphasizing the tenacity of these afflictions and the exigency of their resolution through diligent practice.

Concomitantly, the “erroneous views” intrinsic to the troubled psyche encompass five fallacious perspectives—self-view, nihilism, eternalism, views on rituals, and views on moral conduct—collectively referred to as the “Five Hitches,” with “hitches” connoting impediments. “Li,” signifying sharpness, underscores the lucidity attainable through discerning contemplation.

Prominent among these erroneous views is “self-view,” denoting egocentricity—a notion that may be disabused through diverse contemplative practices.

2. Discipline and Practice

Before delving into the means to overcome self-grasping, it behooves us to grasp the paramount impediment we encounter on the path to liberation from such “self-grasping” — the vexatious ruminations afore mentioned.

An excerpt from “The Sutra of Forty-Two Chapters” elucidates this notion. This Buddhist scripture, purportedly the foremost Chinese translation by monks from Tianzhu during the Eastern Han Dynasty, encompasses forty-two aphoristic teachings expounded by the Buddha across various sutras, marking China’s inaugural encounter with Buddhism. Within its verses lies a poignant discourse:

The Buddha proclaimed: Those ensnared in the throes of desire yet fail to perceive the Tao resemble turbid waters, agitating with myriad hues but unable to reflect their essence. Enmeshed in a mire of passion and desire, their vision obscured, they remain oblivious to the Tao. Only when the waters are cleansed, devoid of impurities, do they reveal their veritable nature. As flames dance beneath the cauldron, the waters within surge and seethe. Yet shroud it with a cloth, and all beings cast their reflection, obscured from view. Thus, the three afflictions boil within, while external obstructions ensnare. Thus obscured, the Tao eludes perception. Only upon purging the heart’s impurities can one discern the soul’s essence. Life’s trajectory, from inception to demise, traverses the vast expanse of Buddha lands and moral rectitude.

The crux of this passage resides in elucidating that our inability to perceive truth stems from the muddied waters of greed clouding our hearts, compounded by the infusion of various hues, rendering the turbid water incapable of reflecting. Once these sedimentations settle, clarity ensues, enabling reflection. Analogous to water set to boil over a fervent flame, when veiled by cloth, one’s reflection vanishes. Similarly, when rife with greed, anger, and delusion, compounded by lethargy and torpor, discerning the body and mind’s true nature becomes an impossibility.

From this discourse, we glean that to relinquish “self-grasping,” the foremost obstacle lies in these turbulent mental states pervasive in our daily existence — anxiety, ennui, fatigue, and despondency — impediments to perceiving physical and mental phenomena with clarity.

To stabilize our minds and nurture the capacity for discernment, we must first distance ourselves from environments predisposing us to instability. This, indeed, encapsulates the crux of “precepts.”

To the layman, precepts may appear as arbitrary constraints antithetical to human nature and desires. Yet, scriptural elucidation reveals the Buddha’s rationale behind formulating precepts:

Initially, when the disciple Shariputra implored the Buddha to ordain precepts for the Sangha, the Buddha demurred, citing the monks’ diligence and imperviousness to fame, acclaim, and wealth. However, subsequent transgressions among the Sangha compelled the Buddha to institute precepts, curbing various misdeeds.

The genesis of Buddhist precepts lies not in moral dogma but in recognizing environments conducive to inner turmoil, predisposing individuals to a labyrinth of suffering. Hence, external constraints are imperative to keep practitioners vigilant, steering clear of environments fostering greed, anger, and delusion, lest they become ensnared in distraction, precluding focus on observing the body and mind’s aggregates.

Broadly speaking, precepts impose distinct obligations upon laymen and monastic monks.

Laymen adhere to the Five Precepts or the Eight Precepts. The former proscribe killing, stealing, engaging in sexual misconduct, lying, and imbibing intoxicants.

The prohibition against killing extends to refraining from harm inflicted upon humans, with lesser culpability assigned to animal slaughter. Abstaining from theft entails refraining from appropriating others’ possessions surreptitiously. Sexual misconduct encompasses extramarital relations, violating precepts. Lying encompasses deceit and discord sown for personal gain. Notably, claiming enlightenment sans realization constitutes the gravest falsehood. The prohibition against imbibing intoxicants, though ostensibly benign, often precipitates the preceding transgressions, hence its inclusion.

Additionally, laymen observe the eight precepts on specific days, abstaining from killing, stealing, lying, and imbibing intoxicants, alongside marital relations. Furthermore, they eschew adorning themselves, revelry, luxuriating on elevated beds, and consuming food beyond seasonal fare.

These strictures, labeled “monastic precepts for laymen,” offer flexibility regarding their duration.

Monastic precepts, more intricate, encompass two to three hundred injunctions. Specialized monks, designated “jurists,” devote themselves to their study and adjudication, parsing the contextual nuances of specific behaviors and the gravity of transgressions, alongside post-transgression repentance.

Irrespective of their specifics, the contemporary prevalence of emotional tumult emanates from the external milieu’s undue complexity and inundation with information. The ubiquity of the internet and smartphones inundates us incessantly, tempting us to peruse a litany of distractions, precluding respite and fostering mental fatigue.

Consequently, a resounding call resonates across diverse demographics to seek solace and reprieve, a testament to modernity’s incessant assault on our psyches.

Amidst such tumult, if we cannot navigate life’s vicissitudes with equanimity, how can we hope to attain wisdom?

3. How to discern afflictions and transcend them?

The origin of “suffering” lies in the existential perplexities, encompassing covetousness, wrath, ignorance, arrogance, skepticism, and erroneous perceptions—these six foundational afflictions.

Embedded within the Three Seals are profound verities that the Buddha himself apprehended post-enlightenment: “all deeds are ephemeral,” “all phenomena lack inherent selfhood,” and “Nirvana resonates in silence.” Attainment of “selflessness” heralds the cessation of anxieties, signifying what is termed “Nirvana Silence.”

How then might one attain such a state? This quest invariably implicates the exploration of “Tao truth,” the ensuing discourse.

The explication of “Tao truth” varies marginally across canonical works. Here, we initially espouse the formulation delineated in the “Zengyi Agama Sutra”: “What constitutes the quintessential verity regarding the genesis of suffering? The quintessential verity regarding the genesis of suffering is termed the noble eightfold path: right understanding, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. This, indeed, epitomizes the quintessential verity regarding the emergence of suffering.”

Herein, “the essence of suffering” serves as an alternate rendition of “the truth of the Tao,” with the subsequent enumeration of “right understanding, right resolve,” and so forth constituting what is commonly recognized as the “Eightfold Path,” alternatively articulated as “right view, right intention,” and the like.

The Eightfold Path—comprising eight praxes of rectitude—ushers individuals toward the culmination wherein afflictions wane, ushering them into the realm of Nirvana.

Primarily, within the Eightfold Path, one discerns three overarching categories: “right speech,” “right conduct,” and “right livelihood” conflate into “precepts,” while “right mindfulness” and “right concentration” coalesce into “concentration,” and “right view,” “right resolve,” and “right effort” amalgamate into “wisdom.”

Buddhist comprehension of meditation interlaces with its comprehension of life’s existential states. Broadly speaking, Buddhism posits that sentient existence bifurcates into “three realms”: the realm of desire, the realm of form, and the realm of formlessness, symbolizing distinct stages of existential states.

The realm of desire, as its nomenclature intimates, is underpinned by crude desire as its cardinal feature. Human proclivities therein revolve around stimuli that gratify the senses—be it wealth, carnal pleasures, or gastronomic delights. Some, however, through adherence to precepts and self-discipline, engage in benevolent deeds and evince an appetite for wisdom, transcending the typical pursuits emblematic of the desire realm.

Journeying from the realm of desire to the realms of form and formlessness necessitates the cultivation of meditative prowess. Life within the form realm eschews gross desires—be they carnal or material—yet still relies on form as the substrate of existence, hence termed the “color realm.” The formless realm represents a further stride into meditation, where consciousness alone prevails sans the involvement of form, constituting a purely ethereal mode of existence.

Crucial to this transition from the realm of desire to the realms of form and formlessness is the cultivation of “meditative concentration,” encapsulated within the triad of “precepts, concentration, and wisdom.”

The echelons of meditative concentration within the form and formless realms are classified into the four dhyanas and the four formless absorptions, comprising the initial, intermediate, advanced stages of meditative absorption, culminating in the spheres of infinite space, consciousness, nothingness, and neither-perception-nor-non-perception.

Delving into exhaustive explications concerning these realms and states of meditative absorption would be superfluous, as they pertain to experiential nuances. Succinctly, through meticulous practice—anchoring the mind upon a designated focal point, such as the breath—progression is made from coarse to subtle psychological states, eventually attaining the initial meditative state imbued with tranquility and bliss.

“Right concentration” within the Eightfold Path directly corresponds to the regimen of meditation alluded to, while “right effort” denotes the earnest exertions directed toward cultivating virtuous conduct, assiduously forestalling the onset of afflictions, and fostering vigor and ardor, thereby forestalling despondency and mental laxity—attributes concomitant with the nascent stages of meditative tranquility.

The precept of “mindfulness” within the Eightfold Path encompasses a multifaceted purview, necessitating perpetual remembrance of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings, its emphasis varying commensurate with the practitioner’s developmental stage. For instance, the “Five Calm Minds” serve as preliminary groundwork for concentration cultivation, assuaging manifest afflictions and endowing the mind with equipoise.

And so, what comprises the practice of the five-stop mind meditation?

As denizens of the human realm, susceptibility to acquisitiveness and attachment toward the corporeal form and sensual gratifications is endemic. Hence, the Buddha prescribes to such aspirants the practice of “contemplation of impurity”—a cognitive exercise wherein one visualizes the impurity inherent within oneself and others.

The “Chang Agama Sutra” chronicles thus: “There exist ascetics and Brahmins who, through various methodologies, attain the concentration samadhi, scrutinizing their physical forms from head to toe, discerning the internal and external layers of skin, acknowledging the unsavoriness of hair, nails, organs, excretory fluids, and other corporeal constituents. They thereby dispel covetousness.” This passage elucidates the Buddha’s injunction for disciples to confront the corporeal vessel’s intrinsic impurity, thereby emancipating themselves from covetous impulses.

Indeed, contemplation reveals the stark verity: the ostensible allurements proliferated across social media platforms are but veils concealing myriad imperfections. Even ostensibly comely individuals—upon introspection—are revealed to be nothing but mortal beings with physiological needs, far removed from the idealized depictions perpetuated online.

Moreover, the contemplation of impurity extends beyond self-reflection to encompass a discerning appraisal of others. Frequently, fantastical musings regarding others necessitate an antidote for the “impure view.”

Suzuki Daijo elucidates thus: “Logic, philosophy, science… Arrayed in myriad guises, individuals cut imposing figures. Yet, their arrival in this world is marked by a simple cry; their departure, a gentle clasping of frigid hands.” This poignant reflection employs the specter of mortality to vanquish covetousness for worldly splendor.

Distinct personality dispositions engender diverse manifestations of “anger,” manifesting variably across temporal and situational dimensions. Whilst past grievances may elicit subdued resentment, immediate transgressions often elicit acute ire. Irrespective of the context, “compassion meditation” serves as a panacea for such afflictions.

Furthermore, fostering benevolence toward others—demonstrative of “compassion”—proffers a salubrious outlet for emotional perturbations. For instance, parental aspirations for their progeny’s felicity exemplify an embodiment of compassion, despite the vexations inherent in child-rearing.

For those prone to mental distraction, engendered by incessant rumination and the ubiquitous allure of digital devices, the practice of “Breathe Counting Observation” affords reprieve.

The method entails the cultivation of mental equipoise through attentive observation of the breath’s nuances—its rhythm, texture, and duration—serving as a tether anchoring the mind amidst the ceaseless turbulence of ruminative thoughts and external distractions.

Moreover, two contemplative modalities—”contemplation of causes and conditions” and “contemplation of Buddha’s name”—are propounded as adjunctive practices. The former insulates against erroneous cognitions by elucidating the causal nexus underlying phenomena, whilst the latter—a supplicatory act—invokes the Buddha’s spiritual presence as a bulwark against despondency and spiritual malaise.

In essence, through assiduous cultivation of mindfulness, contemplation, and meditative absorption, one transcends the vicissitudes of existence, attaining the sanctum of inner peace and spiritual equanimity.

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