the three poisons

A Brief Overview

In his early teachings, the Buddha identified “three poisons,” also known as the three unwholesome roots. The poisons are the three negative qualities of the mind that cause most of our problems—and most of the problems in the world. They are: greed, anger, and ignorance. Anger is often referred to as hatred and ignorance is very commonly referred to as delusion.

We don’t need to look far to see the three poisons in our lives. We see them every day in the news and in the streets, and if we pay attention, we can see them in our own mind and actions. The arising of these feelings may be outside our control—we don’t choose to be angry, for instance. Greed, anger, and ignorance are deeply embedded in the conditioning of our personalities. Our behavior is habitually influenced and tainted by these three poisons buried deep into our minds. But recognizing how the poisons cause tremendous harm in the world can help us learn to manage them.

An Exploration of the Poisons


Greed refers to craving pleasure, material goods, and many other things, all of which are wants that can rarely be satisfied. We tend to attach or identify with these desires, and as a result, they often bring about suffering. Much of what we think about throughout the day-to-day is based on the satisfaction of desires. Therefore, much thought has at its root a dissatisfaction with what is. When we see the depth of greed in the mind, we see the depth of dissatisfaction because wanting can rarely be truly satisfied; when we get finished with one desire there’s always another. As long as we’re trying to satisfy desire, we’re always increasing wanting. The more we see how the mind wants, the more we see how wanting obscures the present. To realize that there is nothing to hold onto that can offer lasting satisfaction shows us there is nowhere to go and nothing to have and nothing to be. Gradually, seeing the dissatisfactory nature of desire is opening a path to awareness and freedom. 

The wholesome, positive attitude that the Buddha taught as essential to liberation from greed is the practice of Dana, or generosity. Generosity means giving freely without expecting anything in return. The act of giving is purely out of compassion or good will, or the desire for someone else's well-being. An act of generosity certainly involves relinquishment of stinginess, clinging and greed. In addition, generosity entails relinquishing some aspects of one’s self-interest, and thus is a giving of one’s self. The Buddha also emphasized the joy of giving. Generosity is not meant to be obligatory or done reluctantly. Rather, it should be performed when the giver is “delighted before, during, and after giving.”


Anger refers to our hatred, our aversion and repulsion toward unpleasant people, circumstances, and even toward our own uncomfortable feelings. The symptoms of anger can show up as hostility, dislike, aversion, or ill-will; wishing harm or suffering upon another person. Anger often breeds more anger within ourselves and others. It may often feel beyond our control, but with a gentle awareness of our anger when it arises, we can begin to train ourselves not to act out when experiencing feelings of aversion and ill-will. The primary roots of anger are in our desire, pride, agitation, and suspicion. The secondary roots are in the other. When we understand the factors that led to the others' behavior, we can respond with help or discipline from a place of compassion. 

The wholesome, positive attitude that the Buddha taught as essential to liberation from anger is the practice of loving-kindness, also known as metta. Metta means benevolence, amity, friendliness, good will, and an active interest in others. It is the first of the four sublime states, or brahma viharas, which are the four best abodes that reflect the mind state of enlightenment, with the other three being compassion, joy, and equanimity. Loving-kindness removes clinging to a negative state of mind by cultivating kindness unto all beings. So, by cultivating loving-kindness, we are not only being outwardly generous with our loving energy, but also promoting compassion toward ourselves. Once we learn to translate the goodwill we cultivate through loving-kindness into our daily lives, we may begin to free ourselves from feelings of ill-will.


Ignorance refers to our dullness, bewilderment, and misperception, or our “wrong” views of reality. Influenced by ignorance, we are not in harmony with ourselves, others, or with life. To be ignorant is to think we know something, such as how the world works, yet to be mistaken. Without the capacity for mental concentration and insight, one's mind is left unable to grasp the true nature of things. Ignorance can also empower the other poisons and motivate non-virtuous thoughts, speech, and actions, which cause great suffering and unhappiness. Our ignorance also gives rise to identification with a self that is separate from everything else, which in turn leads to a dualistic internal opposition of like and dislike in regard to experience and phenomena. 

The wholesome, positive attitude that the Buddha taught as essential to liberation from ignorance is the practice of wisdom. In Buddhism, wisdom is realizing or perceiving the true nature of reality; seeing things as they are, not as they appear. This wisdom is not bound by conceptual knowledge. It must be intimately experienced to be understood. The highest wisdom is seeing that in reality all phenomena are incomplete, impermanent, and not self. It is not wisdom if we simply believe what we are told. True wisdom is to directly see and understand for ourselves. At this level then, wisdom is to keep an open mind rather than being closed-minded, listening to other points of view rather than being bigoted, carefully examining facts that contradict our beliefs rather than burying our heads in the sand, being objective rather than partisan, taking time about forming our opinions and beliefs rather than just accepting the first or most emotional thing that is offered to us, and always being open and ready to change our beliefs when appropriate. 

In Conclusion

We have spent so much time being influenced and motivated by our ignorance, anger, and greed. Therefore, this work to transform cannot be accomplished quickly or easily. It requires patience, care, persistence, and deep compassion for ourselves and others. We also must begin this work in the place where it originates—in the mind itself. This transformation begins with the challenge of calming the mind and seeing deeply into ourselves. In other words, to eliminate the poisons, we must learn to recognize them when they first appear. Being mindful and aware, we can then see how these deep-seated poisons influence our everyday thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions and combat them with the wholesome, or positive attitudes that the Buddha taught as essential to liberation from the three poisons, which are the practice of wisdom, loving-kindness, and generosity. These are strengthened by ethical practice (i.e. following the eightfold path and practicing the paramitas) and meditation.