The Three Poisons: Passion,  Aggression, Ignorance

When I study the laws, practices, commandments, and aspirations of wisdom traditions, they all seem to dedicate a good deal or time to the causes and conditions of suffering and what to avoid or what to cultivate in order to prevent or bring and end to that suffering. 

In the buddhist teachings these are refined down to three primary causes and conditions for suffering; passion (attachment, grasping, clinging, greed), aggression (hatred, aversion, anger) and ignorance (bewilderment, delusion, folly). Over the next few weeks the sangha will be exploring how these three are present in our lives and how they contribute to our suffering and the suffering of others. We will also explore how , in the same way that poisons can be helpful on the path to healing, these three point to the path of freedom from suffering.


When I first heard that passion was a poison according to buddhist teaching, I was in my mid thirties, filled with a passion for acting, sexual exploration, and finding the perfect relationship. I had bottled up my passion for living free of my family history, religious oppression, and societal pressures for most of my life and I scoffed at the idea that passion was a poison. It was the fire of a fully engaged life! I thought the other two causes made sense but was resistant to looking at my understanding and experience of passion as a detriment to an awakened life. 

As I delved more deeply into the buddhist dharma, I understood that what it was pointing to was not the belly fire of loving and fully engaging in life, but the activity of searching and moving out of my centered, present experience of life, toward something other, in an attempt to get it and own it. I began to see that passion in this sense is any thought, feeling or action that prevents the experience, perception, or understanding of things as they are, and a grasping for something other than that. Or a clinging to something to prevent an experience from disappearing or changing. This passion moves my awareness out of present time and tries to draw in or attract something that exists only in my thought stream. This is something that is derived from a construct of “good” memories or ideas, and experiences that I have been conditioned to believe are better than my experience now. In the ten commandments this would be covetousness. In the buddhist teaching, it goes beyond the “inordinate desire for another’s possessions” (def. Mer. Webster) to include the craving for or attachment to any physical, emotional or mental experience that arises out of conditioned or habitual patterns. i.e I Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda had it or I Wanna, Gotta have it. 

The key words for me are “habitual” and “conditioned”. As The practice of meditation or any other form of contemplation, develops, it allows for on objective perspective on the thought stream (or what was a torrential waterfall in my case.). When inquiring, during the relative stillness of contemplation, into what drives or motivates any action, feeling or thought, there is an opportunity to see how most dissatisfaction and resulting covetousness or greed has its origin in a memory or a promise. This is a memory that gives rise to an habitual idea of happiness or pleasure that seems better than what is being experienced in the moment. Dissatisfaction might also be observed as a conditioned state of being that has been imprinted in our unconscious while seeking and achieving a promised result, or gaining approval from childhood guardians, peers or teachers. 

At the core of this inquiry I become more aware that this passion for getting and keeping something, is a striving for freedom from suffering and  a grasping for the experience and knowledge of true nature as easeful and good. I see that my passionate activity is looking for my true nature everywhere other than where it is, here and now. In other words the passionate search for peace outside of myself is a primary cause of my suffering and ultimately the suffering of those around me.

When we spend hours scrolling screens, or self medicating, or pushing our physical body to extremes, or endlessly spending resources on trying to mold ourselves into a better looking person, habitually looking for that experience of something more than this, it seems that we are just looking for that which is already present in our essential being.

In these times of polarization, paranoia, addiction, and the barrage of input that is always reminding us that what we are and what we possess is not good enough, it seems impossible to find that place of ease and goodness that we know, in the core of our being, is here already. In the quiet of contemplation and the still open space that arises, even if just for a second, there is an opportunity to know and experience reality as it is. From this place we are more able to respond to what is from the true belly fire of passion for an engaged life rather than reacting from a conditioned, habitual, thought stream. From a quiet place of self awareness we are able to know and experience that the spark of that fire is our inherent goodness. In these moments, striving for otherness diminishes and we, very naturally and without effort, stop the search and experience a respite from suffering, resting at ease in our truest nature.

May all beings throughout all times and in all directions know and experience their true goodness and an end to suffering.

I would enjoy and appreciate hearing your insights and questions. Feel free to respond to this email. –William


The Sangha of the Pandemic offers several opportunities for a safe, inclusive, free, virtual community contemplative practice. Everyone is welcome regardless of meditation experience or spiritual lineage.

The Zoom link is:

Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays: 7 AM CR Time

Monday: calm abiding, Samatha, Tuesday: body awareness, Thursday: Tonglen

Sunday at 7 AM CR Time: Four Brahmaviharas


Monday and Wednesday evenings at 5:30 PM CR Time : Practice and Inquiry                                                   

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