The Three Poisons: Attachment, Aversion or Ignorance

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The three poisons (Sanskrit: triviṣa; Tibetan: dug gsum) or the three unwholesome roots (Sanskrit: akuśala-mūla; Pāli: akusala-mūla), in Buddhism, refer to the three root kleshas of ignorance, attachment, and aversion. These three poisons are considered to be the cause of suffering (Sanskrit: dukkha).

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In the Buddhist teachings, the three poisons (of ignorance, attachment, and aversion) are the primary causes that keep sentient beings trapped in samsara. As shown in the wheel of life (Sanskrit: bhavacakra), the three poisons lead to the creation of karma, which leads to rebirth in the six realms of samsara.

Of these three, ignorance is the root poison. From ignorance, attachment and aversion arise.

Jeffrey Hopkins states:

[It is] ignorance that drives the entire process… [Ignorance] isn’t just an inability to apprehend the truth but an active misapprehension of the status of oneself and all other objects—one’s own mind or body, other people, and so forth. It is the conception or assumption that phenomena exist in a far more concrete way than they actually do.

Based on this misapprehension of the status of persons and things, we are drawn into afflictions of desire and hatred [i.e. attachment and aversion]… Not knowing the real nature of phenomena, we are driven to generate desire for what we like and hatred for what we do not like and for what blocks our desires. These three—ignorance, desire, and hatred—are called the three poisons; they pervert our mental outlook.

Ringu Tulku states:

In the Buddhist sense, ignorance is equivalent to the identification of a self as being separate from everything else. It consists of the belief that there is an “I” that is not part of anything else. On this basis we think, “I am one and unique. Everything else is not me. It is something different.”…

From this identification stems the dualistic view, since once there is an “I,” there are also “others.” Up to here is “me.” The rest is “they.” As soon as this split is made, it creates two opposite ways of reaction: “This is nice, I want it!” and “This is not nice, I do not want it!” …

On the one hand there are those things that seem to threaten or undermine us. Maybe they will harm us or take away our identity. They are a danger to our security. Due to this way of thinking, aversion comes up… Then on the other hand there are those things that are so nice. We think, “I want them. I want them so much…” Through this way of thinking…attachment arises.

The Three Afflictions: Ignorance, Attachment, Aversion

“What is Buddhism about?”

buddhist-thoughtBuddhism began in India (approximately 560-480 BCE) through its founder Siddhartha Gautama, who became “The Enlightened One” or Buddha. From India, the religion spread throughout Asia. Though all Buddhists practice the “Four Noble Truths” and work to eliminate suffering, there is a significant difference among the various traditions or denominations within Buddhism. Some Buddhist traditions are atheist while others recognize a “higher power” or God.

Buddhism has come to North America through immigration and through Americans and Canadians who have found profound meaning and deep resonance through meditation and other Buddhist practices.

The foundational Buddhist teaching is that of the “Four Noble Truths”.

The first Noble Truth is usually translated “Life is suffering”. Steven Bachelor, a teacher of the Dharma, suggests a translation: “Life is Difficult.” Life begins with the pain of birth, involves misunderstanding and confusion, and ends with the difficulty of death. Lord Buddha, founder of Buddhism, says that suffering and life’s difficulties must be identified as one addresses social problems, violence or illness. One cannot ignore or over-react to issues such as death and dying. Understand suffering is the first step in dealing with social or personal difficulties.

The second Noble Truth is that difficulty and anguish largely originate within ourselves; therefore, all of the causes and conditions of suffering must be analyzed. As humans open themselves to a deeper consciousness, they expose ignorance and delusion. When we understand ourselves and break the power of ignorance, we are working to create peace.

Buddhism recognizes that all sentient beings desire to be happy and to avoid suffering. When human beings are wrapped in confusion, denial and need for control, they will often inflict suffering upon themselves and others.

The third Noble Truth teaches us that we can act in a way that is wise and selfless, and, thus, we can plan and make policies to achieve happiness. It is possible to cut off the roots of suffering.

The fourth Noble Truth is putting our plans and policies into action. The Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) tradition of Buddhism is to engage in activity directed solely and compassionately to the benefit of others.

Buddhism-Karma-Transformation-Non-theismOne’s own journey can be one that takes you through personal development, add some philosophy, psychotherapy and then into Buddhism. To start, Buddhism is about finding a better way to live my life and come to grips with what doesn’t work for me, at the same time finding ways I can be of service to other sentient beings. While we westerners might see it as taming the ego, Buddhists see it as a more active process called Mind Training.

‘Buddhist philosophy deals with the suffering created through our grasping at the concept of a separate and unique Self and the release from suffering in the ultimate reality of Non-Self. But that, like Emptiness, is a topic for further down the path’.

The initial teachings deal with a whole bunch of issues we experience as human beings, many of which we are totally unaware or which totally consume us.

The labels are familiar – anger, greed, craving, fear, avoidance, procrastination – on and on it goes.

If we choose to go down the Mahayana path, what we are choosing is to rediscover within ourselves a nature of loving kindness and compassion towards all sentient beings. It is through this we move towards the path of the bodhisattvas, working for the benefit of all sentient beings, and ultimately realizing our own inherent Buddha nature.

Mahāyāna (Sanskrit: महायान mahāyāna, literally the “Great Vehicle“) is one of the three main existing branches of Buddhism and a term for classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice. The origins of Mahāyāna are still not completely understood, though the earliest texts probably developed in the Āndhra region of South India.

The Mahāyāna tradition is the largest major tradition of Buddhism existing today, with 56% of practitioners, compared to 38% for Theravāda and 6% for Vajrayāna.

According to the teachings of Mahāyāna traditions, “Mahāyāna” also refers to the path of the Bodhisattva seeking complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, also called “Bodhisattvayāna”, or the “Bodhisattva Vehicle.” A bodhisattva who has accomplished this goal is called a Samyaksambuddha. A Samyaksambuddha can establish the Dharma and lead disciples to enlightenment.

In the course of its history, Mahāyāna Buddhism spread from India to various other Asian countries such as Bangladesh, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Bhutan, Malaysia, and Mongolia. Major traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhism today include Zen, Chinese Chán, Pure Land, Tiantai, and Nichiren. It also includes the Vajrayāna Buddhist traditions of Shingon, Tendai and Tibetan Buddhism, which add esoteric teachings to the Mahāyāna tradition.

In the initial years one can be confused by the terminology.

* Were my problems the result of afflictions, poisons, obstructions or illusions?
* How many were there – 3? 5? 7? 84,000?
* How could I overcome them if I didn’t know and understand what they were and how they applied to me?

Then you will come across teachings that talked about the 3, 5, 7, 10 or 84,000 antidotes to the afflictions. More confusion!

It will come as a great relief to me one day to realize that one really only had to deal with three labels. Ignorance, Attachment and Aversion.

Ignorance can be summarized as “We don’t know what we don’t know!”

The teachings are all aimed at gradually expanding our understanding of what is suffering, how we create our suffering and the paths available to us to address these conditions and move towards happiness. The fundamental Mahayana objective is the establishment of loving kindness and compassion as the basis of how we live our daily lives for the benefit of others. Dispelling ignorance is achieved by leading us to understand the afflictions or poisons of attachment and aversion.

Once started to better understand attachment, you come to realize that there are many different ways we can experience it. Common labels are greed, craving, desire, selfishness. We may be attached to a desire for a variety of material things – cars, houses, objects. Then there are attachments to relationships or a desire to be admired or loved. Or we may become attached to an idea – “my religion is the only true religion” or “my race is the only worthy race“. The suffering we experience manifests in many ways. When we don’t have something, we suffer until we get it – and when we have it, we suffer in case we lose it. Resistance to change is a symptom of attachment. You can even have an attachment to having no attachments in that you may feel pride in your achievement and become attached to that pride.

LOL: By the way, there is a reason why you wouldn’t get a Buddhist to vacuum your carpets – they don’t vacuum in the corners because they have no attachments!

Likewise for aversion. Aversion manifests itself as anger, revulsion, hatred, dislike, fear and even indifference. Resistance to change is again a major indication that aversion may be playing a role in your life.

So – how can we apply the understanding that our suffering is generally about attachment or aversion? It is thought that in the process of getting through our busy days, 95% of the time we are in a neutral state, neither experiencing attachment or aversion. Seems to be somewhat a waste of time – or even a lifetime?

The first step is being open to awareness.

If you are experiencing disturbing feelings, work out whether it is a form of attachment or aversion. If this is not clear, then sit with it, meditate on it, until it becomes clearer.

awareness wordleOnce identified, you can then contemplate or meditate on what you have been taught on how to deal with it. For example, an antidote for greed is generosity. When you become aware that your current disquiet has an undercurrent of greed, contemplate or commit to an act of generosity. It may be a prayer for the happiness of all beings, a simple act of kindness or the giving of an offering of flowers or incense or a material gift.

As you do this, observe what it is about that transformation from greed to generosity that makes you happier or eases the intensity of your suffering.
Repeated awareness of the nature of how you experience attachment and aversion and how you can transform those experiences to experiences of loving kindness and compassion will accumulate as training of the mind.

To use an expression used, it is about habituation. We make a habit of practicing awareness and a habit of applying the antidote. Over time we habituate the practice of loving kindness and compassion. The afflictions of ‘attachment and aversion’ are slowly shaken loose and we become more content in our circumstances as they are. The happiness we thus experience is real and lasting.

Keeping it simple should make it easier to focus on the awareness and practice, and not get caught up in trying to understand everything from the start.


If we contemplate desires and listen to them, we are actually no longer attaching to them; we are just allowing them to be the way they are. Then we come to the realization that the origin of suffering, desire, can be laid aside and let go of.

How do you let go of things?

let goThis means you leave them as they are; it does not mean you annihilate them or throw them away. It is more like setting down and letting them be.

Through the practice of ‘letting go’ we realize that there is the origin of suffering, which is the ‘attachment to desire‘, and we realize that we should let go of these three kinds of desire. Once we realize that we have let go of these desires; there is no longer any attachment to them.

When you find yourself attached, remember that ‘letting go’ is not ‘getting rid of’ or ‘throwing away’.

I’m holding onto this clock and you say, ‘Let go of it!’, that doesn’t mean ‘throw it out’. I might think that I have to throw it away because I’m attached to it, but that would just be the desire to get rid of it. We tend to think that getting rid of the object is a way of getting rid of attachment. But if I can contemplate attachment, this grasping of the clock, I realize that there is no point in getting rid of it – it’s a good clock; it keeps good time and is not heavy to carry around. The clock is not the problem. The problem is grasping the clock. So what do I do? Let it go, lay it aside – put it down gently without any kind of aversion. Then I can pick it up again, see what time it is and lay it aside when necessary.

You can apply this insight into ‘letting go’ to the desire for sense pleasures. Maybe you want to have a lot of fun. How would you lay aside that desire without any aversion? Simply recognize the desire without judging it. You can contemplate wanting to get rid of it – because you feel guilty about having such a foolish desire – but just lay it aside. Then, when you see it as it is, recognizing that it’s just desire, you are no longer attached to it.

So the way is always working with the moments of daily life. When you are feeling depressed and negative, just the moment that you refuse to indulge in that feeling is an ‘enlightenment’ experience. When you see that, you need not sink into the sea of depression and despair and wallow in it. You can actually stop by learning not to give things a second thought.

You have to find this out through practice so that you will know for yourself how to let go of the origin of suffering.

Can you let go of desire by wanting to let go of it?

What is it that is really letting go in a given moment?

You have to contemplate the experience of letting go and really examine and investigate until the insight comes. Keep with it until that insight comes: ‘Ah, letting go, yes, now I understand. Desire is being let go of.’ This does not mean that you are going to let go of desire forever but, at that one moment, you actually have let go and you have done it in full conscious awareness. There is an insight then. This is what we call ‘insight knowledge‘. In Pali, it is called ‘nanadassana’ or profound understanding.

I had my first insight into letting go in my first year of meditation. I figured out intellectually that you had to let go of everything and then I thought: ‘How do you let go?’ It seemed impossible to let go of anything. I kept on contemplating: ‘How do you let go?’ Then I would say, ‘You let go by letting go.’ ‘Well then, let go!’

Then I would say:

Paralysis-of-Analysis‘But have I let go yet?’ and, ‘How do you let go?’ ‘Well just let go!’ I went on like that, getting more frustrated. But eventually it became obvious what was happening. If you try to analyze letting go in detail, you get caught up in making it very complicated. It was not something that you could figure out in words any more, but something you actually did. So I just let go for a moment, just like that.

Now with personal problems and obsessions, to let go of them is just that much. It is not a matter of analyzing and endlessly making more of a problem about them, but of practicing that state of leaving things alone, letting go of them. At first, you let go but then you pick them up again because the habit of grasping is so strong. But at least you have the idea.

Even with that insight into letting go, letting go for a moment but then one starts the grasping by thinking: ‘I can’t do it, I have so many bad habits!’ But don’t trust that kind of nagging, disparaging thing in yourself. It is totally untrustworthy. It is just a matter of practicing letting go. The more you begin to see how to do it, then the more you are able to sustain the state of non-attachment.

Breathe and enjoy the journey, taking baby steps into a world of surreal surrender and peace.

There are no right or wrong answers, only experience the journey …

The Concepts and Practice of Tibetan Medicine

Dr. Palmo gave an introduction by noting that Tibetan medicine is a unique and holistic system which has been practiced for many thousands years. This system focuses not only on the physical body but also the mind, and the relationship between the two. However, its practice in Ladakh is declining since introduction of western medicine. There has never been an institute or college in Ladakh to receive training, so this knowledge has been passed down to children through parents.

In some cases, people would travel to Tibet to study, and now they go to study, as she did, in Dharamsala where in 1960 the Dalai Lama re-established the medical institutes of Tibet. This college’s focus is to train students for six years in order not to serve just human society but the society of all sentient beings. This requires much attention to listening and to transforming oneself to be beneficial to society. Students have to do much spiritual purification of body, speech and mind through prostrations, meditation, chanting mantras, etc. At the end of the six years, about only half of a class of 20-30 get through this process.

It’s a very difficult life but at the end they can appreciate it.

After this introduction, Dr. Palmo spoke about diagnosis in Tibetan medicine. What is unique about Tibetan medicine is that it’s diagnostic base begins with the Three Poisons (Skt. tri-dosha, Jp. sandoku 三毒) of Buddhist teaching.

Causes of Disease


From these three basic defiled energies problems arise accordingly. Greed and desire will create problems related to wind, which deals with movement and bodily functions such as circulation, intellect, speech and impulses. Anger will create problems related to bile, which deals with internal heat and digestion, assimilation of food and basic metabolism. Delusion will create problems related to phlegm, which deals with maintaining and regulating normal functioning and the balance of energies. In this way, one can see that treatment will surely deal with psychological and spiritual adjustments to these three mental states.

Checking the Pulse #1 – Right hand of doctor & left hand of patient









Checking the Pulse #2 – Left hand of doctor & right hand of patient









Additional methods of diagnosis include examination of the tongue and urine. Then the urinalysis, such things as the color of the specimen and its odor are observed. Then after vigorous stirring, the size, color, amount, and persistence of bubbles, and any deposits are examined. From this, the nature of the illness, the presence of infection and the localization of the illness, among other things, can be understood.

To further confirm the diagnosis, the color, shape and coatings of the tongue can be examined. In wind disorder, the tongue will be red, dry and rough. In bile disorder, the tongue will be covered by a thick, pale yellow coating of phlegm. In phlegm disorder, the tongue will have a pale, thick coating of phlegm and moist texture.

Various methods of treatment.

Diet: Tibetan medicine looks at the type of food, the amount of food to be eaten, the number of meals per day, and the proper times. Food is analyzed based on its qualities and nature as defined by the Buddhist theory of five elements (air, water, earth, fire, space). Specific arrangements of these five elements form the three energies based on the three poisons as outlined above;

Lifestyle: This can include meditation instruction, spiritual advice, counseling, exercise, or the reorganization of habitual patterns such as sleep habits and eating schedules

Medicine: If the above two approaches do not relieve the condition, then herbal medicines are prescribed. This process of changing lifestyles and eating habits before taking medicine is in stark contrast to western medicine.

Physical Therapies: Therapies such as acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, massage, and inhalation therapy may also be used.

Spiritual Therapy: Despite even the best use of medical treatment, mental health is just as essential to created physical health. As we saw above, Tibetan medicine explains how greed, anger and delusion are the primary cause of illness. Thus, through study and spiritual practice an understanding and awareness can gradually be achieved which transcends that suffering.

Feature image – The Accidental Buddhist, The Wheel of Life Centre

Researched source, all live linked.

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