The Three Poisons (Sanskrit: triviṣa; Tibetan: dug gsum) or the three unwholesome roots (Sanskrit: akuśala-mūla; Pāli: akusala-mūla), refer to the three root mental states that give rise to other mental states, or kleshas. Kleshas cloud the mind, resulting in harmful actions. Sages and monks have long understood the destructive power of the Three Root Poisons, from which additional, secondary kleshas arise.
These three primary Kleshas, or mental poisons, are:
Cycle of Kleshas and Tanha Described in the Bible
The Bible describes this same insight of cravings leading to sin and then to death. James, the brother of Jesus Christ, in his book contained in the Bible, wrote:
14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.James 1:14-15
James describes this same ongoing cycle in which all people experience. First comes evil desire or craving, leading to sin or harmful actions, in turn leading to death.
Origin of Kleshas and Tanha
One of the fundamental insights in Buddhism is Pratītyasamutpāda – that all phenomena arise from previous phenomena. If so, what gave rise to this situation today where we all find ourselves in the grip of these destructive mental states, that in turn give rise to cravings, evil actions, and death?
Some phenomena come about simply as the result of ongoing physical laws. Gravity is one such law that explains much of what we see in terms of movement of objects by an ongoing law. Other phenomena arise as a result of previous historical events. For example, here we surveyed magnificent Buddha statues existing today across Asia. Why are these present today? They exist because certain artists and craftsmen built them in the past, and these artists purposed to construct them because of the legacy of Gautama Buddha who lived and taught before them. The events and life of Gautama Buddha in history explain why we all see Buddha statues in existence today.
…From the Bible
In the same way, the Bible explains that the reason we experience the phenomena of the Three Poisons and other resultant Kleshas are the consequence of a tragic event at the beginning of history. We saw how God had created man in His image, thus giving him capacity for free choice. Because He wanted man to freely love Him obediently, God placed a test of this love and obedience before man. The Scriptures recount:
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”Genesis 2:15-17
God had also created the physical cosmos as a stupa with great numbers of powerful spirits. The foremost created spirit, because of his great power and beauty became proud. He chose to oppose God, and so became The Adversary, or Devil, to God. The Devil planned to destroy the equilibrium in the cosmos. He went about it by tempting the first humans into disobedience. With his power he could control or possess any creature. He took control of a serpent as the ancient Hebrew account records it.
The Initial Poisons… Raga and Moha
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.Genesis 3:1-6
We see here the beginning of the Three Poisons. The forbidden tree was:
- ‘good for food’
- ‘pleasing to the eye’
- ‘desirable for gaining wisdom’
The first two cravings were Raga, or sensual attachment. The ‘wisdom’ offered gave the illusion that they could be ‘like God, knowing good and evil’. But that simply was Moha, or delusion.
Thus the first humans failed the temptation, disobeying God. The account continues.
…Leading to Dvesha
7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.Genesis 3:7-8
In their disobedience the nature of the man and woman changed. It changed their relationship with each other since they now felt shame, being naked in front of another person. And when God, who had been their friend, came to be with them as He habitually did, they ‘hid’. Dvesha, or aversion, showed itself here in their loss of innocence with each other and in their hiding from their former friend – the Creator God. The account continues:
9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”Genesis 3:9-13
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Now the man will not take responsibility for his actions. He blames the woman, and even God for putting the woman there with him. The woman blames the serpent. And so from this first act of disobedience came the Three Poisons of Moha, Raga and Dvesha. From them, subsequent kleshas, like denial of responsibility and the blaming of others, began. Cravings, or Tanha, were also unleashed.
Responding to the Three Poisons Unleashed
At this point it looked like the Adversary Devil had won against God the Creator. Klesha poisons were unleashed into the tranquil world. From the initial kleshas unleashed in the garden, as well as from the two responses introduced by the Creator God, the whole cycle of samsara emerges. But we will also see a path of liberation. We will see how the Creator God responds, to mankind and also to His Adversary the Devil. We start with what the Creator God does to the Cosmos here. Later, we see His response to His Adversay.