A Zen Priest Plays With the Three Demons

Three poisons
One of the things I like about social media is that it can in fact generate friendships. For instance thanks to social media and specifically Facebook I have come to know Kat Liu. Kat is a sometime scientist, familial care giver, Unitarian Universalist, and Buddhist. She is also wise. We’ve only met a couple of times in meat world. But, I count her a friend and sometimes a teacher.

She recently posted a comment on Facebook about the Buddhist concept of Trivisa, the “three poisons,” which is how it tends to be called in the Mahayana, or, “unwholesome roots,” within the Theravada, or, my favorite, as it is encompasses personifications, “three demons.” In traditional Buddhist thought Trivisa is seen as the foundation of the various bits of unpleasantness that constitute our emergence as human beings. Nasty things that we so often are. And so, it can also be seen as the simple, or it could be said simplistic psychological model.

It isn’t in fact all that simple. And, I’ve found it actually helpful in my own quest to understand myself. And, okay, the rest of you, as well. Out of Kat’s posting and some exchanges which included a couple of other interesting thinkers that followed I felt it might be helpful to write some of this down.

These three demons are kleshas, the mental states that lead us astray. There are a lot of them. I think the Abhidharma, the oldest Buddhist psychological model, and I think it can be argued the oldest psychological model lists fourteen kleshas.

But within Buddhist psychology these three are generally understood at the root problems. They are most commonly translated as greed, hatred (or, often anger), and delusion. The initial conversation began when Kat mentioned that in a class she’s taking the teacher in quest of a mnemonic to help people remember offered GAS: greed, anger, and stupidity. Kat found herself wrestling on Facebook with the term “anger” as the baseline problematic mental state. Me, actually, I had an argument with “stupidity.”

In my understanding part of the problem is that we’re not so much talking about a specific state, as we are pointing to a constellation. So, some unpacking, or opening up feels in order.

First greed. The technical term that is begin rendered as greed is raga, which appears to mean “attachment to a sensory object.” In practice it is the constellation of grasping. This can be grasping after anything from food to sex to, well, what do you want?

The second constellation in this list is dvesha, which I think actually translates as aversion. It includes anger and hatred. You can see how it is also in some ways the opposite of grasping. It is a pushing away.

But, here we begin to see the problem that calls for parsing. Anger is obviously a response to a situation, word or action. And, like pain it is a call to do something. This was why Kat posted her post, to discus whether anger is at all appropriate as a useful shorthand for dvesha. I agree. Hatred is obviously a more helpful translation.

And the third is moha, which seems to be translatable as delusion, or confusion, or even dullness. It is also sometimes collapsed with another term avidya, which is translated as ignorance. So, we can see how “stupidity” could be a translation. Stupid is not like ignorance which can be remedied, rather stupid is a state we can’t overcome. And things that cannot be engaged is not the point. So, it doesn’t work for me. In fact of these three demons it was the one I’ve struggled with most.

It is too easy to take it as wrong thinking as in not right thinking as in adherence to some dogmatic proclamation. And, frankly, I’ve seen people present it that way. They’ve got their orthodoxy down and if you disagree, well, ipso facto, you’re caught in the jaws of the demon.

Then one day the light dawned. Delusion is in fact the constellation.of our certainties. Anything we are sure of absolutely without a hint of a doubt not to be challenged, well, that is moha.

In Buddhist iconography these three demons are pictured as a cock standing for grasping, a snake as aversion, and a pig as delusion, or, as I said I find more useful, our certainties.

Now, also, these things have flips. They can become other things, more healthful, more useful to self and other. Greed becomes generosity, aversion loving-kindness, and ignorance becomes wisdom. Me, I’ve found in my own experience a slightly different approach. In my life, and I’ve seen it in others, greed does indeed become generosity. However, aversion, I’ve noticed becomes clarity, an ability to see through. And, if the constellation of delusion is really the constellation of our burning certainties, the the flip is curiosity.

I’ve had a little push back here and there. For instance, in the Facebook exchange Kat notes, “I can see how clarity, generosity, and curiosity are the flips of aversion, grasping, and certainty. And I can see the relationship between certainty and delusion. But I can’t see how clarity, generosity, and curiosity correspond to the more traditional translations of the three wholesome qualities – wisdom, generosity, and loving-kindness.” She’s right. And, I think bottom line it is an innovation on the traditional use.

However, as a Zen Buddhist,I find it a bit more useful. As I’ve experienced Zen the great project is not quenching or extinguishing our experiences, as we often find in both the literal translations of Pali texts, but also as they’re plainly understood by many modern Theravada Buddhists and many Mahayana Buddhists, as well; but rather “seeing” through them and all things.

What precisely this seeing through is is a bit mysterious. For me it is in a sense quenching or extinguishing, but, not precisely. It absolutely is not a turning away from. This is the world in which we live. And there is no other. We are composed of inclinations that include grasping and aversion and certainties. They do not go away until the time when the various factors that coalesced to become you and I disperse.

But, there is within this sense of “seeing through” a letting go of the results while living fully with the moment. It’s a magic trick humans get to do. We call it awakening in Zen. Sadly, in my experience, we also fall back asleep. Kind of all the time. But, with continuous practice we find a kind of oscillation, where the now asleep now awake becomes a new birth. And with that we can live with our grasping and become generous, with our aversion and see clearly, and with our certainties and find ourselves endlessly curious.

The play that is our way.

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