The Three Poisons

The Unwholesome Roots of Our Unease

The pig, snake and cock at the center of the Wheel of Life represent ignorance, hate and greed.
MarenYumi / Flickr, Creative Commons License

In the center or hub of the iconic Buddhist image of the Wheel of Life, or Bhavachakra, usually you will find a picture of a pig or boar, a cock, and a snake, The energy of these creatures turns the wheel of samsara, where unliberated beings wander and experience birth, death, and rebirth, around and around.

These three creatures represent the Three Poisons, or Three Unwholesome Roots, which are the source of all "evil" and negative mental states. The Three Poisons are lobha, dvesha and moha, Sanskrit words usually translated as "greed," "hate" and "ignorance."

In Sanskrit and Pali, the Three Poisons are called the akusala-mula. Akusala, a word usually translated as "evil," actually means "unskillful." Mula means "root." The Three Poisons are, then, the root of evil, or the root from which all unskillful or harmful actions spring.

It is understood in Buddhism that as long as our thoughts, words, and actions are conditioned by the Three Poisons they will generate harmful karma and cause problems for ourselves and others. Living a moral life, then, doesn't just require following the Precepts but purifying ourselves of the Poisons as much as we can.

Moha, or Ignorance

We begin with ignorance because ignorance, represented by the pig, leads greed and hate. The Theravadin teacher Nyanatiloka Mahathera said,

"For all evil things, and all evil destiny, are really rooted in greed, hate and ignorance; and of these three things ignorance or delusion (moha, avijja) is the chief root and the primary cause of all evil and misery in the world. If there is no more ignorance, there will be no more greed and hatred, no more rebirth, no more suffering."

The Pali word avijja, which in Sanskrit is avidya, refers to the first of the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. The "links" in this case are the factors that keep us bound to samsara. Avidya and moha both are translated as "ignorance" and are, I understand, close to being synonyms, although as I understand it avidya primarily means unawareness or obscured awareness. Moha has a stronger connotation of "delusion" or "blindness."

The ignorance of moha is the ignorance of the Four Noble Truths and of the fundamental nature of reality. It manifests as the belief that phenomena are fixed and permanent. Most critically, moha manifests in the belief in an autonomous and permanent soul or self. It is clinging to this belief and the desire to protect and even elevate the self that causes hate and greed. The antidote to ignorance is wisdom.

Dvesha, Hate

The Sanskrit dvesha, also spelled dvesa, or dosa in Pali, can mean anger and aversion as well as hatred. Hate arises from ignorance because we don't see the interconnectedness of all things ad beings and instead experience ourselves as standing apart. Dvesha is represented by the snake.

Because we see ourselves as separate from everything else we judge things to be desirable -- and we want to grasp them -- or we feel aversion, and we want to avoid them. We are also likely to be angry with anyone who gets between us and something we want. We are jealous of people who have things that we want. We hate things that frighten us or seem to pose a threat to us. The antidote to dvesha is loving kindness.

Lobha, Greed

Lobha is represented on the Wheel of Life by the cock. It refers to desire or attraction for something we think will gratify us or make us, somehow, better or greater. It also refers to the drive to preserve and protect ourselves. The word lobha is found in both Sanskrit and Pali, but sometimes people use the Sanskrit word raga in place of lobha to mean the same thing.

Greed can take a lot of different forms (see "Greed and Desire"), but a good example of lobha would be acquiring things to elevate our status. If we are driven to wear the most stylish clothes so that we will be popular and admired, for example, that is lobha at work. Hoarding things so that we will have them even if everyone else must do without is also lobha.

Self-glorification rarely satisfies us for long, however. It puts us at odds with other humans, many of whom are seeking self-glorification also. We use and manipulate and exploit others to get what we want and to make ourselves feel more secure, but ultimately this makes us more and more isolated. The antidote to lobha is generosity.

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Your Citation
O'Brien, Barbara. "The Three Poisons." Learn Religions, Sep. 10, 2021, O'Brien, Barbara. (2021, September 10). The Three Poisons. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Three Poisons." Learn Religions. (accessed June 1, 2023).