Three Poisons 

In Buddhist teachings, greed, hatred, and delusion are known, for good reason, as the three poisons, the three unwholesome roots, and the three fires. These metaphors suggest how dangerous afflictive thoughts and emotions can be if they are not understood and transformed.  

Greed refers to our selfishness, misplaced desire, attachment, and grasping for happiness and satisfaction outside of ourselves. Hatred refers to our anger, our aversion and repulsion toward unpleasant people, circumstances, and even toward our own uncomfortable feelings. Delusion refers to our dullness, bewilderment, and misperception; our wrong views of reality.  

The poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion are a by-product of ignorance—ignorance of our true nature, the awakened heart of wisdom and compassion. Arising out of our ignorance, these poisonous states of mind then motivate non-virtuous and unskillful thoughts, speech, and actions, which cause all manner of suffering and unhappiness for ourselves and others.  

Greed, hatred, and delusion are deeply embedded in the conditioning of our personalities. Our behavior is habitually influenced and tainted by these three poisons, these unwholesome roots buried deep into our mind. Burning within us as lust, craving, anger, resentment, and misunderstanding, these poisons lay to waste hearts, lives, hopes, and civilizations, driving us blind and thirsty through the seemingly endless round of birth and death (samsara).  

The Buddha describes these defilements as bonds, fetters, hindrances, and knots; the actual root cause of unwholesome karma and the entire spectrum of human suffering.  

Although this teaching may appear negative or unpleasant, indeed, a wise understanding of the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion is ultimately positive and empowering. With this sublime understanding we can clearly see and feel the factors that are causing confusion, unhappiness, and suffering in our lives. And with this clarity and insight, we can make the choice to eliminate those factors!  

The teaching of The Four Noble Truths clearly explains that when we embrace and understand the exact causes of our suffering and dissatisfaction, we can then take the necessary steps to extinguish those causes and liberate ourselves. This is certainly positive and empowering.  

In addition, it is important for us to realize that the Dharma teachings regarding defilement and purification are not just rigid, restrictive, or authoritarian theories regarding morality, but are real and solid facts essential to our correct understanding of reality and eventual awakening.

These three poisons are further described as follows:

In summary, for good reason, greed, hatred, and delusion are known as the three poisons, the three fires, and the three unwholesome roots. These metaphors suggest how dangerous afflictive thoughts and emotions can be if they are not understood and transformed. This is a potent Dharma teaching clearly explaining the characteristics of the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion, how to understand these defilements, and how to transform them using their sublime antidotes (alternatives).

For a PDF copy of this information, click on Transforming the Three Poisons: Greed, Hatred, and Delusion 


Source: Used with permission from Neil Steven Cohen at Naljor Prison Dharma Service, PO Box 1177, Mount Shasta CA 96067. (

Photo Credit: Intellimon Ltd.