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Greed, First of Three Poisons in Buddhism

For the next three Wheel of Dharma issues, I would like to cover the topic of the Three Poisons in Buddhism.

The three poisons are greed, anger and ignorance, or sometimes stupidity is used for ignorance. Rev. Dr. Kenneth Tanaka has coined these three poisons as the acronym of GAS. We humans can be consumed by GAS. While this is a humorous way to remember the three poisons, the fact that Buddhism uses the metaphor of “poison,” to describe these three emotions is quite significant.

If we saw a bottle of poison, like weed killer or something like that, we would never think about drinking it. Such poisons have strong labels warning us not to drink or consume it because it is poison. Consuming such a poison could destroy our good health and life.

Buddhism is warning us that the three poisons are equally threatening to our life. They could consume our life. They could destroy our good life that we have and live. Today, I will discuss the poison of greed.

Normally, when we think of greed, we think of other people, like the greed for money on Wall Street, or the greed for power like a dictator. Those are examples of greed, but Buddhism is talking about our own greed.

We might not think of ourselves as a “greedy” person, but greed is not necessarily the greed for money on Wall Street. Greed in Buddhism is simply, “wanting a little bit more,” and not being satisfied with what we have, whether it is our salary, our home, our career, or our prestige. We always wish we had just a little more. With a little more money, we could buy this or that. With a little bigger home, we could have our own office or a guest room. If we had that next level or position at work, then we could be the boss instead of being bossed.

Buddhism teaches us that this wish to have just a little more is unending. No matter how much money we have, how big a home we have, how nice of a car we have, we always want just a little more.

Everyone has their own unique interests and desires for something more. If you are a golfer, you always want the latest new driver or putter. If you are into clothes, there is always something more to buy, a new dress, a new sweater, or a new pair of shoes. If you are into cars, there is the latest model with turbo, or maybe you dream of owning a Tesla. If you are into computers and electronics, you want the latest iPhone or iPad.

Drug addiction and alcoholism is a vivid example of greed and how it can consume our life. A drug addict lives from one fix to the next. An alcoholic cannot function without drinking to the point where it destroys your family life, your work, and your health and well-being. Recently, there are Buddhist efforts to help people with addiction problems through Buddhism. The Vista Buddhist Temple has a very successful Dharma Recovery program that is like a Buddhist “AA” meeting, but Dharma focused.

I once had a fascinating conversation with an avid mountain climber, who shared that mountain climbing is really like an addiction. Once you climb a mountain, then you want to climb a taller mountain, then another taller mountain, until in the sad case of many climbers, it leads to your fall and death.

How do we address our greed within a Shin Buddhist context? Shinran Shonin was acutely aware of the three poisons in his life. He even saw himself deep inside as a person who sought fame and to be a teacher to others. In his poems, he confesses:

I lack even small love and small compassion,

And yet, for fame and profit, enjoy teaching others.

But yet this foolish being that has the three poisons at its core is illuminated by the light of the Buddha, the light of the Dharma. If not for this light, we could not even see the greed in our life. If not for the light, we would continue a life of unending greed, leading to many problems in life. Gratefully, the light of the Dharma enables us to see and then transcend the powerful emotion of greed in our life.


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