“Endless greed is itself a poison, a kind of abnormal state, and the same is also true for anger and ignorance. The antidote is to realize that these poisons are addictive to the mind, and that one should return to the practice method. Do not allow yourself to be deterred or affected by these poisons… When suffering from vexations, first realize that they arise because of our addiction to the poisons of the mind—greed, anger, and ignorance.” – Master Sheng-Yeng
America has a personality. A society is, in a sense, like a collective person, a macro-ego. It has a personality that can be characterized by certain traits. To be certain, it is made up of endless varieties of personalities manifesting in the individual members of the society, yet it can be said that there are some overarching traits that give some definition to the society. There is an interactive loop of individuals shaping society and society shaping the individuals. This overarching personality style of a culture has positive aspects and negative ones just like the personality of an individual. America always has been known in the world as idealistic, creative, dauntless, generous, and even to a degree, compassionate. These are positive collective personality traits. America and Americans also have been thought of as materialistic, entitled, aggressive, insensitive, and dogmatic about the superiority of American institutions and beliefs, capable of great cruelty in the pursuit of American security and interests – not such positive traits.
In a very real way, these negative traits are much like the poisons of greed and ignorance spoken of in Buddhist literature. We are greedy for status and material wealth, and we are ignorant of the important truth of the interrelation and interconnection of humanity and nature. Were we to be honest, we would have to acknowledge we conduct a foreign policy that would have us declaring war on any nation that behaved like we do. We have military forces stationed all around the world pressing up against the borders of nations with whom we are in antagonistic relationship, and in many places our forces are in violent clash with the citizenry of the nations where those forces are stationed. We say this is necessary for our security, yet it is quite plausible that this aggressive reach of our armed forces is a major factor in creating the enemies we say those forces protect us from. Honesty would say that economic and political greed are very much behind this international posture, along with admirable intentions for international stability and safety.
Honesty would say that most likely the greatest threat to individual, national and international future security and well-being is a growing climate-change crisis, yet American power interests dither and deny on this issue, perversely clinging to and defending ignorance. They also go so far as to foster politically the undermining of the science institutions that are warning us because of greedy powers-that-be who would lose wealth and power in a realignment of our economy into sustainability. This is surely poisonous.
Were we to be honest, we would acknowledge that most of our domestic problems arise from greed that keeps us a stratified society of haves and have-nots. For many of the haves, those who society has materially rewarded with privilege, security and even opulence, there seems to be fear that to expand that circle of security to everyone would be at the cost of their security, and this is surely ignorance. A secure society for everyone is the result of security distributed as a right to all. It turns out it is not security that many are after, but privilege and opulence, and these short sighted and selfish people don’t care if their greed is at the expense of security for others. These attitudes poison the social waters for everyone.
This ignorance and its consequences of poverty, crime, victimization, class and race antagonism and alienation, the exclusion of many from a life of dignity and society’s fruits generates anger; and security for everyone is threatened and the cycles replicate themselves. Our domestic politics and economics are all conducted in competitive power relationships. We often do not want to understand, accommodate and support each other. We want to be in the power position. Anger generates the energy for this competition and allows the dehumanization which results in our viewing others simply as threats and not as human beings who have the very same needs that we have. Which brings us back to ignorance and once again the cycles self-replicate. Some periods of history are marked by these poisons more than others, and it may very well be we are in one of those periods where ignorance seems to be celebrated, angry interactions are becoming the norm, and life for everyone is increasingly insecure. Buddhism is right to call it poison.
For many, however, the turmoil of international conflict and social unrest are only the stuff of news stories. Many feel the poisons don’t affect their lives except remotely. Reconsideration may be appropriate. Our society and many in it lack an understanding of life that contains any refined subtlety. When we hear reference to concepts like greed, anger and ignorance we think of them only in their extreme manifestations as represented by the news stories. Few of us would admit that our own minds are afflicted with greed, anger and ignorance when in truth, it is only a most refined, evolved and conscious person who is not so afflicted.
We deal daily with these poisons. Just driving our car through city traffic, standing in the check-out line at the store, or interacting with family members can ignite them. We want what we want. We get angry if we don’t get it. We seldom bring wisdom into our interactions, functioning blindly from our conditioned belief and behavior patterns. We greedily pursue happiness, thinking that getting what we want will bring happiness, but this is ignorance of the truth that thinking primarily of ourselves does not bring happiness. It is ignorance of the truth that lasting and true happiness that is not dependent on circumstantial gratification arises from altruism, from caring and experiencing connection with others and the world, and from practicing kindness and generosity, from having a sense of self so secure and stable it has no need to place itself in competition with or above others. This is true for individuals, groups of individuals and whole societies. Selfishness is ignorance. Kindness, compassion, and generosity of good will are in truth the practices and attitudes that lead to happiness, security and well-being. You don’t have to be Buddhist to realize this or to realize the value of building your life around practicing these virtuous behaviors and attitudes in obvious and in subtle ways.
Pay attention to how greed, anger and ignorance, these three poisons, create unhappiness in you and those around you and in our society. Ignorance is the key poison. From it the other two arise, but ignorance is subtle – we cannot feel it. That is why our real opening to liberating ourselves is to pay attention to what we do feel – greed and anger. These two are palpable – we contract into caricatures of these energies, small, self-centered and unable to identify and feel the humanity of those we are in interaction with. When these energies are present, we can know that ignorance is at work and if we “return to the practice method,” if we are mindful, if we are present and open-minded, we can activate the virtuous energies of compassion, kindness and generosity, and our energy will open into spacious presence and our tension and narrow focus will relax. We will feel better, and this is self-reinforcing. This is wisdom, and it will be the antidote to ignorance.
Not only is this antidote to the mind-poisons very helpful to us individually in our desire to live happier and more peaceful lives, it is essential if we are to be a happier and more peaceful society and planet. So, in attending to our own peace and well-being, we contribute to the peace and well-being of others by not injecting more poison into our interactions – which will better enable us all to live happy and peaceful lives. We can then aspire collectively to the practice of developing and accentuating our society’s and humanity’s positive character traits and virtues – a much better cycle than that created by the poisons of greed, anger and ignorance. Dedicating ourselves to living a cycle of virtuous compassion and generosity both for our own happiness and well-being and for the happiness and well-being of all is surely a dedication to wisdom, peace and true prosperity.