There are three defilements in Buddhist psychology that typically translated into English as greed, hate, and delusion. These three defilements are derived from the Buddha’s formulation of the Four Noble Truths. In accord with the Buddha’s teaching and the evidence of my own experience, they comprise the source of most human suffering.
The first of the Three Defilements, Greed, drives us to cling to or hoard the things we want, and hate drives us to avoid and resist what we don’t want. Delusion is the folly of thinking we can get what we want to the exclusion of what we don’t want. It’s an attempt to split up circumstances into categories of our own devising. But reality is not divisible in that way, and the irony of such a delusion resides in a failure to recognize that greed and hate are psychologically one and the same.
My clinging to something I want is always in resistance to something I don’t want. My resistance to something I don’t want resides in my preference for something I do want. It’s a situation that leaves me pushing and pulling simultaneously, a matter of considerable strain. When I put myself at odds with circumstance, I’m certain to suffer just as the Buddha said I would. The tug of war set up between clinging and aversion nullifies the effective force of either. The resulting lack of inclusive receptiveness has the effect of shutting down the whole system of human exchange, confining me within my own likes and dislikes.
Not Black & White
Greed and hatred aren’t necessarily all-or-nothing states, both occurring in varying degrees and varieties. Jealousy and envy are instructive in this regard, ranging from states of minor discomfort to that of consuming passions. Not only that but these particular forms of coveting demonstrate the invariable simultaneity of attraction and aversion. If I’m held in the throes of jealousy, that’s because I want to possess a particular object or person to the exclusion of others. I’m left suspended between the will to include and exclude, a contradiction that can’t be sustained because the two states are emotionally self-canceling.
It’s a matter of reeling in and tossing out at the same time. But jealousy and envy also point unmistakably to the source of this simultaneity, which is seen to reside in threatened identity, a protective defense on behalf of the idea one holds of one’s “self.” If, as in jealousy, I’m distressed by the attention someone gives to someone other than me, it’s because I somehow feel diminished by that loss.
The critical possessiveness that drives me into jealousy is not found so much in the desire to possess the coveted object itself as in the manner in which the object possession reflects on me. Which means that what I’m actually trying to protect is my idea of myself, which leaves me straining to maintain possession of the conditions necessary to support the “person” I think I am. If I’m coveting your house, job, wife, car, success, or fame that’s because I feel less of a person with them in your possession than in mine. If I can’t match or exceed your acquisitions and successes, I’m drawn into doubt regarding myself. I need what you have in order to be the person I want to be.
The House of Three Defilements
However, if I’m attracted to something for its own sake and don’t feel personally diminished by its absence, then that’s quite another thing. The same is true of aversion. I may not like rudeness in a person. But if I’m not favorably comparing myself to the rude person, then the aversion is not necessarily rooted in identity. It’s possible to check this out. Suppose I’m running for a seat on the city council and my opponent wins the seat, I may very well be disappointed because after all I lost and I’m only human. But it’s equally human to be glad for my opponent’s success, understanding that he wanted to win as much as I.
Supposing I win the seat, I may be very pleased and happy with my success. I wanted to win didn’t I? But in my pleasure, am I also capable of sympathizing with the loser’s disappointment? If I can find the degree of graciousness within me that allows me to exchange myself with others, then my simple likes and dislikes, for whatever difficulties they might possibly bring me, are not rooted in identity. However both the poor loser and the poor winner struggle between fancied esteem and disesteem that ultimately drives the forces of greed, hatred, and delusion. Such a qualified identity is a casualty of conflicting preference, a self strung out between poles of attraction and aversion.
Indulging greed and hatred shrinks the world down to the exact dimensions of my own likes and dislikes. Every fixed opinion, judgment, and belief of mine serves to further isolate me within walls constructed of anger, jealousy, envy, distrust, and, most of all, fear. My whole reality becomes a threatening standoff between what is perceived as inside and what is outside, with me huddled on the inside behind the barriers fear constructs, clutching my little treasure of preferences and anxious over possible interference from without. When I give in to greed and hatred, I have taken residence in the house of delusion.
Our Gifts to Take
The three defilements are actually gifts given us if we receive them as such, because they point the way out of the suffering that each brings. But they will only do so if we acknowledge them and their presence in our lives. It’s when I admit my greed for getting what I want and my hatred of what I don’t want, that I am able to see through these pointless and competing preferences. If I can just once pry open the tight fist of greed, the hand of generosity is revealed. I needn’t try to be generous; I only have to let go of what I’m hanging on to. The relinquishing is itself the generosity.
The same is true of aversion. What I don’t push away will enter of its own accord and will no longer seem so foreign and threatening to me, opening a pathway to acceptance, and even love, for what was once feared and avoided.
Of course I can always incarcerate myself within imprisoning walls of greed, hate, and delusion. Yet even the slightest curiosity reveals that the walls of my friendless cell are merely constructed of my own self-concern and troubled apprehensions. Just beyond the furthest point of fear, hang the keys to turn the lock that sets me free.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.