In this post, we’ve turned towards the exploration of the Three Poisons – an aspect of Nichiren Buddhism that seemed self-evident at first, had it not been for reading this line within On Attaining Enlightenment in this Lifetime:
“Your practice of the Buddhist teachings will not relieve you of the sufferings of birth and death [Samsara] in the least unless you perceive the true nature of your life.”
We wondered: How does perceiving “the true nature of [our] life” free us from the “sufferings of birth and death”? In the previous post we came to realize that the “sufferings of birth and death” are known in the Buddhist tradition as Samsara, and through researching it, the Three Poisons came up as being critical. Samsara is defined as follows:
Saṃsāra (Sanskrit, Pali; also samsara) is a Buddhist term that literally means “circle” or “wheel” and is commonly translated as “conditioned existence”, “cyclic existence”, “cycle of existence”, etc. Within Buddhism, samsara is defined as the continual repetitive cycle of birth and death that arises from ordinary beings’ grasping and fixating on a self and experiences. Specifically, samsara refers to the process of cycling through one rebirth after another within the six realms of existence,[a] where each realm can be understood as physical realm or a psychological state characterized by a particular type of suffering. Samsara arises out of avidya (ignorance) and is characterized by dukkha (suffering, anxiety, dissatisfaction). In the Buddhist view, liberation from samsara is possible by following the Buddhist path.
As an aside, it turns out that these Poisons are the first of the Three Obstacles (see three obstacles and four devils). Perhaps there is a reason for this, as they contribute to the Second and Third Obstacles which are related to Karma. In any case, while it may be known that these poisons are The fundamental evils inherent in life that give rise to human suffering, we weren’t sure how they become manifest within our lives. Obviously, Ignorance, greed and anger are negative traits that of course no one would wish to harbour. But is resisting them enough to prevent their taking root in our lives? It became clear that this topic requires far more elucidation.
In the gosho The Two Kinds of Illness, Nichiren Daishonin writes about two kinds of illness that can afflict a person: Physical illnesses of the body that can be treated by a physician with medicines and the second being illness of the mind, which “only a Buddha can cure”. Nichiren goes on to explain that illness of the mind refers to the three poisons and the eighty-four thousand illnesses. While we already are familiar with the three poisons, the eighty-four thousand illnesses according to T’ien-t’ai’s Volume 1 of the [Great] Calming and Contemplation are:
“On the basis of the three poisons – greed, anger, and folly [ignorance] – we arouse the eighty-four thousand defilements. At the prompting of these various defilements, we perform a variety of actions. As a result of good actions, we experience the recompense of [birth in] the three good realms of heavenly beings, humans, and asuras, And as a result of evil actions, we invite the retribution of [birth] in the three evil realms of the hells, hungry ghosts, and animals.”
It is beyond this post to go into detail regarding these 84 thousand illnesses. But we will revisit these shortly in terms of another important aspect explored further on. First, to better understand where the three poisons originally came from, let us turn to a concept that was briefly touched upon in our last post On Attaining Buddhahood in this Lifetime. This was the concept of Samsara, or what Nichiren refers to as the “sufferings of birth and death”. The SGI Dictionary of Buddhism also refers to this as transmigration.
Symbols are essential for clear communication and comprehension in any area of knowledge, and a good one is hard to find. We found one such tool out of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, known as The Wheel of Samsara (Wheel of Life). This wheel, although not mentioned in Nichiren Buddhism was designed by Sakyamuni himself , and depicts the Three Poisons (as well as the 6 lower worlds) thus we are excited to refer to it throughout this post.
Let us begin by looking at this beautifully depicted TIbetan visual below that depicts the human condition and the possibility to be liberated from the cyclical tendency of Samsara:
Image Source: Critical Rant via Google Images
Within the wheel one can see six spokes which represent the Six Realms of Existence. These realms are defined as the Hell realm, Hungry ghost realm, Animal realm, Human realm, Demi-god realm and God realm. Does this sound familiar at all? Of course it does. These are very similar to the Ten Worlds (Ten Dharma Realms) in Nichiren Buddhism, where “the six lower states are called ‘the six paths,’ and the four higher states ‘the four noble worlds’”. The Ten Worlds in Nichiren Buddhism are defined as hell realm, hungry spirits realm, animal realm, asuras realm, human beings realm, heavenly beings realm, voice-hearers realm, cause-awakened ones realm, bodhisattvas realm, Buddha realm. Admittedly there are differences. The artwork depicts six realms and Nichiren Buddhism has ten realms. However, these distinctions might be less significant once one looks into the layers of meaning contained within the rest of this image.
By now you might be asking: how then does this then relate to the Three Poisons? Well, at the very centre hub we will see a pig, snake and bird consuming each other. These represent the Three Poisons of ignorance (pig), greed (rooster) and anger (snake). Please note that these Three Poisons are also known as ignorance, desire/attachment and aversion. The black and white ring around these represent Karma, where figures on the white side are “ascending to higher realms of existence because of virtuous actions” and figures on the black side are “descending to lower realms of existence because of evil or ignorant actions”. The spokes outside of this represent the Six Realms of Existence as mentioned above. Finally, one can see that outside the wheel altogether is the Buddha pointing to the moon, a symbol guiding us to Enlightenment. When considering the ring of good and bad karma, the 84 Thousand Illnesses from T’ien-t’ai and Nichiren come back into play. As written by T’ien-t’ai, “As a result of good actions, we experience the recompense of [birth in] the three good realms of heavenly beings, humans, and asuras, And as a result of evil actions, we invite the retribution of [birth] in the three evil realms of the hells, hungry ghosts, and animals.“. These illnesses are what are created out of the Three Poisons, and lead us into the higher or lower six realms. However, as can be seen by the Tibeten Wheel – even in the higher of these realms, we remain trapped within the cycle of Samsara because we are still acting out of these three fundamental Poisons and not perceiving the true nature of our lives. The result is that we are kept from awakening to our innate Buddhahood nonetheless.
Image Source: Critical Rant via Google Images
This process is described below in terms of Tibetan Buddhism.
“In the Buddhist teachings, the three poisons are the primary causes that keep sentient beings trapped in samsara. As shown in the wheel of life (Sanskrit: bhavacakra), the three poisons lead to the creation of karma, which leads to rebirth in the six realms of samsara. Of these three, ignorance is the root poison. From ignorance, attachment and aversion arise. [From ignorance, greed and anger arise]”
When considering this in terms of Nichiren Buddhism, we can see that rebirth in the six realms of Samsara could be comparable to being trapped in the lower six of the ten worlds as identified in the footnotes in Nichiren’s gosho The Opening of the Eyes below. Note again that Samsara is described as ‘transmigration’, where we interpret “rebirth” not as being reborn after we die, but as our life entering new moments of existence:
“Transmigration with differences and limitations” refers to the transmigration of unenlightened beings through the six paths. In this repeating cycle of rebirth through the six lower deluded worlds, living beings are born with limited spans of life and in different forms in accordance with their karma. “Transmigration with change and advance” refers to the transmigration of voice-hearers, cause-awakened ones, and bodhisattvas. In this transmigration, they change, or emancipate, from the body subject to transmigration of delusion with differences and limitations, while gradually removing illusions leading to sufferings.”
The Fundamental Poison: Ignorance
We might often hear the third of the poisons as ‘foolishness’ or ‘stupidity’. But is foolishness the same as stupidity? Indeed, what about ‘ignorance’? Despite their apparent similarities, the subtle semantic differences are significant enough to justify going with ‘ignorance’ for this post. We would also like to note that although some SGI sources label this poison as ‘foolishness’ they then clarify its meaning specifically as ‘ignorance’: “Of the three, foolishness is most fundamental, as it facilitates greed and anger. Foolishness here means ignorance (passive or willful) of the true nature of life.“ Commonly listed as the third of the three poisons, we’ve become aware that it certainly is not the least of them. For this reason we are covering it first.
While we were interested to learn of the interdependent nature of the Three Poisons and how they feed off of one another, we were particularly intrigued that ignorance is the fundamental poison that both anger and greed arise from. The following two passages, the first from the SGI website covering Buddhist concepts and the second from Ringu Tulku Rinpoche of the Tibetan tradition provide remarkable insight into how this poison can be interpreted:
From the SGI Buddhist Concepts website:
“Of the three, foolishness [ignorance] is most fundamental, as it facilitates greed and anger. Foolishness here means ignorance (passive or willful) of the true nature of life. It is blindness to the reality of our interrelatedness–not merely our connectedness to and dependence on each other, but the connectedness of the unfolding of each of our lives to the unfolding of the very life of the universe; the fact that each of us is a vital component of life itself and a nexus of immense possibilities. Because it obscures life’s true, enlightened nature, this ignorance is also referred to as ‘fundamental darkness.’”
From Ringu Tulku Rinpoche:
In the Buddhist sense, ignorance is equivalent to the identification of a self as being separate from everything else. It consists of the belief that there is an “I” that is not part of anything else. On this basis we think, “I am one and unique. Everything else is not me. It is something different.”…
From this identification stems the dualistic view, since once there is an “I,” there are also “others.” Up to here is “me.” The rest is “they.” As soon as this split is made, it creates two opposite ways of reaction: “This is nice, I want it!” and “This is not nice, I do not want it!” …
On the one hand there are those things that seem to threaten or undermine us. Maybe they will harm us or take away our identity. They are a danger to our security. Due to this way of thinking, aversion comes up… Then on the other hand there are those things that are so nice. We think, “I want them. I want them so much…” Through this way of thinking…attachment arises.
As we can see from above, ignorance is referring to the true nature of life and not simply ignorance in the general sense of the word. Again, this is reinforced by turning to the excerpt from Nichiren’s gosho On Attaining Enlightenment in this Lifetime that we quoted earlier. Here Nichiren clearly explains that we must perceive the true nature of [our] life, which is exactly what the poison of ignorance is preventing us from realizing.
“Your practice of the Buddhist teachings will not relieve you of the sufferings of birth and death [Samara] in the least unless you perceive the true nature of your life.”
We can see this fundamental ignorance or “Fundamental Darkness” as what then gives rise to and facilitates anger and greed. From the first excerpt we see that this ignorance is not just not knowing things, but is specifically addressing “the identification of a self as being separate from everything else”. This is also known as perceiving a dualistic view of reality. Therefore, ignorance can be understood as incorrectly perceiving the true nature of existence and continuing to act out of that delusion, which then leads us into the other two poisons.
The Poisons of Greed and Anger
As was explained above, acting out of the fundamental poison of ignorance then gives rise to the poison of greed and anger. But how does this work? The key principle to understand here, is that ignorance gives rise to our perception of dualism. As soon as we perceive our life solely as a dualistic phenomena, then anger and greed arise to reinforce this view. We can see this stated again in Ringu Tulku Rinpoche’s excerpt below:
“From this identification stems the dualistic view, since once there is an “I,” there are also “others.” Up to here is “me.” The rest is “they.” As soon as this split is made, it creates two opposite ways of reaction: “This is nice, I want it!” and “This is not nice, I do not want it!” On the one hand there are those things that seem to threaten or undermine us. Maybe they will harm us or take away our identity. They are a danger to our security. Due to this way of thinking, aversion comes up… Then on the other hand there are those things that are so nice. We think, “I want them. I want them so much…” Through this way of thinking…attachment arises.”
An easy way to comprehend this is to simply ask oneself whether space connects or separates things. While it may not always be obvious, ‘space’ does in fact connect ‘things’, as they are only separated by language and provisional constructs. The problem however, is that in our daily life we tend to only accept one side of this dichotomy despite them both being two sides of the same coin. This means that we are functioning out of and reinforcing a delusion about reality. Anger and greed then become ways in which we can reinforce and strengthen our belief in these false boundaries that we’ve created. This includes our idea that we are a separately existing “I” that exists in and of itself.
As we can see then, it seems that both greed and anger (also known as aversion) are not only born out of ignorance of the our fundamental nature, but are then manifested to reinforce the continuation of this delusional perception. This of course can be seen in the depiction of the cyclical representation of the rooster, pig and snake feeding off of each other in the Tibetan artwork of The Wheel of Samsara. From these Three Poisons then, all our suffering, unhappiness and dissatisfaction arise. The catch in all of this – and what makes the cycle so difficult to break out of – is that as long as we act out of our fundamental ignorance, our attempts to find happiness in a dualistic way simply reinforce our greed and anger and perpetuate further suffering. We see then the necessity of finding a way to perceive and act out of a non-dual understanding of reality. This way we can finally free ourselves from the influence of ignorance and the ensuing 84 Thousand Illnesses of the Mind that keep us trapped within the Wheel of Samsara.
What then is the Antidote for these Three Poisons?
Well, according to Nichiren the antidote is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. But there is a caveat of course. It is not simply Nam-myoho-renge-kyo itself, but Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as the manifestation of faith, study and practice combined. There is Faith in our Buddha Nature, or in other words faith “in the internal cause or potential for attaining Buddhahood”. There is Practice by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (mantra meditation) to train the restless mind and embody the true nature of non-duality. Finally, there is Study as in the studying of the Lotus Sutra, Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, and in our opinion, anything that helps bring clarity to both of these sources and inform one’s practice. Nichiren himself studied extensively and we believe we should as well.
From our research it has become clear that Nichiren intended Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to represent Ichinen Sanzen in actuality (ji no ichinen sanzen), so by deepening our understanding of Ichinen sanzen in principle (ri no ichinen sanzen) from T’ien-t’ai, we can further clarify what Nichiren intended Myoho-renge-kyo to represent (see posts on Ichinen Sanzen Part 1 and Part 2 and On Attaining Buddhahood in the Lifetime). From this realization, we can see that Ichinen Sanzen depicts a non-dual interpretation of reality that reveals a new paradigm through which to perceive our existence. When chanting is approached as a meditative practice to perceive Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (Ichinen Sanzen in actuality) as your life itself, it is in essence implying that chanting daimoku is a practice of realizing the oneness of self and environment or the non-dual reality that permeates everything.
“In the act of chanting the daimoku, Nichiren taught, as in more traditional forms of meditation, the subject/object barrier collapses, and the mind of the practitioner (single thought-moment) becomes one with the entire phenomenal world (three thousand realms). Chanting the title of the Lotus thus opens a point of access to nondual reality in which the ordinary person and the Dharma are identified, the eternal, timeless Buddha realm breaks through into the present moment, and the saga world of our empirical experience becomes the Buddha land. In speaking of this, Nichiren borrowed a phrase then current in both Tendai and Shingon Buddhism: the “attainment of Buddhood in this very body” (sokushin jobutsu).”
As we grasp this true nature of reality, our fundamental ignorance of duality (Fundamental Darkness) loses its grip on our lives and so does our tendency to act out of this delusion. We no longer see ourselves as a separately existing entity, but rather as interconnected processes of a whole (see Dependent Origination). Our identity is no longer trapped and defended within the confines of our skin, group associations or nationality, but is more correctly understood as the non-dual manifestation of both cause and effect simultaneously ‘now’. Our identity is then comprehended as our relationship to everything else, which changes everything. Instead of acting out of ignorance, we instead begin to act out of wisdom, insight, and right understanding. This then opens us up to cultivating selflessness, generosity and detachment instead of greed, which then of course leads us to cultivating loving-kindness, compassion, patience, and forgiveness instead of anger. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo becomes not only the meditative tool to bring us into the non-dual present moment to experience the true nature of reality first hand. It also serves as a catalyst to remind ourselves not to get “hooked” by life’s ups and downs (8 winds) or delusions of the mind, and instead to stay focused on realizing the truth of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo as our life itself. As Nichiren himself writes,
“Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life, and continue chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. no matter what happens.”
To close, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is not something that we use to rev ourselves up with by adding more layers of delusion to our lives and feeding into The Three Poisons; rather, it is the means of awakening to the true and fundamental Buddhahood that has been there all along.
 The Two Kinds of Illness – Writings of Nichiren Daishonin – SGI – http://www.sgilibrary.org/view.php?page=919
 Three Poisons – Buddhism Teacher – http://buddhismteacher.com/three_poisons.php
 On Attaining Buddhahood In This Lifetime – Writings of Nichiren Daishonin – SGI – http://www.sgilibrary.org/view.php?page=3
 Saṃsāra (Buddhism) – Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sa%E1%B9%83s%C4%81ra_(Buddhism)
 How To Live as Humans: The Six Paths and the Four Noble Worlds – SGI USA – http://www.sgi-usa.org/memberresources/resources/buddhist_concepts/bc15_six_paths_four_noble_worlds.php
 Three poisons (Buddhism) – Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_poisons_(Buddhism)
 Three Poisons – the Source of the Problem – SGI – http://www.sgi.org/buddhism/buddhist-concepts/three-poisons-the-source-of-the-problem.html
 Ringu Tulku (2005), p. 29
 Transforming the Three Poisons: Greed, Hatred, and Delusion – http://www.naljorprisondharmaservice.org/pdf/ThreePoisons.htm
 The Tibetan Wheel of Life – Religion Facts – http://www.religionfacts.com/buddhism/symbols/wheel_of_life.htm
 Foot Note 21 – The Opening of the Eyes – SGI Writings of Nichiren Daishonin – http://www.sgilibrary.org/view.php?page=291
 Bodily Reading of the Lotus Sutra: Understanding Nichiren’s Buddhism, Ruben L. F. Habito, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 26, No. 3/4, Revisiting Nichiren (Fall, 1999), pp. 281-306
 Buddha Nature – SGI Dictionary of Buddhism – http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php?id=212
 Happiness in This World – The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin – SGI – http://www.sgilibrary.org/view.php?page=681
 Jacqueline Stone – Some Disputed Writings in the Nichiren Corpus: Textual, Hermeneutical and Historical Problems, P. 60
 Ten Worlds – SGI Dictionary of Buddhism – http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php?id=2282
 On Attaining Buddhahood in This Lifetime – The Writing of Nichiren Daishonin – SGI – http://www.sgilibrary.org/view.php?page=3
 The Contemplation of Suchness by Dr. Jacqueline I. Stone (Religions of Japan in Practice by George J. Tanabe, Jr., Editor – Princeton Readings in Religions)
 three obstacles and four devils – SGI Dictionary of Buddhism – http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php?id=2354
 three poisons – SGI Dictionary of Buddhism – http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php?id=2359
 Bhavacakra – Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhavacakra
 samsara – SGI Dictionary of Buddhism – http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php?id=1899