How to Turn Three Poisons into Three Pillars

Samantha Luk

How to turn "Greed, Anger, Ignorance" into "Precepts, Deep Concentration, Wisdom"

Buddhism teaches Kruna (compassion), but it also focuses on prajna (wisdom), which is inherent in everybody and it can only be manifested by eliminating ignorance by self-cultivation. By using prajna, one is able to turn "greed, anger, and ignorance" into "precepts, meditation, and wisdom".

"Greed, Anger, Ignorance" together are known as the Three Poisons. These are sources of all illusions and desires. These three poisons continuously pollute people's lives, and are obstacles of Enlightenment.


Greed is a DESIRE or lust; one tries to get hold of something and to get more and more of it. Greed is one of the causes of thefts, some people steal because they're greedy, and they are not satisfied with what they already have. There was a story about a very greedy man who loves candies. One day, his wife bought a jar and organized all his candies in the jar for him. However, when he put his hand in the jar to get candies, he could not pull his hand out again! No matter how hard he pulls, his hand is still stuck in the jar. The wife was so worried that she called the firemen to help break the jar open to free his hand. When the jar was broken, they found that the reason why his hand was stuck in the jar was because he grabbed a hand-full of candies and refused to let go, but the jar opening was too small for him to pull the cadies out all at once. If he had taken one candy at a time, the firemen wouldn't have to break the jar open to free his hand. Desire, as Tanha, is considered as being one of the Three Daughters of Mara as well.


Anger arises when there is rejection on one's wishes; one becomes displeased. It comes in many forms: HATRED, jealousy, abuse, and cruelty. Anger is basically caused by a false belief that the illusory self has loss control over something that is important. When I was in high school, I had a friend who doesn't know how to control his anger. Once he was angry because his teacher would not accept his homework that was handed in late. He was so angry that he started hitting everything in site (i.e., lockers, walls). And as he was walking and wasn't looking where he was going, he hit his hand right into the glass of the fire extinguisher unit and his hand started to bleed right away from the broken glass. From his behavior, we could learn that when we are angry, we are very vulnerable to dangers because we do not have a clear mind and we become very aggressive. However, in the end, we are the one who gets hurt, mentally or physically. The Meditation on the Three Contemplations Sutra states:

If anger rises and you desire
to harm another being
already you have harmed
yourself far more than him.
And that is why you must
often think on compassion;
for compassion keeps from rising
all thought of anger, evil, and pain.

The Buddha said that anger was one of the Five Hindrances, which are state of mind that make us difficult to learn dharma. Therefore, anger causes the loss of all goodness.


Ignorance or delusion is a wrong perception of the world. There is a parable from the Scripture of One Hundred Parables. The story is a about a woman who only has one son, but she wanted to have more sons. The woman's friend told her that she has a way to help the woman to pray for more sons but she needs to make a sacrifice. The woman was told that she needs to kill her only son as a sacrifice to get more sons. When the foolish woman was about to kill her only son, a wise man approached her and stopped her and told her how foolish she is giving what she has now to hope for something that might not happen. Some ignorant people do not realize that they're doing something harmful to others and to themselves, and furthermore hope to born to the heaven. These three poisons circle around our world, poisoning our souls, blinding us from seeing the true path to enlightenment. They are poisons that prevent us from leaving the cycle of birth and death. All the worries we get sprung from the three poisons. However, the three poisons can be arrested through "Precepts, Meditation, and Wisdom".

"Precepts, Deep Concentration, Wisdom" are known as the "Three Pillars". They are the guidelines to our lives. When we practice the "three pillars", we'll be walking further away from the "three poisons". Precept is the training in moral discipline; it prevents wrongdoing. There is the Five Precepts which is no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, and no intoxication (see Sila, moral conduct in Buddhism). Deep Concentration is achieved through meditation (see Shikantaza as well as Samadhi). It is the training of the mind. It eliminates the scattering characteristic of ordinary mind and allows it to look directly at itself. Wisdom is the training in clear perception. A verse from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, states:

If your mind is in balance,
What need is there to work at morality?
If your behavior is correct,
What use is meditation to you?
If you understand mercy,
Then you still naturally care for your parents.
If you understand faithful conduct,
Then all society will be in order.

Respect of others and ourselves is the key to balancing the mind. If you know how to respect ourselves, we would not be as anxious, therefore our mind would be balanced and practicing morality would be a natural process. We need to free ourselves from thinking that practicing morally is a stiff confinement. Morality is actually the key to our liberation. Deep concentration is from practicing meditation, however, meditation cannot be practiced well without morality. Once we have a balanced mind, and understand morality, our lives would be in accord with the deepest level of meditation. From deep concentration, we get wisdom. By meditation and wisdom, one cultivates one's mind, clearing the clouds of ignorance that is blocking the road to enlightenment. Therefore, it is very important for us to practice the "thee pillars" all the time in order to prevent ourselves from being "poisoned" by "Greed, Anger, and Ignorance".


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the Wanderling


Hsi-Lai Temple
3456 S. Glenmark Dr.,
Hacienda Hts., CA 91745

NOTE:-- It is thought at one time the
author of this paper was associated
with the above temple. Her present
whereabouts is unknown.


There are two main groups of precepts: the Three Pure Precepts (not creating evil, practicing good, and actualizing good for others) which correspond to an ancient standard Mahayana formulation, and the Ten Grave Precepts which consist of the standard Five Precepts, Sila (against killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants), together with a further set of five which are said to be formulated more specific to Zen. The First Four are included in the Patimokkha and are called The Four Parajikas, that is, the four major rules of conduct. If a MONK breaks even just ONE of the four rules of the Parajikas he is, not just can be, but IS, expelled from the Community for LIFE.

1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.

2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

3. Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct. (see)

4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.

5. Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.


"There is no sexual misconduct."

For some, this might mean celibacy, particularly for monks of the Northern Mountain Order. In other cases, not. The point is that all is original purity and dignity. In the light of this, how can we seduce or coerce another against their will? How can we sink our awareness into obsessiveness over glands and glamour? Sexual love arises clearly and purely between two persons. It is openness and warmth and communication. How can we choose to defile such an act with pettiness? How can we take something so simple and attach to it images of coersion, dominance and power and submission (and latex and whips and hard-core)?

Bodhidharma: Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the ungilded Dharma, not creating a veneer of attachment is called the Precept of Not Misusing Sex.
Dogen Zenji: The Three Wheels are pure and clear. When you have nothing to desire, you follow the way of all Buddhas.


The TEXT(*) only says that 'one who has gone forth from the worldly life should not indulge in sensuous pleasures'. The question, therefore, arises whether ordinary householders who remain amidst the worldly surroundings could freely pursue sensuous pleasures without any restraint. Since the gratification of sense desires is the pre-occupation of common people, it would be pointless to enjoin them from doing so. But the householder intent on practising the Noble Dharma, should advisedly avoid these pleasures to the extent necessary for the practice. Observance of The Five Precepts requires abstaining from any participation in sexual misconduct. Likewise, possession of worldly goods should not be sought through killing, theft or deceit.

(Delivered on the 6th Waxing Day of Thadingyut, 1324, B.E)