Three Poisons

Dharma Talk – The Three Poisons / Hamster Wheel


Good morning everyone. This months topic is “the roots of our suffering”. About 2500 years ago, the Buddha laid out the four noble truths, in which, the 2nd noble truth tells us that desire or attachment is the reason that we suffer. Boom, sermon over.


Unfortunately, as many of you know, understanding and actualizing that truth is much harder than it would appear. Over the next few thousand years, Buddhists have refined, expanded, and built upon the foundation of the 2nd noble truth. The result of this process has given us what are known as the three Kleshas, or three poisons.

To put it simply, the klesha’s are the delusional mental states that cloud the mind and lead to unskillful actions and trap us in the cycle of samsara. Put another way, because we are under the influence of these poisons, we suffer. These three things are the roots of our suffering.


So lets talk about the Kleshas and how they lead to suffering. First, what are they: The three Kleshas are moha, raga, and dvesha. Traditionally translated as ignorance, hatred, and greed. Another good translation be delusion, aversion, and attachment.


I find it helpful to think of the Klesha’s as the base beliefs or instincts that drive us toward actions.

It’s easy, on the face of it, to agree that these three things are bad and would lead to suffering. Who would want to be motivated by ignorance, anger, and greed? But, in a Buddhist context, these delusions are fundamentally how we see the world and what drives our actions within it. Unless we understand this and actively try to address these instincts or motivations, they rule us and ultimately cause us to suffer.


I was listening to a dharma talk on the Secular Buddhist podcast and I found an analogy the narrator used in it to be most helpful in explaining how the Klesha’s drive us.


Consider the possibility that we are like hamsters running on a wheel. Raga, greed, is the belief that if we run long enough, or hard enough, we are going to get to where we want to be. Raga is the belief that out there, ahead of us, is something we can get or somewhere we can get to… that will satisfy us, that will make us happy. Dvesha, hate, is the belief that if we run long enough, if we run hard enough, that we can get away from where and who we don’t want to be. From our pasts, from other people, from things we don’t like, from all the things that cause us to suffer.


Sometimes we are trying to get somewhere better, sometimes we are trying to get away from someplace unpleasant. Moha, or ignorance, is not realizing that we are on a wheel and going nowhere. Moha is not seeing the world as it is.

And those are the Klesha’s. Trying to get to happy. Trying to get away from suffering. Not being able to see that despite all our trying we aren’t really getting anywhere. But despair not because this is why we practice. To realize our attachment, to realize our aversion, to be slow down and be able to see the world for what it is.


Going back to the hamster wheel, if we try to stop running all at once what happens? Then we are all sorts of discombobulated. But, if we realize we are running toward and slow down a little. If we realize we are running away and slow down a little, and we do this realizing and slowing, realizing and slowing….over and over and over again, eventually… we stop and we get off the wheel and start experiencing the world outside the wheel.

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