The Three Poisonous Minds

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kopan Monastery, Nepal, 1975 (Archive #089)

Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave this teaching on the three poisonous minds of anger, attachment and ignorance at the Eighth Kopan Course held at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, in 1975.

This teaching is an edited excerpt from Lecture One of the course.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche in meditation on Saka Dawa at Chenrezig Institute, Australia, May 25, 1975. Photo: Wendy Finster.

Our mind is bound by the three poisonous minds, so we are not free from suffering. We are bound by the suffering of the three poisonous minds, for example, anger, which is very dangerous, like a fire that can destroy all our objects of enjoyment. Fire can burn all our beautiful objects, our possessions and our house, and it can also burn us and cause danger to our life. Many times in the West, there is danger of fire burning our apartment and destroying our possessions.

Anger is very, very violent to the mind, and it is very harmful to our peace and also to the peace of other living beings. When anger arises and we get angry with our family, we may scold them, beat them or kill them, and besides that, we may kill many others with anger. When this violent mind arises, we may kill many hundreds of people, or thousands, millions of people, and it causes danger to us—it puts us in danger of death, of killing or being killed. There are many things we do when we get angry, such as breaking the possessions in our own house. It is no use to break our possessions—things like tables and plates—but after we get angry, we break things, like the TV, though it is not necessary and it doesn’t help at all. Like this, we create many unnecessary problems. Anger destroys all the beauty and to say it simply, it is very harmful to our enjoyment of this life.

Attachment is like black ink that gets on our beautiful clothes or on our beautiful paintings, drawings or letters. When black ink gets on our papers, it obscures the beautiful paintings, the beautiful drawings or letters, and we can’t see them. It is not like putting a drop of water on a painting, then just wiping it off. When black ink gets on a painting, it becomes oneness with the paper and it obscures the drawings. You can’t see them clearly. It is difficult, all of a sudden, to separate the black ink and the paper. This is the nature of attachment and this is the reason why I say that it obscures our ability to see the letters and the beautiful drawings on the paper. This is an example of attachment which arises and obscures the ability to see the truth of the self. It obscures the truth of the self and it obscures the ability to see the truth about others. Many people use the word "truth", especially young people—they always talk about truth and they seek truth in the East, they think they see truth. They always talk about seeking the truth, maybe with hashish. Anyway, this is the truth that only the Nepalese sell. I’m joking!

Anyway, like this, the rising of attachment causes us to hallucinate and to see ourselves with the wrong view, which is opposite to the self that is actually existing. The wrong view sees the self as really existing and it causes us to hallucinate and to view others completely in the wrong way, which is completely opposite to how the other person really exists. Attachment causes us to hallucinate and to see that object, that person, in completely the wrong form, the wrong view. We see them in a way which is completely opposite to how they really exist. Attachment obscures our ability to see the true nature of the self and others.

Another way of explaining the nature of attachment, although this is not the actual meaning, it’s just an example, is just as if we got stuck. If we fall into the water we can swim—especially you people, you can easily swim if there is water—but if there is dirty mud that we can’t comfortably swim in, then it is difficult to get out of that. We become completely stuck in the mud and we drown, because it is difficult to get out of that mud. This is another way to describe the nature of attachment and the way our mind is bound by attachment...

Just like anger, attachment causes so many problems in our own life and in other peoples’ lives. First of all, our mind is bound by attachment, but that is never our only life problem. In a way, attachment is just like glue. If our hand is covered by glue, then whatever object we meet, we get stuck to problems with that object. No matter how clean the other thing is, whatever we touch, we get stuck to that object. Another way of explaining it is like this: we get stuck everywhere, we are not free, and even if we leave one thing, we get stuck to another one. It’s as if our fingers have honey or glue or something like that on them, we get so attached to things. Even if we throw something out, we are still stuck to it. That is how attachment functions and causes problems in our own and others’ lives.

Also, our usual daily life problems arise from the thought of attachment. The usual daily life problems, such as disharmony in our relationships— families or couples not getting along even for a day—all this confusion arises from attachment. If there is no attachment in the first place, these problems wouldn’t happen.

Many times, because of attachment to an object it is very easy for anger to arise. When something goes wrong with our object of attachment—when we don’t receive the object or when it is possessed or occupied by other people—when something bad happens, it is very easy to generate anger and jealousy, all these things. Anger is very harmful and this is another way attachment is also very harmful.

It’s quite easy to understand how anger is harmful, but it’s really difficult to understand how attachment is harmful for our mind because this seems a little bit obscure. Really it is not obscure, it is so clear. We are experiencing problems and going through them all the time, but we are not aware, so it is quite difficult for us to see clearly how attachment harms us, because it seems obscured. It is extremely important that we should be aware of the functions of attachment and the effect or result of attachment and how it harms us. That is extremely important. Not only attachment, but also anger, ignorance and any other type of delusion. Always investigate the functions of these delusions and the harmful results. How is it harmful? It is important to check up all the time and to have a deep understanding.

And now ignorance. As I said before, when attachment arises, it obscures the true nature of oneself and others. Another way saying this is that attachment obscures the reality of self and the reality of others. This means the attached mind increases our ignorance. It causes our ignorance and anger to increase more and more. Ignorance is such a harmful mind. At night-time, when there is no light and no stars or moon, it is completely dark and we think that we are walking on the right path, but in truth we are walking where there are stones and thorns. Then we get thorns in our feet and we fall down and get wounded. We think there is a wall protecting us from a precipice and we don’t recognize there is a danger of falling down. We don’t know there is no wall and the precipice is creating a dangerous situation. We travel at night with a wrong belief. So, ignorance is harmful like this and our wrong conceptions cause us so much trouble. Ignorance is like this person with wrong conceptions who cannot do anything clearly and doesn’t know that he’s going to fall down. The nature of ignorance is just like that person who can’t see how harmful it is. This is just an example to give some idea of how harmful ignorance is, but actually there is no way to compare the great harm of ignorance with this example. The person walking with wrong conceptions who falls down a precipice and breaks a leg, causing death – this is still nothing when compared with the incredible, unbelievable harmfulness of ignorance, which we have to experience for a long time, and the various other harmfulnesses, that we experience not just one time, but at various times. Compared to those, this example of the harmfulness of ignorance is nothing.

These three minds are usually called the “three poisonous minds.” Calling them poison is very meaningful—it makes so much sense, it has so much meaning. For instance, by eating poison, when poison goes inside the stomach, inside the body, the person doesn’t become healthy, person gets sick. So it is like this, but that poison is an external thing, it is made of matter, and the other poison, the great ignorance, anger and attachment, is inner poison. The other poison is the outer poison, these three minds are the inner poison. If we take the outer poison we get sick—we are overwhelmed by hallucinations and vomiting, and there is danger to our life. Similarly, by having these three poisonous minds, we constantly get sick.

First of all, when the mind is bound by the three poisonous minds, it is not a healthy mind, it is a sick mind. Then, with these three poisonous minds, we produce unrighteous actions, unrighteousness. Another way of saying this, is that we create negative actions with our speech, body and mind. By creating the wrong actions, with the wrong method, the result or the effect that we receive is always suffering. There is always a problem and we don’t receive happiness, even if we have the expectation that we will gain happiness from that action. For instance, a person who eats honey mixed with poison. This ignorant person does not know it is poisonous honey, he just believes that it is pure honey because it tastes sweet, and he keeps on taking it. What is the result? The result the person receives is that his body becomes more and more uncomfortable, and more and more pain arises.

It is just like this with any of the poisonous minds of anger, attachment or ignorance. Whatever action we create with speech, body and mind is a mistake or a wrong action, just like a person who eats poisonous honey. The person thinks he is enjoying it, that it really is pure honey, not poisonous. He thinks that nothing will happen by eating it, that he will only enjoy it. So, our normal minds are like this example.

Just as the actions of body, speech and mind produced by the three poisonous minds are wrong, are negative action, so, the result is always in the nature of suffering. These actions don’t make us happy. The physical and mental sufferings and unhappiness that we have been experiencing in this life, since we were born until now, all these life problems are the result of the wrong actions done with the three poisonous minds. So, these three poisonous minds are the cause of all our suffering and unhappiness.

Therefore, without depending on the method, without depending on Dharma, and instead depending on external things, we can’t destroy the cause of our suffering, the three poisonous minds. Nothing can destroy this, without depending on Dharma.