The Wheel of Life stems from the Tibetan tradition and is a complex representation of the constant circle of life, death and rebirth. The hub of any wheel is the part around which everything else revolves, In the hub of this well known Buddhist icon are three creatures, each biting the other’s tail, spinning round and round in a never ending circle. A cockerel, snake and a pig represent what are often referred to as The Three Poisons. The cockerel is greed, the snake is hatred and the pig delusion. Each on is driven in pursuit of the creature in front, but at the same time is being consumed by the one that follows. The Three Poisons are the root causes of all suffering. Everything that causes us dissatisfaction, pain or outright suffering stems from one of these three elements.
The first of the Three Poisons, Greed, can have many manifestations. Firstly it can be described as ‘clinging’, ‘grasping’ or attachment. I once read that you can trap a monkey but putting a delicacy into a heavy pot with a narrow opening. The monkey, attracted by the scent, puts his hand through the neck of the pot and grasps the contents. But now his balled fist containing will not pass back through the neck. Rather than release the delicasy, the monkey maintains its grasp and becomes trapped by it. This is an excellent metaphor for our modern human existence. We cling to our old ways, afraid to let go of established viewpoints. Unable to relax our grasp on our conditioned views, we cling on, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” and remain trapped, unable to move on or grow as individuals.
We frequently cling to the belief that we have a permanent ‘self’ which is fixed and unchanging. Yet if we take time to consider our mental states we will see that our thoughts and feelings constantly change from moment to moment. Our bodies also change – this becomes painfully aware when we look at old photo albums. Yet when we talk of ‘I’ or ‘me’ we are often seem to be referring to something constant and unchanging.
We may cling to sensual pleasures, constantly craving to satisfy our desires, ‘live now, die later’. This craving can sometimes represent itself as lust – constantly seeking to satisfy a demanding ego by the constant need for sex, money, excitement, conflict, celebrity, etc.
At some time or another, all of us are driven by greed, craving, desire, want, avarice, covetousness, need, etc., - unless we are enlightened beings, it is inevitable. The important thing is to recognise it for what it is and secondly, to understand that it is always going to be unsatisfactory. Even when you achieve the object of your neurotic craving, it will almost immediately be replaced by another.
However, it is important to acknowledge the natural will to progress, to make a life for ourselves, to develop as human beings. The problem arises when we are unable to be content or at ease until we have achieved the object of our desires. If our happiness is contingent upon acquiring whatever it is that drivrd us, then it has become a neurotic craving and is certain to bring suffering in its wake.
The antidote to this poison is to develop generosity and equanimity. Be content with what you have, not yearning after what you don’t have. That is not to say that you become indolent or lazy with no will to progress. Every Buddhists wants to move forward, to grow and gain insight but it is important not to mortgage your present happiness and contentment in the hope that you will achieve better things at some future time. Learn to think more about the needs of others rather than yourself.
The next poison is Hatred. This has many faces; abhorance, detestation, revulsion, disgust, extreme dislike, intolerance. Like love, the word hatred has become diminished in everyday use but it is the most destructive of all human emotions leading to anger, revenge, animosity, ill-will, aversion, abuse, racial prejudice, sexual and religious discrimination, homophobia, bullying and in its most extreme forms, violence, rape, murder and war.
If we look closely at what we ‘hate’, we may find that it is a conditioned response. Maybe it was someone else’s prejudiced view that has been foisted upon us by parents, peer group, politicians, teachers or journalists. We can all experience anger, frustration and intolerance somewhere within us. We rail because the world isn’t the way we want it to be. But ask, “What do we gain by holding on to these negative emotions? How do I benefit from all this angst?” The fact is that hatred consumes an immense amount of emotional energy but seldom gets us very far. Our lack of understanding fuels our desire for things to be different which in turn causes us to be frustrated and angry when the life continues to disappoint us.
However, there is an upside. That energy can be used for good. We can focus our anger on a world full of prejudice and social injustice, developing a determination to bring about change. We can transform those negative emotions, using that energy to battle inequality, the destruction of the environment, the causes of crime – a thousand and one things that need to be redressed.
The antidote of Hatred is Metta (loving kindness). By developing metta through meditation we learn to come to temper these emotions, transforming them into something more positive and accepting.
Finally, Delusion, ignorance, lack of understanding, false view, confusion, apathy. The reason the symbolic representations of the Three Poisons, the snake, the cockerel and the pig are all pursuing each other but at the same time being consumed by the creature behind them is that greed, hatred and ignorance all feed off each other. A lack of understanding leads to craving that can never be satisfied, inevitably leading to frustration, anger and hatred.
The antidote to delusion or ignorance is wisdom. Once we recognise and understand the root causes of our disappointment, frustration and anger we can begin to convert that negative energy to more positive uses. Of course we are not going to become saints overnight. But when you feel negative emotions rising, when you are experiencing anger or intense craving, ask yourself, “Which of the Three Poisons are causing me to feel like this?” Is it the cockerel, snake or pig?