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The Three Poisons and The Three Jewels: An Outline Of The Buddhist Schools by Peter Morrell

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The Three Poisons and The Three Jewels:
An Outline Of The Buddhist Schools
by Peter Morrell

The Buddha's teachings, or Buddhadharma, or just Dharma, can be divided into three categories. Firstly, there are the many Hinayana sutras (Hinayana: lesser vehicle; or Shravakas: listeners, hearers; Theravada = path of elders) spoken by Buddha Shakyamuni himself and later written down by his followers. Secondly, there are the Mahayana sutras (Mahayana = great vehicle) ascribed to a teaching he gave at Vulture Peak, south India, shortly before his death. This latter group includes all the Prajnaparamita ('perfection of wisdom') group of sutras such as the Diamond sutra, the Heart sutra, Lotus sutra and the Heap of Jewels sutra. Thirdly, there are the Tantras (those of Hevajra, Vajrayogini, Guhyasamaja, Kalachakra, Yamantaka and Heruka Chakrasamvara), ascribed to Buddha Vajradhara or received as emanations of deities or other highly realised beings and then written down by adepts. All these teachings are accepted by the Mahayanists as completely valid Buddhist scriptures, but only those of the first category are accepted as valid by the Hinayanists.

The Three Poisons

In the Theravada scriptures the Buddhist view of man is delineated as a picture of the first teachings and gives a view of the mind as contaminated by three fundamental poisons, which need correcting in order to reach a higher state of spiritual perfection. These poisons are given as 'desire, hatred and ignorance', or more precisely: clinging/attachment, aversions and lack of wisdom. The spiritual strategy proposed by the early Buddhists (to remove the three poisons) comprises a training in self-control, self-restraint and meditation. One overcomes the desires and aversions through gradual self-control and through abandoning them, loosening their grip, just as one would overcome an addiction to tobacco or a drug by reducing/stopping the indulgence until it no longer has any power over you. Indeed, to the Buddhist, the three poisons are regarded as three drugs to which we are pretty helplessly addicted. And that Buddhist teachings comprise a form of medicine or antidote to such addiction. It also encourages the practice of mindfulness (self-awareness).

In terms of gaining wisdom, the Theravadins encourage meditation, which more generally means reflection upon death and impermanence and concentration on the steady rhythm of breathing whilst sat upright in the cross-legged lotus posture. Once the passions are subdued, then meditation is the chief method for maintaining serenity and obtaining insights into the nature of mind. Study of Buddhist scriptures is also central. Supplementary to all this is a simple ethical life of begging and service to others, non-harming (ahimsa) and refusing meat, having no possessions and general deprivation. Thus the three poisons are subdued by using the antidote of 'the three jewels': non-attachment, compassion and love, and meditation. The whole lifestyle is enframed in a strict moral code and a long rule-book of do's and dont's. Also contained in the Theravada scriptures are all the fundamental and generally well-known teachings about self and selflessness, rebirth, merit and karma.

Compared to the ordinary person, the Arhat, or superior, which is the product of the theravadin training, is a person with greatly subdued passions, serene and compassionate but very detached from the world. Such a person can be quite favourably compared to the average citizen. Well, in certain respects. The average person is periodically subject to anger and hatred, to strong likes and dislikes, to desire and attachment and also to ignorance. It is clear that desire and anger cause suffering as they cause us to act selfishly and hurtfully to others and also against the ethics of the group or race as a whole. They also cause bad karmic seeds which will be carried forward into future lives where they also cause unhappiness. Bad karmic seeds derive from bad thoughts, words and deeds from previous lives. These are all central Buddhist teachings. Numerous other examples could be adduced to illustrate this point and are to be found in Buddhist literature.

The Mahayana School

The Mahayana Buddhists, who arose from a splinter group of various sects between about 200BC and 100AD, present a much wider vision of Buddhism than that given above. There is the same basic analysis of man, with the three poisons, but more is presented, as well as new techniques to transform impure mental states. A new emphasis is placed upon developing much deeper compassion, much stronger love and greater desire to help others, both as a beneficial end in itself, (eg. both for social improvement and philanthropy) and also for improving one's karmic position. In effect, Mahayanists have become far more active agents in the world, than hinayanists, who seem to prefer withdrawal.

There is also in the Mahayana a much wider and much deeper grasp of the notion of impermanence, which is greatly extended into the concept of 'shunyata': emptiness, which is a centrally-abiding feature of the whole system. This basically means continuous and profound meditation upon the transient nature of the world and all its contents, as opposed to the mind and the realm of thought which is increasingly seen as being superior and more permanent. Impermanence is actually regarded as the fundamental bedrock of reality, which kind of underpins it and which we can, through practice, come to see as a very profound truth. It is rather that by hitching our life to permanence we are doomed to periodically suffer the pain of what is inevitable loss and separation; but through hitching it to impermanence we are doomed to win: that nothing can harm us if we cling to nothing.

The Mahayanists also contend that the mind forms a continuous, unending and unbroken mindstream or flow of consciousness, from beginningless time and indestructible. Thoughts and feelings in the mindstream are regarded as of supreme importance to Buddhist practice.


Sometime in India in the 4th century or perhaps later, in the 6th or 8th centuries, there arose a new, more profound set of teachings (and practices) called the Vajrayana or 'diamond vehicle'; also called the mantrayana = 'path of mantra'; or guhyamantrayana = 'secret mantra vehicle'. This is also called the tantrayana or 'path of tantra'. A tantra is a secret set of prayers and meditations specific to this system of Buddhist practice. However, the Kalachakra tantra is, uniquely, derived from a teaching given by Buddha at Vulture Peak, at the request of the King of Shambhala.

In the Vajrayana the general Buddhist indifference towards the outer physical world is taken a stage further with mind being regarded as more real than outer physical reality. This is through considering that mind and thoughts come from a pure realm which is more permanent, steady and unending compared to the fleeting phenomena from the essentially transient and impermanent physical world. Also in the Vajrayana, 'desire hatred and attachment' are not excluded from the Buddhist path but brough back in as useful tools to gain enlightenment. The 'strong minds' of lust, anger and hatred are used to generate bliss, which can then be used to more vividly contemplate subtle impermanence (emptiness), within a framework of infinite compassion. This greatly accelerates the process of gaining the huge accumulations of wisdom and merit which are required in order to attain enlightenment, sufficient for one to attain enlightenment in one lifetime, which is impossible by any other route.

Emptiness itself is regarded very much as the deepest wisdom and its thorough apprehension becomes the end-goal, in many respects, of all Buddhist activity, especially when it is combined with profound compassion for suffering beings. Emptiness is regarded as a very profound truth about the nature of physical reality, which can be personally explored and confirmed, and which is of fundamental importance and absolutely essential to gaining deep understanding of the unsatisfactory naure of physically embodied existence (samsara), which in turn is used as the basis for wishing to leave it.

It also follows from this position that a dream or vision is seen as more real and more important than something seen or heard with the eye or ear, ie. information from the senses and the outer physical world. This profound distrust, contempt even, for the outer physical world of sense data, and a turning inwards to the realm of mind and thought is a highly characteristic feature of the Mahayana in general and of the tantrayana in particular. Even in the Zen school, for example, it shows up as a similar and typically Mahayanist tendency. In many of the Zen koans and stories, for example, physical reality is gently derided and mocked, whereas the mind is elevated into a higher realm, superior to that of sense perception.

Thus permeating throughout the Mahayana is this seemingly irresistible tendency to elevate mind over matter and to denigrate and mock sense-data as somehow impure and inferior, and not to be trusted; and which is repeatedly portrayed as fake, illusory and fundamentally flawed. This also leads to the position of not wishing to be 'sullied' by matters of the outer world, like money or with politics (cf Tibet). And to a generally very sceptical indifference towards sense-data and 'evidence' of a physical form. Almost the exact opposite of science, in which sense-data and physical evidence are revered. The aim of the Mahayana and Vajrayana paths is full enlightenment as a Buddha; a goal much higher than the Ahrat of the Hinayana paths.

Quotation Material

I will offer some quotes here from the Second Dalai Lama's (1476-1542) short work 'A Raft to Cross the Ocean of Indian Buddhist Thought' which gives a very clear and succinct presentation of the tenets of Hinayana and Mahayana philosophy. It is found in 'The Selected Works of the Second Dalai Lama, Gedun Gyatso', by Glenn H Mullin, 1982, Snow Lion, USA, (pp.153-182).

'The definition of a Hinayanist philosopher is a person who expounds Buddhist philosophy within the framework of the belief that the world that appears to us has an external and a real status... no Mahayana philosopher would assert that external phenomena have real existence.' (p.157)

He then divides Hinayanists into two categories - Realists and Sutra Followers.

'The definition of a Realist philosopher is a person who expounds Hinayana philosophy but does not accept the theory of a simultaneous self-cognizing consciousness... this covers adequately the two types of Hinayana philosophers, Realists and Sutra Followers - the latter posit both the existence of a self-cognizing consciousness and a real status to the world that appears around us.' (p.158)
'The definition of a Follower of the Sutra system is a person who expounds Hinayana philosophy while asserting the true existence of the external world and the simultaneous self-cognizing consciousness... the Realists do not accept the existence of the self-cognizing consciousness. (p.164)
'...a Mahayana philosopher is a person who expounds Buddhist philosophy while not accepting the existence of an external world having true existence.' (p.168)

He further divides these Mahayanists into Mind Only (chittamatra) and Middle View (madhyamika) subtypes.

'The definition of a Mind Only philosopher is a person who expounds Mahayana philosophy while not accepting the existence of an external world as an entity other than mind, yet accepting the true existence of the objects of perception.' (p.168-9)
'The definition of the Middle View philosopher is a person who expounds Mahayana philosophy on the premise that nothing, not even the smallest particle of matter has true existence.' (p.173)

He further divides Middle View philosophy into Middle View Substantialists and Middle View Rationalists.

'The definition of a Middle View Substantialist is a person who accepts non-inherent existence yet asserts that on the conventional level of truth all objects are inherently existent by their own characteristic presence.' (p.174)
'The definition of a philosopher of the Middle View Rationalist system is an exponent of non-inherent existence who does not accept that even on the conventional level of truth things are established by their inherent self-characteristics.' (p.177)

Hopefully from these quotes we can begin to see the basis for such a lot of debate about the nature of sense perception and the nature of the world we experience or construct internally (mentally).

A further text with much greater detail on these systems is 'Cutting Through Appearances - Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism', by Geshe Lhundup Sopa and Jeffrey Hopkins, Snow Lion, USA. This text is based upon two Tibetan treatises and covers the same ground as Herbert V Guenther's Buddhist Philosophy in Theory and Practice, 1971, Penguin Books UK.

For an exposition of the Vajrayana position, herewith some quotes from Mullin, 1982, Selected Works of the Dalai Lama VII, Snow Lion, USA:

'All things are free of an ultimate beginning or end.
Were all things to have an inherent existence,
Would it not be absurd to say they are named
According to composition, conditions or causes?' p.37
'Nothing truly existent, all things a great falsity;
Sights and sounds I now understand as scenes in a play.' p.49
'Dream objects in the mind of one drunk with sleep.
The horses and elephants conjured up by a magician,
Only appearances; on those foundations,
Nothing real; merely mental imputations.
Similarly, all things in the world and beyond
Are simply projections of names and thoughts.
Not even the tiniest atom exists by itself,
Independently and in its own right' p.53
'Then when one looks into the face of the world,
Everything is seen as being without an essence.' p.118


By Peter Morrell