In the first truth Buddha encouraged us to fully understand that there is suffering in every corner of our lives. In his second truth he tells us what causes these sufferings.

There is no one cause of our suffering. Just as there is no one cause of anything. The cause of suffering people talk about the most is craving. However, in this posting I want to focus on the three poisons. The three poisons are desire, aversion/anger and unawareness. Let’s look at these mental defilements individually.

Desire – Our desires are never-ending. Once we have something new, we start wanting something else. The Buddha put it this way in the Vaipulya Sutra: ‘Human desires are endless. It is like the thirst of a man who drinks salt water: he gets no satisfaction and his thirst is only increased.’

This is because we wrongly believe that material things can make us permanently and truly happy. If we investigate, we will find that our desires eventually lead us into a feeling of discontentment. There is no problem in desiring things and trying to make our lives more comfortable; the problem is clinging and grasping at these desires. We get attached to things and when they break, are stolen or die – which they inevitably will – we become discontented, unhappy and ill at ease.

To break this cycle we have to see things as they really are, impermanent. Things come into being when the causes and conditions are correct. Once these causes and conditions change, as they will because they are impermanent, the thing also changes or dies. So, if we understand this we will not become attached to things, which in turn will end that particular type of suffering.

Anger and Aversion – Aversion is the opposite to attachment and anger leads to hatred, discrimination, aggression and a lack of compassion. Neither are helpful emotions. With desire we want to cling to objects, but with aversion we do the exact opposite. We spend all our time and energy trying to push the thing away we do not like. As with desire, we just need to let go, not hold on to this aversion. Don’t engage with it, hold it or repress it – simply acknowledge you have an aversion for it and then let it go.

If we do not acknowledge our aversions we are just falling into denial, and this again is not good for our state of mind. So, just watch the aversion rise and fall – do not engage with it. Just work at letting it go.

Some say that anger is natural and should be expressed at all costs. This is because most people only see two ways of dealing with anger, that is, express or repress. Both are unhealthy. If you express it, it can lead to violence, hatred and people’s feelings being hurt, or even worse, if you are the leader of a country, it can lead to war and genocide. If you repress it, you are just storing up trouble for the future. You may be able to keep it down for some time, but eventually it will surface and may even come back more violent and hurtful.

Anger is such a destructive emotion because we engage with it and let it take control of us. So, the Buddha had a different idea. He advised us to look at the anger and see where it comes from. It is not to be dealt with but observed. If we do this, we will see that it stems from our exaggerating the negative qualities of someone or projecting negative qualities that are not actually there, on to someone or something.

One of the best ways of counteracting anger is patience. This is the opposite of anger. We should not react straight away but should count to ten and spend some time reflecting on the situation. This will help us calm down and see things more rationally. Of course, this is not a simple thing to do when one is wrapped up in the moment. So the best thing to do is at the end of the day, look back on when you became angry. See how you could have acted more calmly and imagine what the outcome may have been if you had. Slowly, you will learn not to react instantly but to first reflect.

Unawareness – Here, unawareness means lack of understanding of the true nature of things, which leads us to having wrong views. In the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Buddha said: ‘Because of their unawareness, people are always thinking wrong thoughts and always losing the right viewpoint and, clinging to their egos, they take wrong actions. As a result, they become attached to a delusive existence.’

Knowledge is learnt, but wisdom transcends knowledge and becomes the way you are

This is an extremely important point, because if you have a wrong view, it will lead you onto a wrong path and you will get a wrong outcome. In Buddhism, we are looking for freedom or liberation from suffering, discontentment and the unease that runs throughout our lives, but if we do not understand what is causing our suffering how do we eliminate it?

So, unawareness means a lack of knowledge, and we have all been in that position. It can take on many forms – if you do not understand another person’s culture and discriminate against them, if you are not educated and someone fools you into giving up your life savings, if you did not understand what someone was saying and you get angry with them, if you sacrifice animals to a god so as to obtain wealth or good crops or if you blindly follow a religious practice.

The way out of unawareness is to gain knowledge, to ask questions so as to clear up any doubts and then meditate on this knowledge. This will turn your knowledge into wisdom. Knowledge is learnt, but wisdom transcends knowledge and becomes the way you are, the way you act, your very essence. It is true understanding, not something stemming from your intellect.

These three poisons need to be understood and then abandoned. In theCula-dukkhakkhandha Sutta Buddha stated that it is not enough to just understand the three poisons. He stated that until we abandon them they will keep returning.