Greed, hatred, delusion, and the quest to free all beings

In the Buddhist teachings, there is a way of understanding earthly life called samsara: an endless cycle of human births, deaths, and rebirths; a wheel to which we are eternally tethered until we achieve spiritual liberation.

Some Buddhist practitioners take these teachings fairly literally, as part of broader cosmological beliefs; for me, it is simply a helpful illustration of the human struggle. Today, I find myself with an unusually stark awareness of samsara. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency is a fresh iteration of a painful pattern of suffering we have seen before. It is raw and shocking, yet it is also familiar.

Our pain is deep because Trump has demonstrated personal qualities which exemplify what the Buddha called the three poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. It is important to remember that we all possess these qualities, to some degree. In fact, they are so upsetting in part because we recognize them from our own selves.

In understanding our fellow Americans who supported Trump, the three poisons are also a useful frame:

  • greed may have motivated white individuals of wealth and privilege, who hoped to consolidate their material security. It may also have motivated working-class people who feel that their jobs and way of life need to be protected from “outsiders.”
  • hatred may have motivated some voters, whose fear of the “other” creates racism, sexism, homophobia and misogyny.

  • delusion is also an important factor for many voters: paranoid or misguided beliefs about government; misinformation created by an unbalanced media diet; or the blind hope that Trump would protect their interests in spite of his myriad personal failings.

Every once in awhile, a moment comes along which is a lightning bolt of awakening. I think this is one of those moments. It is profoundly painful, and we all want to pull the covers back over our head and hide. Yet this is also a moment of awakening—and a moment of fresh commitment. Greed, hatred, and delusion are real. How can we combat these poisons? There are many ways.

Getting back to the Buddha for a second: there’s a happy follow-up to the truth of samsara. The Buddha taught that there was a path out of suffering and that some of us—not all, but some—will work, over the course of many lifetimes, to bring suffering to an end.

That kind of person is called a bodhisattva. Basically, a warrior of compassion. The bodhisattva vows take many different forms, but the one that’s arising for me today is the one we chanted back at Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago.

Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.

Buddha’s way is unsurpassable; I vow to realize it.

"While realizing the apparent impossibility of accomplishing these tasks," one Soto Zen website comments, "the practitioner begins to appreciate the opportunity to have such a rich task with which to engage his or her entire life." 

Those first two are pretty self-explanatory. The second two are a little trickier, right? But, in our interfaith-post religious language, think of it like this:

There are many paths towards truth; I vow to seek them.

A light dwells within each of us; I vow to uncover it.

The truth can be an excruciating place to live—but nothing wakes us up quite like pain. Today, I won't try to numb the pain. Instead, I take refuge in the deepest teachings I've been fortunate to receive. With the truth of greed, hatred, and delusion staring me in the face, I renew my vow.

I rolled out my yoga mat this morning. Thinking of my African-American violin students, I cried halfway through my Surya Namaskar, or sun salutations. You know what surya namaskar can also be translated to? "Denial of ego; affirmation of faith." 


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