The Three Unwholesome Roots, or Three Poisons, are three mental states that are the chief causes of suffering. The Buddha taught that these kleshas, or mental states, are at the root of the dukkha that we experience. They arise in and out of meditation, and often pervade our moment-to-moment experience. When we first begin investigating the Three Unwholesome Roots, we may not see just how much they are effecting our experience. As we continue to meditate and investigate this teaching, we find that these roots drive quite a bit of our thoughts, actions, and speech. The Three Unwholesome Roots are essentially that we want to be somewhere other than we are, we don’t see things clearly, and this leads to suffering.
Craving, Attachment, Clinging
The first of the Three Unwholesome Roots is craving, attachment, or clinging. This is a mental state that arises in response to pleasant stimuli. We have a pleasant experience, a pleasant memory or fantasy arises, or we lose something pleasant, and we cling to it. Sometimes we are resting in an unpleasant experience, and craving arises as a result of the desire to be experience something else. This is rooted both in our biology and our conditioning. Our survival instinct is to move towards things that feel happy and safe, and the culture of the world today is to seek out more happiness.
This unwholesome root is sometimes translated as “desire,” and its important to distinguish between healthy desire and unwholesome desire. In Pali, there are two separate words: chanda and tanha. Chanda is a healthy desire, a wanting that is subtle. We want to grow, find happiness, and be safe. Then, we have tanha, which can most accurately be translated as “thirst,” and is the unwholesome root of which we are speaking here. This craving or thirst can be understood as the idea or thought that “I will be happy once I get _____.” When we look at our desires carefully, we can see when chanda turns into tanha. Craving and attachment have a feeling in the body that is different from simple desire.
This creates suffering because we are in a constant state of wishing we were somewhere else. Sometimes the suffering is great and obvious, like with drug addiction and the craving that comes with it. Sometimes the suffering is more subtle, such as the craving of different weather. Either way, the craving and clinging to pleasant experience creates suffering because every experience is impermanent, and these experiences won’t lead to true ease and happiness. We constantly wish we were someplace else, that something else was happening, and are discontented where we are.
Aversion, Ill-Will, Hatred
The second unwholesome root may be seen as the opposite of the first (more on that later). Aversion arises out of an unpleasant experience, and it is the mental state of wishing some experience was not present. We hear an unpleasant noise, have an unpleasant physical sensation, or are plagued by unpleasant thoughts, and we avert. We push things away or try to pull ourselves away from these experiences. It happens very quickly, and we often don’t notice it. Something unpleasant arises and we almost immediately label it as “bad.” Just as we run toward pleasant experiences, we run away from the unpleasant experiences.
Although this root may be seen as the opposite of craving, it actually is the other side to the same coin. Aversion and craving are actually very similar, but they have different manifestations often. When we are in unpleasantness, we avert from it by craving a pleasant experience. The two often arise together. Any time we are in aversion, we are craving to be without the unpleasantness. Any time we are in craving and clinging, we are averting from something unpleasant, real or imagined.
Delusion, Ignorance, Confusion
The word ignorance may seem abrasive because of the way it is often used in the English language. The connotation is not great, but the actual meaning of the word ignorance is “lacking knowledge or wisdom.” This third unwholesome root is the lack of understanding about experience. We see things through a distorted lens. We don’t see things as they actually are. We get lost in our cravings and ill-will. We are deluded or confused about true ease and happiness.