Vanilla or Chocolate? (or: The Three Poisons)

If I offered you vanilla or chocolate ice cream, which would you choose? Would you prefer one over the other? And if you chose vanilla and I would give you chocolate instead, would you be upset? These seem trivial questions, and you may wonder what the point is. So let me share with you why I think these questions matter.

The Buddhist teachings say there are three poisons in the world: greed, hatred, and delusion. Most people will know the meaning of greed, which is intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food. Hatred is intense dislike or ill will. Delusion in the Buddhist sense refers to the disbelief in the truth that we are all connected, ignorance of our true nature (we are emptiness), and inattention (not being fully present in the moment). With an understanding of what greed, hatred and delusion mean, it is easy to see why they are called the three poisons: in a way they kill the world. The intense desire for more money and more influence leads to greater financial inequality and corrupted leaders. Intense dislike of change and the unknown (amplified by not seeing that we are all connected) leads to hatred of foreigners, of people that are “different”, and of unfamiliar religions; ultimately resulting in crimes against humanity. Greed, hatred and delusion are the roots of war and violations of human rights.

So, what has all of this to do with ice cream?

If I asked you if you think you are greedy, hateful and delusional, you would probably answer “no”. In my experience most people only see criminals, the ultra-wealthy and some world leaders as a representation of the three poisons. And this is exactly the problem; as long as we think that others are the cause of the “bad” in the world, nothing will ever change. We can probably all agree that the world needs more peace and love.

Of course, it is not greedy to want some ice cream. It is not even greedy to prefer vanilla over chocolate ice cream. However, if you would get really upset or downright angry when you don’t get ice cream when you’d like some, or get vanilla when you wanted chocolate, there is an issue. Your wanting has turned into clinging and clinging leads to suffering, as is the foundational teaching of the Buddha. Since the nature of life is change – everything is impermanent – anything we have we will lose some day. If against all odds we are trying to hang on to what we have, we may as well try to walk on water; we will not succeed. And for most, failure is uncomfortable if not unacceptable. It is safe to say that clinging is simply a mild form of greed. It doesn’t serve anyone, especially not yourself, to cling to things, as it only causes mental distress, i.e. suffering. The world needs less suffering, not more.

Would you say: “I hate chocolate ice cream”, to express that you don’t like it? Probably not, although you may have a strong preference for vanilla. There is nothing wrong with having preferences unless a preference turns into aversion (or clinging, as we saw above). We tend to avoid anything that causes discomfort, whether mental or physical. We want pleasure, not pain. Aversion not only leads to suffering, it is also a mild version of hate. Of course, in some cases it is skillful to remove yourself from a harmful situation. We can make an active choice for change, as we do not have to subject ourselves to suffering.

The reason many people don’t meditate is because they find it uncomfortable. They are confronted with physical dis-ease (sitting still can be hard) and mental challenge (it can be quite confrontational to become aware of all the thoughts that are going through your mind). It is quite the paradox, however, since being fully present in the moment, which is a result of meditation, is far more comfortable than where most people find themselves: caught in the past or worrying about the future. When we are fully present, we are nicer people. When we are fully present, we pay better attention to others. We can see others for who they really are, as our mind is not clouded with stories of what happened before or what may happen next. The world needs nicer people.

It is fine to have a preference for comfort, as long as we don’t have an aversion to discomfort. We may prefer pleasure, but we should know that we cannot avoid pain. When we are accepting of what is and thus are open to reality, we can be ok with chocolate ice cream even though we would have liked vanilla. When we are mindful and fully present, we can overcome delusion and wake up to the fullness of life, loving everyone and befriending everything. When we give up resistance to the moment as it is, greed and hatred will altogether melt away. The question of vanilla or chocolate even becomes irrelevant when we simply say “yes”.