It has been said that all the suffering we endure in our lives comes from one of three causes, because they result in so much misery they have been called the “three poisons” by Buddhists. When I think of the word poison I picture a vial of some greenish liquid that sneakily and slowly kills or sickens whoever gets it slipped into their drink. Poison works deviously, almost imperceptibly at times, the way that a rabbit when bitten by a snake at first appears to escape, then slows, and finally dies. If you saw the rabbit moments after it was bitten you might believe that everything was ok, but the poison would be working its way through the rabbits blood stream whether or not you could see it and whether or not the rabbit was aware of having the poison inside of it.
While there are millions of individual reasons we suffer, they can generally be put into the broad categories of Greed, Aversion, and Ignorance.
Greed can be obvious and I thought I knew pretty much what greed was without having to think very hard about it, but the very nature of poison is that it is easily mistaken for something less dangerous. I could clearly see that desiring too much money or sex or power or fame lead to all sorts of problems whether or not I achieve any of them, in fact the achieving of them just seemed to lead to even more greed, pretty clear cut, right? Not so fast though, what if the desire to not be greedy was also the poison of greed? Buddhism is not about being “good” and not “bad”, it is about looking deep enough to see the causes of suffering in anything, even supposedly beneficial things! The problem is not that greed arises in us, it is that when we don’t see it for the bottomless pit that it is, we keep taking the poison over and over and never knowing why we suffer.
I’ve met many Buddhists who were “greedy” for enlightenment (whatever that is) and plenty of well-meaning people who were greedy for the power to save the environment, even a particularly modest person can be greedy for things even if it’s just to give them to others. Do these folks with their “nice” greed suffer any less than some slimy businessman who is greedy for more mundane things like money and power? In my experience they both experience the same dissatisfaction, the same looking outward for “more” , and the same inability to appreciate what the currently are experiencing.
Greed is also so dangerous to our freedom from suffering because it is impossible to really satisfy it. It’s hard to believe that winning the lottery or meeting Mr. or Ms. “Right” wont make us happy, and yet time and again people when given everything they believed they ever wanted are sooner or later (usually sooner) confronted with the depressing realization that they are still not very happy. Even with a billion dollars, and even with sex and money and power the thirst is still there demanding more, like Audry II insisting that Seymore “Feed me!”
I have a theory as to why rich, powerful, and famous people seem to go crazy at a higher rate than the rest of us and it’s because of greed. If are Mr. Poor and find yourself living alone in a shitty tenement then money and fame seem like the one thing that could take away your suffering. It might never happen but you can at least have that dream hat some day, maybe, you would hit that powerball, get that dream job, meet that “special” someone and then you would be free of that terrible lonely feeling, that worry about where the rent money was coming from that concern that nagging feeling that you are doomed! But what if you are rich and/or powerful? Then you wake up just as miserable as anyone else and you don’t have the luxury of thinking “if only I had money/power/a beautiful lover then I would be happy”, they often wake up in possession of all three and still cant bear to face the world!
According to the poor guy Mr. Successful should be super happy, content, and at peace with all those basic concerns taken care of and yet they almost never are! CEO’s already drowning in money cheat the stock market for another million bucks, people whose spouses are on the top 10 sexiest list of some magazine cheat on them with hookers and druggies, politicians get caught cheating on their spouses and taking bribes over and over when Mr. Poor would be satisfied with 1/10th of Mr. Succesfuls life. Kurt Cobain becomes a rock star and a father and still kills himself. They have “it all” and suffering still gnaws on their souls as viciously as the rest of us.
Why? Because where there is greed there is suffering, and greed is endless. If you win the lottery tomorrow its only a matter of time until you begin to feel that little itch that says “not enough! more!”
The solution can not be to eliminate greed because its only human to want more and the solution will not work if it ignores basic human design. What the Buddha taught, then, was not a way to destroy greed, it was a way to see it as it really is. To label the poison bottle before we accidentally take a drink of it! To learn to recognize it before it has slipped into our life and begun to do its deadly work.In meditation we learn to be aware of what is in this moment, to witness the arising and fading away of all sorts of crazy shit from our brain, including the greed for ms.sexypants or a new lexus and seeing it clearly for what it is does an interesting thing, it ruins it. Greed only works because we believe that the promise of whatever that thing we thirst for will satisfy everything, so when you see it arise as it has throughout our life and we begin to see it as the same thirst we have felt over and over without it ever being satiated we simply begin to refuse to play its game. You don’t stop desiring or wanting to improve your life, but you do stop believing that something “out there” can ever really end your suffering. We begin to accept that getting our satisfaction is going to have to come from within ourselves if its going to happen at all.