Lojong Practice Journal: Three objects, three poisons, and three seeds of virtue
The slogan ‘Three objects, three poisons, and three seeds of virtue’ is a step-by-step guide on how to shift our perspective. It’s about using dualism and difficulties on the path of waking up.
The ‘three objects’ refers to the way we objectify the world around us. We label people, things and experiences as friend/good, enemy/bad, or neutral, locking into one dimensional perceptions based on whether or not we feel gratified/validated, upset/aggravated, or indifferent.
The ‘three poisons’ are attachment, aggression and ignorance. They are called the three poisons because they are at the root of suffering, in some form or another.
Attachment is often also translated as ‘passion’. It’s the intensity with which we go after and cling to people, ideas and stuff, or the way in which we long for what was or think of pain as a punishment and happiness as a reward.
Aggression comes in many forms — anger, irritation, violence etc. — and inarguably causes a lot of problems. Although we can be reluctant to label it as a ‘poison’ as there is a social narrative that anger is galvanising or necessary in some cases, especially when it comes to social change. But if we spend any time sitting with our anger, and learning to see the way it escalates and feeds itself, we can’t ignore how depleting this energy is. When anger comes up for me I notice how challenging it is to think clearly, to communicate effectively, and to sustain anything, as I quickly become fatigued and overwhelmed.
Ignorance is not just not-knowing something. Ignorance is self-deception. It is the way the ego cleverly keeps us from examining the places we have to grow, because of the discomfort that accompanies growth, or because we are so attached to being ‘good’.
But what do the three objects and the three poisons have to do with three seeds of virtue?
This slogan is saying that the three objects and three poisons can be viewed as seeds of virtue. The point of Buddhism is not to heap shame and guilt and blame on top of the pain of being human by beating ourselves up for objectifying the world or responding to it with passion, aggression or ignorance. It’s to learn how to transform suffering into wisdom. We can use the ways we objectify, cling, resist or numb out to help wake us up. So we can see these things not as problems we have to fix but tools to work with to create opportunities to see our own wisdom.
To explain, I’m going to share a story:
I didn’t think of myself as a particularly aggressive person. For years, when I listened to dharma talks and the topic was anger and how to work with it, I would substitute ‘anger’ for emotions I saw as having a greater impact in my life — notably, fear and anxiety.
So I’m going along, ignorant to my aggression, until one day when I’m listening to one particular talk and something, suddenly, clicks into place. I have this moment of profound realisation: Disappointment is a form of aggression.
It occurs to me that I only feel disappointed in someone if I have an expectation (a fixed view) of how they should or shouldn’t act, especially if I’ve labeled them as a ‘friend’ and my expectations of their behaviour is particularly high and tied into a sense of their ‘worthiness’ of my friendship. This isn’t to say that it is wrong to expect people to behave well, but it is wrong to expect that human beings, ourselves included, can’t, shouldn’t or won’t mess up sometimes. Wanting people to be different than they are, to be perfect, flawless, creatures, is a very aggressive stance to take. It’s clinging to an idea of how people should be, and ignoring that humanity is a big messy interconnected bunch of folks. We have different embodiments, different cultures, a multitude of social pressures, expectations and ideas and we are subject to a constantly changing, dynamic world. In short, people are complicated.
This was interesting to reflect on as I brought it back to when and how I feel disappointment in myself, which is basically, anytime I’m not flawless. As a human being, like any human being, I mess up, I cause harm, I react in ways I’d rather not, I fall apart, I make mistakes, I struggle when I meet my edge, I get defensive, and so on.
On the surface, and intellectually, I know it is really unhelpful to be disappointed in my own or anyone else’s humanity. I am also fully aware of how much it feeds the anxiety I so often experience. I totally get that my sense of being unworthy comes from a lot of social pressures and expectations, and that expecting perfection is unreasonable. Wanting to always get it right and giving no room for failure is not a way to help myself or others grow and awaken and connect with wisdom. But all the intellectual reasoning in the world wasn’t doing anything to break this habit.
Which brings me back to what I said earlier about how we often deceive ourselves into thinking aggression can be helpful. I will admit that anger is an excellent way to gauge where a boundary has been crossed, and that’s important. It communicates that very well. But acting from a place of aggression, and approaching this realisation of my own aggressive tendency, was just creating more of the same. All my logical reasoning was just more aggression: “This makes perfect sense. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you figure this out?”
This is why this slogan is so powerful. This slogan is teaching us that we don’t need to get rid of anything. Instead, we can change our attitude. Acknowledging that all other human beings are working with the same stuff in the same messy conditions is wisdom. Remembering that all other human beings are working with the same stuff in the same messy conditions is the basis for compassion.
By learning how to relate with my messy humanity, I can learn to relate to everyone else’s messy humanity. With each new investigation, I find myself able to make space for passion, aggression and ignorance when I notice them. I am less inclined to ‘give away my anger’ by lashing out or holding others responsible for how I feel. I am less likely to carry unreasonable expectations of how people should behave. I am getting better at not ignoring the multitude of causes and conditions at play in any choice I or anyone else makes. More and more often, I am able to approach my humanity with tenderness. A tenderness that I am also able to naturally extend to others. So now, more often than not, when I encounter passion, aggression or ignorance in another person, my response is one of open-heartedness. I see the humanity in the way they are labelling someone as an enemy, shutting down in ignorance, or lashing out.
This is not a particularly easy practice, but I can say that it is effective and it is true. By examining the three objects and the three poisons within ourselves — by looking at our minds and sitting with the sensations we feel when they are at play — we are doing the work of waking.
This is part of a series of posts I am doing to support my practice.
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