For millennia, spiritual traditions have recognized that greed, hatred, and ignorance cause suffering in the human heart. Now it’s time to recognize that greed, hatred, and ignorance inevitably cause suffering at whatever scale they manifest: individual, family, community, national, or global.
For too long we have separated our values from our economic and political systems. Few of us would ever consider tormenting or stealing from our neighbor, or watching him suffer without lending a hand. And yet we think it’s okay to allow injustice, inequality, and exploitation to be the outcome of our political and economic systems. We have allowed almost every sphere of human life to become governed by a profit motive, relegating things like education, social support, and generosity to a list of “nice” services that will be offered as long as they can fit in the budget. Concern for the well-being of others at the systems level is seen as a soft, bleeding-heart pastime of middle-class people who don’t have enough to do.
We have been hoodwinked by the people who have gotten immensely rich and powerful through our current system. They have led us to believe that unregulated competition, unbridled profit motive, and unending growth are essential to a healthy “economy,” and any attempt to introduce other values into the system will cause stagnation and collapse. They encourage our fear by invoking images of demoralized people standing in bread lines during the downfall of the Soviet Union. “See what would happen?” they say. “Communism doesn’t work.”
Fortunately, there are plenty of examples around the world of thriving political and economic systems that fall in between the two extremes of communism and unbridled capitalism. We don’t have to buy the story the rich and powerful are telling us.
We can adopt the values of generosity, tolerance, and understanding no matter what our religious or spiritual leanings. We can refuse to let these values be confined to personal or religious spheres, and insist on seeing them incorporated into our political and economic systems. It will not make us soft. It will not destroy our economy. It will not dampen individual creativity or productivity. It will not lead to a bleak society devoid healthy competition or rewards for hard work. Instead, systems that no longer depend on sustaining greed, hatred, and ignorance will increase the quality of life for the vast majority of us and allow us to heal our planet.
In Buddhism, greed, hatred, and ignorance are called the Three Poisons. (In Buddhist imagery, a rooster-like bird represents greed or grasping, a snake hatred or aversion, and a pig ignorance or delusion.) For over 2,500 years – and probably much longer than that – wise people have identified these three factors as being the root of all suffering. Those same wise people have also insisted that human beings are perfectly capable of recognizing and letting of the Three Poisons, and cultivating positive values and wisdom instead. Other spiritual and religious traditions have similar teachings. Why do we limit the sphere of our collective wisdom to the personal? Why don’t we apply what we know to be true to life at all levels, from the individual to the global?
It may be because we fear the totalitarianism that social change movements have become trapped in before. No matter how lovely the values a movement is fighting for, if the methods of oppression, judgement, persecution, and propaganda are employed the results are a disaster. Fortunately, there are also alternatives here. We can work to advance the values of generosity, tolerance, and understanding in our political and economic systems while allowing those values to guide our actions. In other words, we walk our talk. We don’t intimidate people into being generous, and don’t vilify people while we fight for tolerance. At the same time we speak out, work for change, and vote our conscience.
Let’s get the Three Poisons out of our economic and political systems. All the beautiful things about life on this planet depend on it.