11/19/2013 11:55 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Three Poisons, Institutionalized

The Buddha didn't say much about evil, but he spoke often about what are sometimes called the three roots of evil, also known as the "three poisons": greed, ill will, and delusion. His understanding of karma emphasized the role of these intentions: when what we do is motivated by greed, ill will, or delusion, dukkha "suffering" results.

Today we not only have much more powerful technologies, we also have much more powerful institutions, which operate according to their own logic and motivations. Those can be quite different from the personal motivations of the people who work for them.

This Buddhist emphasis on motivation can provide a different perspective on some of our most important social structures. Arguably, our present economic system institutionalizes greed, our militarism institutionalizes ill will, and the corporate media institutionalize delusion.

Institutionalized Greed

If greed is defined as "never having enough," that also applies collectively: corporations are never large enough or profitable enough, their share value is never high enough, our GNP is never big enough... In fact, we cannot imagine what "big enough" might be. It is built into these systems that they must keep growing, or else they tend to collapse. But why is more always better if it can never be enough?

Consider the stock market, high temple of the economic process. On one side are many millions of investors, most anonymous and unconcerned about the details of the companies they invest in, except for their profitability and share prices. In many cases investors do not know where their money is invested, thanks to mutual funds. Such people are not evil, of course: investment is a highly respectable endeavor, and successful investors are highly respected, even idolized ("the sage of Omaha").

On the other side of the market, however, the desires and expectations of those millions of investors become transformed into an impersonal and unremitting pressure for growth and increased profitability that every CEO must respond to, and preferably in the short run.

Consider, for example, the CEO of a large transnational corporation, who one morning suddenly awakens to the dangers of climate change and wants to do everything he (it's usually a he) can to address this challenge. But if what he tries to do threatens corporate profits, he is likely to lose his job. And if that is true for the CEO, how much more true it is for everyone else down the corporate hierarchy. Corporations are legally chartered so that their first responsibility is not to their employees or customers, nor to the members of the societies they operate within, nor to the ecosystems of the earth, but to their stockholders, who with few exceptions are concerned only about return on investment.

Who is responsible for this collective fixation on growth? The point is that this system has its own in-built motivations, quite apart from the motivations of the employees who will be replaced if they do not serve that institutional motivation. And all of us participate in this process in one way or another, as employees, consumers, investors, pensioners, and so forth, although with very little (if any) sense of personal responsibility for the collective result. Any awareness of what is actually happening tends to be diffused in the impersonal anonymity of this economic process.

Institutionalized Ill Will

One example of institutionalized ill will is our punitive legal system, which incarcerates vast numbers of people, mostly poor and colored (white-collar criminals rarely end up in prison for long). But the "best" example is our militarism. Measured by the power of our military forces, and the resources devoted to them, we live in the most militarized society ever. Each year we lavish as much money on our armed forces as the next fifteen largest nations combined. If Iraq and Afghanistan are included, military spending in 2011 was $1,165,907,000,000, according to one widely-cited computation. The need to "defend ourselves" apparently requires well over 700 overseas military installations, and more than 900 domestic ones. No wonder there's so little left for education and social services.

To justify that expense, our military needs an enemy. The end of the Cold War with the Soviet bloc created a big problem, but the "war on terror" solved it. It is already by far the longest war in our history, and may never come to an end: using drones to assassinate suspects, along with any other people who happen to be nearby, ensures that we continue to produce a dependable supply of angry people who have good reason to hate us. If terrorism is the war of the poor and disempowered, war is the terrorism of the rich.

Institutionalized Delusion

"The Buddha" literally means "the awakened one," which implies that the rest of us are unawakened. Each of us lives inside our own dream-like bubble of delusions, which distorts our perceptions and expectations. Buddhist practitioners are familiar with this problem, yet we also dwell together within a much bigger bubble that largely determines how we collectively understand the world and ourselves. The institution most responsible for molding our collective sense of self is the media, which have become our "international nervous system."

Genuine democracy requires an independent and activist press, to expose abuse and discuss political issues. In the process of becoming mega-corporations, however, the major media have abandoned all but the pretense of objectivity. Since they are profit-making institutions whose bottom-line is advertising revenue, their main concern is to do whatever maximizes those profits. It is never in their own interest to question the grip of consumerism.

An important part of genuine education is realizing that many of the things we think are natural and inevitable (and therefore should accept) are in fact conditioned (and therefore can be changed). The world doesn't need to be the way it is; there are other possibilities. The present role of the media is to foreclose most of those possibilities by confining public awareness and discussion within narrow limits. With few exceptions, the world's developed (or "economized") societies are now dominated by a power elite composed of governments and large corporations including the major media. People move seamlessly from each of these institutions to the other, because there is little difference in their worldview or goals: primarily economic expansion. Politics remains "the shadow cast by big business over society," as John Dewey once put it. The role of the media in this unholy alliance is to "normalize" this situation, so that we accept it and continue to perform our required roles, especially the frenzied production and consumption necessary to keep the economy growing.

It's important to realize that we are not being manipulated by a clever group of powerful people who benefit from manipulating us. Rather, we are being manipulated by a deluded group of powerful people who think they benefit from it--because they buy into the basic illusion that their own well-being is separate from that of other people. They too are victims of their own propaganda, caught up in the webs of collective delusion that include virtually all of us. As the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus once said, "How do wars begin? Politicians tell lies to journalists, then believe what they read in the newspapers." The same applies to shared fantasies such as the necessity of consumerism and perpetual economic growth, and collective repressions such as denial of impending eco-catastophe.

A Social Awakening?

If the Buddha is correct that greed, ill will, and delusion are the causes of our suffering, and if we have indeed institutionalized them, these are matters for deep and urgent concern. Has awakening to the nature of these three institutional poisons become just as important as the individual awakening that Buddhism traditionally emphasizes?