The Nature of Ignorance

by Bhikkhu Anīgha

In order to fix any problem, one needs to have an accurate idea of what that problem is. With the ultimate issue that is avijjā, this is even more the case, as a wrong view about what ignorance is will necessarily mean striving towards an insight, and even liberation, of the wrong kind—namely, pertaining to something that is not actually the root of one’s suffering.

Contemporarily, the view that practitioners hold for the most part is that ignorance is a lack of access to some great secret or “ultimate reality” underlying their experience. As a result of this, the sort of “insight” being aimed at is on the level of a special perception or revelatory experience, a common example being the idea of a hidden “flux” or “stream” of changing phenomena which—once a subtle bit of reasoning and information has been applied, meaning it’s not a direct insight—“means” that experience is anattā1 .

The knowledge that a puthujjana is truly missing out on is something comparatively unexciting and less superficially grandiose than the insights practitioners tend to anticipate and glorify, but immeasurably more fundamental and indispensable for any development of mind to take place.  So fundamental, in fact, that the lack of said recognition ensures and maintains itself, meaning that there is no way for the right type of insight to arise “by accident” or “naturally”, unlike special visions and meditative experiences that can happen even on account of drugs. The truly supramundane “vision” the ordinary person lacks pertains simply to their own intentions, to knowing them when and for what they are.

“Bhante, they speak of ‘an astute person with great understanding’. How is an astute person with great understanding defined?”

“Good, good, bhikkhu! Your approach and articulation are excellent, and it’s a good question. … An astute person with great understanding is one who does not intend in a way that leads to their own harm, to the harm of others, or to the harm of both. When they think, they only think in a way that is beneficial for themselves, for others, for both, and for the whole world. That’s how a person is astute, with great understanding.”

—AN 4.186

The puthujjana, defined as the person who lacks understanding, is unable to ensure their internal welfare because they themselves inadvertently intend in ways that jeopardize it, and there are only two possible reasons behind this: 1) they have not even a concept of what their true welfare is, meaning they’ve never come across the Dhamma, understood it intellectually and acknowledged it as true, or  2) they are unable to see unbeneficial intentions as they are taking place in their own mind, even if they’re well-learned and fully devoted to the teachings.

It is because of this that it is said…

“There are two conditions for the arising of right view: the words of another and attention through the source (yoniso manasikāra).”

—MN 43

We need to look no further than the first fetter for the best example of not seeing unbeneficial intentions as they take place. The person without the Right View regards their experiences as “me” and “mine” not because they want to, especially not if they agree with the Buddha’s core teachings, as almost everyone reading this probably does. It’s because one doesn’t even notice that attitude taking place in the first place that it continues to take place, and that attitude, that “regarding”, is nothing but an activity/intention (saṅkhāra), meaning that the puthujjana is responsible for it.

And how, bhikkhus, does one know and see in order to immediately end the defilements with no in-between? Take an untrained ordinary person who has not seen the noble ones, and is neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the noble ones. They’ve not seen true persons, and are neither skilled nor trained in the teaching of the true persons.

They regard form as self. But that regarding is just an activity (sakhāra). And what’s the source, origin, birthplace, and inception of that activity? For an unlearned ordinary person who is struck by feelings born of ignorance-pressure, craving arises. That activity is born from that. So that activity is impermanent, conditioned, and dependently originated. And that craving, that feeling, that pressure, and that ignorance are also impermanent, conditioned, and dependently originated. That’s how one should know and see in order to end the defilements with no in-between.

[they regard feeling, perception, activities, consciousness as self…]

—SN 22.81

The same applies to the other two fetters that a sotāpanna has abandoned as well. It’s not that one knowingly chooses to hold on to virtue and duty (which is the implication when sīlabbataparāmāsa is translated as “clinging to rites and rituals”), or to be uncertain about the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha (the fetter of doubt), and therefore it’s not about simply doing the opposite either. It’s rather that those intentions are taking place without one’s knowledge, and once they are known, they can never come back, as one can’t wish for one’s own harm knowingly2, especially when the result of it is a mountain of suffering (SN 56.49).

This is why it’s also not only wrong but disastrous to think that a puthujjana can momentarily be free from ignorance and craving (“stop the chain” of paiccasamuppāda) if they just apply a meditation method or attend things like this or that, stop thinking, etc. The true nature of ignorance is such that it occurs due to having no idea that it’s occurring, which means that if it is truly seen even once, it cannot come back to the same extent it was present before. Such a view thus implies not only an ignorance of what ignorance is, which is exactly what it needs to continue unhindered, but also a conviction that one is already abandoning it when one clearly isn’t, doubling the magnitude of the problem.

And these fetters are not the only instances where harmful intentions go unnoticed. At any given time, there will be intentions and inclinations of passion, aversion, and distraction that the ordinary person cannot see themselves having. This is what the Simile of the Cook Sutta (SN 47.8) refers to with “not grasping the hints of the mind (cittassa nimitta)”, and saying that without that ability, it’s impossible to abandon defilements. MN 2 also states that the destruction of defilements happens only for one who understands yoniso manasikāra, which in this relevant case would be the ability to see the “source” of whatever one is attending in the form of the intention behind that attention, which is where the defilements are to be found, not in what one is attending.

For instance, one might be fervently contemplating the Dhamma, which is a superficially wholesome action, but not realizing that in the background, on the level of that “source” (yoni), there is presently an intention of restlessness or of aversion towards an arisen feeling, which one is resisting and hoping to get rid of through that contemplation. Alternatively, people’s efforts towards practice can often be rooted in a superficial sense of inspiration that is just a way of riding the wave of a pleasant feeling, and they wouldn’t realize that their practice should be directed towards questioning that peripheral intention instead of just going along with whatever the mind is pulling towards, even if it’s ideas about the Dhamma. This is what SN 47.8 means with the example of the monk who is practicing satipaṭṭhāna diligently, ardently and resolutely, and yet is unable to achieve the results that matter, like the cook who is not able to accurately pick up on the preferences of the king (the peripheral leanings of the mind) and serve him the food that he actually wants at the right time.3

Those results that matter, as the Sutta also says, include the jhānas. That’s because the five hindrances can only be overcome by the one who knows and sees them, and they are the epitome of “underlying intentions” that the undeveloped mind overlooks. That’s why the person who truly can  abandon the five hindrances has next to nothing stopping them from getting the Right View, as they have already necessarily learned the principle of yoniso and ayoniso manasikāra described in MN 2. They wouldn’t be able to overcome those states unless they were already able to see themselves bringing them about and proliferating them, and that happens on the level of those peripheral intentions and ayoniso manasikāra. No mechanical meditation method can possibly absolve one from having to know and see those obstructions on the right level first in order to transcend them, as their nature is to indiscriminately underlie whatever one does4, even the practice of Dhamma, all the more when it’s of the mechanical kind that is common today.

Lastly, it cannot be emphasized enough that it’s not just a matter of knowing what beneficial and unbeneficial intentions are on the intellectual level, or of classifying everything according to some predetermined scheme. Rather, uncovering one’s underlying motivations and thus defilements is a process that unfolds over the long term, and its proximate cause is the abstinence from the unskillful intentions that one is already aware of, no matter how superficial one’s threshold of recognition may be initially. This is what is accomplished by the stages of Gradual Training that are the prerequisites for success in the purification of the mind from hindrances. Refraining from proliferating arisen unwholesome mental states and pressures through actions is the only thing that can eventually make those previously overlooked mental states apparent for what they are. Conversely, acting out of them is the supreme way to continue to overlook them, as that necessarily involves directing one’s attention past where they are, and toward this or that object or perception instead—the primordial state of the undeveloped mind.

Once ignorance pertaining to the recognition of the defilements has been abandoned, the Four Noble Truths are not far from one’s grasp, because one will then be able to discern craving where it really is. Exactly how it is the root of suffering and that which turns all of one’s intentions and efforts against oneself would by that point be clear as day.

“Through the round of many births,

I transmigrated without success,

searching for the builder of the house.

Painful is birth again and again!

House-builder, you’ve been seen!

You will not build a house again,

for your rafters and broken

and your ridgepole shattered.

The mind, arrived at non-activity (visakhāragata),

has come to the destruction of craving.”

—Dhammapada 153-154

  1. There are multiple faults with this right off the bat. The first implication this naturally carries is that anattā means “no-self”, as opposed to “not-self”. By perceiving the unceasing flux of experience, one concludes that there is therefore no lasting entity that can be called a “self”, failing to see that that’s not even what the fetter of self-view is about in the first place. Thus, having a wrong view about what ignorance is would in this case lead to an insight of the wrong kind, as said previously. As per the Anattālakkhana Sutta, anattā is the lack of control over the aggregates and their nature of not leading to one’s well-being in themselves. It has nothing to do with there being no discernible identity that endures over time, and that´s why the insight of anattā is always described in terms of “this is not mine”, as the actual issue is appropriation, not whether or how long anything lasts across time. There is an enduring entity, and the issue of ignorance is in the false sense of control and ownership over that entity. ↩︎
  2. One can intentionally harm oneself in various ways, but even that is always done with the expectation of either more pleasure or less pain on the fundamental level. ↩︎
  3. All this can be summarized by saying that one cannot intend what one actually wants to intend—what you say to yourself that you’re intending—meaning non-passion, non-aversion, and non-distraction. One intends the opposite instead on the peripheral level, not even seeing oneself doing so, and feeling sure of having the right motivation all along. ↩︎
  4. Hence, they’re compared to parasitic trees that encircle and grow around other trees in SN 46.39. ↩︎