What Does Ignorance Mean in Buddhism?

Category: Buddhist Path

A Tibetan bell and dorje, ritual implements, symbolizing overcoming ignorance

What is Ignorance (Avidya), or Misconceptions for Buddhists?

Nobody wants to be told they are ignorant. We associate this with being told we’re not smart, that our cognitive abilities are lacking. But in Buddhism, ignorance has a more nuanced meaning. We can be quite intelligent when it comes to the eight worldly concerns, yet still ignorant in a Buddhist sense.

Ignorance is not a lack of knowledge, it’s knowing the wrong things. Ignorance, at its most basic level, is a misunderstanding of reality. This great mistake fuels the three poisons.

The three poisons are three causes of suffering in Buddhism. They are craving, aversion and ignorance. Craving and aversion keep us in a state of discontentment by fooling us into thinking we’d be satisfied if only we could get what we want or avoid what we don’t want. Ignorance is the basic misunderstanding at the root of this.

Ignorance is described by the concept of avidya in Buddhism. The Sanskrit word avidya (or avijja in Pali) is the opposite of vidya, meaning knowledge, clear seeing, clarity or skill. To be ignorant is to think we know something, such as how the world works, yet to be mistaken. We aren’t seeing clearly.

Ignorance as the Cause of Suffering

Ignorance means to be misled, misguided, deluded, or asleep. Just as a cataract can obstruct our vision, our view of reality is veiled, obscured or clouded over by our mistaken certainty.

We are sure that we are separate, that our needs are more important than others, and that we can find permanent, unchanging happiness by chasing pleasure or avoiding pain. But what we think will make us happy is actually the cause of our pain. Ignorance and suffering in Buddhism are one and the same.

Buddhist teachings free us from this suffering by removing the veils of illusion that keep us from seeing clearly. This significant change in perception is described as awakening. With our eyes open, we see clearly and adopt Wise View. In brief, wisdom is an experiential understanding of the four marks of existence.

  • All things are impermanent, everything changes
  • These impermanent things cannot offer us lasting happiness, only suffering
  • Our personal point of view is not the only one, things exist in more than one way
  • Only by remembering these three can we find true, lasting bliss

With this understanding, we stop making the mistakes that keep us in a cycle of pain, which is called samsara, or cyclic existence. Examples of ignorance in Buddhism include the frustration we feel when our car breaks down. Why would we think it should run forever? The energy we lose by fighting getting older, an unavoidable part of being human. The pain we experience when someone disagrees with us. Could it be that our perspective is not the only one?

Breaking Free From Ignorance

We overcome ignorance by working with the three-fold path of ethics, meditation and wisdom.

Ethics: When we cease doing harm and begin to put others first, we see that putting ourselves first was mistaken. Happiness arises from ensuring the happiness of others. Adopting ethical behavior, such as outlined by the eightfold path or the ten non-virtuous actions, plants the karmic seeds for wisdom to awaken.

Meditation: Deepening mindfulness of ignorance allows us to more skillfully apply the antidotes to each of the three poisons. When we observe craving arise, we can practice letting go. When anger arises, we can turn toward patience. In meditation, we develop the skill of seeing things as they are, cutting through ignorance in the process.

Wisdom: Training in wisdom includes listening, contemplating and meditating. We listen to wise teachers, contemplate Buddhist scripture, and with meditation, train the mind to stay ever aware of our actions, speech and experience.

By working on the above to the best of our abilities, the clouded lenses we’ve been looking through begin to get more clear. It doesn’t happen overnight. To overcome several lifetimes of seeing things the wrong way, we must repeatedly reach for the Windex by returning to our practice. With consistency over time, we experience increasingly more subtle levels of clarity. When ignorance has been wiped away completely, we realize what we’ve labeled as samsara has been nirvana all along.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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