This week I’d like to explore the concept of ignorance with my readers.
Like many words there is a certain ambiguity about ignorance. Often we use the term simply to mean a lack of knowledge about a subject or an issue. This kind of ignorance is tolerated because it occurs largely as a matter of circumstances. There is no opprobrium if your four-year old doesn’t yet know her nine times tables. We can not expect an indigenous person from a remote community to be familiar with the Government departments in Canberra. And indeed it would be foolish to presume a geriatric like me would have any inkling about pop musicians or film stars.
But sometimes we use the word in a more pejorative way to describe someone who wilfully pushes a point of view or behaves in a way that seems inconsiderate of others. This behaviour is not so much a result of not knowing but of seeing the world wrongly.
Let us not waste time on the first kind of ignorance which is merely a reflection of naivety or lack of opportunity. The second form is much more pernicious and, in fact, more interesting.
I read an interview with the Dalai Lama the other day which was relevant to this discussion. He argued that the teachings of the Buddha are aimed at attaining liberation from cyclic existence and attaining a proper understanding of the real world. Ignorance is what prevents such an outcome. He went on to say:
“Ignorance is the root of everything that stands in the way of these attainments. Ignorance binds us to suffering; therefore ignorance has to be clearly identified. To do so we must consider how this false quality of inherent existence appears to the mind, how the mind assents to it, and how the mind bases so many ideas on this fundamental mistake.”
In his view ignorance is not just a lack of knowledge, it is a contradiction of reality. Ignorance, by relying on appearances, superimposes onto persons and things a sense of concreteness, that in fact, is not there. Ignorance would have us believe that these phenomena exist in some fundamental way. Through ignorance what we see around us seems to exist independently, without depending on other factors for its existence, but this is not the case. By giving people and things around us this exaggerated status, we are drawn into all sorts of overblown and ultimately hurtful emotions.
He goes onto argue that identifying this false appearance of things and acknowledging our tacit assent to this illusion are the first steps towards realising that we do not exist the way we appear to. Our existence is not so concrete and autonomous as we might like to think. (We encountered this issue on my previous blog on Impermanence.)The ignorant mind does not question appearances to determine if they are correct, but merely accepts things the way they appear.
From these errors attachment and the other destructive emotions are born. The Indian sage, Nagarjuna, wrote in his Sixty Stanzas of Reasoning:
How could great afflictive emotions not arise
In those whose minds are based on inherent existence?
Even when an object is ordinary, their minds
Are grasped by the snake of destructive emotions.
It is this erroneous mindset of independence and separation that provides the platform for ego and the suffering that consequently arises.
Ignorance keeps us from seeing the truth – the fact that people and other objects are subject to the laws of cause and effect but do not have an essential existence that is independent.
This knowledge, that displaces ignorance is not a knowledge of facts and learning but an understanding of the true nature of things.
Matthieu Ricard, the French Scientist who gave up a career in science to become a Buddhist monk, writes:
“Out of habit we perceive the exterior world as a series of distinct autonomous entities to which we attribute characteristics that we believe belong inherently to them. Our day to day experience tells us that things are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The ‘I’ that perceives them seems to us to be equally concrete and real. This error which Buddhism calls ignorance, gives rise to the powerful reflexes of attachment and aversion that generally lead to suffering.”
Etty Hillesum, was a Dutch girl from the Jewish tradition. She became famous as a mystic and writer. Her diaries described life in Amsterdam during the German occupation and she died tragically in Auschwitz. She wrote:
“The great obstacle is always the representation and never the reality.”
In Sanskrit the word for suffering is called “samsara”. Whilst many would believe that this is a fundamental condition of existence, this is not the case. As we have seen above it is a manifestation of our misconception of the universe. It arises because we perceive things wrongly. It arises from our ignorance.
Hence we see that the ignorance that is most dangerous is not about lack of knowledge but of misperception. It doesn’t come from not knowing but seeing the world incorrectly. As we saw previously it generally comes from a misassignment of permanence and independence. In reality the universe is ephemeral and interconnected.
The 18th Century mystic and poet , William Blake understood this interdependence. He wrote:
“All things, by immortal power,
Hiddenly linked are.
That thou cans’t stir a flower
Without troubling a star.”
It is only in such ignorance that I can act without thought of the impact on others; that I can strive for my own betterment at your expense; that I can mistake material acquisition for success. And this ignorance is embedded in a reciprocal relation because just as truly as I am impacted by my world-view, my world-view is a reflection of who I am.
How perceptive was the Author, Anais Nin, when she wrote:
“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
Consequently our ignorance becomes strongly embedded because we can’t afford to see the world differently. Seeing the world differently then becomes a huge problem because in order to do so, we have, in fact, to change who we are. It is as a result of this dilemma that ignorance becomes so pernicious and ingrained.