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Paticca Samuppada - Avijja


Avijja is the first link in the chain but should not in any way be thought of as the starting point, the 'causeless root-cause of the world.' The images of the circular chain and the wheel representing paticca samupada [P.S.] are useful as neither has a defined starting point. The conventional layout of the P.S. formula is intended for reflection, not as any kind of finite cosmological or psychological definition.
"No first-ignorance can be perceived, monks, before which ignorance was not, and after which it came to be. But it can be perceived that ignorance has its specific conditions." Anguttara X.61
So what are the 'specific conditions' that cause ignorance?
"With the arising of taints (asava) there is the arising of ignorance." Majjhima 9
And then we want to ask after the cause of the taints. Read the section on asava [  ] but enough here to note that the standard list of four includes ignorance. Have we just gone in a circle here? Trying to position avijja creates a loop similar to the one we find in the eight-fold path: the first step is right view (of the Four Noble Truths) and the last of the Four Truths... is the eight-fold path. We will find many such loops in P.S. as we proceed. Nibbana (the end goal) can be defined as: "being perfect in knowledge (vijja)" and, "endowed with higher knowledge (te-vijja)." If nibbana is where we finish then we are clearly starting from "the absence of vijja," which is: a-vijja. So, avijja sits first on the list as representing a primary obstacle to liberation - and a primary cause of dukkha. The teaching of the Buddha has at its core the Four Noble Truths and, as a working summary, ignorance is not knowing the Four Noble Truths.

avijja = ignorance; unawareness; unknowing; obscured awareness; delusion about the nature of the mind. All unwholesome states of mind are inseparably bound up with it. The standard English translation, ignorance, has its roots in the Greek word 'gnosis' = (revealed) spiritual knowledge, and it is where the words diagnosis and prognosis come from. Ignorance is the state of not-knowing or, in the particular context of dhamma, non-wisdom. We tend to think of knowledge in terms of facts and information but the path to freedom (from the wheel of birth and death - the chains of P.S.) lies in the space of the mind, the non-positional 'knowing' that is the domain of awareness. And what does this awareness know? - the Four Noble Truths.

Underlying the Four Noble Truths is the teaching on not-self (anatta   ) and an even more basic definition of avijja is the held belief that: I am the five khandhas. I believe that the five khandhas are me, that they are mine and that they constitute my-self. This parallels the the Buddha's summary definition of suffering as "the grasping of the five khandhas" [  ].
We can also consider:
ignorance of the 3 conditions [  ]; the basic truth for all existance: that everything is impermanent, is dukkha (unsatisfactory) and is not-self.
ignorance as confused thinking based on conjecture and imagination, conditioned by beliefs, fear, and accumulated character traits. This is the kind of mental 'squirrel in a cage' that most people experience. Not dukkha with a capital 'D' but just the everyday form of ignorance/confusion. Yes?
The overall thrust of the Buddha's teaching is "freedom from suffering" and where the Four Noble Truths presents the conditioned relationship of desire and dukkha we see P.S. offering avijja-dukkha. The purpose is the same: to understand the cause of dukkha is to have a key to be free from dukkha.

When the mind operates based entirely on avijja, it experiences all things as being independent, seperated, alien entities. The observation is one of me (here) holding various knowledges, views, etc. about all-that-stuff (out there). Even the body is seen as a kind of other-thing; it is my body - my thoughts, my children, my car and so forth. The apparent, or presumed point of observation is thought to be the centre, with all else peripheral - this is what it is to be ego-centric. Most of us suffer from this delusion but in the normal run of things are not so extremely positioned. I doubt you would be reading this if you were. There is hope :)

From this ego-centric position another ignorance that we fall prey to is that of continuity. This appears in two ways. The first is a presumed extension of existance. Of course we all know that everything is impermanent but our knowledge is largely of the factual, conceptual variety. I do know that I am going to die - but of course it is... when? certainly later - always at some other (later) time. I don't truely know the nature of impermance. It is often not until there is a close death or we get the terminal diagnosis that we really begin to investigate impermanence. The second, and related aspect of continuity is the creation of time - the past and... OF COURSE, the future - my future. It is the only way the first bit can work. If I had a past, and I am now, then I will most likely have a future. It is this ongoing (ignorant) attempt to sustain, this attempt to substantiate 'me' that is the conditioning factor for the next link - sankhara.




In terms of dealing with ignorance - in the context of liberation - we can use a very broad definition of avijja: not being familiar with your own mind. It is through this non-familiarity that we confuse our conditioned perceptions of the world, of reality, with the truth - the dhamma. We tend to regard the impermanent as permanent, the unpleasant (dukkha) as pleasant and the not-self as self. Part of the problem here is that there is much business in our lives and there is not a lot of stillness, not a lot of time to reflect on the nature of... well, nature. Too much of our effort to be free of suffering is focussed on attacking the shadow of suffering - we fail to see its actual form. Meditation is an effective technique - stop, look and listen.

So, a mind that is centered and still, gives rise to knowledge, wisdom. The cultivation of this knowledge is the path. All the things of this world that come parading before the senses for you to know are potential causes of suffering. Gaurd the mind against latching onto the preoccupations that appear in relation to those things. Let them be, let them just exist in line with their nature. Put your mind at ease. Don't fasten onto the formations of the mind or suppose these things to be this or that. As long as you suppose your-self, you're suffering, your awareness is obscured; there is avijja. When you can truly know this, penetrate this, the transcendent will arise within you -- the noblest good, the most exalted happiness a human being can know. These words of encouragement from Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo.

"Monks, I don't envision even one other obstruction -- obstructed by which people go wandering & transmigrating on for a long, long time -- like the obstruction of ignorance. Obstructed with the obstruction of ignorance, people go wandering & transmigrating on for a long, long time." Itivuttaka I.14

avijja is synonomous with moha (delusion) the third of the three poisons
it is one of the asava (taints, effluents, corruptions, out-flows)
one of the anusaya (proclivities, inclinations, tendencies)
one of the samyojana (fetters)
and.... needless to say it regularly figures as a prominent 'bad guy' in many other aspects of the teachings.