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or The Doctrine of Dependent Origination

Chapter 7 - What Is Avijja


According to the Buddha, avijja is ignorance of the four Noble Truths, viz., the truths about suffering, its cause, its cessation and the way to its cessation. In a positive sense avijja implies misconception or illusion. It makes us mistake what is false and illusory for truth and reality. It leads us astray and so it is labelled //miccha patipatti avijja//.

Avijja, therefore, differs from ordinary ignorance. Ignorance of the name of a man or a village does not necessarily mean misinformation whereas the avijja of Paticcasamuppada means something more than ignorance. It is misleading like the ignorance of a man who has lost all sense of direction and who, therefore, thinks that the east is west or that the north is south. The man who does not know the truth of suffering has an optimistic view of life that is full of dukkha (pain and evil).

It is a mistake to seek the truth of dukkha in the book for it is to be found in ones own body. Seeing, hearing, in short, all nama rupa arising from the six senses are dukkha. For this phenomenal existence is impermanent, undesirable and unpleasant. It may end at any time and so all is pain and suffering. But this dukkha is not realized by living beings who look upon their existence as blissful and good.

So they seek pleasant sense objects, good sights, good sounds, good food, etc. Their effort to secure what they believe to be the good things of life is due to their illusion (avijja) about their existence. Avijja is here like the green eye glass that makes a horse eat the dry grass which it mistakes for green grass. Living beings are mired in sensual pleasure because they see every thing through rose coloured glasses. They harbour illusions about the nature of sense objects and nama rupa.

A blind man may be easily deceived by another man who offers him a worthless longyi, saying that it is an expensive, high quality longyi. The blind man will believe him and he will like the longyi very much. He will be disillusioned only when he recovers his sight and then he will throw it away at once. Likewise, as a victim of avijja, a man enjoys life, being blind to its anicca, dukkha and anatta. He becomes disenchanted when introspection of nama rupa makes him aware of the unwholesome nature of his existence.

Introspection of nama rupa or vipassana contemplation has nothing to do with bookish knowledge. It means thorough watching and ceaseless contemplation of all psycho physical phenomena that comprise both the sense objects and the corresponding consciousness. The practice leads to full awareness of their nature. As concentration develops, the yogi realizes their arising and instant vanishing, thereby gaining an insight into their anicca, dukkha and anatta.

Avijja makes us blind to reality because we are unmindful. Unmindfulness give rise to the illusion of man, woman, hand, leg, etc., in the conventional sense of the terms. We do not know that seeing, for instance, is merely the nama rupa or psycho physical process, that the phenomenon arises and vanishes, that it is impermanent, unsatisfactory and unsubstantial.

Some people who never contemplate die without knowing anything about nama rupa. The real nature of nama rupa process is realized by the mindful person. But the insight does not occur in the beginning when concentration is not yet developed. Illusion or the natural way of consciousness precedes contemplation and so the beginner does not gain a clear insight into the nature of nama rupa. It is only through steadfast practice that concentration and perception develop and lead to insight knowledge.

If, for example, while practising mindfulness, the yogi feels itchy, he is barely aware of being itchy. He does not think of the hand, the leg, or any other part of the body that is itchy nor does the idea of self as the subject of itchiness, "I feel itchy" occur to him. There arises only the continuous sensation of itchiness. The sensation does not remain permanent but passes away as he notes it. The watching consciousness promptly notes every psycho physical phenomenon, leaving no room for the illusion of hand, leg and so on.

Illusion dominates the unmindful person and makes him blind to the unsatisfactory nature (dukkha) of all sense objects. It replaces dukkha with sukha. Indeed avijja means both ignorance of what is real and mis conception that distorts reality.

Because he does not know the truth of dukkha, man seeks pleasant sense objects. Thus ignorance leads to effort and activity (sankhara). According to the scriptures, because of avijja there arises sankhara but, there are two links, viz., tanha and upadana between them. Ignorance gives rise to craving (tanha) which later on develops into attachment (upadana). Craving and attachment stem from the desire for pleasure and are explicitly mentioned in the middle part of the doctrine of Paticcasamuppada. When the past is fully described, reference is made to avijja, tanha, upadana, kamma and sankhara.

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