… on ‘ignorance’

Rig-‘dzin Chos-kyi-grags-pa says in his commentary on dGongs gcig 2.5: “We do not maintain that this cognitive misorientation is like fainting to unconsciousness or like a ‘not seeing with one’s eyes,’ but that cognitive misorientation is a grasping of the marks of delusion that obscure true reality (de kho na nyid kyi don la bsgribs pa), i.e. just that which is the root of the five poisons.”

Note that this is his definition of (Skt.) avidya (Tib. ma rig pa), which is often translated as ‘ignorance’, in the sense of “lack of knowledge or information” and the like. But as the commentator points out, it is not to be understood as a simple passive ‘not-knowing’ of something, i.e. as a blank spot in one’s knowledge. It is rather an active mistake-making in the sense of a mis-performance of one’s cognition, as it is a “grasping of the marks of delusion that obscure true reality.”

This understanding has consequences for how avidya can be removed. As the true knowledge is already present as ‘true reality’ (tathata, Tib. de kho na nyid), but is obscured by “the grasping of the marks of delusion,” it is that grasping that has to be removed, and that cannot be achieved merely by intellectual knowledge.

Already in the Analysis of the Dependent Origination-Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya ii 4) of early Buddhism, avidya is defined as not knowing suffering, its origination, its cessation, and the way that leads to its cessation. At least in the first instance—not knowing suffering—too, it is not a simple lack of information, but a misconstruction of suffering and pain, which is all-pervading, as pleasure and so forth, such as the belief that the fulfilment of desire leads to happiness. And avidya, it is noted, can also not simply be replaced by knowledge in any ordinary sense, but has to be removed by a combination of calm abiding (shamatha) and superior insight (vipashyana) (Anguttara Nikaya i 61).

Already Jäschke noted in his famous dictionary (1881) about ma rig pa: “… mostly used in the specific Buddhist sense, viz. for the innate principle and fundamental error of considering perishable things as permanent and of looking upon the external world as one really existing (…).”

Sarat Chandra Das, on the other hand, who otherwise copied freely from Jäschke, embezzles this important remark and explains ma rig pa as ‘ignorance’ in the sense of “not knowing the things and phenomena of the three worlds.”

In sum, it seems, it would be better to understand avidya not as ignorance (Lat. ignorare = not knowing), but rather as ‘mis-knowledge,’ in the sense of a cognitive misorientation, i.e. a grasping of error.

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