The Meaning of Ignorance in the Abhidharma

Susan Shannon, M. Div.

The Meaning of Ignorance in the Abhidharma


Before we can discuss the roll ignorance has in Buddhism in general and the Abhidharma in specific it is helpful to find a definition of ignorance that fits with its original usage as well as an understanding that is relevant to our lives. In our western world the word ignorance is often used to synonymously with naiveté, or, more bluntly, stupid. The language of Buddhism obviously did not originate in English. It is important, when we are trying to grasp some basic concepts of Buddhism, to dig deeper into what the word meant and how it was used in its original languages before we can extract and transpose meaning into our own language.



In Sanskrit, the word for ignorance is avidya (Pali: avijja) One major obstacle encountered when translating from Sanskrit into English is that Sanskrit is predominantly a language used liturgically, with Buddhism and Hinduism sacred books, ceremonies and mantras. English has no “elevated form” of spiritual language. When we translate avidya as ignorance, we are translating from a language used in the ultimate sense into one used conventionally. Similar to Sanskrit, Classical Literary Tibetan was developed to translate the sacred Buddhist texts having to with higher states of consciousness, from Sanskrit into Tibetan. Classical Literary Tibetan is also a written language for liturgical purposes, and follows many of the same grammatical rules as Sanskrit. Also like Sanskrit, words are often used cryptically because their ultimate meaning is implied due to the role the word holds in the greater panorama of the teachings.



The Tibetan word for avidya is ma rig pa. In this case the ma is a negation particle added to rig pa, similar to the Sanskrit addition of the negation particle a to vidya. Both vidya and rig-pa are translated as knowledge or knowing, but again, in the original languages a more transcended meaning is inherent, whereas a for a Western student just starting to study Buddhism, reading these words simply as “ignorance” or “knowledge” as we use these words in daily life could be the start of much confusion.



For this paper I used several Buddhist dictionaries, which include Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese and English translations. Each included multiple listings further enumerating avidya and vidya. Each listing unpacks those two terms with deeper and deeper analysis, repeatedly pointing to the fact that though these words can be translated into English, our language falls short of accuracy when trying to define Buddhist language and concepts. Conversely, Sanskrit and CLT would be inadequate in defining aspects of popular Western culture technology, science or entertainment.



I gravitate to the word “un-awareness” as a good definition of ignorance. Similarly, the Chinese word for ignorance is “wu-ming” which directly translates into “not bright” or, more transcendentally, “without illumination.” This “illuminated mind” refers to the mind, which has achieved vidya, or rig-pa, the knowledge of the true nature of things.



As students of Buddhism it is important that we realize the foundational role avidya holds in keeping us in samsara and in releasing us from samsara. There are two kinds of ignorance or un-awareness. The first is ignorance of the laws of causality, meaning that one is ignorant or unaware of the causes and effects of our actions and thoughts. This ignorance leads to the accumulation of negative deeds and their effects which will lead to negative existences in future lives or even negative experiences in this life. The second kind of ignorance is the unawareness of the nature of phenomena. Together these “un-awarenesses” make up the root affliction ignorance. When we are “not illuminated” as to the true nature of self and phenomena, and cling to the belief of an independently existing self and phenomena as the only reality, we are solidly planted on the first rung of the ladder of the 12 Links of Existence. This unawareness provides the conditions for all other afflictions and negative actions. Out of those, all the sufferings outlined in the Four Nobel Truths become our harvest. With this ignorance, this unknowing, we are perpetually stuck in the revolving door of Samsaric existence.



The teachings of Buddha offer us a chance to give up that ticket to Samsara. The Buddha taught to many kinds of people, not just to those of highest intelligence. He taught that we can change our consciousness through examination and analysis. If we stop right here and ask how can I not go up (or down) the ladder of existence, the obvious answer is to not step on the first rung. In the system of the 12 Nidanas, ignorance in the Buddhist sense leads to the second link, volition, and on and on. If we can analyze our identity of self and phenomena through the step-by-step Buddhist practices, we will see that we really do not have an existence separate from the causes and conditions surrounding us. Furthermore, to develop Bodhicitta, the awakened mind, we recognize our interconnectedness with all beings. It is not so much that when we become aware that we won’t bleed if we cut ourselves, or that we won’t get old and get diseases. Rather, the consciousness that previously saw itself as the center of all sensation, act, thought, etc. has a looser association with the “I” which does not cling to all these thoughts and feelings with possession. Additionally, when one becomes aware of the causes and effects of one’s actions, one will tend to act in accord with what is more virtuous, more altruistic, which adds to a raised consciousness. In this way we become more and more free of the samsaric wheel.



In conclusion, it is important that we analyze the terms used in Buddhism from their original forms and contexts and find a way to ground the original meaning in a definition that is relevant to us personally. A Western student of Buddhism would do well to make themselves familiar with the many inadequacies of English when used to translate Buddhist teachings, and try to find teachers who understand the Western mind enough to be able to break down Buddhist concepts in ways that make sense to us.



It is equally important that we do this analysis starting with the basic concepts of Buddhism such as The Four Nobel Truths. Languages such as Sanskrit and Classical Literary Tibetan are encrypted tightly, and often point to meanings that are almost unknown to our Western mind. The concept of ignorance is one that implies so much more than simply not knowing. Finally, it is up to us as individuals to sculpt our own meaning of life and reality with our own carefully thought out and analyzed tools. The teachings of Buddhism offer us a complete tool kit, if we dare to use it.





Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. Abhidhammattha Sangaha: a Comprehensive Manual of

Abhidhamma. Onalaska, Washington: 2010.


Kohn, Michael. The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Boulder, Colorado:

Shambhala Publications 1991


Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998


Rigzin, Tsepak. Tibetan-English Dictionary of Buddhist Terminology.

Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. 1993


Rockwell, John Jr. A Primer for Classical Literary Tibetan Vol. 1 and 2. Vermont, USA:

Samadhi Bookstore. 1991


Soothill, William Edward. A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms with Sanskrit and English Equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali Index. Taipei. Taiwan. Ch’eng-wen Publishing Co 1937



Williams, Paul with Anthony Tribe. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the

Indian Tradition. New York: Routledge, 2010.


Wilson, Joe B. Translating Buddhism From Tibetan. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publishers 1999

[powr-hit-counter id=6682da74_1483897263992]

Home is Where the Heart is