Overcoming Ignorance

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Stopping attachment and overcoming ignorance

During this lifetime we engage in a great many actions based on ignorance. If we can stop attachment and grasping, we can stop the process of rebirth. To make it such that attachment would be impossible, we have to overcome the ignorance which is its root. It is through our not knowing the actual status of phenomena and through conceiving its opposite that attachment is possible.

Buddhists do not just suppress attachment (although there are many times when this is necessary and there are practices geared for this) but understand something that undermines attachment. Desire and hatred become, not suppressed, but impossible. There is something we can know that will make attachment inoperative. The basis of desire and hatred is unfounded; it lacks a valid foundation. It rests on the shaky foundation of ignorance.


The three thorough afflictions

Where does ignorance come from?  We cannot assign it a beginning in time, but we can lay out a lifetime, determine its principal causes, and speak of its beginning in ignorance. in his Precious Garland, Nagarjuna presents the twelve links of dependent-arising in three groups—ignorance, action, and the production of suffering, which are called the three thorough afflictions:

As long as the aggregates are conceived,
So long thereby does the conception of I exist.
Further, when the conception of I exists,
There is action, and from it there also is birth

As long as the mental and physical aggregates are misconceived to inherently exist, the I also is misconceived to have the same status, as a result of which there is karma; from karma, birth occurs.


1. ignorance

1. ignorance
8. attachment
9. grasping
2. action 2. action
10. existence
3. the production of suffering 3b. effect-consciousness
4. name and form
5. sense spheres
6. contact
7. feeling
8. attachment
9. grasping
10. existence
11. birth
12. aging and death

From among the twelve links of dependent-arising, ignorance, attachment, and grasping are grouped together as the first of these three, ignorance. Since an action establishes a predisposition on the consciousness, and since that predisposition, when it is brought to the point at which it is just ready to produce a life, is called existence, the two links—action and existence—are called by the name of the second of these three, action, the primary factor in both cases. Nagarjuna calls seven links—from (effect) consciousness (in this system cause consciousness is omitted) through aging and death—the production of suffering.

Nagarjuna says that three groups mutually cause one another, appearing like the whirling of a firebrand:

With these three pathways mutually causing each other
Without a beginning, a middle, or an end,
This wheel of cyclic existence
Turns like the wheel of a firebrand.

If you take a stick with fire at one end and turn it quickly at night, someone watching at a distance will see a wheel of fire. Similarly, the movement of these factors is seen as cyclic existence. In sequence, ignorance gives rise to action, and action gives rise to suffering, but they each mutually cause each other. For instance, suffering also causes ignorance; we respond to suffering in an ignorant way; thus, in this sense, suffering is a cause of ignorance, which causes action. Action causes ignorance in that due to actions one tends to accumulate more wrong views, which produce more ignorance in the future.

When we consider the process of cyclic existence, we see that we are drawn into good and bad situations, drawn into suffering, over and over again, that we are battered and bruised. Through meditation on dependent-arising, we generate an understanding of our own place in cyclic existence. Once we have understood our own place, we can extend that understanding to others and thereby come to feel deep compassion.