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Six root afflictions: Ignorance

Stages of the Path #99: The Second Noble Truth

Part of a series of Bodhisattva's Breakfast Corner talks on the Stages of the Path (or Lamrim) as described in the Guru Puja text by Panchen Lama I Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen.

We have been talking about the six root afflictions. We talked about attachment and anger. The next one is ignorance. Ignorance is not just being ignorant about who were the Presidents of the United States and that kind of thing; rather, it’s an ignorance that is actually much more important in that it does not see things correctly. There are two kinds of ignorance—one of the ultimate nature, one of the conventional nature.

Ignorance of the ultimate nature is an obscurity that does not see the ultimate reality, that things are empty of inherent existence. It’s not just an obscurity that doesn’t see emptiness, but it actively apprehends the opposite of emptiness. Whereas things are not inherently existent, this ignorance apprehends them as being inherently existent. It’s not just obscurity from the viewpoint of the Prasangikas; it is an active misapprehension, a wrong kind of grasping. That is the ignorance concerning the ultimate truth.

The ignorance concerning conventional truth, or the conventional way of being, is an ignorance that does not believe in karma and its effects. In other words, it’s an ignorance that says, “Well, my actions have no ethical dimension. I do what I do. If I don’t get caught, it’s completely okay; it’s not nonvirtuous.”

Many times we think like this, don’t we? For example, when we’re angry and we want to tell somebody off, we don’t think, “My words are nonvirtuous, and this is going to bring some kind of bad effect on me.” We don’t think that. When we’re really angry, if somebody was to say, “Your words are going to have a negative effect on yourself,” we’d say, “Baloney!” Because the power of the ignorance that’s supporting the anger is so strong we would just deny it.

This ignorance about karma and its effects is very, very serious because when it is active and manifest in our mind we do all sorts of things and think that they’re okay to do. And then we wind up with a ton of negative karma and a lot of painful experiences and lower rebirths as a result of that.

So, we need to get rid of both of these kinds of ignorance. We need to get rid of the ignorance of the conventional that has no confidence in karma and effects because otherwise it’s going to throw us into a lower rebirth. And we also need to get rid of the ignorance that misapprehends the ultimate nature—that sees things as inherently existent—because that’s the one that keeps us getting reborn in cyclic existence again and again and again.

In addition to these two, there are a ton of other ignorances. All the different wrong views are forms of ignorance. But they kind of all boil down to these two.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.