Varieties of Avidya

Bhaisajguru, the Medicine Buddha

ImageBhaisajguru, the Medicine Buddha

Recently Barry Briggs brought to attention various definitions of avidya in a post called Three Poisons. This is usually translated as ignorance. He quotes teacher Ken McLeod, who is a translator, as using the term indifference rather than ignorance. Barry seemed rather partial to the new rendering while Ben in comments brought up some potentially difficult semantic and motivational issues with it.

Personally I’m not sold on the term indifference. And I will return to the issue of translations of this term shortly.

The term indifference can be a facet of the broader category of ignorance.This got me thinking about avidya in general and it’s numerous manifestations. There appear to be quite a number if one takes it out of the ideological realm and puts it in practical terms.

The term Three Poisons is derived from the Three Unwholesome Roots-lobha, dosa, moha and these I find translated as greed/lust/desire/craving, hate/ill-will, delusion/ignorance. Ken McLeod’s translations, which Barry quoted are “attachment, aversion, indifference”.

One might look at some of the types of ignorance through the notion of obstacles to practice.

Fortunately there are all kinds of Buddhist lists relating to these obstacles. These lists include:

1. The ten fetters-samyojana

  • belief in a substantial self
  • skeptical doubt/doubt/uncertainty about the teachings/lack of trust
  • clinging to rules and ritual
  • sensual craving
  • ill will
  • craving for fine-material existence
  • craving for immaterial existence
  • conceit(mana)
  • restlessness
  • ignorance

2. The five hindrances-panca nivarana

  • sensual desire,
  • ill-will,
  • sloth and torpor,
  • restlessness,
  • skeptical doubt

3. The ten defilements or impurities-klesha

  • greed
  • hate
  • delusion
  • conceit
  • speculative/wrong views
  • skeptical doubt
  • mental torpor
  • restlessness
  • lack of shame
  • lack of moral dread

4. The four taints outlined in the Abhidharma-asava

  • sensual desire,
  • desire for eternal existence or becoming,
  • speculative opinions or ignorance of the dhamma or the way things are
  • and ignorance by way of attachment to opinions

5. The five aggregates as they relate to clinging or attachment-skandha

  • matter (rupakhandha)
  • sensations (vedanakhandha)
  • perceptions (sannakhandha)
  • mental formations (sankharakhandha)
  • consciousness (vinnanakhandha)

6. The 8 fold path can be miss-taken

  • Understanding/View
  • Thinking/Intention
  • Speech
  • Action
  • Livelihood
  • Effort
  • Mindfulness
  • Concentration

7. misunderstandings can also arise around the three characteristics

  • All conditioned phenomena are unsatisfactory
  • All conditioned phenomena are impermanent
  • All  phenomena are devoid of Self [That would include nibbāna/nirvana, which is not conditioned.-note added as per comment below for clarification]

That’s a fairly big mountain of obstacles to address. There are facets of ignorance that can be outlined from the above lists.  And if we look further into the Dharma we can also find remedies to these.

These remedies include-

development of the four Brahma-viharas or highest attitudes

  • metta-loving kindness
  • karuna-compassion
  • mudita-sympathetic joy
  • upekkha-equanimity

This can be done by way of:

1. Iddhipada or the four bases of power or success

  • chanda-desire [more on this one in the end note]
  • viriya-persistence/energy/effort
  • citta-intention, mind, thoughtfulness
  • vimamsa or panna-investigation/discrimination

2. Sammappadhana or the four right efforts

  • guarding-prevent unwholesome/unskillful from arising
  • abandon-prevent unwholesome/unskillful continuing
  • develop-cause wholesome/skillful to arise
  • sustain-maintain wholesome/skillful

The 8-fold path itself also serves as remedy.

These 3 latter items (Iddhipada, Sammappadhana, 8-fold path) are part of the bodhipakkhiyā dhammā which is the 37 qualities related to enlightenment.

The precepts also provide direction in avoiding unskillful and unwholesome situations.

I want to look at ignorance as unskillfulness, contrasted with wisdom or skillfulness and try to match up a few remedies for some of the problematic situations. This approach emphasizes the difference between kusala and akusala and can be used to reconcile those.

Kusala – Skillful, tending towards integration and balance, beneficial, good, wholesome…  Leads to liberation.
Akusala – Unskillful, tending towards disintegration and imbalance, detrimental, evil, unwholesome.

~from p.13 of Abhidharmakosa Study Materials Introductory at the Abhidharmakosa Study Blog

Perhaps a chart will make these facets a little more clear.

Obstacle Ignorance, error or unskillful factor Remedy or wisdom factor
1 ignorance or unskillfulness basic unskillfulness, being unaware, lost and moved through life by samsaric currents, clinging to insubstantiality, clutching at straws, looking for refuge in insubstantial things “It’s fate”, “That’s just the way I am”,  “We have to just go along with it”, “This relative idea is the absolute truth” developing skillfulness, disembedding, learning to recognize and counter compulsions, recognizing impermanence and attempts to cling to it, learning and practicing the Buddhadharma, developing discriminating wisdom (vimamsa)
2 belief in substantial self egotism, atman(soul) beliefs, deep attachment to props of identity, selfishness recognizing anatta (no permanent self), Tibetan Chöd practice
3 skeptical doubt or lack of trust cynicism, insensitivity, arrogance, unreliable grounded perspective, interdependence and interbeing
4 clinging to rules and rituals dogmatism, narrow mindedness, faithless, equanimity, Right View
5 sensual craving lust, addictions, wasteful, renunciation, equanimity
6 ill will anger, brutality, resentment, stubbornness compassion, mudita or sympathetic joy,
7 craving for fine-material existence envy, jealousy, paranoia study of desire (chanda) as in the endnote to this post
8 craving for immaterial existence excessive religiousity, soul beliefs, piousness, fundamentalism, greed in seeking merit accumulation, spiritual materialism study of anatta,
9 conceit, pride arrogance, insensitivity, self-centeredness, low self-esteem, unforgiving study of anatta, compassion
10 sloth and torpor laziness, indifference, unmotivated, convenience oriented, desire (chanda)
sometimes a poison is also a medicine, cultivation of bodhicitta
11 restlessness agitation, anxiety, unbalanced sensations, lack of commitment, indecisive, scattered refuge, clarification of the third of the four basis of power which is citta-intention, mind, thoughtfulness
12 greed hoarding, superficial attachments, uncooperative, miserly generosity, metta, Tibetan Tonglen practice
13 speculative or wrong views or ignoring the way things are defensiveness, combativeness, constricted, confused, hypocritical, Right View, understanding The Three Characteristics
14 lack of shame over-indulgence, performance for attention, histrionics, callousness, extreme ambition Right Action See also #22
15 lack of moral dread behaving without conscience, minimizing consequences, ungrateful understanding of karma, review of precepts, Right Mindfulness
16 skanda-matter-rupa materialism, lust, shallowly oriented clarification of desire (chanda) – see end note of this post
17 skanda-sensations or feeling-vedana hedonism, emotional instability Right Mindfulness
18 skanda-perceptions excessive risk taking, obsessed with novelty, excessive extroversion, lack of shame (one of the kleshas) See #11, 14
19 skanda-mental formations-sankhara over-intellectualism, compulsive theorizing, lost in details See #13, 26, 27
20 skanda-consciousness day dreamy, tormented by mental contents, disorganized thinking, excessive introversion See #10, 13,
21 Inappropriate or wrong
See #1 <————
22 Inappropriate or wrong Thinking/Intention See # 4-12 <———–
23 Inappropriate or wrong Speech petty, gossipy, dishonest, withholding necessary information The 4 Right Efforts
24 Inappropriate or wrong Action passive, complacent The 4 Right Efforts, review of precepts
25 Inappropriate or wrong Livelihood irresponsible, lazy, disrespectful of others, selfish attitude See #7, 12, 15
26 Inappropriate or wrong Effort laziness, apathetic, workaholism and overexertion The 4 Right Efforts
27 Inappropriate or wrong Mindfulness complacent, indifferent, unreliable, mental dullness, overfocused Understanding of skandas (#16-20), Right Mindfulness
28 Inappropriate or wrong Concentration/
unfocused, dissipated See also #20 Right Concentration See also #20
29 Misunderstanding unsatisfactoriness Continuous satisfaction seeking through appetites See # 5, 12, 16
30 Misunderstanding impermanence Rigidity, clinging See #3 4, 5, 7, 8
31 Misunderstanding that all conditioned phenomena are devoid of Self The ignorance of nihilism-“nothing exists” “nothing matters” or the belief in substantial self noted above See #2

That’s just a quick sketch of the ignorance situation when applied to the various obstacles to practice. It’s a pretty neat system of illness and remedy when you delve into it.  There’s a lot more that could be said about all of this (and has been). Pretty much every good dharma talk you encounter addresses some of this stuff from different perspectives.

The practice of wisdom-prajna is generally the antidote to ignorance. The development of prajna includes

  • Study (Sanskrit: śruta)
  • Reflection (Sanskrit: cintā)
  • Meditation (Sanskrit: bhāvanā)

This leaves open the questions What to study? What to reflect upon? What meditation? The more precisely we can pin down our ignorance factors the more precisely we can then apply the necessary antidotes. For example if we are willing to concede the existence of mis-perception, sensual desire or any other aspect we can then choose to openly reflect the light of the dharma into those aspects as we study, reflect and meditate. [Is there such a thing as a Concordance to the Suttas? Can anyone recommend something along that line other than Google?]

It is helpful to consider ignorance as darkness. People tend to feel rather bad about themselves when asked to take on the label of ignorant. We know that we know stuff, have had experience and maybe learned a thing or two. But we also know that no one knows it all, no one is utterly perfect. It is only by admitting there’s some darkness that we can manage the situation. We are all unskillful in the dark;banging into the walls, stubbing our toes, tripping on shoes left in the middle of the floor, spilling our glass of water. The dharma is like a flashlight that allows a more skillful orientation. But if we don’t admit that it’s dark it’s like walking through a dark house with our eyes closed as well. Even a flashlight won’t help if we won’t open our eyes to it.

A few things that became obvious when I was working this out was that actions arising from ignorance in pretty much every instance are accompanied by defensiveness and actions that close one off, be they as mild as indifference or outright hostility. When these manifestations appear they are tied to distorted self-beliefs and being embedded in egoic processes hence the defensiveness. If you observe some skillful people, especially when they are in conflict, there remains a sense of openness to their approach. They remain willing to listen, willing to discuss, willing to continue towards solutions to problems, willing to be challenged, willing to reconsider positions in light of new information, willing to accept disagreement with some adjustment but without much defensiveness.

Getting Back to Translations

It seems to me that attempted translations and expositions are slippery things. There are a couple of things to consider about translations versus original terms. I personally prefer the original terms but I know that puts a lot of people off since one really shouldn’t have to learn a whole new language in order to practice. But then again working with new terms does tend to get a person out of their habitual mental ruts which is helpful. And it takes a little bit of effort to come to understand them which again combats the tendency to laziness and expecting to be spoon-fed by others.

Something from the old Usenet news group talk.religion.buddhism, Glossary of Buddhist Terms, has this written in the introduction:

Another reason is that the words that would have to be used to render a Pali or Sanskrit technical term into English (or any other living language) are inevitably freighted with unintended meanings. The advantage of using a “dead” language is that semantic precision becomes less of a moving target.

Languages that are currently in use change so definitions and nuances change as well.

There are some disadvantages to adopting the original terms though, since often the definitions become entangled with currently prevailing notions. Consider the term “karma” as one example. It has come to mean, in popular parlance, something like the “revenge of the gods” or “payback time” or some extraordinary omnipresent, omniscient “force” with all kinds of supernatural odors wafting about it.

Or consider the word “nirvana” which in popular culture has often come to signify some extraordinary and even supernatural state of outrageous bliss where one loses touch with everything. Chogyam Trungpa, among many other teachers, tried to dispel this kind of notion when he said:

If we regard meditation as just getting into a fog so that you do not see, you do not feel, something is terribly wrong. In that case meditation would reduce one to a zombie. The enlightened man would have to be rescued. Someone would have to feed him and take him to the bathroom. We would have to have an enlightenment ward.

Glimpses of Abhidharma

Matthieu Ricard said something similar recently:

The goal of meditation is not to shut down the mind or anesthetize it, but rather to make it free, lucid and balanced.

On the other hand there are some good reasons to use the original terms. For example from the same Glossary of Buddhism mentioned above:

One reason is simply that these “foreign” terms have the authority of 2500 years of tradition in many cases, and are understood by members of all Buddhist traditions (even if their first language is something like Finnish or Swahili).

If we are all saying karma rather than “cause and effect”, “Ursache und Wirkung”, “årsak og virkning” “”na kusababisha athari” (German, Norwegian, Swahili) then there is a common Buddhist language set that facilitates communication.

So each of us has to decide which is given the weight, a common Buddhist language or individual linguistic preferences.

Links, References Consulted and Inspirations

Dharma Lists from Insight Meditation Center

No Religion by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

The Five Aggregates by Ven Thubten Pende

Noble Eightfold Path


Upadana (clinging)

Abhidharmakosa Study Blog

End Note on Desire as Remedy:

[Nathan had a good post today about questions regarding the usefulness of desire so perhaps others will find the following useful]

Iddhipada-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of the Bases of Power from Access to Insight. Particularly the element of desire which is both poison and medicine:

“And how is desire overly sluggish? Whatever desire is accompanied by laziness, conjoined with laziness, that is called overly sluggish desire.

“And how is desire overly active? Whatever desire is accompanied by restlessness, conjoined with restlessness, that is called overly active desire.

“And how is desire inwardly restricted? Whatever desire is accompanied by sloth & drowsiness, conjoined with sloth & drowsiness, that is called inwardly restricted desire.

“And how is desire outwardly scattered? Whatever desire is stirred up by the five strings of sensuality, outwardly dispersed & dissipated, that is called outwardly scattered desire.

Paracelsus the alchemist-physician related a similar notion in the 16th century when he noted:

Alle Ding’ sind Gift, und nichts ohn’ Gift; allein die Dosis macht, daß ein Ding kein Gift ist.“All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.”

Which is often interpreted as:

The only difference between a medicine, an intoxicant and a poison is the dosage.

Further on desire as a skillful means Ajahn Thanissaro writes in Wings to Awakening

…although the desire here is directed toward a state of concentration — which is a type of becoming — if that becoming is aimed at going beyond becoming, this desire shifts from a cause of stress to part of the path to its ending. And even though the desire for Awakening, when not yet realized, can be a cause for frustration, that frustration counts as a skillful emotion, as it leads to further efforts along the path [§179]. It is to be transcended, not by abandoning the desire, but by acting on it properly, as explained below, until gaining the desired results.

And he hits the nail on the head with these prescriptions a little further down in the same section. I’m just going to quote the whole thing because it’s so pertinent [emphasis mine]:

Many popular Western writings criticize the four qualities listed in the bases of power — desire, persistence (effort), intent (will), and discrimination (the discriminating mind) — as enemies of proper meditation, both in that they interfere with the calming of the mind and are antithetical to the goal of the Unfabricated, which lies beyond desire, effort, and the categories of discrimination. The first part of the extended formula deals with the first of these criticisms.

  • There is the case where a monk develops the base of power endowed with concentration founded on desire & the fabrications of exertion, thinking, ‘This desire of mine will be neither overly sluggish nor overly active, neither inwardly restricted nor outwardly scattered.’ (Similarly with concentration founded on persistence, intent, and discrimination.)

This passage shows that the problem lies, not in the desire, effort, intent, or discrimination, but in the fact that these qualities can be unskillfully applied or improperly tuned to their task. If they were absent, the practice — if it could be called a practice — would stagnate from loss of direction or motivation. If they ran wild, they would interfere with mindful concentration. So the trick is not to deny them, but to tune them skillfully so that they will help focus the mind on the present moment. Thus, for instance, in the practice of meditation, as with any skill, it is important not to focus desire too strongly on the results one hopes to get, for that would interfere with the mind’s ability to focus on giving rise to the causes leading to those results. If, instead, one focuses desire on putting the causes in proper order in the present moment, desire becomes an indispensable part of the process of mastery.

Passage §67 deals with the second criticism — that desire, etc., are antithetical to the goal — by showing that these qualities are necessary for anyone who pursues a path, but are automatically abandoned on reaching the goal at the path’s end. The image of the path is important here, for it carries important implications. First, the path is not the goal; it is simply the way there, just as the road to the Grand Canyon should not be confused with the Grand Canyon itself. Even though many stretches of the road bear no resemblance to the Grand Canyon, that does not mean that the road does not lead there. Secondly, the path of practice does not cause the goal, it simply leads there, just as neither the road to the Grand Canyon nor the act of walking to the Grand Canyon can cause the Grand Canyon to be. The goal at the end of the Buddhist path is unfabricated, and therefore no amount of desire or effort can bring it into being. Nevertheless, the path to the goal is a fabricated process [§105], and in that process desire, effort, intent, and discrimination all have an important role to play, just as the effort of walking plays a role in arriving at the Grand Canyon.


8 comments on “Varieties of Avidya

  1. Hi NL

    In #7, regarding the three characteristics, the last should read that “All phenomenon are devoid of self”. That would include nibbāna/nirvana, which is not conditioned.

  2. NellaLou, thank you for this remarkable post. I find great value in your clarity, thoroughness, and thoughtfulness.

    Now, back to the cushion….


  3. Hi again NL – I concur with Chong Go Sunim, this is an excellent posting, and for my part, the second reading (will probably do another!)

    You ask about a concordance. There is one published by the Pali Text Society, for the Pali Tipitaka*.

    As for Sutta correspondences, there is SuttaCentral, a very handy reference when addressing multiple traditions and languages.

    * in the menu on the left side, click on “List of Publications”; on the next page, click on “Reference Works” then scroll to the bottom of that page.

    • The one from the Pali Text Society I may be able to find in Delhi (at the Indian price-I’d pay the foreigner price if I could). And I’ve tried SuttaCentral in the past and I think it does quite a bit but will need to experiment with it further to discover it’s full functionality. Quite a collection there though. Thank you Bhante.

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