Some explanations of the second Noble truth emphasizes the three poisons of ignorance, attachment and aversion as the causes of Dukkha. There are probably many different ways to lay this out, but my question is about ignorance, our misunderstanding of the nature of reality.

What is the most basic and important deeply rooted ignorance about reality?

What is it – on the most basic level – that we don’t see?

What is it about the nature of reality that we are ignorant about?

What is it that this bewilderment about reality consists of?

5 Answers 5


In my understanding, the way it works, ignorance (confusion/delusion/bewilderment) is the root of idealizing (hence attachment, attraction, obsession) and demonizing (hence aversion, hatred, negativity) - and then these two manifest as craving to either get some experience, or to get rid of some experience - which, when not satisfied, generates dukkha (the painful feeling of wrongness) due to the mismatch between "this" and the craved "that".

A better translation of "ignorance" IMO is confusion or delusion - it's not just an absence of knowledge (that would only be half as bad) -- but an active presence of invalid knowledge, or invalid assumptions based on partial knowledge.

What does this invalid knowledge pertain to?

At most basic level, it pertains to (confusion about) real qualities of the object of our experience - on the basis of which then happens idealization or demonization.

More generally, it pertains to the way objective and subjective reality gets mixed up. Most of what we perceive as reality is projection of mind. (This mind itself is a function of interactions and not an entity nor essence.) Based on this confusion we posit all kinds of naive assumptions about reality, from existence of entities, to identification with living organism, to appropriation of various views, values and goals.

This identification with living organism and resulting taking of sides is said to perpetuate alienation, fear, conflicts, and suffering -- which only perpetuates alienation.

Even more generally, it pertains to not-seeing inherent limits of mind's modeling capabilities - which leads to invalid expectation that mind's models can ever be accurate representations of reality - which leads to trouble and suffering.

In light of the above, the only way to prevent or minimize suffering is to A) stay actively aware of the limited extent to which models can represent some aspects of reality; B) not hold onto outdated models as reality moves on -- but try to update and keep the models in sync with reality as much as possible; C) avoid reification falacy - instead pick a model as tool that better suits the job at hand - but also try to rely on nondiscrete holistic multi-faceted observation more than on the simplistic conceptual designations; and finally D) remember that no matter what we do we'll still have to rely on models at least to some extent - and as such they can never be 100% complete and in sync.


A definition of ignorance is as the first of the 'twelve nidānas'.

In the Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta it's described as follows:

And what is ignorance? Not knowing stress, not knowing the origination of stress, not knowing the cessation of stress, not knowing the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: This is called ignorance.

Now from the remainderless fading & cessation of that very ignorance comes the cessation of fabrications. etc.

So there it's defined as ignorance of the four noble truths.

This article titled Ignorance (by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) is a commentary about Ignorance from the perspective of the four noble truths (which is what you were asking about). It says that vijja (the opposite of avijjā i.e. ignorance) means not only 'knowledge' of facts but also 'skill'; so non-ignorance means:

  • Knowing the four noble truths
  • Understanding them
  • Skill, resulting in cessation and liberation

Avijja, the Pali word for ignorance, is the opposite of vijja, which means not only "knowledge" but also "skill" — as in the skills of a doctor or animal-trainer. So when the Buddha focuses on the ignorance that causes stress and suffering, saying that people suffer from not knowing the four noble truths, he's not simply saying that they lack information or direct knowledge of those truths. He's also saying that they lack skill in handling them. They suffer because they don't know what they're doing.

The Sammaditthi Sutta concurs in equating ignorance with the four noble truths ... it says that not knowing about the four noble truths is the origin of ignorance:

And what is ignorance, what is the origin of ignorance, what is the cessation of ignorance, what is the way leading to the cessation of ignorance? Not knowing about suffering, not knowing about the origin of suffering, not knowing about the cessation of suffering, not knowing about the way leading to the cessation of suffering — this is called ignorance. With the arising of the taints there is the arising of ignorance. With the cessation of the taints there is the cessation of ignorance. The way leading to the cessation of ignorance is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view... right concentration.

When a noble disciple has thus understood ignorance, the origin of ignorance, the cessation of ignorance, and the way leading to the cessation of ignorance... he here and now makes an end of suffering. In that way too a noble disciple is one of right view... and has arrived at this true Dhamma.

If cessation of ignorance is right view, then presumably "ignorance" can be defined as or understood as the cause of 'wrong view'.

The Maha-satipatthana Sutta too defines 'right view' as knowledge of the four noble truths.

And what is right view? Knowledge with regard to stress, knowledge with regard to the origination of stress, knowledge with regard to the cessation of stress, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: This is called right view.

There's a (closely) related term moha which is one of the three poisons and one of the defilements (I think that identifying three poisons is more Mahayana than Theravada, which sees aversion as a secondary cause, as in Sankha's answer).

When it's ignorance or illusion or delusion about the three characteristics, I think that means for example:

  • Seeing the non-self as self
  • Seeing the impermanent as permanent
  • Seeing the inherently-unsatisfactory as desirable.

Ignorance (like conceit) is one of the last of the fetters to be eradicated, according to the stages of the path (though identity-view is a wrong view and therefore one form of ignorance).


Craving is the cause of Dukkha according to the second noble truth. Ignorance is the root cause of craving. Aversion is not discussed under the 2nd noble truth as it isn't a direct cause for rebirth.

The type of ignorance that leads to craving is the ignorance towards the three characteristics(Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta) of conditioned phenomena.


What is the most basic and important deeply rooted ignorance about reality?

Wrong view that happiness is in satisfying desires. Consequently, wrong view in viewing happiness in sense pleasures (body, mouth, ears, eyes, nose, mind). Consequently, wrong view in searching happiness outside oneself.

What is it – on the most basic level – that we don’t see?

We don't see why volitional activities arise (mentioned above). Not seeing that with volitional activities, existence arises. Then, birth arises. Then, the entire mess of suffering arises.

What is it about the nature of reality that we are ignorant about?

Seeing good or bad and suffering because of it, when there is no good or bad. Searching happiness outside oneself, instead of searching inside. Blaming others for our suffering. Not knowing what is changeable and what is unchangeable, thus constantly wanting to change the unchangeable. Not knowing what is permanent and what is impermanent, thus constantly wanting the permanent in the impermanent. Thinking there is a self or a soul. Nothing ever dies. There is no beginning nor end to anything. Not knowing about suffering, thinking life is the ultimate happiness. Not knowing the origin of suffering. Not knowing about reality, thinking this reality is the ultimate, solid and real. Not knowing karma.

What is it that this bewilderment about reality consists of? Why are we confused and puzzled by this reality?

Inexperience. The more experience, the more knowledge. The more knowledge, the less bewilderment. The less bewilderment, the better birth. The better birth, the better life. The better life, the easier to grasp the truth about reality. When truth is grasped, perfect knowledge is attained and bewilderment is extinguished. There's nothing else to be done.

Rare is birth in a human body. Big is suffering elsewhere ... Don't let this chance go by. In oneself all the truth lies.


Any experience in Sansara is unsatisfactory as:

  1. Past experiences which gave result to Karmic result conditions our current experiences which arises to pass away hence unsatisfactory when the conditioning goes away
  2. Any present experience arises and passes away hence unsatisfactory but ignorance conditions the future experiences if craving and clinging is present
  3. Future experiences conditioned through our perceived reaction to sensations which is not satisfactory as the volitional thoughts may be unpleasant (any Citta with either physical or mental unpleasantness associated with it) if not they come to and end and what is to experience in the future is also not satisfactory as it will arise to pass away.

(Saḷāyatana Saṃyutta)

Ignorance is that we do not understand the true nature of our experiences. All experiences arise to pass away. We create new experience from volitional actions and reaction to sensation with craving and clinging. Being equanimous to sensation knowing it is impermanent (arising and passing away) you can overcome creating new fabrications. You need to see the true nature of things as they are. For this you need a collected or focus mind. For the mind to get collected you need a base of morality as experiences from negative Karma, blame and resentment can causes your mind to be scattered.

What is the most basic and important deeply rooted ignorance about reality?

Not seeing that any experience that is felt arises and passes away. Our current experiences are conditioned by the past. Any craving of clinging towards this cause fabrications which give arise to new fabrications. This give unsatisfactory when creating the Karma (volitional thoughts have sensation associated with them) as well as when experienced in the future. To stop creating new fabrication as well as actively calm past fabrication stilling our mind to see the arising and passing nature of all experiential phenomena. Also we have to lead a life style which is blameless and which we will have not regrets about. Also our action should be geared towards action supporting a collected mind like not doing negative Karma.

What is it – on the most basic level – that we don’t see?

Arising and passing and decay and the lack of control of this process which is unsatisfactory

What is it about the nature of reality that we are ignorant about?

See above.

What is it that this bewilderment about reality consists of?

You experience revulsion when you see true nature of things.

In short, not knowing the 4 Noble Truths and Dependent Origination is Ignorance.

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