There are many varieties of delusion, and probably many ways to categorize them. I’ve heard one way of categorization that was interesting. This was from Alex Berzin. (Alex Berzin often talks from the perspective of Prasangika Madhyamaka, but here he was talking in very general terms.)

He said there are two main forms of illusion/delusion/ignorance (Berzin uses the word 'unawareness').

  1. Doctrinally based illusion/delusion/ignorance. This one is based on something one has learned. F.ex. one might believe that God is the creator of the universe and that one has an irreducible ever lasting soul that is either going to heaven or hell. Or – more common, at least in the Western secularized societies – one might believe in science and assume that science is objectively right and think that if something cannot be measured scientifically it simply do not exist (an example here might be some behaviorists claim that consciousness is a superfluous concept and emotions are behavior).
  2. The other form is "automatically" arising illusion/delusion/ignorance. This is not based on something you have heard or learned or indoctrination, but rather based on our karma. An example might be the feeling and belief that I have a core self, something that is holding all experience together, the “stuff that makes me me.” The belief that external reality is independent and self-existent, not imputed by mind, is another example.

I’ve been thinking about this and it seems to me that all kinds of illusion/delusion/ignorance could be categorized as forms of superstition.

Is Buddhism really all about recognizing that we have always been superstitious?

Does the Buddha talk specifically about illusion/delusion/ignorance as superstition in the suttas?

  • This seems like an argument of semantics. You can call it whatever you'd like, the word is completely besides the point and won't put you any closer to actual understanding. Only seeing reality experientially will eradicate greed anger and delusion. – Ryan Dec 10 '15 at 10:51
  • Also, the examples you listed are more or less types of wrong view, of which the Buddha described many. – Ryan Dec 10 '15 at 10:54
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    The meaning that the mind ascribes to reality is the very delusion we're speaking of, the ignorance that obscures clear vision of reality. As far as Buddhism is concerned, language does not constitute reality. Reality is made up of momentary experience, one experience after another – Ryan Dec 10 '15 at 13:31
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    @Ryan I'm sorry but I'm not sure I understand what you're saying though: because isn't this site full of questions which ask for the definitions/meanings of words, i.e. aren't those questions normal and on-topic? For example wouldn't "does dukkha mean 'suffering'?" be on-topic, and isn't that very similar to "does avidya mean 'superstition'?"? Or a reference-request question, for example "are there suttas which talk about pain?", isn't that similar to asking for suttas which talk about superstition? I didn't understand all that the OP posted but I thought the questions might be answerable. – ChrisW Dec 10 '15 at 16:15

I'm starting in Wikipedia, where "clinging to rites and rituals" is defined as one of the "fetters". This answer assumes that "clinging to rites and rituals" is (the same as) the "superstition" you were asking about, and so this answer will give references to describe what "clinging to rites and rituals" means.

From Wikipedia, Fetter (Buddhism), the third fetter is,

  1. attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāsa)

Attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāso)

Śīla refers to "moral conduct", vata (or bata) to "religious duty, observance, rite, practice, custom," and parāmāsa to "being attached to" or "a contagion" and has the connotation of "mishandling" the Dhamma. Altogether, sīlabbata-parāmāso has been translated as "the contagion of mere rule and ritual, the infatuation of good works, the delusion that they suffice" or, more simply, "fall[ing] back on attachment to precepts and rules."

Wikipedia then gives the following paragraph which may or may not be helpful -- on the one hand it's relevant to the conventional meaning on superstition, but on the other hand Thanissaro Bhikkhu's description of it below says it has a broader meaning (e.g. that merely clinging to even Buddhist precepts isn't right):

While the fetter of doubt can be seen as pertaining to the teachings of competing samana during the times of the Buddha, this fetter regarding rites and rituals likely refers to some practices of contemporary brahmanic authorities.

A footnote mentions "the similar concept of sīlabbatupādāna (= sīlabbata-upādāna), 'grasping after works and rites.'"

From Wikipedia's Sotāpanna article,

  1. Clinging to rites and rituals - Eradication of the view that one becomes pure simply through performing rituals (animal sacrifices, ablutions, chanting, etc.) or adhering to rigid moralism or relying on a god for non-causal delivery (issara nimmāna). Rites and rituals now function more to obscure, than to support the right view of the sotāpanna's now opened dharma eye. The sotāpanna realizes that deliverance can be won only through the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. It is the elimination of the notion that there are miracles, or shortcuts.

Following Wikipedia's footnoted references to the suttas, one is Lohicco Sutta which says that Brahmans have their rituals (garbs of skin, chanting, ritual washing), but that these actions aren't right.

First in virtue were the men of old,
Brahmans who preserved the ancient ways,
In whom well guarded were the doors of the sense.
They were never overcome by wrath.
Meditating on the Law[1] their joy,
Brahmans who preserved the ancient ways.
These backsliders who but chant by rote,
Drunk with pride of birth they stagger on.
Full of violent rage, aggression prone,
They lose respect from weak and strong alike:
Their unguarded senses bring them loss,
Like a treasure hoard found in a dream.
Fasting, sleeping on the ground, and such,
Dawn ablutions, chanting Vedic texts,
Garb of skins, matted hair and filth,
Magic spells and rites and penances,
Trickery, deception, blows as well,
Ritual washing, rinsing of the mouth,

These are caste-marks of the Brahman-folk,
Done and practiced for some trifling gain.
But a heart that's firm and concentrated,
Purified, of all defilements freed,
Kind and gentle to all living things-
That's the path that gains the highest goal.

Another description of this fetter is in Thanissaro Bhikkhu's Into the Stream A Study Guide on the First Stage of Awakening,

The fetter of grasping at habits and practices is often described in the Pali Canon with reference to the view that one becomes pure simply through performing rituals or patterns of behavior. This view in turn is related to the notion that one's being is defined by one's actions: If one acts in accordance with clearly defined habits and practices, one is ipso facto pure. Although the Canon recognizes the importance of habits and practices in the attaining the stream, the experience of the Deathless shows the person who has attained the stream that one cannot define oneself in terms of those habits and practices. Thus one continues to follow virtuous practices, but without defining oneself in terms of them.

"Now where do skillful habits cease without trace? Their cessation, too, has been stated: There is the case where a monk is virtuous, but not fashioned of (or: defined by his) virtue. He discerns, as it actually is, the awareness-release & discernment-release where his skillful habits cease without trace."

MN 78


[The enlightened person] doesn't speak of purity
in terms of view,
habit or practice.

Nor is it found by a person
through lack of view,
of learning,
of knowledge,
of habit or practice.

Letting these go, without grasping,
one is independent,
at peace.

Sn 4.9

The first of these two referenced suttas, Samana-Mundika Sutta (MN 78) says that doing no wrong isn't enough -- that merely doing no wrong is "on the same level as a stupid baby boy lying on its back" -- that person needs skillful resolves and habits, and (as quoted above) discernment of cessation.

The last reference Magandiya Sutta (Sn 4.9) is more on the subject of not clinging, of not being fashioned by views, not being led by actions, not being tied by perception (of better and worse).


In the simplest form illusion/delusion/ignorance is the misidentification off what is felt. You experience something and you think this is permanent. Another experience as self etc.

Illusion/delusion/ignorance reinforced due to thought proliferation (papanca 1) which automatically give arise to ideas, view, etc. which automatically created more illusion/delusion/ignorance. (Main sutta discussing papanca is Madhu,piṇḍika Sutta)

Superstition is in the form of attachment to views which is a result of thought proliferation.

For an in depth treatment refer to: Mindfulness in Early Buddhism, by Tse-fu Kuan specially chapter 1, 2, 3 + conclusion.

1 Alternative essay PAPAÑCA by Leigh Brasington

Some relevant quotes directly from the Sutta as pointers as further information:

Mental proliferation as an unconscious process

The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as condition, there is feeling. What one feels, one perceives. What one perceives, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one mentally proliferates. From that as source, proliferation of conception and perception assails a person regarding past, future and present forms cognizable through the eye ...

From Piya Tan's commentary:

The roots of the latent tendencies have three long and deep unwholesome roots, namely, greed, hate and delusion. These roots cause one to habitually react to pleasant feelings with lust, painful feelings with aversion and neutral feelings with ignorance. In other words, the three unwholesome respectively underlie each of these three latent tendencies, causing craving, views and conceit to arise.

Mental proliferation (papanca)—comprising of perceiving (saññā) and notion-forming (saṅ- khā) or conceiving (mannanā)—is an explosion of mental constructs created by the power of the latent tendencies (anusaya) of craving (tahā), views (dihi) and conceit (māna). These constructs, in turn, lead to stronger and more tenacious defilements that motivate unwholesome thoughts, speech and actions, all of which in turn reinforce our negative attitudes and habits in a vicious cycle.


It comes up in contexts that list or describe mental problems, used as a synonym or a term related to kalpanā [projective conceptual construction], vikalpa [false conceptual construction], and parikalpa [ubiquitous imaginary construction].

... Sati prevents saññA from going astray to conceptual proliferation ( papañca) and thereby develops a wholesome process of cognition conducive to the gnosis (vijjA) that brings about liberation. The transformation of saññA by sati also prevents feelings from developing into emotional agitation, which causes the underlying tendencies (anusaya) to lie latent in a person and bind him to the round of rebirths. Sati conducts the wholesome functioning of saññA so that one can properly identify reality, abandon wrong views and maintain emotional equanimity, upekkhA. ...

Source: Mindfulness in Early Buddhism page 139

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