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What is moha (delusion)? What is avijja or avidya (ignorance)?

What is the difference between moha (delusion) and avijja or avidya (ignorance)?

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Dictionary definitions here:

I think of avijjā as (quite literally) describing something which you don't have (the a- prefix implies a negative, i.e. an absence of vijjā), and moha as something which you have instead (because you don't have vijjā).

There's a round-about definition of avijjā ("ignorance") in SN 35.79 -- where, it says that what's meant by "giving up ignorance" and "giving rise to knowledge" is "seeing impermanence" (in contact and feeling).

The next sutta, SN 35.80 says that when ignorance is abandoned, knowledge (i.e. vijjā) arises, wherein "he sees that things are unworthy of attachment".

I should add that the dictionary entry for vijjā warns that vijjā:

is not always the positive to avijjā (which has quite a well-defined meaning from its first appearance in Buddhist psych. ethics), but has been taken into the terminology of Buddhism from Brahmanic and popular philosophy The opposite of avijjā is usually ñāṇa.

It is the opposite of avijjā in SN 35.80 though. Also ñāṇa, by the way, is defined as "knowledge, understanding, wisdom, insight, conviction, recognition".

Conversely I think that moha is what you have when you don't have vijjā or ñāṇa. It's used in the context of "three fires" i.e. "greed", "hatred", and "delusion" -- see also Three poisons -- which are also called the three unwholesome or unskillful roots, akusala-mūla, in AN 3.69

Of these three ("greed", "hatred", and "delusion"), "delusion" is said to be the root: so perhaps it's the cause (or condition) of "greed" and "hatred", and/or whatever "greed" and "hatred" have in common?

So, I don't know; I assume, given the noble truths, that (moha) might be synonymous with craving, attachment, or something like that. But if it's the "root" then maybe it's related to other concepts too -- whatever it is you have when you don't mindfulness, for example.

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I think it requires a lot of research or another's excellent research to answer this question.

Often ignorance & delusion are used as synonyms, for example, as follows:

Bhikkhus, I do not perceive any single hindrance other than the hindrance of ignorance by which humankind is so obstructed and for so long a time runs on and wanders in saṃsāra. It is indeed through the hindrance of ignorance that humankind is obstructed and for a long time runs on and wanders in saṃsāra.

No other single thing exists Like the hindrance of delusion, Which so obstructs humankind And makes it wander on forever.

Those who have abandoned delusion, Cleaving through this mass of darkness, No longer roam and wander on; In them the cause is found no more.

Iti 14


Bhikkhus, any bhikkhu or bhikkhunī in whom attachment is not abandoned, hate is not abandoned, and delusion is not abandoned, is said to be one who has not crossed the ocean. One who has destroyed attachment Along with hate and ignorance Has crossed this ocean With its sharks and demons, Its fearful waves so hard to cross.

Iti 3.69

However, I imagine 'ignorance' ('avijja') literally means an underlying 'lack of knowledge' or 'blindess'; where as 'moha' ('delusion') literally refers to the defiled overt manifestations of that lack of knowledge, such as 'self-view', 'selfishness', 'ingratitude'; 'fear', 'doubt', etc.

Humankind is possessed by delusion, Bound by delusion and delighted with being

Iti 1.11 Mohapariññā Sutta


Delusion is that one thing, bhikkhus. Abandon that and I guarantee you non-returning. Beings confused by delusion Go to rebirth in a bad bourn. But having rightly understood delusion, Those with insight abandon it. By abandoning it they never come Back to this world again.

Iti 1.3 Moha Sutta

From the viewpoint of Dependent Origination, 'delusion' would be a type of craving (8th condition) leading to attachment (9th condition) that propels wrong action; for example:

It’s not because of deeds born of greed, hate and delusion that gods, humans, or those in any other good places are found. Rather, it’s because of deeds born of greed, hate and delusion that hell, the animal realm, the ghost realm, or any other bad places are found... These are three sources that give rise to deeds.

AN 6.39


Killing living beings is unwholesome; taking what is not given is unwholesome; misconduct in sensual pleasures is unwholesome; false speech is unwholesome; malicious speech is unwholesome; harsh speech is unwholesome; gossip is unwholesome; covetousness is unwholesome; ill will is unwholesome; wrong view is unwholesome. This is called the unwholesome.

And what is the root of the unwholesome? Greed is a root of the unwholesome; hate is a root of the unwholesome; delusion is a root of the unwholesome. This is called the root of the unwholesome.

MN 9


A deluded person, his mind bound up, overcome with delusion, engages in bodily misconduct, in verbal misconduct, in mental misconduct. But having abandoned delusion, he doesn’t engage in bodily misconduct, in verbal misconduct, or in mental misconduct.

AN 3.71

Therefore, it appears 'delusion' (such as 'selfishness') is a form of craving & attachment that manifests abruptly and overtly & then calms down; where as 'ignorance' (lack of knowledge) is a more permanent underlying tendency (anusaya) in the unenlightened mind.

Friends, passion carries little blame and is slow to fade. Aversion carries great blame and is quick to fade. Delusion carries great blame and is slow to fade.

[Then if they ask,] ‘But what, friends, is the reason, what the cause, why unarisen passion arises, or arisen passion tends to growth & abundance?’ ‘The theme of the attractive,’ it should be said. ‘For one who attends inappropriately to the theme of the attractive, unarisen passion arises and arisen passion tends to growth & abundance…’

[Then if they ask,] ‘But what, friends, is the reason, what the cause, why unarisen aversion arises, or arisen aversion tends to growth & abundance?’ ‘The theme of irritation,’ it should be said. ‘For one who attends inappropriately to the theme of irritation, unarisen aversion arises and arisen aversion tends to growth & abundance…’

[Then if they ask,] ‘But what, friends, is the reason, what the cause, why unarisen delusion arises, or arisen delusion tends to growth & abundance?’ ‘Inappropriate attention,’ it should be said. ‘For one who attends inappropriately, unarisen delusion arises and arisen delusion tends to growth & abundance…’

AN 3.68

In summary, there are differing degrees of defilements on the Dhamma, namely:

  1. Anusaya - underlying tendencies

  2. Asava - outflows; fermentations; cankers; eruptions

  3. Nivarana - internal hindrances

  4. Tanha & upakkilesa - external orientated craving & defilements that directly cause action

Ignorance predominates on the subtle degree of 'anusaya' where as 'delusion' predominates at the coarser degree of strong external defilements.

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I will not be able to give a long answer because I have not found any scriptural meaning of the word delusion. However the sanskrit term moha or delusion is a fairly common word. It means attachment. Buddha essentially says is to get rid of attachment in relation to the five aggregates. At one place here Buddha mentions how to get rid of delusion :

One goes forth to cultivate the holy life under the Tathāgata for the sake of the eradication, fading away, cessation, appeasement, and vanishing of lust, hatred, and delusion in relation to bodily form. [One goes forth …] for the sake of the eradication, fading away, cessation, appeasement, and vanishing of lust, hatred, and delusion in relation to feeling … perception … formations … consciousness.”

Ignorance is fairly well explained here :

“Not knowing the past, not knowing the future, not knowing the past and the future, not knowing the internal, not knowing the external, not knowing the internal and the external, not knowing what are volitional actions, not knowing results, not knowing volitional actions and their results, not knowing the Buddha, not knowing the Teaching, not knowing the Community, not knowing suffering, not knowing origination, not knowing cessation, not knowing the path, not knowing causes, not knowing the origination of causes in things, not knowing what is wholesome and unwholesome, blameworthy and blameless, what should be practiced and what should not be practiced, not knowing the despicable and the excellent, the black and the white, those things that are a part of conditional origination, again not knowing the comprehending of the six spheres of contact as they really are, not knowing here and now things as they really are, not seeing, not penetrating, darkness, complete delusion, blind ignorance. This is called ignorance.

Delusion is part of ignorance. But every ignorance is not delusion.

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Buddha used moha with the threefold: 3 roots, 3 practices, 3 characteristics, etc.

Buddha used avijjā with the twofold: 2 roots of dependent origination, 2 practitioner-habits (carita), 2 meditations, etc.

See the explanation in five naya chapter of netti.

If you understand netti, you can understand the whole tipiṭaka and atthakathā easier.

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