Ignorance is the cause of suffering. Buddha says in SN 12.2 :

“And what, bhikkhus, is ignorance? Not knowing suffering, not knowing the origin of suffering, not knowing the cessation of suffering, not knowing the way leading to the cessation of suffering. This is called ignorance.

Note that Buddha says "not knowing".And what is knowing ? Knowing is for example I know my name. I know my house address. I know history etc. Now that I 'know' suffering. Now that I 'know' origin of suffering. Now that I 'know' cessation of suffering. Now that I 'know' the way leading to the cessation of suffering. My ignorance should be removed and my suffering should end. But that doesn't happen , which means there is some mistranslation from Pali. Actually I guess the wording should be :Ignorance is not knowing suffering , not knowing the origin of suffering , not knowing the cessation of suffering ,not walking(or applying or practicing) the way leading to the cessation of suffering.

My question is : Is there a mistranslation of definition of ignorance?


5 Answers 5


There are 3 types of wisdom

  1. suta-maya panna: wisdom gained by listening to others
  2. cinta-maya panna: intellectual, analytical understanding
  3. bhavana-maya panna: wisdom based on direct knowledge or meditative(Vipassana) wisdom

Knowing here means the third type. When a monk preaches or when you read a sutta on your own you usually gain type 1 and type 2. Those are not strong enough to cut off craving. You need to see the four noble truths based on direct knowledge. In other words, through Vipassana meditation.

  • Buddha explains Ignorance in detail(SF238) and says "not knowing Buddha, not knowing Teaching, not knowing Community" also results in ignorance. You are saying knowing is direct knowing. Therefore you mean to say ,not knowing Buddha directly , not knowing the Teaching directly , not knowing the Sangha directly results in ignorance. But how do you know Buddha directly ? Buddha can not be known directly because we don't know whether Tathagata exists or not. How do you know Sangha directly if you are not part of it? Which means those not part of Sangha can not end suffering, which is wrong. Jul 31, 2018 at 14:04
  • When you understand the four noble truth by direct knowledge, your doubts of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha disappear. Because you will know that Buddha is indeed what he claimed to be, his teaching does indeed lead enlightenment and those who practice the 8 fold path do attain enlightenment Jul 31, 2018 at 15:16

I think you're right that the dhamma includes more than only the knowledge of suffering -- see pages 45-46 of Piya Tan's introducton to SN 56.11

  1. Suffering -- known
  2. Craving -- abandoned
  3. Cessation -- realized
  4. Path -- cultivated

But I don't think it's a mistranslation of avijja. I guess what's happening is:

  • You can't (easily) express the the complete dhamma in a single word or sentence, so any single word or sentence (like avijja) is incomplete (not the whole truth)
  • I think I read recently (though I don't remember where) that it happens in the suttas that a list (of several items) may be replaced with a single item (i.e. the first item on the list), so the first item acts as a place-holder or representative of the whole list -- so perhaps, when you read "knowledge of suffering", you're expected to also understand that to mean, "... and abandoning craving, and realizing cessation, and cultivating the path".
  • I think it is an excellent possible answer but it needs more support especially in the context of sutta SN 12.2. Where does the Pali Sutta or its translation in English marks the abbreviation for "... and abandoning , craving , and realizing cessation and cultivating the path"? If list of items were replaced by single word then author must have marked it somewhere in the text as it generally happens when some text is left out. Jul 31, 2018 at 13:49
  • I don't mean to say that the entire list was in the text but then abbreviated. I mean that the text only contains one item, but that the audience (or reader) should understand that one item is associated with, represents, a longer list that's explained somewhere else (in a different sutta). Remember that the suttas aren't written, i.e. they're memorised oral texts -- so they can't be "marked" (except I think they have associated commentaries, though I haven't seen the commentaries and maybe the commentaries aren't translated).
    – ChrisW
    Jul 31, 2018 at 16:32

Ignorance is the root cause of the suffering? Hmm...let's take a look.

Actually the Dhamma says: Nandī dukkhassa mūlan’ti. There are also references and translations throughout the Dhamma for attachment, desire, and delight being the root of suffering.

There is no conflict with the definition of ignorance. With ignorance dispelled, the Four Noble Truths are accepted. Now walk the path.

There might be some discussion about "depth of knowing". As practice deepens, wisdom emerges, suffering is relinquished. Indeed, we have:

Bhikkhus, true knowledge is the forerunner in the entry upon wholesome states

Notice that what is said is forerunner. Knowledge is insufficient. Practice is required. Knowledge alone is insufficient:

Knowing and seeing like this, my mind was freed from the defilements of sensuality, desire to be reborn, and ignorance

  • 1
    I meant to say that if you remove ignorance you remove suffering. In that sense ignorance is the root cause of suffering. Jul 31, 2018 at 17:05
  • I've edited the answer to acknowledge that knowledge can deepen and result in less suffering. However, more is needed.
    – OyaMist
    Jul 31, 2018 at 17:54

You don't know suffering. If you knew suffering, there would be no suffering.

Now, you are drowning in suffering rather than knowing suffering.

If you knew suffering, you would know the tiniest thought of clinging (upadana) is suffering.

  • I know suffering because I have diabetes. I know suffering because some of my loved ones passed away. I will know even more suffering when I will die. However I concede that I have suffered much less than others. I have not been allowed to suffer on many occasions for that I thank people. I was once unaware of suffering but now I know. BUT I have not taken steps for the cessation of suffering. Which means knowing suffering is not sufficient. Which means knowing path to cessation of suffering is not sufficient. One must also walk the way. Jul 31, 2018 at 13:22

According to MN 9 (below), as long as you still have fermentation or effluents, you would still have ignorance, and vice versa (also see this question). Ignorance is a very deeply ingrained and deeply lingering fetter. You know the Four Noble Truths, but when someone threatens your life, you may get scared. So, do you really know the Four Noble Truths in such a way that it dispelled your ignorance for good?

From the origination of fermentation comes the origination of ignorance. From the cessation of fermentation comes the cessation of ignorance. .....

From the origination of ignorance comes the origination of fermentation. From the cessation of ignorance comes the cessation of fermentation.

According to SN 35.153 (below), understanding by faith, by personal preference, by oral tradition, by reasoned reflection and by acceptance of a view after pondering it, is insufficient. It must be understood by "seeing it with wisdom". Only then does it obliterate ignorance permanently.

“There is a method of exposition by means of which a bhikkhu—apart from faith … apart from acceptance of a view after pondering it—can declare final knowledge thus: ‘Destroyed is birth … there is no more for this state of being.’ And what is that method of exposition? Here, bhikkhus, having seen a form with the eye (and same applies to sound and ear), if there is lust, hatred, or delusion internally, a bhikkhu understands: ‘There is lust, hatred, or delusion internally’; or, if there is no lust, hatred, or delusion internally, he understands: ‘There is no lust, hatred, or delusion internally.’ Since this is so, are these things to be understood by faith, or by personal preference, or by oral tradition, or by reasoned reflection, or by acceptance of a view after pondering it?”

“No, venerable sir.”

“Aren’t these things to be understood by seeing them with wisdom?”

“Yes, venerable sir.”

So, how does one "see it with wisdom"?

The answer comes in SN 22.98 (below), where Ven. Khemaka briefly describes the technique of Vipassana, as the method to be used to see with wisdom, in order to uproot the deep fetters of conceit and ignorance.

"In the same way, friends, even though a noble disciple has abandoned the five lower fetters, he still has with regard to the five clinging-aggregates a lingering residual 'I am' conceit, an 'I am' desire, an 'I am' obsession. But at a later time he keeps focusing on the phenomena of arising & passing away with regard to the five clinging-aggregates: 'Such is form, such its origin, such its disappearance. Such is feeling... Such is perception... Such are fabrications... Such is consciousness, such its origin, such its disappearance.' As he keeps focusing on the arising & passing away of these five clinging-aggregates, the lingering residual 'I am' conceit, 'I am' desire, 'I am' obsession is fully obliterated."

The Buddha also confirms in SN 22.47 that when ignorance is fully overcome, the "I am" conceit would be fully obliterated:

“The five faculties remain right there, bhikkhus, but in regard to them the instructed noble disciple abandons ignorance and arouses true knowledge. With the fading away of ignorance and the arising of true knowledge, ‘I am’ does not occur to him; ‘I am this’ does not occur to him; ‘I will be’ and ‘I will not be,’ and ‘I will consist of form’ and ‘I will be formless,’ and ‘I will be percipient’ and ‘I will be nonpercipient’ and ‘I will be neither percipient nor nonpercipient’—these do not occur to him.”

  • I don't think that we need to take fermentations or effluents into consideration because if we can uproot any single cause in the dependent origination the whole chain ceases to exists as cessation of ignorance leads to cessation of suffering. (if we can cause cessation of feeling then it will lead to cessation of suffering or if we can cause cessation of craving then also it will lead to cessation of suffering)My point was that knowing the 8 fold path is not sufficient for the removal of ignorance , one must walk over it. This is not obvious in the definition of ignorance as given in SN 12.2. Jul 31, 2018 at 17:13

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