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Searching the Pali Canon for the "root of suffering", we find the direct definition only occurs in a few suttas:

  • delight is the root of suffering (MN1)
  • attachment is the root of suffering (MN105, MN66)
  • desire is the root of suffering ([MN42.11])
  • what is greed? ... that which is...root of suffering (Vb17)

We also have that ignorance is simply one product of dependent origination (SN 22.81):

And that craving, that feeling, that contact, and that ignorance are also impermanent, conditioned, and dependently originated.

Ignorance does indeed result in suffering, but to claim it as the root of suffering feels a bit misleading.

Can one assert “ignorance is the root of suffering?”

Can one assert “ignorance is NOT the root of suffering?”

In your answers, kindly include actual sutta references, preferably from the Pali Canon. This is necessary to avoid arguing about personal interpretation since supported translations are provided by ordained and well-respected monks. As a Sangha, we have to respect and uphold the Dhamma.

🙏

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    I added the following to my answer: Therefore, the "root" or "base" of suffering is craving & delight. The "trunk" of suffering is "becoming & ego-birth". The "branches & leaves" of suffering are "ego-aging-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief & despair". All of these things themselves are "suffering". – Dhammadhatu Aug 5 '18 at 21:06
  • @Dhammadhatu nice! Researching this question has taught me the utility of the plant metaphor. It has also taught me that such meaning is generally contextual. For example, in some suttas ignorance is the plant to be uprooted (MN148), in others it is the obscuring earth that feeds the plants of unskillful qualities (SN20.1). For the context of "root of suffering", I do still prefer to restrict myself to what is actually written in the suttas. Thank you for your research and guidance. 🙏 – OyaMist Aug 6 '18 at 1:32
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Let me introduce you to the old South Indian Monkey Trap (from this article):

In Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig’s bonkers-but-brilliant philosophical novel that turns 40 this year, he describes “the old South Indian Monkey Trap”. ... The trap “consists of a hollowed-out coconut, chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be grabbed through a small hole”. The monkey’s hand fits through the hole, but his clenched fist can’t fit back out. “The monkey is suddenly trapped.” But not by anything physical. He’s trapped by an idea, unable to see that a principle that served him well – “when you see rice, hold on tight!” – has become lethal.

The monkey needs to let go of the rice in order to free himself from his suffering. The way to end his suffering, is to end his craving for rice. He got stuck in the trap in the first place due to his craving for rice.

But in order to end his craving for rice, he must first understand how his hand is stuck inside the coconut. When the monkey overcomes his ignorance about how the trap works, he would let go of his craving for rice, and release his clenched fist. With this, he would be free from his suffering.

So, the root of the monkey's misery is craving, and not ignorance, as stated in SN 22.31:

“And what, bhikkhus, is misery? Form is misery; feeling is misery; perception is misery; volitional formations are misery; consciousness is misery. This is called misery.

“And what, bhikkhus, is the root of misery? It is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination. This is called the root of misery.”

But to uproot craving, the monkey must first overcome his ignorance.

If the monkey had ignorance of the working of the trap, but if he had no craving, he would not get stuck in the trap. If the monkey had craving but did not have ignorance, he could still neglect his knowledge and get caught in the trap, due to greed and clinging. Hence, craving is the root of suffering, and not ignorance.

The old South Indian Monkey Trap (Illustration above: Paul Thurlby for the Guardian)

  • Oh this made me laugh. Thank you for the reminder of the coconut. Beautiful! This is also what I see. Upon reflection, I note that this question deals both with right speech and right view. 🙏 – OyaMist Aug 4 '18 at 14:21
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It is true that craving, feeling, contact, and ignorance are impermanent, conditioned, and dependently originated. Coming together of Ignorance and Contact gives rise to Craving which in turn gives rise to Suffering. If we abandon Ignorance or Contact or Craving or Feeling completely, the Suffering will cease. Therefore in a sense all of the above factors of dependent origination can be called the root of suffering.

  • If we abandon Ignorance and wisdom emerges, we may be temporarily free of suffering, but the world changes and presents new stuff that is unknown to us (kamma), stuff to which we might cling to or find delight in. The "root of suffering" is quite special and should not be lightly used. – OyaMist Aug 1 '18 at 0:36
  • If you abandon ignorance you will not be temporarily free of suffering , you will be permanently free of suffering. Question is how do you abandon ignorance ? – Dheeraj Verma Aug 1 '18 at 0:39
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Thanks to SuttaCentral and all of the other answers here, I would propose the following:

A root can be seen. Ignorance is blindness. From Root of Existence, in our practice we should perceive the root of suffering as craving, delight, relishing and attachment. For this reason, saying that "ignorance is the root of suffering" is misleading in the context of MN1 because one cannot see one's own ignorance. Although the suttas do not themselves declare ignorance as the root of suffering, the commentaries do (Buddhaghosa, Bodhi)

From Dependent Origination we have "Ignorance is the condition for...old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress". I.e., suffering originates in ignorance. For this reason it is misleading to say that "ignorance is not the root of suffering". Specifically:

When ignorance fades away...this entire mass of suffering ceases

Delight is the root of suffering. Ignorance planted the seed. Look for the root and do not plant the wrong seed.

Regarding the original question on ignorance and is/is-not the root of suffering:

The phrase root of suffering is a key phrase in Buddhism often associated by all directly with the words of the Buddha. For me to utter either of those phrases would therefore be an indulged conceit of representing myself as The Blessed One.

However, if any Buddha past or present should utter these phrases, that would be their prerogative. I do not consider it mine.

The issue here is not only about right view. Dependent origination is understood as such. The issue here is also right speech. Literally: Can one assert ...(a phrase)...

The issue of right speech and our diligence in quoting the Buddha is that in our careless discussion:

the discourses spoken by the Realized One—deep, profound, transcendent, dealing with emptiness—will disappear.

🙏

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    Very well reasoned! Excellent. I have never heard this point of view before. A root can be seen. Ignorance is blindness. From Root of Existence, in our practice we should perceive the root of suffering as craving, delight, relishing and attachment. For this reason, saying that “ignorance is the root of suffering” is misleading because one cannot see one’s own ignorance. As for Sutta Central, I was hoping Ajahn Sujato would contribute. Your question is very subtle even though I think you may have answered it yourself. Brilliant. – Dhammadhatu Aug 1 '18 at 20:59
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    However, I disagree with the comment by another that said: "You must lose delight before you lose ignorance and that is a noble/universal truth across the board according to the suttas". For example, I delight in a certain person as my lover. But then I learn that person is having sexual affairs. It is my loss of ignorance that leads to my loss of delight in that person as my lover. Similarly, knowing the Three Characteristics; that conditioned things are impermanent, unsatisfying (cannot bring true happiness) and not-self; results in the eradication of delight. Ending ignorance ends delight. – Dhammadhatu Aug 1 '18 at 21:09
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    Contrary to what the other person wrote; ending ignorance is not dependent upon the ending of delight. It is the opposite. The ending of delight is dependent upon the ending of ignorance. That is why Right View is the "forerunner" or "leader" of the Path (MN 117). – Dhammadhatu Aug 1 '18 at 21:11
  • I agree about the ending of delight and ignorance. I have amended answer to quote SN12.1. 🙏 – OyaMist Aug 1 '18 at 21:33
  • Where does the phrase "Ignorance was the seed etc." come from? – ChrisW Aug 2 '18 at 18:17
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The question requires understanding exactly what the word "mūla" ("root") is meant to mean in terms of its general usage (which I cannot answer at this current time and requires a contextual analysis of the texts). However, given "attachment" actually is suffering itself, the word "root" may not mean a "preceding cause" ("hetu") but be something much closer to the subject/thing.

Delight in feelings is attachment - MN 38

In short, suffering is the five aggregates attached to - SN 56.11

Conceiving 'self' is an arrow, disease, cancer - MN 140

Resolved on 'my self'... is suffering arising... SN 12.15

View of 'a being'... is suffering arising... SN 5.10

In SN 42.11, 'root' is used as a preceding cause; although 'chando' is not as exact as 'tanha':

For desire is the root of suffering. Chando hi mūlaṃ dukkhassa.

In MN 22, something that is essentially 'causeless', namely, ignorance, is cut off at its root:

Herein the monk has abandoned ignorance, has cut it off at the root..

Abandoned the round of re-births, leading to renewed existence; he has cut it off at the root...

Abandoned craving, has cut it off at the root...

Abandoned the five lower fetters, has cut them off at the root...

Abandoned the conceit of self, has cut it off at the root...

The contextual analysis becomes more clear with SN 15.9, which says:

Suppose a stick was tossed up in the air. Sometimes it’d fall on its bottom, sometimes the middle, and sometimes the top.

Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, daṇḍo uparivehāsaṃ khitto sakimpi mūlena nipatati, sakimpi majjhena nipatati, sakimpi antena nipatati;

Therefore, as I suspected, the word "mūla" might be closer to the subject/thing itself than being a distant preceding cause. In SN 15.9, it is the "bottom/base" of a stick (rather than a more distant cause, such as tree, tool or carpenter that made the stick). This appears apparent in SN 4.24 which says:

“Having dug up entirely the root of sorrow, Guiltless, I meditate free from sorrow. Having cut off all greedy urge for existence, I meditate taintless, O kinsman of the negligent!”

Again, Snp 4.14 is about a very close cause rather than a distant cause:

One should completely extract the root of proliferation and reckoning— The notion, “I am the thinker”.

AN 10.58 says:

Wholesome zeal (chanda) is the root of all dhamma practise.

This says without zeal (chanda), dhamma practises will be ineffective, similar to how a car cannot drive without fuel.

I think 'mūla' is a characteristic or cause of a thing that is very closely tied to the thing. Therefore, 'ignorance' is probably too distant a cause to be the 'mūla' of suffering because what makes suffering burn is the craving, attachment & egoism.

Therefore, the "root" or "base" of suffering is craving & delight. The "trunk" of suffering is "becoming & ego-birth". The "branches & leaves" of suffering are "ego-aging-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief & despair".



"Ignorance" is the first cause/leader of all unskilful qualities, which includes attachment.

Avijjā, bhikkhave, pubbaṅgamā akusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ samāpattiyā..

Monks, ignorance is the leader/foreunner in the attainment of unskillful qualities...

SN 45.1


Purimā, bhikkhave, koṭi na paññāyati avijjāya: ‘ito pubbe avijjā nāhosi, atha pacchā samabhavī’ti

Bhikkhus, this is said: ‘A first point of ignorance, bhikkhus, is not seen such that before this there was no ignorance and afterward it came into being.’

AN 10.61

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    Please do not attach any dictionary definitions to this answer. Thanks – Dhammadhatu Aug 1 '18 at 1:11
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    Thank you for the deep research. Given the Pali variants on "root of suffering", I've simply deferred to SuttaCentral and searched for "root of suffering" (with quotes) to find 13 candidates of which only a few directly define root of suffering. SN45.1 is interesting because it directs that relinquishing ignorance to let true wisdom arise is the path out of suffering, but it doesn't actually imply that ignorance itself is the root of suffering. Instead, we have delight/craving/attachment/desire declared as the root of suffering in multiple suttas. Wisdom is the knife we use to cut the root. – OyaMist Aug 1 '18 at 6:10
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    Glad to read you researching however I must disagree with your conclusion because the Dhamma says to look further because the most efficient way of cutting the root is by removing ignorance. As suggested, I think the word "root" must be deeply examined (which I have not done in great detail) rather than taken literally in English. It is important to abandon focus on English translations and dictionary definitions and examine words in the contextual usage in passages. You might want to ask a question about it at Sutta Central to Ajahn Sujato to find if he can help us find something compelling – Dhammadhatu Aug 1 '18 at 7:57
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    discourse.suttacentral.net Discuss & Discover – Dhammadhatu Aug 1 '18 at 8:00
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    I scored this answer up although I did not read a word of it. 10 points for effort ! – brody Aug 1 '18 at 14:14
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In AN 3.69 (Akusalamūlasutta) it's defined as one of the three "unskillful roots".

And I think that earns it its place at the centre of the wheel of life -- maybe not in Theravada though:

The Theravada-tradition does not have a graphical representation of the round of rebirths, but cakra-symbolism is an elementary component of Buddhism, and Buddhaghosa's Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) contains such imagery:

It is the beginningless round of rebirths that is called the 'Wheel of the round of rebirths' (saṃsāracakka). Ignorance (avijjā) is its hub (or nave) because it is its root. Ageing-and-death (jarā-maraṇa) is its rim (or felly) because it terminates it. The remaining ten links (of the Dependent Origination) are its spokes (i.e. karma formations [saṅkhāra] up to process of becoming [bhava]).

That quote is on/from page 188-189 of The Path of Purification:

enter image description here

In context, I guess that Buddhaghosa derives that from its position as the first of the 12 nidanas.


There's also doctrine in the Abhidhamma, for example from of A Comperehensive Manual of Abhidhamma edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi:

(1) Delusion (moha): Moha, “delusion,” is a synonym for avijjā, “ignorance.” Its characteristic is mental blindness or unknowing (aññāṇa). Its function is nonpenetration, or concealment, of the real nature of the object. It is manifested as the absence of right understanding or as mental darkness. Its proximate cause is unwise attention (ayoniso manasikāra). It should be seen as the root of all that is unwholesome.

Or page 31 of A Manual of Abhidhamma by Narada Maha Thera:

Three Roots (Mula)

Lobha, dosa, and moha are the three roots of evil. Their opposites are the roots of good.

Lobha, from √ lubh, to cling, or attach itself, may be rendered by ‘attachment’ or ‘clinging’. Some scholars prefer ‘greed’. Craving is also used as an equivalent of lobha.

In the case of a desirable object of sense, there arises, as a rule, clinging or attachment. In the case of an undesirable object, ordinarily there is aversion.

In Pàli such aversion is termed dosa or pañigha. Dosa is derived from √ dus, to be displeased. Pañigha is derived from ‘pañi’, against, and √ ‘gha’ (han), to strike, to contact. Illwill, hatred are also suggested as equivalents of ‘pañigha’.

Moha is derived from √ muh, to delude. It is delusion, stupidity, bewilderment. It is ‘moha’ that clouds an object and blinds the mind. Sometimes ‘moha’ is rendered by ignorance.

According to the Abhidhamma, moha is common to all evil. Lobha and dosa do not arise alone, but always in combination with moha. Moha, on the other hand, does arise singly—hence the designation ‘momåha’, intense delusion.

Diametrically opposed to the above three roots are the roots of Kusala. They not only indicate the absence of certain evil conditions, but also signify the presence of certain positive good conditions. Alobha does not merely mean non-attachment, but also generosity. Adosa does not merely mean non-anger or non-hatred, but also goodwill, or benevolence, or loving-kindness (mettà). Amoha does not merely mean non-delusion, but also wisdom or knowledge (nana or pannà).

  • Thank you so much for this very extended research. I have taken the Visuddhimagga quote and amended my answer as a contextual caution regarding MN1 rather than a more general caution. 🙏 – OyaMist Aug 1 '18 at 21:02
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    FWIW I thought that ignorance is called "the root" because it's the root of craving (and aversion) -- so I guess it's like the grandfather of suffering, not the direct cause of suffering. – ChrisW Aug 1 '18 at 21:14
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    @OyaMistAeroponics I think it's also in the Abhidhamma -- I edited the answer slightly. – ChrisW Aug 1 '18 at 21:47
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    But I think we are supposed to be interested in conditions for cessation. – ChrisW Aug 2 '18 at 17:54
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    According to his comment above the downvote was Dhammadhatu's. – ChrisW Aug 2 '18 at 17:56

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