It makes no sense that a person would knowingly choose to be ignorant of what causes them suffering, yet people suffer for "their" ignorance anyway.

How is a person supposed to "freely/willingly choose" insight/knowledge if that choice is dependent upon already having some insight/knowledge? Are the persons choices before choosing insight/knowledge completely at random? Do people not have any freedom or autonomy?

I think this may be another unanswerable question.

  • 4
    Why does the hot iron burn your hand if you touch it not knowing that it is hot? Nov 6, 2018 at 8:45
  • It's intentional though. So, your question is not correct. Just because one is unaware doesn't mean it's not intentional. Habitual ignorance is ignorance too.
    – user13579
    Nov 7, 2018 at 18:33
  • No, when children reach for a hot iron on the stove they are ignorant of the hotness of the iron. They have absolutely no intention of getting burnt or suffering yet they do. The suffering arises dependent upon the ignorance of the hot iron
    – user13375
    Nov 25, 2023 at 14:19

10 Answers 10


I don't know, I'm not sure what your background is -- I think the question would make sense, if you assume that "suffering" is a punishment imposed by God for sinning, i.e. for deliberately breaking (for "deliberately choosing" to break) one of God's commandments when you should have known better -- perhaps you're arguing that if you don't know then you are innocent and therefore shouldn't suffer.

I think a better analogy is something more like cancer, or any other apparent misfortune -- e.g. people suffer and die because they don't know how to cure it -- it isn't a question of whether it's fair (nor of divine punishment), it's a question of whether you've learned the insight and skill, maybe the habits, to undo the cause or to not do it in the first place.

Do people not have any freedom or autonomy?

I think they have a little. There's a sutta -- Chiggala Sutta: The Hole (SN 56.48) -- which suggests that we are fortunate to have been born human and in a time or place, where we can learn the Buddha's Dhamma.

Some people teach not only that the opportunity (to learn to practice) is rare, and nt only that we're fortunate to have access to the Dhamma, but also that it (i.e. the opportunity and the liberating effects) is a reason in itself for us to be happy.

Perhaps that's somewhat debatable though, a matter of perspective. Some people argue against the doctrine of "free will", saying that the physical world just does what it does and continues to do that, and that "people" are just conditioned i.e. that everything they do or think is just conditioned by one thing or another. I think that "free will" probably isn't a Buddhist doctrine -- but other people say (e.g. here) that an "exercise of free will" is "what makes Buddhist practice possible".


"Sometimes our ignorance is simply a matter of not pointing our attention in the right direction. Other times it’s more willful. There are certain things we don’t want to see, and so we erect firewalls in our minds. We put up stage sets to hide from ourselves. Part of us knows that we’re doing this, and yet part of the mind’s agreement is to pretend that we don’t. This way we block off unpleasant things, most of which are things we’ve done in the past that caused harm. Especially when they were things we knew would cause harm but we went ahead and did them anyway: That’s where we try to block things thoroughly. If this is a habit with us, those firewalls get thicker and thicker, and our willful ignorance becomes a bigger and bigger problem in our minds.

"We tend to think of ignorance, or avijja, in very abstract terms — not knowing the four noble truths, not knowing dependent co-arising, not knowing the Deathless — but you can’t chip away at those forms of ignorance until you’ve chipped away at the more blatant, immediate ones: the mind’s habit of disassociating, of leaving gaps in its inner conversation. Say you decide to do something unskillful. If you had a sense of the Buddha watching over your shoulder all the time, it would be harder to do it, so you erect a barrier in the mind as if there were no Buddha in the world, never had been a Buddha, no arahant disciples. Then all kinds of unskillful actions are possible in the world remaining in your mind. But those walls can’t stay forever. They have to come down. And then you expend a lot of energy into putting them back up again.

"We develop alertness in the meditation for the purpose of drilling through those walls, tearing them down, letting them collapse. Then, when they’re down and we can really see, we use equanimity to gauge for ourselves where we actually have been skillful and where we haven’t. That way we can learn from our mistakes. As the Buddha once said, “One of the signs of wisdom is in seeing your own foolishness.” At least that’s the beginning of your quest for knowledge, your quest to overcome ignorance. And the foolishness here is not that you don’t know a particular Buddhist teaching; it’s simply that you aren’t sensitive to what you’re doing or to the results of what you’re doing. We have the power to shape our experience and yet for the most part we use it in ways that cause unnecessary suffering. This, according to the Buddha, is the biggest danger in our lives: not what other people may do to us, but what we can do through our actions to ourselves.

"This is why he focuses the Four Noble Truths on the suffering that comes from craving and ignorance. There’s a natural stress in the fact that things change, but our real problem is that we create extra suffering through our craving and ignorance. As long as we have the habit of putting up walls in the mind, we’re in a position where we can’t even trust ourselves to do the right thing, not even for our own good. That’s scary.

"Decades ago an Alaskan shaman was interviewed by an anthropologist about his tribe’s religious beliefs. The shaman went along with the anthropologist’s questions for a while, but then finally noted, “It’s not what we believe that matters,” he said. “It’s what we fear. That’s what matters.” And a lot of the Buddha’s teachings come right down to this: What is there to fear? What should we fear? Our own misuse of our power to shape our lives, that’s what. His teachings are designed to help us learn and use that power more wisely. And that means breaking down those firewalls, those closed-off compartments in our mind that allow us to do unskillful things."

The Walls of Ignorance by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

  • Hi. To make a post look neater, you can place the title of a quote into square brackets [ ] then next to the square brackets places the link into curved brackets ( ). [Title](hyperlink). Nov 25, 2023 at 10:53
  • 1
    Thank you for this. :) Nov 25, 2023 at 14:49

I agree with ChrisW here. Your question implies that you take it personally, while in reality it is an impersonal process. What seems like "you" and "your suffering" (as well as all other sentient beings with their respective experiences) arises from an accumulation and "clumping" of tendencies.

In the beginning these tendencies don't have any awareness, but over time they develop into something that can reflect and think, and once there is thinking, it starts generating all these ideas about how things are, how things should be, with suffering arising when they don't match.

But of course, only when there's thinking, there begin some attempts to analyze the situation, and to solve the problem of things being wrong. So thinking is both the source of the problem as well as the way to finding solution. While the situation before thinking is both ignorance and bliss, the primordial Eden without the conflict between right and wrong.

In the early phases of this evolutionary process, the emerging intelligence does not have any capacity for deliberate action. Think about a young child, can it plan its own destiny and decide where it's going? Then, as the intelligence matures, it grows stable and learns to plan ahead and execute its plans step by step. Of course, before it gets wise it keeps making all kinds of bad judgements and suffers their consequences. Why is that a surprise to you?


I have asked a similar or almost exactly the same question previously on this platform albeit with some Buddism lingua (link).

Please see the excellent answer given by @Mishu 米殊 crowned with her excellent statement " Volition the ability to discern doesn't get hindered by ignorance, although ignorance prevented it from knowing the correct answer immediately.

As Plato said " we are all deprived of truth against our will" but we can seek it following the path directed by the Buddha or if we have a superior capacity following our own reasoning.

  • Isn't not knowing the correct answer immediately a hindrance.... Sure seems like it to me...
    – Angus
    Nov 5, 2018 at 20:23
  • If that was true there won't be any discovery or progress at all, and if on the contrary, if we know everything immediately then we are all enlightened! Not knowing the truth immediately is to be overcome by insight/reason/ recollection whatever name we give our ability to discern.
    – Epic
    Nov 5, 2018 at 20:37
  • Great minds think alike :). It is rare, in particular - this forum, that someone is with the capacity to think and discern independently, intelligently and philosophically, instead of copy & paste the Sutta or quoting their teachers. I wonder if you would enjoy this too Nov 18, 2018 at 18:13
  • Thanks a mil @Mishu 米殊 for sharing your blog, I have read one of your posts and it's sure intriguing... I have decided to savor the rest slowly :). I agree with your remark about the need to inquire and think critically, but to do so we need that burning confusion within which most of us are lacking or even if we had it when we're young it gets dimmer against the prevailing misology from all corners.
    – Epic
    Nov 19, 2018 at 14:33
  • It is so, it is so. The interesting part is, we are the awaken looking at ourselves in the mirror, wondering who that is. Until we realize what we are looking at is a mirror, we know that in it that's us. That's called enlightenment, I think. This is how I go thus far. It's wonderful to have someone capable to exchange thoughts, I've long been deprived of that, my friend :) Nov 20, 2018 at 7:24

It makes no sense that a person would knowingly choose to be ignorant, yet people suffer for "their" ignorance anyway.

The arising of ignorance comes from that mysterious "neutral feeling".

There are three feelings: pleasant, painful, and neutral feeling ... Anything felt physically or mentally as neither pleasurable nor painful. This is neutral feeling.” --MN44

In particular, we have:

The underlying tendency for ignorance underlies neutral feeling.

Consider what happens when we see someone who is neither pleasant or painful. When we see such a person, we have a neutral feeling. Having that neutral feeling, we might say to ourselves, ¨Meh. Don't know and don't care". In this way we choose ignorance.

However we can also see deeper, directly know the person, wish them well and even greet them with a warm-hearted "Hello!". In this way we choose metta and wisdom over ignorance.

If one finds that indifference is a habitual response to neutral feelings, one may consider inquiry with enthusiasm as part of one's practice.

  • Edited to add reference to immersion with enthusiasm.
    – OyaMist
    Nov 5, 2018 at 20:19

If you look closely , having ignorance and doing things are not always random. And you have freedom or limited freedom depending upon the situation. Suppose I give you a choice of coffee or tea , then what will you choose? You may choose tea because you dislike coffee. You may choose coffee because your girlfriend or boyfriend loves coffee. You may reject both because you think it is not a proper etiquette for the situation. You may choose unpredictably (not randomly) coffee or tea because coffee has a double ff or tea sounds like T. You may roll a dice to choose tea or coffee( this is random in the scientific sense).

The same applies to day to day to life. Some decisions we make have various causes , few decisions are unpredictable and some are random.

Choice means volitional formations.

What happens when volitional formations arise ? It results in consciousness. What happens when consciousness arise ? Name and form arises. What happens when name and form arises? It results in combination of six senses. What happens when there is a combination of six senses ? Contact of six senses arise. What happens when contact of six senses arise ? Feelings dependent on six senses arise. What happens when feelings arise ? Craving arises. What happens when craving arises? Clinging arises. What happens when clinging arises ? Attachments arise. What happens when attachments arise ? Becoming arises. What happens when becoming arises ? Birth , Ageing and Death of sorrow , lamentation , pain, disgust ,sadness,anxiety etc , and the whole mass of suffering arises.

But what led to volitional formations in the first place? Ignorance. What is ignorance? Ignorance means understanding Dhammas as self. Ignorance means understanding Sankhara are permanent. Ignorance means understanding Sankharas as Sukkha.

Whereas ,

Cessation of ignorance means cessation of volitional formations, cessation of volitional formations means cessation of consciousness, cessation of consciousness means cessation of name and form. Cessation of name and form means cessation of cessation of six senses. Cessation of six senses means cessation of contact. Cessation of contact means cessation of feelings . Cessation of feelings means cessation of cravings . Cessation of cravings means cessation of clinging. Cessation of clinging means cessation of attachments. Cessation of attachments means cessation of becoming. Cessation of becoming means cessation of birth , ageing and death of sorrow, pain ,disgust , lamentation, anxiety ,etc and the whole mass of suffering.

  • volitional formations arise ? It results from consciousness Nov 25, 2023 at 4:50
  • @DhammaDhatu That can be disputed but I am doing research into this. Also how can ignorance arise if there is no consciousness. I will post the link to the translation of dependent origination. Nov 25, 2023 at 4:59

One suffers because of ignorance through the lack of seeing. The kind of seeing that is needed to traverse ignorance is obscured by an internal map of reality and that view is biased and distorted to suit your conditioned state. That reality is basically made of all of the inaccurate information that has come through your six senses (this part can get extremely detailed - Abhidharma casts some interesting light upon this). One small way I can describe this is to notice the illusion below.

enter image description here

What should have happened is the mind is initially fooled by the illusion but if one chooses to further inspect the image one will see the finer constituents that make up that illusion. However, imagine this illusion as being your view of reality but instead of choosing to inspect and examine it, you just accept its initial appearance (ignorance).

Reality is the same. The only difference with penetrating the illusion above and penetrating into reality is the degree of chronological time it takes.

How is a person supposed to "freely/willingly choose" insight/knowledge if that choice is dependent upon already having some insight/knowledge?

For me, the only dependant part is switching focus - that is the choice. That's all you need, the willingness to want to pick it all apart. The rest just shows itself and often in some quite peculiar ways. Like in the illusion above, the knowledge to see how it works is already there, one just has to apply focus to see it for what it is.

Are the persons choices before choosing insight/knowledge completely at random?

For the most part, I'd say yes. The motivating governors are stored in their alaya consciousness..

What kind of insane reality is this??

If you're referring to a reality beyond concept it's incomprehensible to the finite constructs of the conceptual mind.

  • Not to the conceptual mind but concept is useful if applied rightly.
    – user14148
    Nov 5, 2018 at 19:11
  • It becomes quite tricky here because to understand true reality from a conceptual frame of reference one has to reduce true reality into words and abstractions thus the very essence has been removed.
    – user14148
    Nov 5, 2018 at 19:32
  • You can only see this knowledge by watching how you interface with the world; how you suffer. You are the vehicle by which the insight takes place so I can only refer you back to yourself.
    – user14148
    Nov 5, 2018 at 19:49

The short answer is that the path is not about choices, nor even sankaras [there is no sammāsaṅkhāra], it is about effort to reject ''thinking imbued with sensuality, thinking imbued with ill will, & thinking imbued with harmfulness'' and to follow ''thinking imbued with renunciation, thinking imbued with non-ill will, & thinking imbued with harmlessness '' [and avoiding the confusion by a few puthujjanas of the ''kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma'' with ''the kamma that is bright with bright result''] by ''Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve.'' https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.008.than.html which leads to ''right samadhi'' instead of wrong samadhi https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.019.than.html

But later on the training, those efforts become easier and the path is not even about wishing nor effort. Ideally, the path does not resort on ''exertion'' or wishes, or will, because the path is conditioned too, https://suttacentral.net/an11.2/en/sujato , and once a puthujjana only wants to stop dukkha, the observation that ''thinking imbued with sensuality has arisen in me; and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding.''' kills the bad thoughts automatically. And when the ''body was calm & unaroused'', the ''mind concentrated & single. Quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities,'' the jhanas occurs naturally, through the joy of being moral and having sama sankappas [or vitakka] : saṅkappas of nekkhamma, saṅkappas of abyāpāda, saṅkappas of avihiṃsā. http://www.buddha-vacana.org/sutta/samyutta/maha/sn45-008.html Puthujjanas fail completely to see that joy springs from morality and renunciation. Puthujjanas also confuse the sama sankappas with compassion and love, because those puthujjanas are stuck between their moronic dichotomy of egotism-selflessness and they create the view that the negation of ''thinking imbued with sensuality, thinking imbued with ill will, & thinking imbued with harmfulness'' is the sankara which leads to ''the kamma that is bright with bright result'' which the sankara of compassion and unconditional love and feeling sad that destitute puthujjanas do not have the means to enjoy themselves. These puthujjanas completely skip the ''intention, aspiration, thought, resolve, of sensual desire''... and thus fails to ''understand the reward of renunciation,'' https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an09/an09.041.than.html which is exactly what is needed to get into jhana.

once this is done, there is control over the citta:

**'Monks, endowed with seven things, a monk makes the mind turn according to his wish and turns not by the mind's wish.[1]

What seven?

Herein, monks, a monk is skilled in samadhi, skilled in attaining it, skilled in maintaining it, skilled in emerging from it, skilled in the well-being of it, skilled in the range of it, skilled in applying it.[2]

Verily, monks, endowed with these seven things a monk makes the mind turn according to his wish and turns not by the mind's wish.**


A few puthujjanas are obsessed with the word agency and choices and what they call ''the doer'' when they speculate about atta and anatta, especially the puthujjanas who created their ''dry insight'' doctrine. THose people are obsessed with vibrations and ''lack of agency''. They created 4 paths. Each path is an awakening by what they call ''a cessation'' and the path 4 is nibanna when the ''lack of agency'' becomes manifest. As usual with anything imagined by puthujjanas, it has nothing to do with the dhamma. A sotapanna knows already perfectly this ''lack of agency''.

Words like "freely/willingly choose" and determinism are bad words created by puthujjanas who cling to philosophy, to vitakka+vicara+papanca, be it ''buddhist'' or not, then they create their moronic dichotomies, like ''free will''-determinism and then they mix their dichotomies with morality, only to be left stuck on one side of their dichotomy [they love to polarize their opposite ideas, like ''choosing'' is good and ''not choosing'' is turned into ''suffering''[meaning bearing something], into 'enduring'' something [that is not willed] which means it is bad]. Do not rely on ideas created by puthujjanas to understand the dhamma, until you manage to find a buddha who expresses the dhamma with their words... Most of the ideas of the puhtuhjannas are bad and when the dhamma is expressed with their words, the buddha use their words against them. Like the fire worshipers that the buddha met, mentioned in ''the fire sermon''. THose puhtujjanas worshiped fire, reified fire, idealized it, they created a whole doctrine about the cosmos with the vocabulary of fire. Then the buddha arrives and tell them that fire is bad and the holy life is to destroy this fire. hence nirvana has the putting out of fire.

There were puthujjanas in greece who said that ''everything was water''. If the buddha met them, he would have said ''yeah everything is water, and water is bad and the goal is to dry everything that is wet'' [typically, to dry the flow of asavas].

  • Your answer would have been quite skilled if there was less finger pointing. Your overuse of 'they', 'their' and 'those' diluted the answer somewhat, almost like you became lost in a crusade... or something.
    – user14148
    Nov 10, 2018 at 18:13

Yes, ignorance is unintentional & ignorant people do not have any freedom or autonomy.

Insight knowledge is something developed from the intention to develop the Noble Eightfold Path.

This Noble Eightfold Path comes to fulfilment in him by development. When he develops this Noble Eightfold Path, the four foundations of mindfulness also come to fulfilment in him by development; the four right kinds of striving also come to fulfilment in him by development; the four bases for spiritual power also come to fulfilment in him by development; the five faculties also come to fulfilment in him by development; the five powers also come to fulfilment in him by development; the seven enlightenment factors also come to fulfilment in him by development. These two things—serenity and insight—occur in him yoked evenly together. He fully understands by direct knowledge those things that should be fully understood by direct knowledge.

MN 149


Why does one suffer because of ignorance if ignorance is unintentional?

Ignorant must arising with intention.

Sutta. Ma. Mū. Sabbāsavasaṃvarasuttaṃ:

when he attends to them, the unarisen fermentation of sensuality arises in him, and the arisen fermentation of sensuality increases; the unarisen fermentation of becoming arises in him, and arisen fermentation of becoming increases; the unarisen fermentation of ignorance arises in him, and the arisen fermentation of ignorance increases. These are the ideas unfit for attention that he attends to.

It makes no sense that a person would knowingly choose to be ignorant of what causes them suffering, yet people suffer for "their" ignorance anyway.

Ignorant is "no noble truth knowledge enough to detach from all clinging aggregates". ignorant is not avoiding. It is foolish, blank of noble truth practicing. See Sutta. Saṃ. Ma.

How is a person supposed to "freely/willingly choose" insight/knowledge if that choice is dependent upon already having some insight/knowledge?

The ordinary people never have any insight/knowledge of anattā before they have chance to practice follow Buddhā.

And the knowledge/insight is just four noble truth, which was adapted to be the dependent origination, five aggregates, etc.

Are the persons choices before choosing insight/knowledge completely at random? Do people not have any freedom or autonomy?

It depend on their level, not random. All experience, past life, friends, job, etc., are effect the practitioner. See netti.

I think this may be another unanswerable question.

Everything can answer by pāli and abhidhamma.

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