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“Ignorance” — a New View

A talk given by Phiroz Mehta at Dilkusha, Forest Hill, London on 4th November 1973


Those of you who are seriously interested in the Buddha’s teaching know that what is known as the Paṭicca-Samuppāda, the cycle of Twelve Factors, are the conditions on account of which there is the uprising of what the Buddha called Ill, or Dukkha; he also pointed out the way to its extinction. This Paṭicca-Samuppāda, as it stands, starts with the affirmation that Ignorance is the condition because of which there arise the Activities, sometimes translated as Volitions, sometimes as Conformations. (Ignorance is Avijjā, Conformations are Sankhārā). Conditioned by these factors, there arises Viññaṇa, Discriminative Consciousness. Conditioned by that there arises Nāma-Rūpa, often translated Mind-Body, best translated, as in the Abhidhamma, as Mentality — Materiality. Nāma can also be regarded (although it is not so regarded in India in any of the books extant), as the Informing Principle. (The word nāma is related to the Latin nomen, which right up to the Middle Ages was used in theological discourse to imply the informing principle of that which is manifest, the Rūpa — the Shape. Rūpa means Shape, Form, and therefore people have loosely taken it for the body itself. But Mentality-Materiality is a translation which is very much closer to the Buddhist feeling itself).

Conditioned by these factors there arise the Sense Fields, the Six Sense Fields, (Salāyatana), the ordinary five senses which we know of and, as in all Hindu-Buddhist teachings, Discursive Thinking, the world of the imagination which builds up pictures and so forth, as a result of our speech faculty interpreting our sense experience. That aspect of mind which is essentially the speech faculty is regarded as the sixth sense, and is classed more in the material group than in the mental group. (One of the Buddha’s great nuns, Dhamadinnā, her name means the giver of the doctrine, the teaching, the truth, Dhamaddinā says, and she has the authority of the Buddha himself for it, that Discursive Thought is an activity of speech, Feeling and Perception are activities of mind).

Conditioned then by all these factors, including the Six Sense Fields, there arises Contact (Phassa) with the external world. (Now it is rather important to bear in mind this point. Hitherto all this may be limited to the individual being himself. Now, suddenly, there appears this thing called the external world, because of which, and because of our senses, there is Contact). As a result of that Contact, (Phassa), there arises Feeling (Vedanā). It is not sufficient to translate it as Sensation, because Sensation in English fundamentally means bodily sensation which is conveyed by the nerves to the brain. But Vedanā, as Feeling, is a more generalised term which of course induces the bodily sensations. As a result of experiencing Feeling, because of our preferential choice which expresses our reaction to all the stimuli that come to us, there arises Craving. (Now Craving is the central villain of the piece, as far as the Ill state, Dukkha, is concerned). As a result of Craving, there uprises Upādāna, the urge and the activity towards obtaining something. With this uprising, and as a consequence of it, there is a Becoming. (And here of course there is the crystallization of all our psycho-physical energies in producing a result, the apparently desired result. Or sometimes, if we do not know how to direct our psycho-physical energies, it is an undesirable result). But, whether desired, or undesired, or undesirable, there is a crystallization and final appearance, a Birth (Jāti). Consider Jāti also in its profounder meaning, a conditioned state, because whatsoever comes into being is conditioned. (You will find the Buddha himself teaching this very succinctly and clearly in one of the Long Discourses — the Mahā-Sudassana Sutta). Every conditioned state, as soon as it comes into being, says the Buddha, of necessity begins to break up, and, if it is something desirable, in the breaking up and the loss of it there comes Decay and Death (Jarā-Maraṇa). Therefore there is misery, lamentation, sorrow, and the whole doleful, sad tale is there, when again the cycle starts because of Ignorance, as it is called.

But there is no explication whatsoever of the origin of this Ignorance. There is nothing said about a possible profounder, metaphysical and ontological significance to this Avijjā, this Ignorance. We will go into that a little later, or at least we will try to go into it, because as far as I am aware it is not in any of the books or given out in ordinary teaching anyway, anywhere. Note carefully this appearance of the external world after the Six Sense Fields. Because there is the external world, because we have the Senses, they operate in their own way and there is Contact (Phassa), which gives rise to a Feeling. Note also that Craving is the root difficulty the villain of the piece, that produces all this.

Now I want you to consider carefully another presentation which comes only once in the entire Pali Canon, and this presentation has one extremely interesting point. The Buddha goes through this Paṭicca-Samuppāda, and he mentions Birth (Jāti), then omits the breaking-up, the Decay and Death (Jarā-Maraṇa). He omits that and he says, “What is the cause of Suffering?” Birth is the answer. (Birth is translated as Jāti. Stick to the word Jāti and realize it more as the conditioned state. The conditioned state is the answer). “Yea, I say that this Conditioned state is associated with Suffering and so also is Becoming with Birth, etc.”, going backwards up to Ignorance again. (But, as I say, he omits Jarā-Maraṇa). He then asks, “What is the cause of Faith?”. Suffering is the answer. “Yea, I say that Suffering (Dukkha), the Ill-state, is the cause of Faith.” He then asks, “What is the cause of Joy?” Faith is the answer. “What is the cause of Rapture?” Joy. And from Rapture to Serenity and from Serenity to Happiness, from Happiness to Samādhi, (Samādhi, translated in the ordinary way as Concentration, here also is translated as Concentration. Remember that Samadhi is the Supreme Communion, the state of complete At-Onement with Reality, the Nirvanic state).

So in this you get a branching off. Now he repeats that, presenting it this way. But before I read you the final presentation, I will read you how he starts off this particular bit:

The Exalted One said, “In him who knows, who sees, I say that the Intoxicants are extinct, not in him who knows not, neither sees.”

What are these Intoxicants, the Āsavas, as they are called? (The literal meaning of the word Āsava is an overflow or an exudation). The Intoxicants (or the cankers as they are sometimes translated), are the canker of the sense pleasures, the canker of the passion to become this, that or the other, the canker of speculative views, and the canker of Ignorance itself. Those are the cankers, those are the Intoxicants. Now it is usually thought that all these produce the Ill-state, but I would turn the thing upside down and present it this way: that if and when one is no longer in the state of right attentiveness, of perfect attention (Sammā Sati), and therefore also of Sammā Samādhi, consciousness overflows in the direction of the sense pleasures, ambition, the passion to become this, that and the other, of speculative views and the state of Ignorance, dominated by Ignorance. You look at it this way and you will find much greater depth and meaning and logical sequence involved in this way of approaching it. This is very important.

“In him who knows, brethren, who sees, I say that the Intoxicants are extinct.”

And of course in him who sees not, the Intoxicants are there. Then he continues about knowledge about extinction of the Intoxicants. “That, I say, is associated, not the opposite.” And what is that that is the cause of knowledge about extinction? You yourself. When you have realised complete purity and perfection and can maintain the right state of awareness through every moment of the day, then you know that the cankers the overflows, will not occur. You see why I suggest you regard it as overflows and not as cankers. If you regard it as cankers, you think of something outside yourself which is doing this. But in actual fact it is this overflow of your own awareness, your straying away from the perfected state, the holy state. Your straying away from it means that your consciousness slides in the direction of sense pleasure, ambition and all the rest of it.

“And what is that which is the cause of knowledge about extinction?”(You know that the cankers, the overflows, will not take place).

Liberation is the answer. “And what is that which is the cause of Liberation?” Passionlessness. And the cause of Passionlessness? Repulsion. (Repulsion is the word used here but in actual fact what happens, and this is common to all the great mysticisms of the world, when you begin to see the truth and you really are getting into tune with it, you naturally turn away. It is the real metanoia which takes place, not the metanoia that may be imposed upon you from outside, or which, merely intellectually, you may accept as such — that it is necessary to turn away from the worldly state in order to realize the holy state. So Repulsion means that turning away from it is not aversion, that is what I want to emphasise, because aversion simply means you are in a state of conflict, you are caught).

“And what is the cause of turning away? I say that the knowledge and vision of things as they really are is the cause of turning away. And what is the cause of that? Concentration” (Right attention, perfect attention, is the cause of that turning away).

“And what is the cause of right attention or Concentration?” Happiness is the answer. And the cause of Happiness is Serenity (nothing to do with pleasure or sensation or excitement, but Serenity, note carefully).

And the cause of Serenity? Rapture (but this Rapture is not again an excitement or a disturbance). And what is the cause of Rapture? Joy. And the cause of Joy? Faith. And what is the cause of Faith? Suffering. And what is the cause of Suffering? Jāti (being in material existence, the ultimate state of concretization). And then the usual thing from Jāti he goes on to Bhava, Upādāna, Taṇhā, etc., the usual Paṭicca-Samuppāda.

But here, this Paticca-Samuppada, instead of running round around the circle of sorrow, of suffering and misery, there is the release out of it. Notice these factors which he mentions; Faith, Joy, Rapture, Serenity, Happiness and finally Samādhi, Joy, Rapture, Serenity, Happiness. Those of you who have studied your Buddhism carefully (and I hope experienced it yourselves), will recognise that these are the characteristics of the first jhāna, the first state, the first deep state of consciousness in meditation. It is very interesting that these are the factors which form the basic groundwork, as far as your psycho-physical existence is concerned, for the release of awareness into the Transcendent, into the Immortal, the Deathless. Jarā-Maraṇa is not mentioned in this. Consider this very carefully. This fact of Jarā-Maraṇa is left out of this.

At the Buddhist Summer School many years ago there was a very interesting talk given, and this matter was mentioned, but certain very important points were omitted, namely that the aspect of death, of the death of the psycho-physical organism was not mentioned, and that there is contact with an external world which appears from somewhere. Ordinarily Buddhist teachers talk of this as the explanation of emergence of the entire universe that one experiences.I say No! It is wrong, it isn’t so.

This Paṭicca-Samuppāda is essentially concerned, fundamentally concerned, with what happens to you yourself, the individual, in your own mind. Your own thought process is really the Paṭicca-Samuppāda, and, as long as you are caught up in the thought process (and remember that intellect and thought are the slaves of Desire, Taṇhā), as long as you are caught up in that thought process, you will always go round and round and round and round. The freeing of oneself in that thought process is the emergence whilst you are alive, here. That is why Jarā-Maraṇa is out. Whilst you are alive here there arises this thing: Faith. And it is Suffering that is the cause of Faith.

Now this does not necessarily mean that one is confined to being miserable first before Faith can arise. The awareness of Suffering need not be your own pain and misery only, but you see it around you. Your sensitivity, your consciousness awaken to the fact that in our manifested existence there is this world-woe, this Weltschmerz, as the Germans would call it. So Faith arises that way. This is most significant. It happens whilst you are alive and it comes into being also because, even if you are confined by Ignorance to your thought process, you obtain a contact with an external world, a not-self, and so this conflict, this duality of self and not-self arises, and there you are, you are caught in it. This is very important. But you see the way out, the way out is the way of Happiness. You do not have to seek Happiness. The process of awakening can take place only because there is the basis of Purity, the Moralities, the Sīlas, the absolute purity all the way through. That is the basis. If that purity is there, then in your meditative process, the memory, and the itch, and the urge for the sense pleasures, and the overflow of consciousness in the direction of sense pleasures, or planning to satisfy your ambitions, or anything like that, all that goes out. You are in a state of Faith and Serenity, and out of it arises Joy and Rapture and Happiness. And out of it all finally (with the going down of that, plus the going down of all Sorrow, all Sorrow, not merely your Sorrow, but Sorrow in its totality, both in its ordinary, worldly, mortal sense, as well as in its Transcendental sense), you are Man. You are the Perfected Man, the Arahant, the Worthy One, (Arahant means the Worthy One), as the Buddha put it.

And that means that you see all these other things. You have the knowledge and vision of things as they are. There is the turning away from worldliness. I would put it this way, instead of talking of a turning away, you are turned inside out. This is the result of that transformation. Put it in still better terms; all self-orientation has completely vanished and there is only this awakened consciousness of a Total Reality, denying no relationships whatsoever with any element of that Total Reality. This takes place and then there is the Passionlessness and there is Liberation, Freedom (Cetovimutti), the complete freedom, of the attention, attentiveness, and that is the Nirvanic condition. That is also the condition that the Buddha called Śūnyatāphalasāmadi, that is to say, the communion which is the result, the fruit (Phala is fruit), of Voidness.

What is this Voidness? It is being void of all evil in one’s thought and feeling, one’s speech and one’s action. It is as straightforward and as simple as that, and it is as difficult as that. I will read you that final section where the whole thing comes up in full:

Just as when, on some hilltop, when rain is falling in thick drops, that water, coursing according to the slope, fills the hillside clefts and chasms and gullies. These being filled up, fill the tarns. These being filled up, fill the lakes. These being filled up, fill the little rivers. These being filled up, fill the great rivers, and the great rivers fill up the sea — the ocean. Even so, brethren, there is casual association of Activities with Ignorance, of Consciousness with Activities, of Name and Shape with Consciousness, the Sixfold Sense Sphere with Name and Shape, the Sixfold Sense Sphere of Feeling with Contact, of Craving with Feeling, of Grasping with Craving, of Becoming with Grasping, of Birth (or the Conditioned State, with renewed Becoming, of Sorrow with Birth, (Jarā-Maraṇa is left out, Death and Decay is left out, notice carefully), of Faith with Sorrow, of Joy with Faith, of Rapture with Joy, of Serenity with Rapture, of Happiness with Serenity, of Concentration (Samādhi) with Happiness, of the Knowledge and Vision of things as they really are with Samādhi.

This is very important. You see the tremendous implication of this? In the state of Samādhi, the state of communion, there is no separative, discriminative Consciousness at all. You are in the state of the completely unified mind, the unified Awareness, which does not separate things out, and yet at the same time it is fully aware of all the relationships, of the innumerable many, which make up the Totality, the One as we call it. This is the extraordinary part of it all. These are the things which need to be expounded carefully, but I have never heard anybody bringing this out.

Of Knowledge and Vision with Concentration, of Repulsion (or turning away from ill) with the Knowledge and Vision of things as they really are, of Passionlessness with Repulsion, of Liberation with Passionlessness, of Knowledge about the extinction of the overflows of Consciousness with Liberation.

So you see, that supreme state of Awareness, of communion, is the one in which at last there is complete Enlightenment. That which started with Ignorance, the unenlightened state, the unawakened state, has now come to complete fruition. It is the light that lightens the whole world. And remember that the world in all these religious contexts first and foremost stands for your own psycho-physical being. This is your world.

You remember in the Anguttara Nikāya the Buddha says, “I lay down that in this fathom-long body lies everything, Ill, the way and the release from Ill.” It all lies here. So this is your world, and what applies to yourself, the microcosmic world, applies also to the macrocosmic world, because the vision of Man can extend only so far as he can have a completeness of vision (with respect to himself as a human being) and he cannot go beyond that. That is why his macrocosm, as long he is Man, will necessarily bear the limitation of his manhood whether it be the Enlightened Manhood or the ignorant one. These things have to be carefully borne in mind. That is how it stands in the Buddhist presentation.

Now I want you to try and consider with me this matter of Avijjā, Ignorance, as it is called. You know that they say that the Buddha had nothing to do with metaphysics. As far as the Pali canon goes, this is considerably borne out, but such a statement is only a partial statement. That is to say, it tends to be misleading. It is totally impossible to give any sort of ethical teaching, any sort of teaching concerned with the liberation of the individual without an implied metaphysic in it at least. There has to be an implied ontology, the origin of being the origin of things, the source, because, if there is not that implied source, the whole idea of goal and of fruition is completely out also. There can be no goal unless there is a source. There can be no coming to fruition unless there is the non-fruited state which is implicit in the seed. So the seed has to be there, the source has to be there.

Now this word Ignorance, Avijja, let us look at it, let us savour it and try and go into the depths. Feel your way through with me in this. We call it the unawakened condition. Man is characterized above all by this extraordinary phenomenon which we call the consciousness, this sensitivity, which enables us to be aware. We start off with a sensitivity which is undeveloped which grows slowly and steadily through the impact of stimuli upon this psycho-physical organism. And slowly we obtain what we commonly call knowledge, but this knowledge that we obtain is confined to the world of things and phenomena in the beginning. Out of this knowledge of things and phenomena in the beginning we have this slowly growing faculty, the intellectual faculty, by which we can abstract significance and meaning. We can begin to see relationships, we can begin to see patterns of the ways in which the life-process and the world-process manifest. We begin to see all this, but we are in the first stages of awakening to the world as such, we are naturally self-oriented, for the very simple reason that fundamentally this organism belongs to an animal species and there is the law of the animal functioning through us, the instincts and the reflexes and so forth. The animal is concerned with self-preservation, that is our first duty, and that remains our first duty, and will always be our first duty as long as there are human bodies, as we are at present, existing on the globe. So there is this self-orientedness which colours and completely dominates our grasp of all our knowledge. This is the important point, this self-orientedness. But there comes the time when we grow up, grow out of that. We come to see that this produces conflict, this self-orientedness, with the not-self. Each person is like myself, self-concerned, and our desires and preferences differ. Our ambitions conflict with each other, our passion to preserve ourselves at all costs, even at the cost of eating up one’s own wife, if the situation arose, as it did among primitive peoples! But gradually there comes a change, one begins to see more deeply, because one experiences the emergence out of oneself of an energy which we call love, which wants to include the other, (one’s own family, one’s friends and so forth) within oneself. In this process there is the awakening to the meaning, the significance, the beauty of what is called self-sacrifice, of putting aside self-concern for the sake of the loved one, and so forth. Side by side with that, there is the awakening of this sense of wonder and marvel at the beauty of things as they are, and also this extraordinary fascination of the pain and the horror and the terror of existence. And yet they grip one. And we begin to see that even in this pain and horror which we experience, because we are what we are, even in that there is an extraordinary beauty working, there is an extraordinary purposefulness coming to fruition. More than that, we gradually begin to see that there is a remarkable karmic activity going on all the time, a karmic activity which adjusts the universal process in such a way that an ultimate balance, an ultimate harmony, might be maintained. So all these things awaken the intellect, first to deeper things, and when that is combined with the growth of compassion and unself-centredness in us, then at last Vision begins to appear. Then one realizes that there is the possibility of this disciplinary process of growth, a learning process, and, if one uses one’s instrument of salvation (namely, one’s power of attention) in the right way, then this can be brought to fruition, and that which we called Ignorance has now become transformed into Enlightenment. The darkness is light, has been converted to light. When that Enlightenment grows and grows, it is not merely a case of more light only, it is a case of realizing that the darkness and the light are an identity. How often it has been said, the Source and the Goal are one and the same. The origins of creation and existence (which we call Ignorance in Buddhist terminology) and the Goal, the fulfilment, the fruition, in terms of Enlightenment and Perfection and Holiness, they are an identity. This is an extraordinary thing, this great mystical No-thing, as we call it, the Void. The No-thing, which is pure energy in itself, stirs in such a way that it produces a differentiation and when differentiation appears first of all there is incorrect relationship between them, so there is conflict and difficulty. This brings about the whole cycle of pain, sorrow, misery, etc., but it is that itself which is the very stimulus for the conversion of the darkness into the light, of un-enlightenment into Enlightenment, and thus we grow.

This metaphysical and ontological significance of Ignorance, the starting point as we call it, should be really understood. When one really understands it, what happens is that we get freed from this unidirectional movement (that we start like this and we end like that), we get rid of that illusion of the unidirectional movement because, if it is a unidirectional movement, the ultimate end must necessarily be death.

But I say quite positively that all the changing garbs in which Immortality clothes itself are expressions of mortality, the One Immortality manifests itself in terms of multitudinous moralities. But when there is this real awakening, this real understanding, one sees mortality, not as the ending in the sense of an annihilation, but in the sense of a complete transmutation. There is no annihilation, there is only eternal existence, eternal life in its reality. So then the darkness and the light, mortality and Immortality, time and Eternity are completely at-Oned.

As and when the mind can really be permeated, unified by this realization, you will find that the ultimate metanoia, the ultimate transformation has taken place. In the words of the Buddha: “There is now no more to be done, the Brahmacariya, the holy life, has been lived.” But “has been” is a slightly misleading term, it should be “is now”, being lived in perfection, free of the domination by time, by circumstance, and therefore Dukkha, the Ill-state, the distorted state, the state of disharmony is completely out. That is, it has not been cast aside anywhere, it has been transmuted because of your transformation from the worldling into the Perfected Holy One.


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