“Ignorance” in the Buddhist Context
The primary reason we are born again and again in Samsara,, and endlessly turn on the spinning wheel of birth and
death, is, according to the Buddha, due to Fundamental Ignorance.
I lived with the head of the Chan lineage of the Wei Yang sect,, Master Hsuan Hua, for over a decade and listened to
countless lectures. And yet, over the many years I was with the master, it is four words that he spoke almost daily to
myself and others that have had the greatest impact. Those four words are: “You are so stupid!”
Now, at first blush, even a master telling you you’re stupid may seem insulting. But, what if is said with such sympathy,
compassion, and frustration, that you see he is clearly seeing within you a fault you sense within yourself, but cannot
wrap your mind around?
We all feel stupid sometimes, myself on a regular basis. I feel stupid whenever I should have known better than to do
what I have done. Some may call this a mistake, but it is really stupidity. It is not having the presence of mind to do
things the way I know very well they should be done. A common cause is a distracted mind. This kind of stupidity we
are all familiar with.
When Master Hua said, “You are so stupid” he sometimes meant stupidity in the common usage mentioned above,
but at other times he meant it in the sense of “Ignorance” in the Buddhist sense, which means ignorance of our
fundamental nature, our enlightened awareness. Ignorance wasn’t part of his Chinese/English vocabulary, so it was
up to us to figure out the context he was speaking. Stupidity is knowing, yet not recognizing what you know when you
need it. It is not performing as you are expected to by others or yourself.
Often, we find ourselves saying to ourselves, “that was so stupid,” an auto commentary on ill performed actions. I
once was at a dharma teaching and during the intermission I thought I had lost my malla. I went around asking several
people if they had seen it. Finally, someone said, “Is that it on your wrist?” That is stupidity! All of us have probably
locked ourselves out of our car or home, at some point, or forgot to lock them when we left, due to being distracted by
other thoughts. These may seem like minor lapses, but they are indications of much bigger problems. Lack of
presence of mind, leads to lack of carefulness and attentiveness, which in turn can lead us to commit actions which
have us saying to ourselves, “stupid!”
Stupidity is a relative term. A biologist would expect more of himself than someone not in his field while engaged in the
same work. Understanding our own stupidity is knowing what is expected of us and what we expect of ourselves,
within the context of what we do. Generally, people trying to understand their own stupidity, try to simplify their actions
and stick to the most familiar, and seek perfection within that paradigm. This is exemplified by Zen gardens,
calligraphy, chanting, or cleaning our home or apartment, and so forth. Simple and familiar activities reveal stupidity
well, wherein, unfamiliar activities reveal mistakes, which is not the same thing.
Without striving to recognize our stupidity, we cannot tackle ignorance. Ignorance is a deeper problem and not
accessed by ordinary understanding. Ignorance describes a state of awareness all of us are immersed in, no matter
how smart we are. Ignorance does not favor educated or uneducated, rich or poor, and so forth, but is a word that
denotes a lack of knowing who we are beyond the obvious. From where did we come into this world, and wence we go
when we die? What is the referent of “I?” What is emptiness? What comes and goes? Such questions we have read
about in books, but there are few of us who have not found them too unwieldy and broad to tackle.
Our actions, words, and thoughts are painted on a canvas, which we ignore just as an artist might his canvas as he
goes about his work. But, without the canvas, there would be no art, and we too, in similar fashion perform our
activities of body, speech and mind, without a thought of emptiness, which is the canvas of our lives. Nagarjuna, often
referred to as the “Second Buddha,” famously stated: “Because emptiness is possible, all things are possible. Without
emptiness, nothing is possible,” which illustrates this point.
There is no other way that I know of to get a deep conviction of the existence of emptiness than being in the presence
of one who has realized it. In their presence, we can sense that they know something we don’t know, and this
knowledge has the uncanny ability to awaken in us a sense of its presence, however slight that may be. It is a warmth
and love they radiate, born of emptiness, that make it seem approachable, and a goal to aspire for. All sutra texts
stress the importance of seeking out realized masters, and fortunately they are frequently traveling the world making
themselves available through teachings, initiations, and so forth. The Dalai lama, for example, teaches in the United
States and throughout the world regularly, as does Dzongzar Rinpoche, H H Karmapa, Ponlop Rinpoche, and other
great masters. Attending these teachings offers an incredible opportunity to imbibe their blessings and be inspired.
Not knowing is ignorance, knowing is enlightenment, and not knowing that we don’t know is just plain stupidity. When
Master Hsuan Hua saw us running about engaged in in monastic affairs, so eager to please the Master, even at the
expense of one of our fellow sangha members, wrapped up in selfish ambitions, missing the forest while focused on a
tree, he would be visibly frustrated and sympathetically say, “You are so stupid!” We couldn’t help but feel we were a
source of great frustration for him. Only one completely free of all attachments, views of self, and living in the
realization of emptiness, could be so confident in his vision. His simple four-word refrain meant a lot to us.
We may not all be stupid, but all of us are Ignorant. Eliminating Ignorance is the Path. Where Ignorance is present,
Enlightenment is on holiday, so we must try to keep its vacation time short, that is our responsibility to ourselves.
Once we form the intention to recognize our Ignorance, we begin to undermine it. It is up to each of us to take the first
step. This is the best way to honor ourselves and the dharma we practice.