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Dumb and Dumber

Take a 2,600-year-old spiritual tradition from Asia and drop it into the blender of postmodern American consumer culture. Add science and multiculturalism to taste, and mix at Internet speed. This is 21st-Century Buddhism -- a weekly blog for the Interdependence Project. In this space, I'll talk about the issues that Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners face in our time and our place. I'll also bring in occasional posts from other guest bloggers who are contemplating these issues. If you have something to say, write to me at dhblogfeedback (at) gmail (dot) com.

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Episode 13:

Dumb and Dumber

This completes a trilogy of posts on the Three Poisons. See also "Lust in the Dust" and "The Upside of Anger."

Pigs get a bad rap in Buddhism. We know today, from laboratory studies and barnyard anecdotes, that pigs are among the most intelligent animals -- more intelligent, some people say, than dogs. But in Vajrayana Buddhist iconography, pigs are vilified as the symbol of ignorance. The famous depiction of the Wheel of Life illustrates how we get stuck in the cycle of suffering and in various hardened mind-states as a result of habitually indulging and acting out on our own afflictive emotions (kleshas, in Sanskrit). At the spinning hub of the Wheel itself we see the three main causes of our suffering, known as the Three Poisons -- ignorance, aggression and craving -- symbolized, respectively, by a pig, a snake, and a rooster.

Ignorance, or delusion, is regarded in Buddhism as the primary or root affliction, the one that underlies all the others: because we are deluded about the true nature of things, we fumble our way through life, making fatal mistakes and bringing all kinds of ruin and suffering upon ourselves and others.

As Westerners, it may seem strange to us that Buddhist psychology regards ignorance as a klesha, or an afflictive emotion, in the first place. A state of ignorance, or not knowing, doesn't correspond to what we think of as an "emotion," which connotes a feeling tone. The confusion here stems from a dissonance between the way we use both words -- ignorance and emotion -- in a traditional Buddhist context versus a contemporary Western psychological context.

In Buddhism, the term "emotion" or "afflictive emotion" (klesha) refers to any mental state that disturbs and agitates the mind, obscuring our ability to see reality clearly and leading us (most often) to act unskillfully. This includes states that are obviously charged with what we think of as "emotive" feeling tone, such as jealousy and craving and hate; but it also includes states such as arrogance and ignorance, which may seem to us to be less "emotive" but which nevertheless disturb and agitate the mind's natural clarity and openness.

The term "ignorance" also has to carry part of the blame. In English, "ignorance" seems to imply a state of being simply dumb about things: a mere lack of knowledge that could stem either from an innate stupidity that prevents one from understanding the nature of reality, or from the fact that no one who does understand the nature of reality has ever bothered to explain it to you and, therefore, how could you know? This first type of ignorance is a passive state.

But there is a second type of ignorance that is not a passive state, but a very active one. Active ignorance is willfully ignoring the truth because the truth is not convenient or comfortable. This kind of ignorance is a basic state of denial or resistance towards the way things are that is rooted in our aversion to discomfort. We see only what we want to see, and hear only what we want to hear, in order to avoid the feeling of groundlessness or uncertainty that would arise if we allowed ourselves to take in the full truth of how things really are. This may actually come closer, in many cases, to the meaning of the Sanskrit term avidya (usually translated as "ignorance"). It also helps us better see how ignorance can, in fact, be charged with "emotive" content just as much as the other kleshas.

Avidya comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *weid- meaning "to see" or "to know," and brings us our English word "wit." When we choose to ignore the truth -- to not-see it, to not-know it -- because the truth is inconvenient, we dim our own wits, proceeding from dumb to dumber. From this perspective, "ignoring" or "denial" might often be a better translation for "avidya" than "ignorance," because those words point to a state of mind that is actively tuning out some aspect of reality that provokes discomfort.

To illustrate this, consider the way most of us live in denial and fear of death. In modern Western society, people start to squirm at the very mention of death. We feel that to talk about such things unnecessarily is "morbid," and we go to great lengths to keep death out of sight and out of mind as much as possible. Intellectually we all know we're going to die at some point, and that death could come at any time from any number of unforeseen causes -- but emotionally we don't behave as if we really believed in these facts. When death does come, for us or for our loved ones, we often act so surprised. At the same time, because our general awareness of death is being suppressed, we are secretly fascinated by it. We devour murder mysteries and slasher films and vampire and zombie novels, perhaps in part because they give us a "safe" way to engage with images of death without really letting in the knowledge that it's going to happen to us.

But "denial," as they say in Twelve-Step groups, "is not a river in Egypt." Our ongoing, willful act of ignoring the fact of our own inevitable death and the uncertainty of when it will happen -- the effort to keep this threatening knowledge out of sight and out of mind as much as possible -- does nothing to change the reality. All it accomplishes is to keep us in a state of ignorance, which botches our attempts to live authentically and happily in this turbulent realm. And it isn't because we're too dumb to realize the truth or because no one has bothered to explain it to us, but simply because we don't want to see it.  

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