Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dumb and Dumber

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, scientists say, than dogs. But in traditional Tibetan 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, does not correspond to what we think of as an emotion, which involves a state of feeling. 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" content, such as jealousy and craving and hate; but it also includes states such as pride 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 kind of ignorance is a passive state.

But there is another kind of ignorance that is not a passive state, but a very active one -- and this 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 meaning may actually come closer, in many cases, to the meaning of the Sanskrit term "avidya" (which we usually translate as "ignorance"), and it helps us better understand how the state of ignorance may, 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 some aspect of reality -- to not-see it, to not-know it -- because reality 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 they point to a state of mind which is actively tuning out some aspect of reality that provokes discomfort.

Consider, for example, the way we live in denial and fear of death. In modern Western society, we squirm at the very mention of death (we feel that to talk about such things is "morbid"), and we go to great lengths to keep it 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, because they give us a "safe" way to engage with the images of death without really letting in the knowledge that it's going to happen to us.

But "denial," as they say in 12-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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