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Ignorance, Third of Three Poisons in Buddhism

I would like to continue my discussion of the three poisons by discussing the third of the poisons, ignorance.

The Chinese characters for how ignorance is described is quite interesting. In Japanese, the Buddhist term for ignorance is “mumyo,” and it consists of two Chinese characters. The first character, “mu 無” means “there is no,” or, “it doesn’t exist, and the second character, “myo 明” means “clear, bright, radiant.” So, when you put those two characters together 無明, it means, “there is no clarity, no radiance, no brightness.” It is a very descriptive way of explaining ignorance. When you are in ignorance, there is no light, no radiance, only darkness.

How do we feel when we are in the dark? Have you ever had the power go out in your house and you are in pitch black trying to find your way around? You stumble over the sofa, or bump into the table, or trip over the shoes you left on the floor, all because you couldn’t see them in the dark.

Buddhism is saying to us that our life, as an un-awakened, un-enlightened being, is to live as if we are stumbling around in the dark. We don’t know which way to turn. We run into all kinds of things. A life of ignorance is to have all kinds of things become obstacles in our life, like floundering around in the dark. We don’t know which way to turn, which way to go. We go left, we go right, but every direction is dark. We cause ourselves and others all kinds of pain because we can’t see where we are going. That is ignorance.

Ignorance is also not referring to education, like failing on a test or having a low IQ. You could be brilliantly smart, and still ignorant in a Buddhist sense. In the same manner, you could have very little education and you could have true wisdom, the opposite of ignorance.

Ignorance means to not see clearly, to not see reality, because we lack light, we lack wisdom. What we can see of the world is filtered through our self-centered viewpoint, like looking at the world through sunglasses.

Because we lack wisdom and cannot see things clearly, it leads to anger, or greed, which in turn creates more ignorance, more greed, more anger, and we are caught in a vicious cycle of self-created suffering.

Buddhist art depicts this quite strikingly. It shows three animals each biting each other’s tail. The three animals are a rooster, a pig, and a snake. The pig represents ignorance, the rooster represents greed, and the snake represents anger. This image shows how each poison perpetuates each other.

I find the best example of these three poisons being present all at once is the example of gambling in Las Vegas. Have you ever had the experience of playing a slot machine for a long time, trying to hit the big jackpot, but it just never hits. Finally, you give up and walk away, but as you walk away, you look back at that machine you were playing. Up walks a little old lady and on the first pull, “Cha-ching!” She hits the big jackpot.

You think to yourself, “That lady hit my jackpot!” Now you are greedy, angry, and stupid all at the same time. I often tell people that at least a couple of times a year, I have to go to Las Vegas to really experience Buddhism. It is the best place to experience the three poisons. To show how even more ignorant we are, on the drive home after a losing trip to Las Vegas, I am already thinking about the next time that I can go back again.

Greed, anger, and ignorance, like drinking poison, can destroy our good life. How do we deal with these powerful emotions? Are we destined to be victims of them forever?

I think that we could say that “seeing is everything.” We have to see them within ourselves. We have to see how we become victims of them. Now, having seen them, we move towards transcending them. They never totally go away, because that is our nature as human beings, but by seeing them deeply, in light of the Dharma, we transcend them.


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