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 Bud