The Words of Dependent Arising: Ignorance

August 10th, 2012

This is the first in a series of articles in which I’d like to explore the language used in the ancient Pali texts to describe dependent origination (paṭicca samuppāda aka interdependence, dependent co-arising, and so on, with dependent arising being my preferred translation). Perhaps I’ll go on to look at a few other words, too, because many of our modern translations need to be reconsidered.

My intention is not to tell anyone what words they should use, but through writing these posts, to engage in a dialog with the larger community of Buddhist practitioners, and scholars, in whatever media they communicate, about what the Pali words actually mean, how they are similar to, or different from the words we use to translate them, and to consider the issues that make translating them such a problem. I am hoping that a light discussion of the Pali words, and their context, will also be interesting enough to those who enjoy reading the Buddhist texts to encourage more people to explore the words used, and the Pali language, via some of the fanastic tools that are freely available on the internet (see “Tools for Translations” on the Buddhist links page). Talking about the words particular to dependent arising should also be a useful way of clarifying what each of the links are about, and how they fit together — and the more ways we have of describing what’s being said, the broader the access to the insights, since different people have different approaches to learning.


In the classic 12-link description of dependent arising, the name of the first step is avijjā — which we English-speakers usually translate as “ignorance”. It has a long-a ending, in this case, because it is a feminine singular noun. The Pali English Dictionary (PED) gives us:

Avijjā (f.) [Sk. avidyā; fr. a + vid] ignorance; the main root of evil and of continual rebirth

which is clearly a definition that carries a pre-conception for what the whole of Buddhism is about — does Buddhism address evil? and, of course, there is the bare reference to “continual rebirth”.

The PED was published in the first half of the 1920s, and the vision of the founders of the Pali Text Society (PTS), who published it, was of a Buddhism that was suitable for post-Enlightenment intellectuals. Thomas W. Rhys Davids, the author of the PED, and founder of the PTS, was a great supporter of Buddhism and had a monumental effect on its spread to the West, but the language of spiritual explorers of his time (and the influence of the metaphysicists, like his wife Caroline) became embedded, via his dictionary, into the translations of the Pali suttas, which continues to this day. This is why nibbāna (which draws its meaning from the cooling of a fire) gets translated as “enlightenment”.

The word for ignorance breaks down into two basic parts, the prefix “a-” is a negation — in the Pali language a negation is most specifically not indicating “an opposite” but “an absence” of whatever it attaches itself to. In this case, the vijjā (also feminine singular) is “knowledge”, and ignorance is the absence of knowledge, so it’s a fitting translation of the word itself. The opposite of avijjā in the Pali texts is usually given as ñāṇa (wisdom — a neuter noun) probably because vijjā and its kin were in use to describe Vedic concepts of knowledge that the Buddha was denying were of any use. Knowledge alone is not the answer the Buddha went off seeking (though it is a key element), it takes understanding and insight leading to wisdom to end avijjā.

The roots of the word avijjā are shared with another term used in dependent arising, vedanā (which we’ll consider in a later post) and both are tied into the name of the ancient works the Brahmins relied on, the Vedas. They are both discussing knowledge.

The real problem with using the word “ignorance” to translate avijjā is no failure of the translation itself, but is a challenge that almost all the words used to name the links of dependent arising have in common: that when we speak simply of “ignorance” in our culture we mean something that is broad and encompasses all kinds of ignorance: ignorance of how to cook a souffle, of how to speak the language native only to an island on the other side of the world, and ignorance of the origin of the universe. Just plain “ignorance” covers all of these and more. But when the Buddha speaks of ignorance, he means a very specific sort of ignorance, and if someone is unaware of what he means, then if he says, “When ignorance ends, dukkha ends” we might take that to mean dukkha never ends because we will never get rid of all of our ignorance.

The problem I find with almost all the words I use in translation is realizing that while the word I choose might be a fairly good match for the literal meaning of the word in Pali, I am not able to find a way to efficiently express the degree of specific context that needs to be applied to a word to make what’s being said make sense. This is something that makes the Buddha a not-very-quotable person. Just about every significant word he uses comes with a very specific definition — and not always obvious ones, either — so he uses words and expects us to understand the context and limitations he’s put on them, and because of that we’ll understand that, when he rattles off a simple, catchy phrase like “End ignorance, end dukkha” we’ll get that it’s not as simple a statement as it seems at first glance.

How can this be conveyed, while staying faithful to his words?


In a few places, he defines ignorance as ignorance of the four noble truths — dukkha, the origin of dukkha, its cessation, the path to its cessation. Is he saying that most people don’t know they suffer? Or does this mean that once someone’s told us about dukkha and what its origin is (craving), and we can see that it would cease if we stop craving, and we can even follow what he’s saying about how his path might end craving and therefore end dukkha — does that mean we are no longer ignorant? and therefore we’ve defeated dependent arising? so now are we enlightened? errr.. liberated? is our fire cooled now? We’ve been educated about dukkha, is that all it takes?

Because I mentioned, above, that knowledge alone isn’t the opposite — or the cure — for ignorance (wisdom is) perhaps it’s clear that there’s more to ending ignorance than just gaining theoretical knowledge — we might guess that actual experience and insight and the wisdom that brings is the cure. But all that isn’t obvious in the bare words the Buddha uses in other discourses. At first glance we can think he’s saying one thing, but we need to keep in mind that he’s usually saying something much more complex. And it is our job — just as it was the job of disciples of all the gurus and rishis of his day — to decode those simple statements and figure out what they really mean.

The difficulty of making this clear to readers of the old suttas amazes me. And this isn’t the only challenge in doing translations. There are other ways in which our assumptions about how the world works is different from the understanding of people some 2,500 years ago, in the Buddha’s day. We don’t notice that how our society works, and how we see the world, is embedded in the way we speak; we don’t know that there is any other way of being or speaking. That people in those days expected their teachers to say things that could be read two ways — an obvious way, and a cryptic way — and that their job was to understand this and figure out what is really meant, is not part of our cultural approach; it’s not something we are going to get by instinct or even necessarily be comfortable with when we come to understand it. To us it may seem deceitful; to them it was normal, a given; it was just the way great masters talked. The cleverness of the way great speakers fit the pieces together doesn’t appeal to us — and doesn’t make up for our confusion. We resent having to work at it. But that’s our society — that’s a difference — and a prejudice of ours. It is hard for us to recognize that when the Buddha said one thing and meant another, that wasn’t “lying” or “being secretive” but was an accepted (and expected) style of speaking.1

There are other differences, too, between our society and theirs, that tend to complicate our understanding of what is being said, but those are other considerations for other days.

Next time we take on one of the toughest challenges to translators: saṅkhārā.




A. SN 12.2 (pts S ii 4) is one of the places where avijjā is described as not knowing dukkha, its origin, cessation, or the way leading to its cessation (i.e. not knowing the four noble truths).


B. In researching the term avijjā I found that it is used, as such, over 200 times in the Sutta Pitaka (the volumes that contain the discourses) as well as being part of many compounds. The compound I found most interesting is avijjamānaṃ which only appears once and gets translated in one readily-available online dictionary as “non-existing”. Since that could be a meaning linking to the Prajapati myth I took a closer look, and what I found was eye-opening for several reasons (but not the one I went looking for). The word seems to break down to avijja mānaṃ where mānaṃ means “measure” — so the word is actually “measured by ignorance”, which fits very well in the context where I found it, SN 36.4’s “Bottomless Abyss”. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation:

 “Bhikkhus, when the uninstructed worldling makes the statement, ‘In the great ocean there is a bottomless abyss,’ he makes such a statement about something that is nonexistent and unreal. This, bhikkhus, is rather a designation for painful bodily feelings, that is, ‘bottomless abyss.'” [The Connected Discourses of the Buddha p 1262]

The words being translated as “nonexistent and unreal” are “asantaṃ avijjamānaṃ“. The word asantaṃ also gets defined as “non-existing” (though it seems to be making reference to something that is absent due to having been ‘eaten up’ and to do with fear). But it seems to me avijjamānaṃ is better understood — and adds depth to what’s being said — if we keep it as “measured by ignorance” because it then tells us just how deep that bottomless abyss is, and why it is bottomless. A look at the two words tells me it’s not saying that the bottomless abyss is non-existent, but that it is bottomless because of our ignorance, and our fear.

For me, this is one of the great rewards of looking at the Pali that underlies our English translations. The Buddha’s use of language is specific, and often goes much deeper than our modern texts indicate.


1 I look at it as an intelligence test. If a listener can’t even begin to grasp that the teacher is talking on two levels — if someone can’t grasp the subtleties of metaphors and little riddles — they aren’t going to be very good at understanding the subtleties of the dharma, either. On the other hand, perhaps that’s my prejudice showing — maybe those who can’t do other than take words at literal, face value are just as smart as those who can, but in a different way.

One Response to “The Words of Dependent Arising: Ignorance”

  1. […] Just A Little Dust Suffering from a passion for words, and to understand what the Buddha taught, and why « The Words of Dependent Arising: Ignorance […]

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