“Ignorant” isn’t quite the insult that our society considers it to be. Ignorance isn’t stupidity; it’s a lack of knowledge about a given subject.
Even the smartest and most educated among us are ignorant about many things. I am ignorant about brain surgery, knitting, how to grow pineapples, the rules of Cricket, and how to build a pipe organ… among other things.
Due to the massive amount of information available to us today, combined with the limitations of the human brain, it’s a given that we’re all ignorant when it comes to perhaps millions of topics. And if we wish to become an expert at something, the depth we pursue in a single area further diminishes what we might learn about other topics.
Being ignorant isn’t a bad thing; it’s completely normal — and totally unavoidable.
So why do we think of it as an insult?
That rather large word refers to one who expresses opinions on matters outside the scope of his/her knowledge or expertise. You may have never heard that word before, but ultracrepidarians are more common than ants at a picnic. From less-important things like a sports fan judging a referee for missing “an easy call” to politics where people who aren’t economists think fixing economic problems is simple, people love to express their opinions; the actual knowledge required to validate said opinions is generally considered optional.
Why is this? For one thing, we don’t want to appear ignorant! As if, somehow, we should all know all the things, those who appear not to know all the things fear being judged as inferior.
Ignorance in Buddhism
In Buddhism, “ignorance” is called Avidyā or Avijjā, and it refers to “ignorance or misconceptions about the nature of metaphysical reality.” It is in no way meant to be judgemental. If you go to the doctor with flu symptoms and the doctor informs you that you do in fact have the flu, are you being judged? No, you’re being diagnosed with a problem, something that all humans have at one time or another, as a means to the end of helping you feel better.
Of the core teachings of Theravada Buddhism, there are two in particular about which we must overcome our ignorance in order to “feel better.”
All things are in a constant state of change.
Have you heard of the First Law of Thermodynamics? It’s entropy, and it’s the scientifically verifiable concept that everything tends toward disorder. If you pile a bunch of carpet, two-by-fours, and electrical wires in a vacant lot, they won’t turn into a house, but if you leave a house sitting unattended or repaired for a few years, it will most definitely start to fall apart.
There is no physical thing, no emotional state, no agreement, no philosophy, and no governing body that is immune to this principle.
You might say that you know this, but in Buddhism, we believe that to intellectually have knowledge of something is different from having internalized the concept. It is a goal of the serious Buddhist to arrive at a point where certain concepts become a foundational element of his/her way of thinking; his or her worldview.
You, too, are constantly changing, whether you realized it or not.
Some belief systems (themselves constantly changing) hold to the idea that there’s an unchanging, eternal aspect of each person (a “soul” by some definitions) but that, to the Buddhist, is unrealistic.
I personally am very different from who I was at age five, age seventeen, or even age thirty or forty. Which of those “me” is the permanent one? In the first twenty years of my life, I held to a specific religion and voted almost exclusively with a specific American political party; by the time I was forty, I voted almost exclusively for the opposing party and defined myself as agnostic. Which “me” is the everlasting one?
The idea of “no-self” in Buddhism goes more deeply, though. It says that our sense of self is made up of a narrative in our heads, an imperfect set of memories of past events and experiences. What if you developed amnesia and could remember nothing of your past? You might still like vanilla ice cream and sushi (although you wouldn’t know until you tried them – again) but that would be because you have the same physical taste buds (which also change over time). If you couldn’t remember what you do for a living, who your parents were, where you grew up… what would you consider to be “you”? Your body changes constantly and will eventually die. What’s left?
If you’re feeling that my message is grim and depressing, that would be understandable. “Me” is that one thing that we think of as a constant even if we don’t feel that anything around us is.
But “me” is the root of a great many problems, both for us as individuals and for the world at large. It is “me” that gets his pride hurt, “me” that gets angry and says things that he regrets, “me” that experiences envy, “me” that deserves this thing or that job, and “me” that is willing to let others suffer so that I can have more.
This “me” over which we’re willing to cause hurt to others, who will willfully refuse to hear the things that might dispel some of our ignorance… is just a story in our heads. And even if Buddhism is wrong about some of the metaphysical aspects of the self, thinking about the self like a Buddhist sure could save humanity a lot of headaches.
Don’t take my word for it
Buddhism isn’t about having someone like me tell you what to think.
If you’d like to learn more about these concepts, then meditate on them. Read and re-read these words – not because they’re all that great but because they’re here. Let them sink in. Spend time with these thoughts and give them a chance to be heard inside your head without the bias you may have felt upon first reading.
Decide for yourself if they are true, and if they are not true for you, then that is how it is supposed to be at this moment.
As always, please feel free to reach out to me if you have questions or would like to speak with someone.