Making friends with the word ‘ignorance’

A good way to contemplate the natural freedom of the mind, which I wrote about in last two posts, is to reflect on what keeps us from being free. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche recounts the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful description of the Buddha’s enlightenment:

Gautama felt as though a prison which had confined him for thousands of lifetimes had broken open. Ignorance had been the jailkeeper. Because of ignorance, his mind had been obscured, just like the moon and stars hidden by the storm clouds. Clouded by endless waves of deluded thoughts, the mind had falsely divided reality into subject and object, self and others, existence and non-existence, birth and death, and from these discriminations arose wrong views–the prisons of feelings, craving, grasping, and becoming. The suffering of birth, old age, sickness, and death only made the prison walls thicker. The only thing to do was to seize the jailkeeper and see his true face. The jailkeeper was ignorance. . . .  Once the jailkeeper was gone, the jail would disappear and never be rebuilt again. (p. 57)”

It is often said in the teachings that our main problem is ignorance. Sometimes, I find this difficult to take in. In the English language, the word ‘ignorance’ is quite a heavy word and has a strong judgmental connotation. I almost equate being called ignorant with being called stupid! Woe is me! Worthless, ignorant, stupid creature! Whereas in Tibetan the word for ignorance is Marigpa. My teachers have explained that it simply means ‘not seeing,’ and refers to not being able to see one’s true nature. It is contrasted with the word Rigpa, ‘pure awareness or seeing,’ which refers to realizing the true nature of one’s mind.  Sogyal Rinpoche writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:

“So from the point of view of the ground —the absolute— our nature is the same as the buddhas’, … Yet, we have to understand, the buddhas took one path and we took another. The buddhas recognize their original nature and become enlightened; we do not recognize our true nature and so become confused. In the teachings, this state of affairs is called ‘One Ground, Two Paths.’”  (p. 155)

I find this way of presenting ignorance much more helpful. It emphasizes my goodness, my buddha nature, and explains ‘ignorance’ as simply not being able to see this wonderful amazing nature of mine.

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