Oakville Zen Meditation

#417 Ignorance What is it? A Zen perspective Oct 24th, 2022

                 Dharma:  What is Ignorance?   A Zen perspective          

There is a difference between ignorance in the common sense of the word and the Zen Buddhist meaning of the word.

In the common sense of the word, ignorance is being unaware, lacking in general knowledge or understanding. This common kind of ignorance, when applied to others, makes them different from yo and I such as different races, different cultures, different sexual orientations, and different abilities can lead to division, derision, hate, and violence.  On the opposite, people, ignorant of our ignorance imagine that the problem rests within you and me. They perceive you and me differently.

In the Zen Buddhist the sense of the word, rather than a general lack of knowledge, ignorance

means false understandings and awareness that is 1) a false sense of self. 2) a false sense of our surrounding factual realities of the moment

The first ignorance is specific, that is a false sense of self:

We wrongly imagine that we are unique, separate, independent, intrinsic, indispensable

self-entity, and self-sustained living beings making us different from everything else.

Zen Buddhism teaches that this misunderstanding of self which is a sense of a separate, independent self, is causing our suffering, struggle, and many other negative feelings.

We are all interconnected, and cannot survive physically, and emotionally as a separate, independent entity as Thich Nat Hanh used to repeat.

This misperception of self is one of the three poisons, along with desire, (I want) and dislike (I don’t want) that afflict us all the time.

In my med school intro psychology class, we were asked to do a simple and crazy psychological experiment on ourselves. The professor told us to be aware of the saliva in our mouths and then to swallow it. No problem. Then we were asked to imagine spitting that saliva into a sterile glass and drinking it. Disgusting. The spit that was part of us, became spit that was separate from us and suddenly became repulsive.

This misconception of self is also the source of separation and potential issues between me and others because I perceive others differently from me. Obviously, we are all different in many areas such as genetic, socio-professional status, sexual orientation, belief, behavior, etc…but, again, we are interconnected by sharing the same environment which is keeping us alive.

As the spit experiment demonstrates, we can have dramatically different reactions to the same thing and to others depending on our sense of difference and separation from them.  

Setting ourselves apart from others different could lead to hate, intolerance, and violence in the world.

2) The second ignorance is general that is not being aware of the surrounding factual reality of the moment:

The other main cause of our “ignorance” is not being aware of our surrounding factual realities

existing in the present moment. Apart from rare focusing moments such as work, we are in a constant fictional and dreaming state made of zillions of thoughts in various spacetimes

(~ 100,000 thoughts /day). We are “day sleepwalkers in our mind-made virtual world” as Zen says rather than being mindful of our present surrounding realities because our restless mind is always running in many different spacetimes and does not like the current moment.

Having thoughts is obviously necessary, but believing in all of them can be dangerous.


People are different from each other like we are different from the rocks and trees of the planet.

But, as human beings, and unlike the rocks and trees, we suffer from our general ignorance of surrounding realities and specific misunderstanding of ourselves.

We don’t have to be Zen Buddhist to practice awareness of the 3 causes of our suffering i.e.

Desire- hatred, Ignorance, and dealing with it in practicing loving-kindness for ourselves and others.

With enough awareness and acceptance of differences, we could uproot our ignorance, see the world from each other’s point of view, and create peace.

We are one in our desire for personal, interpersonal, and world peace.  Thanks