Unskillful Action: Cultivating Ignorance

The cause of all pain and suffering is ignorance.
Gautama Buddha

I have been thinking of this lately. About how many of us suffer but we do not know why we suffer, we are ignorant to the real causes and conditions of our suffering.  I have also been thinking of a different kind of ignorance.   It’s funny the things that bring other things more in focus. It was the simple reflection on the sound of the word itself. Mouthing out the word slow, by its syllables, I realized a simple thing, the word Ignore is at the heart of ignorance.

The word ignorance in English is passive, “a lack of knowledge, information or experience.” This kind of ignorance refers more to how we don’t realize our reality is not reality, or that there is no abiding self.  We are ignorant to the inherent emptiness of all things. This kind of ignorance can be as simple as never having heard of the Four Ennobling truths, or a guy name Siddhartha.   But the ignorance I have been thinking of the more active form which takes its energy from the verb; to ignore. This is different from the other ignorance since this ignorance is not passive. One who ignores is one who, “refuse to take notice of or acknowledge; to disregard intentionally.” This active ignorance is different from cultivating a not knowing mindset,  which can be a powerful practice of freeing ourselves of fixed ideas. It is a kind of active, ego preserving ignorance that I have been thinking about.  I was thinking of this because of something I read recently in a book titled, Awakening from the Daydream by David Nichtern, a book about the Buddhist Wheel of life.

In the Buddhist Wheel of life there are the six realms of existence at the hub of the wheel is ignorance; both passive and active.  The more active ignorance is the core aspect, the core mindset found in the Animal realm.  As Chogyam Trungpa’s writes, “The animal realm is associated wit stupidity: that is preferring to play deaf and dumb, preferring to follow the rules of available games rather than re-define them. ” Here we are “ignore” information that would require us to change. We do that alot.  Trungpa goes on to say, [we] completely ignore such possibilities. If somebody attacks you or challenges your clumsiness, your unskilled way of handling a situation, you find a way of justifying yourself, find rational to keep your self-respect. You are not concerned with being truthful as long as your deception can be maintained in front of others.

This is an active ignorance.  But this type of cultivation doesn’t just happen in the animal realm of being but, according to Nichtern,  is also found in the other realms, especially when looked at through the lens of our everyday experience. How does ignorance play out even when we find ourselves in what could be considered one of the god realms? Let’s look at it from an everyday mindset perspective.
For us Westerners, it could be said we live in both of the god realms, we are dancing between them from moment to moment, generation to generation. Most of the things we want we can go to the story a select from 12 different kinds and get immediate satisfaction. We live at a level of wealth and prosperity that most of the world can only dream of. We consider all of this not a gift but a “right”, I have earned this. Traditionally, those in the god realm find themselves there because of good karma and from a small perspective we could think that they have “earned” the right to be there. We do that.  Many Americans see our country, or “way of life” as proof of our social virtue, as if we are somehow special and “exceptional” and deserve our prosperity. And that is not just socially constructed but has seeped into religious thinking, think of the popularity of the “gospel of prosperity” taught in some churches. Far from the homeless, communalist, and agitator that was Jesus.

Being in a god realm frame of mind, we like it, we want to stay in it, we want to freely enjoy it, we don’t want to think of consequences, or it ending, of how it affects others, etc. As Nichtern writes,

“we have to cultivate a certain kind of ignorance, actively ignoring any aspect of our experience that is unsettling or disruptive in mood. “

This is very true when we are faced with our impact on the planet as westerners. It is also true that the cost has been more felt by the poorer nations where we get the raw materials from. Those is the god realm mindset, “cultivate ignorance” by denying global warming, by buying cheap products and ignore the fact that they are produced by child labor or that the children making our jeans work in dangerous and toxic environments. This is also true in the Jealous god realm mindset, where we want what the ‘gods of finance” have and we don’t care if we have to get rich on the backs of others so we can live the high life, live in the realm of the gods above us. We cultivate an ignorance of the other and the suffering, anything that can get in our way of achievement. Maybe the election of 2016 was symptom of living in the jealous god realm too long. Some forms of Ignorance are not passive but active. We want we have and don’t want to lose it. That being said, how are you in your own life cultivating ignorance?  I think in a real way, the reason we are trapped in the endless wandering of samsara is because we are continually cultivating the opposite of  awareness. Each time we turn aways from the teachings that sing to us everyday, when we refuse to see ourselves reflected in the faces of others, when we refuse to open up, or accept things as they are, when we feed every self-justification and machination to get or keep that insubstantial thing that is desperately hoped will give final satisfaction and security, we cultivate ignorance and perpetuate our suffering.

As I look at my life, I realize how much I have cultivated ignorance. I have ignored things that looked me straight in face, and were so close I could feel their breath on my skin…a failing marriage, smoking, a drinking problem, childhood wounding, the fact that what I was doing was re-wounding myself and others. This was true when I spent days or years in the mindset of the Animal realm, I chose not to see but to seek after the distraction of sex or alcohol. Sometimes I think my television watching and Facebook scrolling is how I still cultivate ignorance. Doing so has only given me a first class ticket to spend sometime in the arid environs of the Hungry Ghost realm, or subway ticket to the cold and hot Hell realms of the world’s injustice perpetrated against me. Even with all the Buddhas that were always there waiting for me,  I chose darkness over light, I cultivated ignorance, gloried in it.  But the compassionate light of the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas found me. It was the clanking of the six ringed staff (representing the six realms) of Jizo that finally woke me up. …. and still, at times I find myself cultivating ignorance. I don’t want to do this anymore.  As Dogen taught, I am going to seek to know myself to forget myself to be awakened by a myriad of things.

Now my aspiration, my vow is to be like Haya Akegarasu, to dispel ignorance by heeding what he wrote in Shout of Buddha,

“Don’t pass by things you don’t understand as though you didn’t see them at all…. want to see everything.. want to see through the bottom of things,…want to touch everything, to taste everything, to transcend, to enlighten, to embrace everything.”

Yes! I want to embrace everything. Let us free ourselves of ignorance by opening our eyes, our minds and our hearts to everything, having the courage to look into the heart of life, to look into the darkness, to look into the light and not turn away from any of it, to no longer cultivate ignorance and by not doing so wake up.