May 8, 2009

Attaining Ignorance: knowledge, dependent origination, and humility in life

One primary aim of many religious traditions and spiritual disciplines is the acquisition of knowledge. Emphasis is often placed on gnosis of the supreme will or power of the universe, and coming to know the omnipresence of the creative force. Here the structure of Buddhism diverges and the search for knowledge becomes a search for ignorance. Not to say that Buddhists are trying to get stupid, rather they are trying to uncover a fundamental flaw of human perception. The search for ignorance is not a journey towards the understanding of basic naiveté, bigotry, or unworldly-ness, but instead an attempt to apprehend basic misconceptions surrounding independent, continuous realities such as the self, the soul, or God. Ignorance is the originating component in the chain of dependent origination, a model from Buddhism to describe the manifestation of all conditioned reality (i.e. the living universe). The chain goes like this: ignorance leads to – formations (sanskaras: lit. “occurrence/phenomena makers”), formations in turn lead to – consciousness which brings about – mind/name & form which functions through the – five senses that perceive – sensation which comes into – contact with phenomena which leads to – desire which produces – attachment that in turn facilitates the process of – becoming which results in – birthold age and death. This chain is said to unfold across lifetimes as well as constantly within a single life.

Contemplating dependent origination it becomes clear that the realization of foundational ignorance is an immense undertaking. Most of us live our lives with the middle realm of the chain between the five senses and attachment. For the most part we are not taught to recognize the process of becoming, we have no recollection of our various births (either as the stages of life or the biological process), and we are encouraged to shun all thoughts of old age and certainly death. The latter being a complete anathema to the palate of modern societies. How should one conceive a vast misconception below the level of consciousness, below the structural level of our existence (the composite level of sanskaras)? It seems the realization of ignorance must be a step beyond consciousness, only occurring when the grasping of self and related objects has ceased. Such a place is beyond the probing of the intellect and would be like hearing the soul whispering out to maintain its existence, to deny the utter silence surrounding.

One can easily become vain and generate a powerful sense of self-importance in the quest for knowledge. It is easy to loss composure and profess with superiority that ones life path is true connection with God, the absolute, or to attain the complete knowledge of emptiness. But to look for the place where we have become lost and separated, requires diligence and unshakable humility. Rooting out flawed concepts at the base level of ones existence is not a process reserved for Buddhists or even religious people generally, it is simply an activity produced by the yearning to understand alienation from everything we define as other. Regardless of spiritual inclinations if more of us were inclined to question the foundation of the common perception of separate entities and thereby transform our world view to see inseparable and dependent relationships amongst all forms of life, we might live in a saner more compassionate world.

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