How Did Ignorance Arise?

While rebirth occurs gradually
from life to life,
rebirth occurs swiftly
from moment to moment too.

– Ignoramusan

In the 12 links of dependent origination (十二因缘) which explain how rebirth occurs, ignorance (无明) is the root cause. How did it first arise? Well, as the links operate cyclically, each link is conditioned by the previous. As such, ignorance was conditioned by ‘ageing and death’ (老死) in the past life. Since all 12 links operate interdependently, ignorance was surely present in the past life within ageing and death too, before spilling over into the present life. Ignorance thus re-arises dependently and continually. Not yet transformed into wisdom adequate for liberation, it re-enables rebirth, ageing, sickness and death.

Since the links are cyclical, there is no first cause of ignorance – just as there is no first point on a circle. Although ignorance is beginningless, it can be ended by transforming it into wisdom. As an example, although there is no starting point on a rubber band, it can be cut. No longer being a rubber band then, its binding function is entirely destroyed. In the same way, when ignorance is cut, the cycle of 12 links is broken and liberation is attained.

If ignorance is beginningless, the cycle is beginningless too. It is due to ignorance itself that we insist there must be a beginning. If we can accept that day and night, the four seasons, the Big Bang and Big Crunch… being cyclical, there is no reason to think ignorance must be non-cyclical. In fact, a linear explanation makes no sense at all in comparison. If ignorance had a beginning, it begs the question of which ignorant person made it arise, thus still not answering how that ignorance arose.

We are like gold ore, with gold mixed with impurities, thus needing refinement for pure gold to be extracted. Being with impurities represents being with ignorance (which gives rise to greed and hatred, collectively called the Three Poisons). Attainment of refined gold represents attainment of enlightenment. We need to cultivate wisdom to purge ignorance as we are not pure in first place, though always with the potential to be pure. Just as gold ore occurs in nature naturally, we too are the way we are naturally.

While redeath occurs gradually
from life to life,
redeath occurs swiftly
from moment to moment too.

– Ignoramusan

Related Articles:

Refining Gold
How Did We Fall?

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