Avidyā (Sanskrit; Pāli: avijjā; Tibetan phonetic: ma rigpa) in Buddhist literature is commonly translated as "ignorance". The concept refers to ignorance or misconceptions about the nature of metaphysical reality, in particular about the impermanence and non-self doctrines about reality. It is the root cause of Dukkha (suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness), and asserted as the first link, in Buddhist phenomenology, of a process that leads to repeated birth.
Avidyā is mentioned within the Buddhist teachings as ignorance or misunderstanding in various contexts:
Within the context of the twelve links of dependent origination, avidya is typically symbolized by a person who is blind or wearing a blindfold.
Avidyā is a Vedic Sanskrit word, and is a compound of a and vidya, meaning "not vidya". The word vidya is derived from the Sanskrit root vid, which means "to know, to perceive, to see, to understand". Therefore, avidya means to "not know". The vid*-related terms appear extensively in the Rigveda and other Vedas.
In Vedic literature, avidya refers to "ignorance, spiritual ignorance, illusion"; in early Buddhist texts, states Monier-Williams, it means "ignorance with non-existence".
The word is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *weid-, meaning "to see" or "to know". It is a cognate with the Latin verb vidēre ("to see") and English wit.
Avidya is explained in different ways or on different levels within different Buddhist teachings or traditions. On the most fundamental level, it is ignorance or misunderstanding of the nature of reality; [a] more specifically about the nature of not-Self and dependent origination doctrines. Avidya is not lack of information, states Peter Harvey, but a "more deep seated misperception of reality". Gethin calls Avidya as 'positive misconception', not mere absence of knowledge. It is a key concept in Buddhism, wherein Avidya about the nature of reality, rather than sin, is considered the basic root of Dukkha. Removal of this Avidya leads to overcoming of Dukkha.
While Avidyā found in Buddhism and other Indian philosophies is often translated as "ignorance", states Alex Wayman, this is a mistranslation because it means more than ignorance. He suggests the term "unwisdom" to be a better rendition. The term includes not only ignorance out of darkness, but also obscuration, misconceptions, mistaking illusion to be reality or impermanent to be permanent or suffering to be bliss or non-self to be self (delusions). Incorrect knowledge is another form of Avidya, states Wayman.
Monks, but when there is the attitude 'I am',
there there is descent of the
five sense-faculties of eye.... body.
Monks, there is the mind organ,
there are mental objects,
there is the element of knowledge;
monks, the uninstructed ordinary person,
touched by feeling,
born of stimulation by spiritual ignorance [Avijja],
thinks 'I am'.
In other contexts, avidya includes not knowing or not understanding the nature of phenomena as impermanent, the Four Noble Truths, other Buddhist doctrines, or the path to end suffering. Sonam Rinchen states Avidya in the context of the twelve links, that "[Ignorance] is the opposite of the understanding that the person or other phenomena lack intrinsic existence. Those who are affected by this ignorance create actions which precipitate them into further worldly existence." Not understanding the Four Noble Truths, or its implications, is also Avidya.
Avidya appears as a major item of discussion in two doctrines about the nature of reality, in various Buddhist traditions. One relates to the Anatta (Anatman) doctrine, that is ignorance or misconceptions about "Self", when in reality there is only non-Self according to Buddhism. The second relates to Anicca doctrine, that is ignorance or misconceptions about "permanence", when the nature of reality is impermanence.
Bhikkhu Bodhi states that Avidya is an important part of the Theravada Abhidharma teachings about dependent arising about conditions that sustain the wheel of birth and death. One such condition is the karmic formations that arise from ignorance. In other words, states Bodhi, ignorance (avijja) obscures "perception of the true nature of things just as a cataract obscures perception of visible objects". In the Suttanta literature, this ignorance refers to the non-knowledge of the Four Noble Truths. In the Abhidharma literature, in addition to the Four Noble Truths, it is the non-knowledge of one's 'past pre-natal lives' and 'post-mortem future lives' and of dependent arising.
The Mahayana tradition considers ignorance about the nature of reality and immemorial past lives to be a primordial force, which can only be broken through the insight of Emptiness (sunyata). However, compared to other Buddhist traditions, states Jens Braarvig, Avidyā is not so much emphasized, instead the emphasis on "construing an illusory reality" based on conceptualization when the ultimate reality is Emptiness.
Avidya is the greatest impurity and the primary cause of suffering, rebirth. The insight into Emptiness, state Garfield and Edelglass, that is the "lack of inherent nature of all phenomena, including the self, cuts the impurities", an insight into Emptiness yields full awakening.
The Vajrayana tradition considers ignorance as fetters of bondage into samsara, and its teachings have focussed on a Tantric path under the guidance of a teacher, to remove Avidya and achieve liberation in a single lifetime.
Avidyā is identified as the first of the twelve links of dependent origination (twelve nidanas)—a sequence of links that describe why a being reincarnates and remains bound within the samsara, a cycle of repeated births and deaths in six realms of existence. The twelve nidanas are an application of the Buddhist concept of pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination). This theory, presented in Samyutta Nikaya II.2–4 and Digha Nikaya II.55–63, asserts that rebirth, re-aging and re-death ultimately arise through a series of twelve links or nidanas ultimately rooted in Avidyā, and the twelfth step Jarāmaraṇa triggers the dependent origination of Avidyā, recreating an unending cycle of dukkha (suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness).
Avidya or ignorance can be eliminated directly by cultivating its opposite viz. Knowledge, wisdom and perception, where the above refer to the true knowledge and perception of reality. The various ways to remove Avidya is by learning from Guru/teacher who knows or from books and scriptures. Also Avidya can be removed through Meditation or more precisely practice of Dhyana and Yoga. Through practice of Dharma and righteousness Avidya gets removed. Unrighteous karma increases Ignorance while Ignorance perpetuates Adharma.