Avidyā (Buddhism)

Translations of
Englishignorance, misconceptions
(Dev: अविद्या)
(Brah.: 𑀅𑀯𑀺𑀚𑁆𑀚𑀸)
(MLCTS: əweɪʔzà)
(Pinyin: wú míng)
Khmerអវិជ្ជា, អវិទ្យា
(UNGEGN: âvĭchchéa, âvĭtyéa)
Korean(Hangeul) 무명
(Hanja) 無明

(RR: mu myeong)
(Wylie: ma rig pa;
THL: ma rigpa
Vietnamesevô minh
Glossary of Buddhism

Avidyā (Sanskrit: अविद्या; Pali: 𑀅𑀯𑀺𑀚𑁆𑀚𑀸, romanized: avijjā; Tibetan phonetic: ma rigpa) in Buddhist literature is commonly translated as "ignorance".[1][2][3] The concept refers to ignorance or misconceptions about the nature of metaphysical reality, in particular about the impermanence and anatta doctrines about reality.[2][4][5] It is the root cause of Dukkha (suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness),[6] and asserted as the first link, in Buddhist phenomenology, of a process that leads to repeated birth.[7]

Avidyā is mentioned within the Buddhist teachings as ignorance or misunderstanding in various contexts:

  • Four Noble Truths[8]
  • The first link in the twelve links of dependent origination
  • One of the three poisons within the Mahayana Buddhist tradition
  • One of the six root kleshas within the Mahayana Abhidharma teachings
  • One of the ten fetters in the Theravada tradition
  • Equivalent to moha within the Theravada Abhidharma teachings

Within the context of the twelve links of dependent origination, avidya is typically symbolised by a person who is blind or wearing a blindfold.[citation needed]


Avidyā is a Vedic Sanskrit word, and is a compound of a- prefix and vidya, meaning "not vidya". The word vidya is derived from the Sanskrit root vid, which means "to see, to knowingly-see, to know".[9] Therefore, avidya means to "not see, not know". The vid*-related terms appear extensively in the Rigveda and other Vedas.[9]

In Vedic literature, avidya refers to "ignorance, spiritual ignorance, illusion"; in early Buddhist texts, states Monier-Williams, it means "ignorance with non-existence".[10]

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.[2][5][13] Avidya is not lack of information, states Peter Harvey, but a "more deep seated misperception of reality".[8] Gethin calls Avidya as 'positive misconception', not mere absence of knowledge.[14] It is a key concept in Buddhism, wherein Avidya about the nature of reality, rather than sin, is considered the basic root of Dukkha.[15] Removal of this Avidya leads to overcoming of Dukkha.[16]

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.[17] 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).[17] Incorrect knowledge is another form of Avidya, states Wayman.[17]


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'.

Samyutta Nikaya III.46[18]

In other contexts, Avidya includes not knowing or not understanding the nature of phenomena as impermanent, the Four Noble Truths,[8] other Buddhist doctrines, or the path to end suffering.[19][20] 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."[21] Not understanding the Four Noble Truths, or its implications, is also Avidya.[22]

In Buddhist traditions

Avidya appears as a major item of discussion in two doctrines about the nature of reality, in various Buddhist traditions.[23][24] 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.[25][26][27] The second relates to Anicca doctrine, that is ignorance or misconceptions about "permanence", when the nature of reality is impermanence.[28][29][30]


  The 12 Nidānas:  
Name & Form
Six Sense Bases
Old Age & Death

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.[31]


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).[32] However, compared to other Buddhist traditions, states Jens Braarvig, Avidyā is not so much emphasised, instead the emphasis on "construing an illusory reality" based on conceptualisation when the ultimate reality is Emptiness.[33]

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.[34]


The Vajrayana tradition considers ignorance as fetters of bondage into samsara, and its teachings have focused on a Tantric path under the guidance of a teacher, to remove Avidya and achieve liberation in a single lifetime.[35]

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.[36] 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).[36][37]

See also


  1. ^ Avidya can be defined on different levels; for example, it can be defined as a mis-perception of the nature of reality, or as not understanding the four noble truths. For example:
    • Jeffrey Hopkins states: "[Ignorance] isn't just an inability to apprehend the truth but an active misapprehension of the status of oneself and all other objects—one's own mind or body, other people, and so forth. It is the conception or assumption that phenomena exist in a far more concrete way than they actually do. Based on this misapprehension of the status of persons and things, we are drawn into afflictive desire (raga) and hatred (dvesha)..."[11]
    • Sonam Rinchen states: "Every action leaves its imprint on the mind, and later craving and grasping activate the imprint to bring about its result. Underlying this kind of action is our ignorance, namely our innate misconception of the self, the root of all our troubles.[12]


  1. ^ Keown 2013, p. 73.
  2. ^ a b c Trainor 2004, p. 74.
  3. ^ Robert Buswell & Donald Lopez 2013, pp. 1070.
  4. ^ Dan Lusthaus (2014). Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogacara Buddhism and the Ch'eng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge. pp. 533–534. ISBN 978-1-317-97342-3.
  5. ^ a b Conze 2013, pp. 39–40.
  6. ^ Robert Buswell & Donald Lopez 2013, p. 86.
  7. ^ David Webster (31 December 2004). The Philosophy of Desire in the Buddhist Pali Canon. Routledge. p. 206. ISBN 978-1-134-27941-8.
  8. ^ a b c Harvey 1990, p. 67.
  9. ^ a b Monier Monier-Williams (1872). A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. p. 918.
  10. ^ Monier Monier-Williams (1872). A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. p. 96.
  11. ^ Dalai Lama (1992), p. 4 (from the Introduction by Jeffrey Hopkins)
  12. ^ Sonam Rinchen (2006), p. 14.
  13. ^ Williams & Tribe 2000, pp. 66–67, Quote: From this perspective Not-Self and dependent origination together come to form the two pillars of the final gnosis (vidya) which is the antidote to ignorance (avidya)..
  14. ^ Gethin 1998, p. 150.
  15. ^ Harvey 1990, pp. 65–68.
  16. ^ Edelglass 2009, p. 171.
  17. ^ a b c Alex Wayman (1957). "The Meaning of Unwisdom (Avidya)". Philosophy East and West. 7 (1/2): 21–25. doi:10.2307/1396830. JSTOR 1396830.
  18. ^ Peter Harvey 2013, p. 40.
  19. ^ Johannes Bronkhorst (2009), Buddhist Teaching in India, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-861715667, pages 40-43
  20. ^ Peter Harvey 2013, pp. 5, 40, 134–137.
  21. ^ Sonam Rinchen (2006), p. 51.
  22. ^ Ajahn Sucitto (2010), Kindle Locations 1125-1132.
  23. ^ Winston L. King (2013). Buddhism and Christianity: Some Bridges of Understanding. Routledge. pp. 186–192. ISBN 978-1-134-56555-9.
  24. ^ Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa; Frank E. Reynolds; Theodore M. Ludwig (1980). Transitions and Transformations in the History of Religions: Essays in Honor of Joseph M. Kitagawa. BRILL Academic. pp. 56–58. ISBN 90-04-06112-6., Quote: Suffering describes the condition of samsaric (this worldly) existence that arises from actions generated by ignorance of anatta and anicca. The doctrines of no-self and impermanence are thus the keystones of dhammic order."
  25. ^ Gethin 1998, pp. 146–159, 243.
  26. ^ Harvey 1990, p. 72, 125-126, 144.
  27. ^ Ian Charles Harris (1991). The Continuity of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra in Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism. BRILL Academic. pp. 138–141. ISBN 90-04-09448-2.
  28. ^ Gethin 1998, pp. 73–75.
  29. ^ Harvey 1990, p. 68.
  30. ^ Ian Charles Harris (1991). The Continuity of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra in Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism. BRILL Academic. pp. 174–178. ISBN 90-04-09448-2.
  31. ^ A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha, Bhikkhu Bodhi (2003), p. 295
  32. ^ Bruno Petzold (1995). The Classification of Buddhism. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. pp. 259–260, 849. ISBN 978-3-447-03373-2.
  33. ^ Guttorm Fløistad (2012). Philosophie asiatique/Asian philosophy. Springer. p. 201. ISBN 978-94-011-2510-9.
  34. ^ Jay L. Garfield; William Edelglass (2011). The Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy. Oxford University Press. p. 288. ISBN 978-0-19-532899-8.
  35. ^ Trainor 2004, p. 162.
  36. ^ a b Peter Harvey (2015). Steven M. Emmanuel (ed.). A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 50–60. ISBN 978-1-119-14466-3.
  37. ^ F Harold Smith (2013). The Buddhist Way of Life: Its Philosophy and History. Routledge. pp. 37–38. ISBN 978-1-135-02929-6.


  • Robert Buswell; Donald Lopez (2013), Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, ISBN 9780691157863
  • Conze, Edward (2013), Buddhist Thought in India: Three Phases of Buddhist Philosophy, Routledge, ISBN 978-1-134-54231-4
  • Edelglass, William; et al. (2009), Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-532817-2
  • Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press
  • Harvey, Peter (1990), An Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press
  • Peter Harvey (2013), The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism, Routledge, ISBN 978-1-136-78329-6
  • Keown, Damien (2013). Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-966383-5.
  • Trainor, Kevin (2004), Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-517398-7
  • Williams, Paul; Tribe, Anthony (2000), Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition, Routledge, ISBN 0-415207010
  • Ajahn Sucitto (2010). Turning the Wheel of Truth: Commentary on the Buddha's First Teaching. Shambhala.
  • Bhikkhu Bodhi (2003), A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, Pariyatti Publishing
  • Chogyam Trungpa (1972). "Karma and Rebirth: The Twelve Nidanas, by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche." Karma and the Twelve Nidanas, A Sourcebook for the Shambhala School of Buddhist Studies. Vajradhatu Publications.
  • Dalai Lama (1992). The Meaning of Life, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Boston: Wisdom.
  • Mingyur Rinpoche (2007). The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness. Harmony. Kindle Edition.
  • Sonam Rinchen (2006). How Karma Works: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, Snow Lion.

Further reading

  • Avijjā and Āsava, Surendranath Dasgupta, 1940
  • Daniel Goleman: Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self Deception (1985) Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7475-3413-6
  • Avijja Sutta Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Preceded by Twelve Nidānas
Succeeded by
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