Seeing for Ourselves: Ignorance and the Obscurations

By Rob Nairn

We have been observing the mind and seeing how intention is overridden; how we form an intention to focus on the meditation support and how another force then overrides it. We do the exercise so that we truly understand that there are different forces operating in our minds and the one that is strongest is non-rational. The non-rational has the power to overwhelm the rational. This understanding is not theoretical; it arises from the direct observation of our own experience. This is important because it is through direct understanding that we free the mind. We don't have to struggle and fight to try and figure things out, we free the mind through a very simple systematic method of observing and learning from this direct observation. We are then able to recognise how the mind sustains patterns of distraction. Until we do this we will not be able to free our minds from grasping. The first step is seeing where we get caught up and then understanding exactly how it happens.

We are able to see that we form the intention to rest with the meditation support and that the mind drifts away. But we do not see how or why that inner force causes this to happen. We are able to name something about it. We can say it is habit or conditioned reflex or whatever, but as to the actual moment when that energy takes control, we don't understand. Or do we? Because we don't see it happening! Why don't we see it happening?

Students: Too quick? Subliminal?
It's too quick, it's subliminal, and our mindfulness is not strong enough to detect or reveal it. It is as simple as that. If our mindfulness is weak we miss a huge amount of what is taking place. As mindfulness strengthens much of this subliminal activity becomes revealed. We begin to see what has been going on all the time. What this tells us is that mindfulness as it develops is like a light that comes on. It sheds light on inner process and dispels the unknowing. At the moment there are large areas about ourselves that we don't know about so we can call it unknowing. When we begin to observe the subliminal activity, it is like a light going on because these areas are revealed. This seeing is the dispelling of ignorance. The inherent understanding or knowledge has always been there - the experience of enlightenment is actually part of us at this moment, but it hasn't manifested because we are trapped in the obscurations. These are mind states that obscure the true condition - the enlightened condition. If it were not for the obscurations we would be enlightened, but because of them we are not enlightened. The obscurations are rooted in ignorance, and the exercise exposes the direct incessant manifestation of ignorance, in our instant, to instant experience.


By teaching the twelve links the Buddha revealed the progressive process whereby we became trapped. In these teachings He gives us the broader picture within which to understand the process of coming into existence, adopting the perspectives of relative and absolute truth.


Until we understand relative and absolute we do not understand Buddhist World view. Why is World view either important or valuable? It gives the context within which to make some sort of temporary sense of whatever is happening to us. It gives us a reference point. It is very interesting - over the years I have watched people who do not have a World view. When something goes wrong in their lives, they often fall apart because there is no container within which they can be held. If they do have a world view, even if it's a partial or an inadequate one, they have some reference point to which they can turn to help them orient in a time of confusion. Hopefully, the Buddhist World view is one which enables us to move from the confusion of the relative world into the experience of the absolute. It does this because it gives us a way of discovering that everything we need is already within us.
What that means is the enlightened mind is, and has always been present, and curiously enough, being experienced. We are experiencing the enlightened mind at this moment, but due to the obscurations we are not recognising it for what it is. Equally, we are not recognising ourselves for what we are therefore we get stuck in the relative, which is the world of illusion, the world of the twelve links, the mind poisons and the six realms. That is the relative and that is what the Buddha called 'samsara'. Tai Situ Rinpoche took it one step further and said "samsara means going round in circles". So we are going round in circles simply because we do not recognise and therefore do not understand the nature of our experience.

Some years ago, I read a story in an Indian newspaper about a pack of wolves that had been discovered near some village and one of the wolves was a boy, a boy of about twelve. It was a real Romulus and Remus story. Apparently this boy's parents had died and the wolves had brought him up. He had been nurtured by a wolf and grown up as a wolf, and the pack accepted him and he ran like a wolf and had his station in the pack. He obviously thought he was a wolf. He would probably have taken it further and said he knew he was a wolf. Even though physically he was obviously not a wolf he had apparently not recognised this fact and he had never been in a situation where anybody had been able to say to him "Actually you are human". So, as far as he was concerned he was a wolf. That is what the mind can do when it is not presented with the reality of a situation, and the Buddha said this is what has happened to us. We think we are unenlightened. We are running around in samsara because we don't know otherwise. The process began at some point where we bought into ignorance. And this is the nature of ignorance. It is used to define the situation where we have misunderstood the way things really are.


We have misunderstood the nature of our existence and that misunderstanding has taken the form of buying into the idea that there is a separate egocentric entity. When we are egocentric we develop a sense of there being a permanent fixed entity which endures through space and time - a fixed entity. And that we call 'I'. So at this moment, unless one of you is enlightened, we all have this fixed sense of 'me'. And 'I' am separate from you and 'I' am the most important thing. 'I' am more important than anything else in the universe therefore 'I' experience the universe entirely from my perspective. And 'I' don't particularly care what your perspectives are or the perspective of someone in Japan is - that isn't part of the way 'my' limited existence works. 'I' quite naturally see everything in terms of 'me'. The experience of the ultimate is masked by the belief in egocentric separateness and samsaric involvement commences.

Action within this context is bound to be unskilful because it is based on a wrong assumption, the assumption that there is a self there to do or act. This point was illustrated by the Buddha when somebody said to him towards the end of his life, "What have you done for the last 40 years?" Buddha replied "Nothing." The questioner responded, "Well that's not true. I have seen you walking, sitting, sleeping, talking, eating - all those things. You have done a lot of things. I have been around you a lot and I have watched you, I have seen you doing it all." And the Buddha said, "No, there was never a sense of self acting therefore all the activity was spontaneous, arising in response to the situation." This is why if you read descriptions of enlightened activity it is said that Buddha activity is always completely spontaneous and appropriate to whatever is there because it arises from enlightened understanding which is not obscured by the idea of self. This may be why people who are very intellectual and caught up in their heads have a reputation for inappropriate behaviour. Their minds become perpetually trapped in egocentricity so they are out of touch with what is going on.


In our ordinary experience we can see that people who are caught up in conceptualisation, which is thinking, are out of touch. Being out of touch means not recognising the true nature of a situation. That is ignorance, which is the basis of delusion. There are many levels of not-being-in-touch therefore not-knowing-what-is-going-on and therefore deepening our ignorance. The teaching on ignorance is the most profound of all the teachings in the cycle of 12 links. It lies at the root of all our problems and precedes the Buddha's first Noble Truth of Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) Where there is ignorance and where there is action arising out of ignorance there is certain to be Dukkha, because ignorance sets in motion an inevitable series of unfortunate consequences. Once the one is there the other follows. The important thing is to understand that these teachings on ignorance are not just interesting concepts which we talk about and then go home and have tea, they are actually the essence of what is going on in our lives at every moment.


This endless not knowing and ignorance is the most difficult of the mind poisons to purify because by its very nature it is self-conceiving. So we have to uncover it before we can be free from it. If you read accounts of the Buddha's enlightenment you will see that when He finally vanquished Mara and entered into His final meditation before dawn He rested His mind in Vajra Samadhi. Only then did He free Himself from his final traces of ignorance. So we are looking at the profoundest of the mind poisons that keep us trapped. That is why we come back over and over again to work at it at the most direct experiential level we can manage. We need to recognise that we are faced with it all the time.

How many of you in your meditation have experienced at any time, this heavy lead like drowsiness? Guess what it is…
Student: Ignorance?
Yes. It is the mind marshalling its energy saying "Aha you are going too far - you are in danger of finding out something. I have had enough." Close down! That gives us a sense of how powerful this force is within the mind. But remember, it is not an external force. It's not coming upon us from somewhere outside, it is part of the way we are.

Student: How come ignorance is so clever?
That's an extremely good point, and Trungpa Rinpoche wrote about this. He said ignorance has a certain fundamental cunning, which is the cunning of self-preservation. Perhaps it's the instinctive cunning of ego-centric self-preservation. But even if this is the case, don't forget that the ignorance we are talking about is based in our own deep-rooted refusal to face and accept things as they are. So it is our own inherent intelligence that is being hijacked.

Hopefully we now have a better understanding of relative and absolute. The absolute is present all the time. The enlightened condition is present all the time which is why the Buddha said samsara and nirvana are one. They are not separate. But the reason the relative exists is that, being stuck in ignorance, we view the enlightened energy as not enlightened, therefore we experience it as not enlightened.

Student: So there might never have been misunderstanding, or separation at all? We just think there is….
Rob: Maybe. Maybe we are simply trapped in an idea of separateness egocentric existence.

Student: In child development, people like Bowlby and Winnicott made sense of the separate self in terms of the child becoming separate from the mother, developing a sense of 'I'
Rob: Yes, and that is why I have used the word egocentric instead of ego. Because in developmental psychology we see that the ego needs to develop if the human being is going to function. It's the reality principle, isn't it.

Student: Is ignorance time dependent?
Rob: Wonderful question, well time, of course, arises along with illusion doesn't it? So they are bedfellows. I would think that time arises with ignorance wouldn't you?
Student: Its rather like a tv screen - you think you see a picture but it's actually just dots …
Rob: Yes, but definitely time is an illusion. It doesn't have any reality and is purely dependent on concept. We could say there is chronological time and psychological time. There is a beautiful example of psychological time. Do you remember reading about Louis XIV - Sun King of France? He was terribly grand and everybody had to behave very properly around him. One day one of his dukes had been sent to the far ends of France to do some job and he was supposed to be back before the King at a certain time on a certain day. Well, this duke did whatever he did and came galloping back but it was winter and he got held up - flooded rivers and his horse had a nervous breakdown. Eventually he got back to the palace at Versailles on the very day about two minutes before the audience with the king was due. So he had no option but to hurry into the throne room just as he was - dirty, wet and muddy. As he came in through one door the King swept past and sat down on his throne. The King regarded him coldly and finally said;

"We nearly waited."

So that's psychological time - the sense of waiting. And we get this continually. There is external and then there is internal and the internal is often stronger than the external. Take for example what happens if your flight is delayed. There is suddenly the sense of waiting, waiting, waiting. But if you were not waiting for an aeroplane, if you were just at home doing something, your mind would be completely different wouldn't it? So we can see from that how we create our reality due to the way we view situations.

Student: Direct contact with someone - is there less ignorance at that point?
Rob: Ignorance is weakened when we challenge our grasping and our assumptions. I'll give you an example. We did a weekend workshop on projection and one of the young guys there was speaking about it and he talked about how he projected onto his girlfriend - and the women here will love this - he projected that she was stupid. So he always used to relate to her as stupid without fully realising it. Now - she wasn't stupid, she was quite as intelligent as he was, but his projection had kept him caught in a different perception. Anyway one day she got fed up and confronted him. She said, 'You know you always relate to me as though I am stupid.' She did it in such a way that he actually realised in that moment that that was precisely what he was doing. The power of that realisation was so great that he was able to let go of his projection, the effect was that he immediately saw her as brilliant shining light. For a moment he let go of the basis of his ignorance, and so it disintegrated. For a moment he saw reality, which was, she was an enlightened being and all that had prevented him seeing that was his ignorance.

That is what we are all doing all the time. We are all constantly projecting onto ourselves and each other an ignorant perception. And we are completely caught up in it. We don't see each other as enlightened and we don't realise we are enlightened. That is what is going on. Now it's not much use being told this because here we still sit trapped in the projection and that is why the Buddha taught the twelve links, because although it is possible to drop the whole thing in an instant, most of us can't do it. We may have some kind of shock that causes us to let go but then very quickly all the grasping comes back. So the Buddha said "Ok you guys, you're so thick you are going to have twelve steps."

I only want to take the first step and a half at the moment because unless you really have a good understanding of ignorance and how it is constantly manifesting in the flow of your psyche the rest won't make sense, it could be boring and intellectual. When the Buddha says "Out of ignorance action arises" it is the action of egocentric activity rather than spontaneous enlightened response. That is why the Buddha was able to say, "There has been no action since I was enlightened." Because there was no karmically conditioned sense of there being somebody who was acting. So there can be what we perceive as activity and there can be what we perceive as an actor but for that person, if they are enlightened, neither of those factors is present.


An illustration from the world of art might help us understand the non-egocentric. In some forms of Japanese art, the training is to paint for example, a bamboo, so often that eventually the conceptual mind moves out of the way and it is almost as though the enlightened mind does it. A trained master knows exactly which is which, so if a student becomes very skilful at copying somebody else's bamboo and presents that as the real thing, the master will glance at it and give the student a whack - this is in the Zen tradition. But when one reaches that moment when the drawing is spontaneous and not pre-meditated, it is recognised as a true art form. Therefore, art here is part of the training for enlightenment. The training is rigorous because ego-grasping always wants to come in to say, "I did it." Through training and meditation we realise, It did it. And it will only happen when this big 'I' is out of the picture. So I think that is a very good example of how we are all faced all the time with the effects of grasping. Grasping is a killer. It always strengthens the obscurations because grasping comes from the sense of self and is the root of our whole problem.

The Buddhist principle is to be everybody's friend, not to have any enemy.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Meditation means simple acceptance.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
Only the impossible is worth doing.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Whenever we see something which could be done to bring benefit to others, no matter how small, we should do it.
Chamgon Khentin Tai Situ Rinpoche
Freedom is not something you look for outside of yourself. Freedom is within you.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Hasten slowly, you will soon arrive.
Jetsun Milarepa
It doesn’t matter whatever comes, stop judging and it won’t bother you.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
Whatever obstacles arise, if you deal with them through kindness without trying to escape then you have real freedom.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
To tame ourselves is the only way we can change and improve the world.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
In the practice of tolerance, one's enemy is the best teacher.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Strive always to be as kind, gentle and caring as possible towards all forms of sentient life.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Every sentient being is equal to the Buddha.
Chamgon Kentin Tai Situ Rinpoche
Wherever and whenever we can, we should develop compassion at once.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Reminding ourselves of how others suffer and mentally putting ourselves in their place, will help awaken our compassion.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche