Overcoming Ignorance

A. Introduction

One could ask why one should write about ignorance at all. People who are truly ignorant are not aware of their ignorance - not being aware that one does not know is a defining quality of ignorance. The ignorant will not really read this kind of article, for they will not know this is applicable to them. So why "preach to the converted"?


Ignorance seems to be a universal condition. In some way and to some degree, we are all ignorant. To a certain extent, we are all victims of illusion. This essay is designed to give readers some guidance on how they could assess their own "degree of ignorance", and how they could overcome it.

Becoming aware of one's own ignorance is the first step towards getting rid of ignorance. It is a thinking process, but also one of taking concrete steps in real life. It is an act both of analysis and commitment.

No matter how wise or compassionate one is, there is always room for improvement. Becoming wise and compassionate is a never ending quest.

B. The root of suffering

Ignorance is the root of suffering. Hinduism, Taoism and all schools of Buddhism, including Ch'an and Zen, but also many Christian schools of thought, agree on this.

Ignorance is more than just the absence of knowledge, even though a lack of knowledge is often part of the condition. It is the negative opposite of wisdom: the absence of qualities associated with wisdom. Ignorance also implies a lack of compassion, and as such it constitutes a self-centered attitude and its subsequent destructive approach to life. It is a life of greed and hatred instead of compassion and wisdom. It is to fall victim to illusions of permanence and materialism - the inability to distinguish between the real and the fake, and the failure to choose priorities correctly.

In Zen, ignorance is seen as the antithesis of enlightenment. Enlightenment is to be freed totally from ignorance.

Ignorance in Taoism is often described as disharmony with the Tao. It is a state of control by the ego, a restless condition of volatility dominated by illusion and destructive emotions. This state of disharmony with the Tao can only be overcome when one manages to strip oneself of a false sense of self, illusion and pretense. To be freed from ignorance is an awakening process - often gradual, but with brilliant moments of keen insight - and it entails the discovery of the true self and the transformation that accompanies it. It is a movement from disunity towards unity with all of creation.

Ignorance is the source of most suffering, yet it is "curable". It is a state of mind anyone - even the wise - can fall prey to, but it is a condition anyone can be liberated from - even those who seem to be inextricably enmeshed in it.

We live in a world promoting ignorance, vivifying the illusionary, and ignoring, even denying, the true essence of things. Fighting ignorance has therefore become a constant vigil against negative influence, which can take the form of peer pressure, the group mind, government propaganda, or subtle and brash forms of an omnipresent advertising industry. Our consumer society is focused on evoking greed and inflating the ego, and it is difficult to isolate ourselves from its negative influences. Governments often fan the flames of blind patriotism. Often, our professions, social pressures and education promote and demand an egotistical life style which runs contrary to a compassionate and wise approach to life. Many people seem to have no alternative but to follow life styles which strengthen their own egos and ignorance.

In this environment hostile to the spirit, it is difficult to rid oneself of ignorance and to move with the freedom only harmony with the Tao, and compassion and wisdom, can bring.

C. Aspects of ignorance

1. Lack of right knowledge

Our society is saturated with ignorance. It is close to impossible to escape ignorance and its shackles. This ignorance is often based on a gross lack of the most basic knowledge of matters of the spirit.

Society is rife with falsities, superstitions and misunderstandings. People often spend many years of their lives totally immersed in an illusionary, deceptive world. This causes them to suffer, and even worse, to cause suffering to others.

There are many falsities that must be identified and discarded before one could even start developing oneself properly.

What follows is a list of some of these false assumptions and superstitions which bind one to a world of illusion.

Illusions and Superstitions

  • The illusion of static permanence

As long as one believes that one is part of a world of permanent things, one will never understand even the most rudimentary aspects of the spirit.

The sage knows
the shade of the tree
is more real
than the tree.
He stares into the mirror
to see only
staring back at him.

People unwilling to face reality cling to the concept of a static world, which is incredibly ignorant, for the world abounds with proof that the world is a perpetually dynamic and transient process. Spiritual stagnation is the inevitable result of holding on to the illusion of static permanence.

  • The illusion of solidity - materialism

Believing in permanence is the basis of materialism, in which one sees concrete things as more real than the spirit, and therefore the only things worth living for. When one believes this, material possession is seen as the way to satisfy the spirit, and one becomes greedy for material things in order to find fulfilment and peace.

drowning in the flood,
he clings to
his imaginary branch
instead of swimming for the shore.

  • The illusion of "I" - a permanent soul

There is absolutely no doubt that the illusion of a permanent "I" causes the most confusion and harm. It is the basis of egotism, which is to serve a false self created by one's own mind. It corrupts even spiritual life, for it often takes the form of serving an ego-soul which uses religion as a bridge to reach its own selfish aims.

Why do I cling to myself
as if I really exist?
I refuse to accept with joy
what I will enter through suffering.

(The Tao is Tao, 34)

  • The superstition of salvation through an external source

In all religions, there are people who tend to search for an easy route to salvation or enlightenment, which does not involve changing themselves in the process. They will cling to superficial ritual and form, believing that these rites would do for them what they refuse to do for themselves. They try to create the illusion that they could get the article without paying the price for it. It is a terrible superstition causing stagnation and suffering.

You and you alone can salvage your life.
You and you alone can walk the path.
No one else can do it for you.

Many Christians, for example, wrongly believe that if they have faith in Christ as a kind of miraculous icon, they would find salvation for their souls without following Christ's actual path. Christ has pointed at the path they should take, but they have confused his finger with the path. Christ is not a comfortable shortcut. He has given us a perfect example of a way to salvation, a way that can only be followed by the very bravest, for it involves sacrificing the self even to the point of crucifixion. It is living in the spirit of Christ that gives Christianity vitality, not ritual pretense of sacrifice, or prostrating oneself before some icon.

In the same way, many Buddhists would perform what would be symbolic rituals to build up merit. Rituals are no shortcuts to spiritual development. Symbolic acts isolated from real life do not move your spirit forward. Chanting other people's words of wisdom without application is like pretending to move forward on the path while you are in fact waiting for someone else to take you there. The spiritual essence of the Buddha gives Buddhism vitality and energy, not ritual imitations of virtue.

  • The superstition of escape from karma

Many charlatans have made fortunes out of selling people what they claim to be forms of escape from the inescapable forces of karma. In the Medieval Age, the church even sold absolutions from sins to naive people. Often, holy men or women or relics, are presented as agents neutralizing the effects of your actions.

One thing is clear. There is no way to escape the inexorable law of karma. The law of cause and effect operates as relentlessly in the world of the spirit as it does in the physical realm. You shall reap what you have sown. Your deeds will come back to haunt you. Even a Buddha does not escape the relentless fairness of causality.

Only a real change in your mind, thoughts, speech and action will change your karma, for karma is nothing but your own action: it is in fact you. Only when you are not serving an ego will you live without creating more sorrow and suffering for yourself and for others.

The ignorant
live in fear and anger of
the inescapable laws
of cause and effect.
They try to ward off Karma
as if it were some beast that could be slain.
They grovel before the gods
as if their favor
could render Karma ineffective.
the wheel of birth, life, suffering and death,
runs over them,
leaving them in tatters.

The Taoist sage
Karma is inescapable,
yet he lives free from dread,
for he knows
he is Samsara,
and the wheel cannot run over itself.

The person in close harmony with the Tao
lives without anger,
for he understands
Karma is but himself:
there is nothing to be angry with.

The Taoist sage lives
as if
the inexorable justice of Karma
and the relentless inevitability of Samsara
do not touch him,
he is liberated from himself.

(The Tao is Tao, 39)

  • The illusion of an explicable god

The Tao is silence
cannot capture.
The Tao is emptiness
not even
can embrace.

(The Tao is Tao, 2)

Many religions will define their god, and present their definition as "The Truth" to their members, forcing them to subscribe to their specific concepts. By doing this, they gain power over the minds of people. In this way, religion has often been perverted from a liberating experience into one of captivity.

The illusion that god can be defined can be destructive.

  • The superstition that knowledge is progress

The ignorant
try to escape suffering
by accumulating knowledge,
in this way increasing
their ignorance.

(The Tao is Tao, 47)

A surprising number of people still subscribe to this naive superstition. Tens of thousands of universities, institutions, agencies and projects gather information in the belief that the stockpiling of knowledge is progress.

Of course, as history has shown us in so many graphic examples, knowledge can also lead to what can hardly be interpreted as progress in terms of civilization. The Hiroshima bomb is an example of the destruction knowledge can bring. Our systematic destruction of our environment is proof of how thoroughly technology can be embedded in the worst form of ignorance, namely greed.

Not knowledge, but our harmony with the Tao determines whether we truly progress or not.

Our true development does not lie in the ingenuous inventions and innovations of technology, or in the gigabytes of data stored in vast databases, but in the realms of the spirit, for the spirit defines the direction knowledge takes.

  • The illusion of "wisdom" without compassion

There is no such thing as wisdom without compassion. People with cold hearts posing as wise men are the true false profits of our age. Often their "wisdom" is utilized to enrich themselves materially, or to gain power and fame.

"Wisdom" isolated from compassion is a treacherous form of ignorance. It is destructive. It gives false hope only to betray in essence.

Wisdom can never be in service of greed. It cannot serve power. It does not exist in the company of the callously affluent.

Mere cleverness may solve many problems, but it will never solve the essential problems of the world, which lie in the realm of the spirit.

  • The illusion of "compassion" without wisdom

No matter how much you love someone, your love will be of little value if it is not guided by wisdom that will transform your love into compassion.

Love not guided by wisdom often leads astray, increasing instead of relieving suffering. Love without wisdom easily turns into a destructive force serving the ego.

It is only when love turns from a cheap emotion into real commitment that wisdom has a chance to become its guiding force. Compassion, like all aspects of spirituality, lies beyond the merely intellectual or emotional. It lies in the sphere of commitment and experience.

Love without wisdom is a form of ignorance. Compassion guided by wisdom is the greatest force in the world.

For more information on this aspect, read the article "Wisdom and Compassion: Two Sides of the Same Coin" at www.truetao.org/theway/wisdom.htm.

  • The illusion that action is progress

This illusion seems to predominate in the modern world, where "men of action", impatient and impetuous, in the service of greed, manipulate and change without regard for the natural processes of our planet. Never has there been a time in history where the virtue of action has been more overestimated and has become an end in itself.

2. Lack of faith

is not
a lack of knowledge,
but a lack of faith
in the unknowable.
The ignorant
cling to knowledge
as if knowledge can explain
the inexplicable.
The Taoist sage
in harmony
with the mysterious.

(The Tao is Tao, 46)

Faith is our effort to deal with the mysterious. Once something has lost its mystery and we understand it, we do not need faith to deal with it.

The Tao as well as our spirit will forever lie in the realms of the mysterious, and will therefore always require a great deal of faith from us.

Faith means trust and acceptance:

True faith
complete trust
without understanding:
It is to accept

(The Tao is Tao, 22)

There are many unprovable aspects that will just have to be accepted by us. We need the faith of a child to do so. Of course, our critical rational faculties will object vehemently against this gagging of our intellect. But we have no choice. If we refuse to take this upon ourselves, we will never be able to enter the spiritual realm.

To step into the realm of the spirit
is to abandon thinking.
Can you step over the precipice,
not knowing what is below?
Life starts this way.

(The Tao is Tao, 17)

Particularly at the beginning of our development, we obviously need a lot of faith, for we have not yet experienced on a spiritual level the revelations that will turn surmise into certainty.

Until experience has confirmed our beliefs, we need faith.

3. Lack of application

Too few people practice what they believe. Too many people are content with being armchair philosophers. Too many people today are addicted to intellectual excitement. Their effort to understand then often becomes an egotistical preoccupation with thrills of the mind. They will cling to the intellectual, which will then become a handicap and not a help on the way to harmony with the Tao. As long as you do not progress beyond the merely intellectual, you will never reach harmony with the Tao. In fact, intellectual analysis without the commitment to application ultimately confuses and increases disharmony and agitation.

Moving towards the Tao is not only an intellectual exercise. It is real movement which finds fulfilment only in the experiential sphere. It is not only talking about compassion; it is practicing it as well. It is not just discussing wisdom; it is also living it. It is not merely considering theoretical possibilities; it is to be in the thick of life, acting intuitively where there is the need to act, and to refrain from action where it is wise to do so. It is to speak out when compassion compels you to, and to shut up when wisdom demands it.

Theory is cheap. A life of the spirit is real, and demands its price.

The Buddha warned against accepting any so-called "spiritual truth" unless you have tested it yourself and found it to be true. Wiser advice has never been given.

Once you have started on your way, never give up. Be patient and resilient, no matter what happens to you, and no matter how many setbacks you suffer. Never turn back. Show grit. Have courage. Have faith. Never give up.

4. Egotism

Egotism is certainly the main stumbling block in destroying ignorance and becoming wise. The belief in a permanent "I" and in the permanence of things combine to form a terrible obsession, in which the main aim becomes the glorification of self. This self, however, is a false one, a contrived image of who you are supposed to be. It enslaves its believer and often drives him to hyperactivity and distress.

5. Dualistic thinking on a spiritual level

Many people allow their rational faculties to interfere with their spiritual life. This causes many problems. The rational separates, whereas the spirit strives to unite. The rational spotlights differences, the spirit emphasizes sameness and identity.

As long as you limit the rational and the analytical to its own sphere, where it has a legitimate and essential function, no problems will occur. Problems ensue when your discriminatory faculties intrude upon matters of the spirit.

The discriminatory faculties tend to undermine faith. For example, trying to explain the inexplicable causes confusion and not clarity. We have already mentioned what happens if you want to define god: you then turn god from a source of spiritual power into something that can be packaged and sold by organizations to increase their own power.

There is quite simply a limit to our rational abilities. There is a point in our spiritual development where only faith and commitment will allow us to progress.

A terrible byproduct of dualistic thinking on a spiritual level is the belief that things are really separate. We start believing that the "reality" created in our minds is real. We lose sight of the fact that separation is artificial and does not exist.

In a state of ignorance, we tend to be unaware of the confusing influence that language has on our ability to progress. For example, we tend to think that the "spiritual" and "material" levels are two separate levels, and we do not realize that it is our thinking that separates these two aspects. What we fail to see is that, in fact, the spirit and our bodies are identical. Not realizing this can lead to much confusion and suffering.

D. Behavioral Symptoms of Ignorance

Behavioral symptoms of ignorance may be clearly visible to outsiders, but the ignorant are mostly unaware of their own ignorance.

What follows is a list of what could be symptoms of ignorance. They might indicate where you can improve.

Many of these symptoms might seem obvious, but make no mistake. They can manifest themselves in subtle, discreet, almost invisible forms. Your own ego, too, has a way of presenting itself in forms acceptable to your conscience. Do not be fooled by it.

What all these symptoms have in common is a lack of compassion. In fact, ignorance can be defined as any state of mind other than compassion.

1. Talking too much

Talking too much is often based on an overestimation of your ability to grasp subject matter. It could also be the result of your underestimation of the difficulty of subject matter. Ignorant people are often too eager to give their opinions on complex matters. They often rush in "where angels fear to tread". The wise are aware of their limitations, and with this in mind, they will carefully search for solutions.

Talking too much is often a manifestation of an inflated ego. For more information on this aspect, read the essay "Talking: A Problem and a Challenge"at www.truetao.org/the way/talking.htm.

2. Closed mind

In spite of their talkativeness, ignorant people do not want to get involved in true and vigorous exchanges of ideas. Their conversations are often monologues designed to impress. They are bad listeners, because they have usually made up their minds, and do not plan to change their minds. They are too insecure to change their minds. They are quick to criticize others, but cannot take criticism themselves. They are too scared to change their ideas or behavior. They will not admit being wrong, and they are more interested in appearance than true substance.

3. Egocentrism

Ignorant people are egocentric. They are focused on themselves, their careers, their development, their agendas and their interests. They show very little interest in anyone else's concerns but their own, except when somebody else's activities could be of benefit to them.

4. Inflexibility

Ignorance is often betrayed by inflexibility. Ignorant people often show off impressive agendas. Their agendas of self-interest often become their focus, and they refuse to deviate from their carefully planned strategies. They have no time for spontaneity and intuitive moments of compassion or just sheer joy. Ignorant people will often become slaves of schedules or aims, forgetting totally that life is there to be lived, and not to be enslaved to.

5. Ambition

Ignorant people often tend to be exceedingly ambitious, and their ambition is clearly centered in the service of their own selves. An integral part of their ambition is to outperform competitors and opponents. It is to become the center of attention and admiration. Even when their work is of a "spiritual" nature, they will still be plagued by egocentric ambitions which diminish or pervert their work.

6. Vanity

Ignorant people tend to be very vain. They are very worried about appearance, and what others think of them. Maintaining appearance is an obsession with them. For this reason they are susceptible to manipulation and corruption. Their fear of losing face will cow them into submission at the cost of betraying themselves.

7. Desire for status

Ignorant people crave status, or at least the appearance of status. They tend to see status as of greater substance than true performance, and they often surround themselves with superficial artefacts depicting status.

Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success of failure: which is more destructive?

(The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 44)

Their desire for status often turns them into individuals easily cowed by the specter of losing the good opinion of society. Reputation is high and integrity low on their priority list. Their fearful little minds search desperately for the warmth of recognition and acceptance.

8. Envy, jealousy, meanness

Ignorant people are often so dedicated to the ego that they cannot tolerate people close to them being successful. The last thing they can do is genuinely rejoice in the success of their "friends" or peers. They are forever enviously measuring the success of those they deem to be in competition with themselves, and they live in fear of being outdone by someone. They often small-mindedly refuse to accept any new ideas that might endanger their standing or status. They would sometimes revert to meanness to "defend" what they feel is their rank or position. They are often discreet gossip mongers, or sly backbiters, manipulating people's opinions to their own advantage. There is very little space for any form of real compassion in their lives, even though they would go to great pains to publicly demonstrate virtue.

9. Quick to condemn, slow to forgive

Ignorant people are often very quick to condemn. Their condemnation is often based on prejudices and uninformed assumptions. They prefer to reflect the popular prejudices and sentiments which promote their status. They are quite easily cowed by the group mind. In fact, they have few real principles they would not betray when faced by rejection. Often, ignorant people are slow to forgive because they refuse to take the bigger picture into consideration, and because compassion does not play a role in their lives.

10. Cynicism

The most dangerous form of ignorance is that of deliberately making the wrong choices, in spite of knowing they are wrong. People doing this are often beyond help, and can only be wrenched back to sanity by extremely traumatic experiences in their own lives.

11. Driven by emotions

Ignorant people are often driven by their emotions, and they tend to be as fickle and unreliable as their emotions. Their mood swings determine the level of their commitment and devotion. They tend to accept their emotions as reality, and would therefore often be enslaved by them.

Desperate and ignorant people
search for peace
on perpetual waves of inconstant emotion
or in the possession of things.
The Taoist sage knows
peace is
neither a condition,
nor a possession,
nor an emotion.
Peace is

(The Tao is Tao, 92)

12. Easily captured by ideas

Ignorant people lack the critical faculties to evaluate concepts and ideas, and they therefore easily fall prey to ideologies. In this way, they would easily allow a concept to influence them and govern their actions. They lack the awareness that they can easily be ruled by things they are not aware of, particularly destructive tendencies in their own minds.

13. Lack of perspective

Often the thinking of ignorant people lacks perspective. They do not have the detachment to evaluate their own ideas. They refuse to think critically about their own thinking. In this way, they become slaves of their own thoughts.

the ignorant.
The Taoist sage
is shaped
by silence.

(The Tao is Tao, 65)

14. Feelings of superiority

The Master views the parts with compassion,
because he understands the whole.

(Tao Te Ching, Chapter 39)

Pride is mostly a symptom of ignorance. Humility is a natural product of true understanding. The moment you understand the whole, you realize that you are not better than a person who has fallen by the wayside. Looking down on others is a sign of ignorance. When you truly understand, you will stop condemning others. Feelings of superiority prevent compassionate action. They allow prejudice and hatred to flourish. They constitute a terrible form of ignorance.

15. Materialism

The most obvious symptom of ignorance is a life devoted primarily to material gain beyond basic necessity. People focused on material gain are often chasing illusions of permanence, and will never find real satisfaction. You find this form of illusion even among religious people, who will rationalize their greed with "spiritual" argumentation. Materialism is linked to ego and dependence on status. It is a terrible form of captivity. Freedom linked to materialism is an illusion. Democracy based on greed and material wealth will never bring true justice and freedom to its people. True liberation is a spiritual one.

16. Impatient action

In ignorant people, impatience and action often combine in a very destructive way. Driven by their ego and their own ambition, ignorant people lack the patience to wait for the right moment to act. Thirsting for honor, they would not sit back and allow others to take the credit for solving problems, even if they are better able to. They are geared to short-termed strategies and solutions. Their impatience is often a result of their own greed, and it therefore often has destructive results in the long term.

E. Overcoming ignorance

Ignorance is a condition encompassing all aspects of life. Overcoming it is an essentially holistic venture exacting changes of a far reaching nature. Conquering ignorance is a deeply spiritual process. As such, this process cannot be described adequately in language. Its final condition is one of complete harmony with the Tao.

What follows is an incomplete list of a few important steps that can be taken to overcome ignorance, or at least to reduce it.

1. Expand your knowledge

The kind of knowledge referred to here is knowledge about relevant matters of the spirit. In spite of warnings that the intellect is not the main force in spiritual development, it nevertheless still plays an important role, particularly at the beginning of one's development. There are many things one could learn through reading or conversation. Through texts, one could "meet" many great minds, and learn from them. By discussing central concepts with more advanced minds, or with compassionate and wise friends, one could learn tremendously.

2. Kill your ego

Reducing the ego is essential. It is the source of too much suffering and delusion to tolerate. It is a tall order, though, for it could involve a total change in one's attitude and approach to life.

To learn more about dealing with the ego, go to the essay titled "Reducing the Ego: Strategies and Tips" at www.truetao.org/the way/ego.htm.

3. Become compassionate

The best way to start is to leave one's comfort zone and to become deliberately and actively compassionate. It is amazing how compassionate action can help to reduce the ego, and how it naturally increases wisdom in you. But it is essential that your compassion is not in the service of your own self. It must be true compassion, where the self has become unimportant.

To learn more about compassion, read the following essays:

"Wisdom and Compassion: Two sides of the Same Coin" at www.truetao.org/theway/wisdom.htm.

"The Tao Te Ching: Qualities of Compassion" at www.truetao.org/theway/ttc.htm.

4. Persist

Never give up. Remember that the path you have taken might be a long and strenuous one. You will need discipline as well as patience with yourself. And lots of faith.

5. Meditate

Find ways of disciplining and expanding your mind Make it part of your daily routine. It is essential that you learn to be in control of your mind and your thoughts.

For more information, read "Thinking: Winning the Battle of the Mind" at www.truetao.org/the way/thinking.htm.

6. Accept the mystery

As has been pointed out earlier in this essay, faith does play a part. Particularly at the beginning of your development, you have no choice but to tentatively accept certain premises in good faith. As you grow in spiritual experience, you will have ample opportunity to test these premises, and uncertainties will then become certainty. But the mystery of the Tao will remain, and faith will always be essential.

For more information on the role of faith, read "The Power of Faith in Tao" at www.truetao.org/the way/faith.htm.

Who can think the unthinkable?
Only the sage
in total harmony with Tao.
Yet his thinking
is an act of complete faith
beyond concepts.

(The Tao is Tao, 94)

Jos Slabbert 2001
Postal Address: P.O. Box 4037, Vineta, Namibia
Fax No.: 09264 64 46 1014 E-Mail: jos_slabbert@hotmail.com

This passage or excerpts from it may be reproduced for non-profit motives.