Pinpointing Root Ignorance


lama-zopa-rinpoche-nov-2015-at-ocbc_orig copy



Before going into the topic of root ignorance in terms of the twelve links, we should understand how to proceed in our practice. First, it must be based on the practice of going for refuge. A wise doctor makes a correct diagnosis and prescribes the right treatment whereas an unwise one does neither. If we don’t follow the advice of the wise doctor or follow that of the unwise one, instead of getting better we get worse. It’s not so much a case of whether or not we like the doctor. Rather, it’s a case of not following the unwise one who makes a bad diagnosis and prescribes the wrong medicine. We have to determine who knows exactly what we need to be healthy, both physically and mentally.

We can extend this analogy to our larger aims: if we want to be happy in our future lives we have to practice morality and charity. If we are taught the opposite of morality—for example, that killing animals or even humans will result in our going to heaven—and follow that advice, we won’t achieve our goal of future happiness. This is because, like an unwise doctor’s advice, it is a wrong path. If our goal is to achieve happiness in future lives and the ultimate happiness of liberation from saṃsāra, then we need to realize true suffering and the true causes of suffering. To eliminate these, we need to actualize true paths and achieve true cessations.

In order to achieve liberation we need to proceed by way of the five paths. We start with renunciation of saṃsāra and reliance upon the one who reveals the path, the Buddha; the Dharma, which is the path and the teachings; and the Saṅgha, both the practitioners of the Dharma path and those who have attained it. Just as a severely sick patient requires all three—doctor, medicine and nurse—we need the Buddha, who is like the doctor; the Dharma, which is like medicine; and the Saṅgha, who are like the nurse who cares for us, administering the medicine and so forth.

On the basis of refuge we practice the three higher trainings of morality, concentration and wisdom, through which we can obtain the exalted path of the ārya. When we realize emptiness directly we achieve the ārya path of seeing and then the ārya path of meditation, whereby our defilements are ceased directly. This is how we remove the seed of the delusions in order to achieve the sorrowless state of liberation.

It is not, therefore, just a matter of faith, just as it is not simply a case of possessing the right medicine; to cure our disease we must actually take it and follow all our doctor’s instructions as well—observing the recommended diet, getting enough sleep and so forth. It’s similar when it comes to removing delusions. We need more than faith; it’s a matter of understanding the nature of phenomena. We must understand reality and how things work. Likewise with the path; faith does not suffice. To actualize the path we need to realize emptiness. We cannot remove the ignorance that is the root of saṃsāra unless we realize nature of phenomena.[1] The following analogy is useful:

Walking in a gloomy forest at night, we see a bush that from a distance looks like an animal; a tiger or something. Only by aiming our flashlight at this tiger do we realize that it is not an animal but a bush. Only then do we realize that we have been under the control of a wrong concept.

The Mādhyamaka and lamrim teachings give the analogy of seeing a piece of rope lying on the road as a snake. Due to way the rope is coiled, its color, the lack of visual clarity and so forth, we develop the wrong concept that it is a snake. Our mind labels the rope “snake”—“There’s a snake”— a snake appears and we believe in it. But once we shine a light upon it, the [appearance of] snake disappears and with it, the wrong concept of seeing the rope as a snake.[2]

snake revealed as hose

Similarly, by actualizing the path, we dispel our wrong concepts and delusions. The path the Buddha taught is not actualized through faith alone—we need to take the medicine that heals illness and not bother with that which doesn’t.

There is nothing missing in the path the Buddha revealed. By practicing the morality and methods taught by other religions such as Hinduism and Christianity, we may achieve the future happiness that comes with being born as a human being or a deva, for example, but in terms of achieving liberation or full enlightenment, the Buddhist path lacks nothing. Anything that is of benefit may be found there—how to eradicate our defilements, how to generate the beneficial mind of bodhicitta, how to develop a compassion that is not contradictory to the path and so forth. As I mentioned before, some religions endorse animal sacrifice. Problems arise when you practice something contradictory to the path. Such practices do not lead to liberation or full enlightenment. Instead, they become obstacles.

In his In Praise of Dependent Origination, Lama Tsongkhapa said, “How much suffering there is of saṃsāric beings, the root of that is ignorance. By seeing this and how it might be stopped, dependent arising is therefore taught.”[3] This verse refers to emptiness as taught by the Prāsaṅgika School, the second of the two Mādhyamaka Schools—Svātantrika and Prāsaṅgika—that comprise the fourth of the four schools of Buddhist tenets. The point I am making is that when discussing the emptiness that alone can cut the root of saṃsāra, we are not talking of just any emptiness or anything called emptiness in the other schools; we are specifically talking about the Prāsaṅgika understanding of emptiness. This is the only wisdom that is the direct antidote to the ignorance that is the root of all suffering.[4]



For this reason, we have to know the specific detailed points and explanations concerning this ignorance as well as how it may be overcome. For example, we must understand that not even ignorance apprehending things to exist completely from their own side is the root of saṃsāra. Not even that. The point here is very subtle. Things exist in dependence on being merely labeled [5] but, according to this root ignorance, there is still something that exists from the side of the I (or other phenomena) in order for the I or other phenomena to exist at all. In other words, from the point of view of this specific root ignorance, even after things have been labeled, there is something, one small and very subtle thing, that is left over, or found, as having an existence from its own side.[6] Because things exist in dependence upon being labeled it is not the case that they must exist completely from their own side. According to this ignorance, being merely labeled is not enough. There must be this extra [hypothetical] existence and it is this that must be realized as empty for the root of cyclic existence to be cut.[7] This extra thing is completely without existence. It is completely absent in the reality of these things: subject, action object, path, obscurations, saṃsāra and nirvāṇa and so forth. The problem is, therefore, in believing in these truly existent, unlabeled things and clinging to them as true.

Clearly the root of saṃsāra is very specific, very particular. It follows that the wisdom that can cut it must also be of a very specific and particular kind. It must realize that it is not enough for a phenomenon to be merely labeled: there appears to be something apprehended as an existence of the object from its own side[8] and it is precisely this that must be realized as empty. Completely empty.

Only the emptiness presented according to the Prāsaṅgika view enables us to see the meaning of emptiness in dependent arising and the meaning of dependent arising in emptiness.[9] Only realization of this emptiness enables us to find no contradiction with dependent arising because we discover it to be the meaning of dependent arising, just as we discover dependent arising to be the meaning of emptiness. Only the realization that there is no contradiction between emptiness and dependent arising will cut saṃsāra’s root; without it, even realizations of bodhicitta or tantra will not be able to do this. The Buddha therefore taught this emptiness, which is also the meaning of dependent arising.

So we are extremely fortunate. Somehow we haven’t died yet and have the opportunity to put an end to our beginningless saṃsāra. We are most fortunate to be able to listen to and reflect and meditate on teachings on emptiness. This is why Lama Tsongkhapa says, “Therefore, one should feel fortunate.”[10] He is referring to having an opportunity such as the one we have. Simply generating faith in emptiness and having the interest or wish to realize it purifies vast amounts of negative karma and therefore the sūtra teachings recommend that we make every effort to understand it. Similarly, by composing and making offerings to prajñāpāramitā texts we accumulate unbelievable merit.


Prajnaparamita Sutra in 8000 Lines scribed in gold


Prajnaparamita Sutra in 100,000 lines



Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] Lama Tsongkhapa advises us emphatically,

If you do not come to a good understanding of the root of cyclic existence—karma and the afflictions—by reflecting on the origins, you will be like someone shooting an arrow who does not see the target, for you will miss the crucial point of the path. You will hold that which is not the path to freedom from existence to be that path, whereupon your hardships will be fruitless. And, if you do not know what should be abandoned, suffering along with its origins, you will not even identify the liberation that is their thorough pacification, whereby your striving for liberation will also end up as nothing but an arrogant presumption.

Middle Length Lam-Rim, 107.

[2] Lama Tsongkhapa employs the snake analogy in his Extensive Explanation of (Chandrakīrti’s) “Supplement to (Nāgārjuna’s) ‘Treatise on the Middle’”: Illumination of the Thought. See Hopkins, Final Exposition, 202–3, and the Dalai Lama, How to Practice (New York: Pocket Books, 2002), 139–40. It also occurs in the Great Treatise in relation to measuring exactly what it is that is to be refuted by the wisdom that is antidote to root ignorance, where Tsongkhapa writes,

Suppose that we leave aside analysis of how they appear—i.e., how they appear to a conventional awareness—and analyze the objects themselves, asking, ‘What is the manner of being of these phenomena?’ We find they are not established in any way. Ignorance does not apprehend phenomena in this way; it apprehends each phenomenon as having a manner of being such that it can be understood in and of itself, without being posited through the force of a conventional consciousness. Candrakīrti’s Commentary on the ‘Four Hundred Stanzas’ says:

Without any doubt, what exists only through the presence of conceptual thought, and does not exist without conceptual thought, definitely does not exist essentially—as in the case of a snake that is imputed to a coiled rope.

Thus Candrakīrti states how phenomena do not essentially exist.
     Therefore, what exists objectively in terms of its own essence without being posited through the power of a subjective mind is called ‘self’ or ‘intrinsic nature.’

See Tsongkhapa,  Great Treatise, Volume Three, 213. For Jinpa’s overview of the significance of Tsongkhapa’s employment of the snake analogy, see Self, Reality and Reason, 163–64.

[3] A more formal translation of this verse reads,

Of the suffering existing in the world,
its root is none other than ignorance.
The understanding to kill this root
you said is none other than dependent arising.

See Gavin Kilty, The Splendor Of An Autumn Moon,  217. 

[4] Buddhist teachings are divided into tenets (grub mtha’) according to particular systems of presentation of the path, its mode of practice and, particularly, what must be realized. The study of tenets is a major part of the Gelug monastic syllabus, so the reader is advised not to feel initially overwhelmed at the scale and sophistication of the (necessary) detail and to consult and explore the rapidly growing library of core monastic texts dealing with tenets in English translation. The most extensive is Hopkins’s translation of Jam-yang-shay-ba’s text with annotations, Maps of the Profound (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2003). For a more concise account, see Sopa and Hopkins, Cutting Through Appearances: Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism. This contains a translation of and a commentary to an important and highly accessible short tenet text, Gon-chok-jik-may-wang-bo’s Precious Garland of Tenets. See also Nyima, Crystal Mirror. An excellent and recommended online text is Jamyang Shepa Ngawang Tsondrü, Root Verses on Classical Indian Philosophies: A Lion’s Roar Eradicating the Errors, at These comprehensive references aside, Lama Zopa Rinpoche in frequent forthcoming posts will deal with the four schools in relation to their individual presentations of  emptiness. 

Studying and understanding tenets is, however, just a tool leading us (sequentially) to the wisdom able to cut innate ignorance at its root. “Tenet-driven reifications” intent as they are upon endorsing or shoring up some form of essentialism will themselves collapse upon encountering wisdom; lacking foundation in reality they cannot withstand its glare:

Based on just this [intrinsic nature], the referent object of the way that ignorance apprehends things as explained above, essentialist schools–Buddhist and non-Buddhist–reify many different things. When you negate the referent object of ignorance’s cognitive process, you completely stop all of these tenet-driven reifications, as though you cut a tree at its root. Therefore, those who have the faculty of wisdom should understand that the referent object of innate ignorance is the basic object of negation and should not devote themselves merely to refuting imaginary constructs that are imputed only by the advocates of philosophical tenets.

Refuting the object of negation in this way is not an idle pursuit. You see that all living beings are bound in cyclic existence by a wrong conceptual consciousness that has the object of negation as its object and you then refute its objects. What binds all living beings in cyclic existence is innate ignorance; acquired ignorance exists only among those who advocate philosophical tenets, so it cannot be the root of cyclic existence. It is extremely important to gain specific and certain knowledge of this point.

See Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise, volume three, 211. 

[5] Merely (nominally) labeled (ming du btags pa tsam). Frequent variants conveying the same meaning are “merely posited” (btags tsam); “mere imputation by thought” (rtog pas btags tsam); “merely posited by names and thought” (ming dang rtog pas btags tsam); nominally imputed or imputed by name (ming gis btag pa, saṃjñākaraṇa). Refer to the glossary. Significantly, the Oxford Dictionary definition of “nominal” is “existing in name only, in distinction to real or actual; merely named, stated or expressed, without reference to reality or fact.” Tsongkhapa details,

The ‘merely’ in ‘it is merely posited through the force of convention’ precludes the object existing inherently, but does not preclude its existence being established through authoritative cognition. In the same way, the ‘merely’ in ‘merely posited through names’ precludes neither the existence of things other than names nor their existence being established by authoritative cognition; nor does it indicate that everything posited by names exists conventionally. But it does preclude anything existing inherently. So, in Ratnāvalī it says:

Apart from that which is conventionally designated,
What world could there be ultimately,
Either existent or non-existent?
Thus, without being posited through the force of convention, existence is not possible.

Tsong khapa, Ocean, 39. The Dalai Lama, dealing with the same point, cautions,

If you identify every type of conceptual experience as ignorance, it implies that any conscious experience amounts to ignorance misconceiving the true nature of phenomena. This is not the case, because the conceptual thought that conceives a person as a person is valid, whereas the conceptual thought that conceives someone seen in a dream as a person is mistaken. Although both these consciousnesses have in common the lack of true existence, it is important to discriminate between the two. One is a valid experience, and the other is invalid.

Awakening the Mind, Lightening the Heart,  218–19.

[6] Yeshey Tupden similarly expresses, “What is the measure of something truly existing? If the referent object of the conception of true existence existed, then [true existence, or a truly existent object] would exist. Otherwise it does not. Even though true existence does not exist, it is imputed there by the conception of true existence. That conception of true existence apprehends and adheres to it and thinks that it does exist….Thus, the measure of existence is something left over from [the denial of existence from] an object’s own side.” Klein, Path, 137 (italics mine). Jang-gya gives a classic and crucial example of “hypothetical” used in this immediate regard: “Thus, whether the base is a person or a phenomenon, the innate mode of conception of self is to conceive that it exists objectively through its own entity and is not posited through the force of conceptuality. The conceived object of that conception is the self to be negated on this occasion and is the hypothetical measure of true existence.” See Hopkins, Emptiness Yoga, 366.

[7] Regarding this difficult point, the reader  is required  to approach according to the  Tenet system  and specifically the Svātantrika Mādhyamika account. While the Svātantrika Mādhyamikas accept (contrary to the Prāsaṅgika view that Lama Zopa Rinpoche is distinguishing here) that if “something is not a dependent arising, then it does not exist,” nonetheless, they also assert “a mode of being which is established from the object’s own side.” See Lobsang Gyatso, The Harmony of Emptiness and Dependent-Arising, 44. Thus, they see no implicit or inevitable incompatibility in things existing in dependence on “being posited through the power of appearing to a non-defective awareness” while also existing from their own side, by way of their own characteristics etc. Ibid.

As Lama Zopa Rinpoche will elaborate in later posts dealing with the Tenet systems,  “What we must understand is that when the Svātantrikas say that things are labeled by the mind but do not exist as merely labeled by the mind (for they say there is something existing from its own side)—that is the (measure of the) Prāsaṅgika School’s object of refutation. What the Svātantrikas believe to be correct—this is what you have to realize is empty! Things having an existence from their own side—even that is a hallucination and is completely empty. So what must be refuted is things existing being labeled, but not just labeled; things existing with something extra, something more than the mere label.”  What is required is understanding—as Lobsang Gyatso also highlights—the most subtle way in which dependently-existent things  exist is by way of being “dependently arisen in the sense of being mere imputations, upon a basis of designation, by a designating consciousness”. Ibid., 21. From the Prāsaṅgika School’s perspective, “the full import of reasoning of dependent-arising” is only revealed by them. Ibid. 44-5. Lobsang Gyatso elaborates:

Properly understood, the reason of dependent arising refutes any shadow of the existence of objects from their own side whatsoever. But it is very difficult to jump to the subtler explanations of dependent-arising straight away and one purpose of our introductory exploration of the other schools is to enable us first to focus precisely on just what the Consequentialists [Prāsaṅgikas] use the reasoning of dependent-arising to destroy–our instinctive assent to and grasping at the appearance of all and any phenomena to us as inherently existing, as having a mode of subsistence from the side of the object. If we think about and discuss the views of the other schools and then we meditate on them and try to bring them within the realm of our own experience we find that, while some of the various assertions of the different schools contradict each other, they all in the end contribute most helpfully towards shedding light on this instinctive, subtlest, most tenacious and most harmful ignorance of all.

Ibid. 45.

[8] Existence from the object’s own side (rang ngos nas grub pa, svarūpasiddhi).

[9] Writes Lama Tsongkhapa,

You maintain that when emptiness
Is perceived as dependent arising,
Emptiness of inherent existence
Will no longer be seen as contradicting
The validity of agent and action.

You also maintain that as long as [beings]
Hold [emptiness] as being in opposition to that
[dependent arising]
—that empty objects cannot function and
that agents cannot be empty
They will plunge into a frightening abyss.

See Lobsang Tharchin, The Key to the Treasury of Shunyata, 191.

[10] Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche is again glossing Tsongkhapa:

As yet, however, my life has not slipped
between the jaws of the Lord of Death
and, having a modicum of faith in you,
I do consider myself fortunate.

Among teachers, the teachers of dependent arising,
among knowledges, knowledge of dependent arising.
these two, like a mighty conqueror in the world,
you know to be supreme, where others do not.

Kilty, Splendor, 235




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