|Dumb is dumb, but it's usually not so obvious.|
Saturday, June 27, 2020
Ignorance — the Greatest Taint
Ananda Pereira, Escape to Reality: Buddhist Essays (Wheel Publication No. 45/46, Buddhist Publication Society, BPS.lk) edited by Pat Macpherson and Dhr. Seven, Wisdom Quarterly
Misconduct is a taint in a person, stinginess a taint in a benefactor. All taints are unskillful indeed, in this world and the next. A worse taint than such as these is ignorance, the greatest taint. Abandoning this taint, achieve perfection, O meditators.
A Buddhist is sometimes asked why the Buddha did not tell people about certain things that are thought to be known today but were not known to his contemporaries. If he were omniscient, they argue, he must surely have known all about the solar system, as we think it is today, the galaxy, and so on.
Why then did he not correct false notions about these and other matters? The question is reasonable enough, provided the questioner is rather smug about what we know today, and chooses to ignore the whole purpose of the Buddha’s life.
To underline the smugness first, can we really presume to be dogmatic about our present views thinking they are the final word on any matter, or is all we believe we know subject to constant revision in light of further data?
For all we know, we may be as far from the truth today as were the people of the Stone Age. A thousand years from now, if abusive governments wielding nuclear weapons have not made a dead planet of earth, people may consider our present ideas as more or less on a level with pre-Copernican views of the geocentric structure of the universe.
So to a buddha's mind, the ideas that will be in vogue a thousand years from now may be as fanciful and obviously untenable as some things were in the past. But more important than this is the question of what the Buddha strived to tell people, because it was vitally necessary for their awakening from delusion and liberation from suffering.
Once, near a forest, he picked up a handful of leaves and compared them with all the foliage around him. What was in his hand illustrated what he taught compared to what he knew, which were represented by the leaves in the forest.
Yet, what he taught was sufficient for a being’s liberation from suffering. Nothing that needed to be said was left unsaid by the supreme physician, the enlightened teacher. It would surely be naïve to assume that such a being would bother to correct the world’s wrong ideas about such matters as the structure of the physical world.
Just as a parent sees no harm in a child’s happy belief in Santa Claus, so the Buddha saw no harm in existing ideas about the structure of the world. It did not matter whether people thought the sun moved round the earth or the earth around the sun. Nor will it ever matter to anybody who values the ultimate truth and the world of mind over the material world as relevant to human progress.
A human may be good and wise, although s/he believes that if one travels far enough one will come to the edge of the universe. Many people, much better and wiser than we, have held that belief.
The Buddha was not concerned with knowledge as an end in itself. What then is that ignorance which he condemned as being "the greatest taint"? It is the ignorance that stands in the way of a being’s progress to liberation from suffering, the ignorance that feeds the fires of greed and hate, the ignorance that keeps us wandering, life after life, cycling through the Wheel of Rebirth and Redeath (samsara).
We are all steeped in this ignorance, however smart and knowledgeable we may think we are. We have not realized that all phenomena are radically transient, not worth clinging to, ever hurtling toward destruction, to be let go of. So we cling and crave and hope and plan, sowing seeds of further rebirth in this sorrow-laden world of fleeting shadows.
Of what advantage, in this context, is the knowledge that the earth moves around the sun or the other way around? All the discoveries of "science" have not helped humanity a hair’s breadth forward on the road to happiness and enlightenment. Indeed, human folly is so great that the more we learn about the material world, the smaller and meaner we seem to become.
Today humanity has become so mean that it finds difficulty in seeing any alternative to suicide, like a scorpion stinging itself to death with its own venom. If this is to be the result of knowledge, it is better to know less. Perhaps the Buddha foresaw this when he withheld from the world so much of what he knew.
He came to teach the path of practice that leads an individual to direct wisdom, not to impart useless and possibly dangerous dogma, knowledge, or faith. More