Ignorance and the root of suffering

The suttas rarely define the “root of suffering”. When they do so, we have desire, relishing, attachment, greed as the root of suffering (e.g., MN1).

We also have the ten fetters of which ignorance is one (AN10.13):

Bhikkhus, there are these ten fetters. What ten? The five lower fetters and the five higher fetters. And what are the five lower fetters? Personal-existence view, doubt, wrong grasp of behavior and observances, sensual desire, and ill will. These are the five lower fetters. And what are the five higher fetters? Lust for form, lust for the formless, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. These are the five higher fetters. These, bhikkhus, are the ten fetters.

These are clear and in the suttas. From these,

can one assert “ignorance is the root of suffering?”
can one assert “ignorance is NOT the root of suffering?”

Both of these statements feel wrong and misleading and I cannot explain well why I should feel this way.

(from Buddhist Stack Exchange)

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Interesting question.
In the suttas of SN15 we have the sentence:

No first point is found of sentient beings roaming and transmigrating, hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.

To me there’s an element of mutual support between ignorance and craving.

Note that ignorance here means lack of knowledge and vision of the four Noble truths, as this dooms the whole process of dependent origination behind the continued flow of beginingless transmigration.

This is supported by what we see in AN10.61 and AN10.62:



I think the Buddha is rather explicit in attributing the “root of suffering” solely to avijjā/ignorance and this is clear in his explanation of dependent origination. All other factors or contributors are constituents of ignorance resulting in suffering.

Without ignorance you wouldn’t have suffering. This is fundamental. The answer.

On the Buddha Stock Exchange page you posted the question one of the answers states:
“The question requires understanding exactly what the word “mūla” (“root”) is meant to mean in terms of its general usage (which I cannot answer at this current time and requires a contextual analysis of the texts). However, given “attachment” actually is suffering itself, the word “root” may not mean a “preceding cause” (“hetu”) but be something much closer to the subject/thing.”

This individual then goes on to cite a couple different passages with the use of mūla(“root”) and mūlena(”bottom”), which makes sense to do and doesn’t seem at all like a wrong approach but isn’t this splitting hairs. I say this because to me it appears fundamentally obvious through the establishment of dependent origination that suffering is born of avijjā and dies from vijjā.

That simple. Maybe I am missing some nuance here, but I don’t think so.


If the Buddha is explicit, then I should be able to find avijjā dukkhassa mūlan’ti, but cannot. This is such a simple statement to make. And yet it is not found in the suttas. Why?

When I practice, I am alert to craving, delight, relishing, attachment. If phenomena do not pass, I acknowledge that ignorance exists. Craving disappears as true wisdom arises. I would not know how to practicing being alert to ignorance alone–it would lead to a craving for knowledge. Craving, delight, relishing, attachment are fires. I can see the fire and be wary. Ignorance is darkness. The darkness of ignorance is enticing for its blind comfort. To cut the root of suffering we must notice that root. How does one know the root? By the fires of craving, delight, relishing and attachment.

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Yes. Ignorance and craving interlock.

We even have from Dependent Origination SN12.1 suffering originates in ignorance. This is almost, almost but not quite “ignorance is the root of suffering”. I can see a root, but not ignorance:

Ignorance is a condition for …(DO sequence)…That is how this entire mass of suffering originates

The difficulty I would have in claiming that ignorance is the root of suffering is that I cannot see ignorance directly. Ignorance is a blindness:

Mendicants, it is said that no first point of ignorance is evident, before which there was no ignorance, and afterwards it came to be.

With my eyes open or closed I cannot see ignorance. I only see that I was ignorant when wisdom arises. But I can see craving, relishing, attachment and desire. These are bright and give warning of themselves. When it is said that “X is the root of suffering”, I would see and cut X by allowing true wisdom to arise. This is the only way I have been able to deal with my own suffering.

I am a gardener. I can see a root. I cannot see ignorance. Because of this, I simply cannot say “Ignorance is the root of suffering”. It literally makes no sense to me. I can however say that “Ignorance is the origination of suffering”.

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Because perphaps that exact phrase wasn’t spoken by the Buddha according to the Suttapiṭaka, but he didn’t have to use those three words together to make that point unequivocally clear. He made the point clear in many, many suttas especially those that focused on dependent origination.

Just because he didn’t uses that exact phrase shouldn’t cause confusion regarding the “root cause of suffering.” His whole dispensation is predicated on the notion that avijjā is the total cause of dukkha and if avijjā is replaced by vijjā you get the nirodha of dukkha.


I completely agree with this. Absolutely. avijjā breeds dukkha. Yes.

I simply cannot find and let go of avijjā without the help of seeing craving, attachment, desire , and relishing. I meditated for a fifteen years watching ignorance fade, comfortable in the conceit that I was becoming wise. Then I stood on a cliff and clung to my life and knew I was a fool. I was ignorant. The fire of craving life burned bright. I could not see that ignorance even though it was there. That for me is the truth of “delight is the root of suffering”. For this reason I could never say “ignorance is the root of suffering”.

I think your mistaking “personal truth(puggalikasacca)” and “noble/universal truth(ariyasacca)” in you account:

because you realized you hadn’t eradicated ignorance ( a personal truth, true to you specifically), but remember the Buddha’s teaching is a gradual training and you eventually get to the eradication of ignorance. You can’t start a race at the finishline. You lose delight in a progression before you eventually lose ignorance and that is a noble/universal truth across the board according to the suttas. This is the third noble truth. There is cessation. And it is through the eradication of ignorance.


And this is exactly why I could never say that “Ignorance is not the root of suffering”. It would be false.


I had a error in my typing check the edit. And added a couple words that needed putting in.

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Thank you all for helping my struggle here. I have posted a proposed answer on BSE and will coordinate feedback across the sites as necessary.

Thanks to SuttaCentral I would propose an answer.

A root can be seen. Ignorance is blindness. From Root of Existence, in our practice we should perceive the root of suffering as craving, delight, relishing and attachment. For this reason, saying that “ignorance is the root of suffering” is misleading because one cannot see one’s own ignorance.

From Dependent Origination we have “Ignorance is the condition for…old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress”. Or even “Suffering originates in ignorance”. For this reason it is misleading to say that “ignorance is not the root of suffering”.

I would like to accept this but will await comment. I have also edited the question to reflect what was asked on SC.

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I recommend consulting the Oxford dictionary regarding the meaning of “root

Oxford Living Dictionary

You seem to be mixing together two totally different definitions of the word.

2The basic cause, source, or origin of something.
‘money is the root of all evil’
‘jealousy was at the root of it’
as modifier ‘the root cause of the problem’

In the context that mūla (“root”) is being used here it doesn’t need a visual/knowing qualifier for validity regarding avijjā. You don’t have to actively see avijjā to know it exists, just know it when insight reveals it to you. Thus, you must practice meditation, not study the words.



Practicing meditation has brought me here. Not words. I am slowly trying to learn Pali. It is difficult. I do agree that there are multiple meanings here. English is my first language. I was taught in British private schools and am well aware of the Oxford dictionary.

The ambiguity is what makes the word root so powerful. It helps orient my practice. Gives it a concrete, actionable energy. I would be completely adrift and confused looking for ignorance. When, however, in my practice I see the glow of delight, it shouts danger (fire!). Oh that pretty sight. No thank you. If I awake to reality after distraction, I look back to see where mindfulness left, and I have always found the ashes of delight.

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I don’t see the ambiguity that you seem to see, I guess .

To me when the Buddha says the cause of dukkha goes all the way back to avijjā through the twelve steps of paṭiccasamuppāda that would make avijjā the origin, source and the root(all three words are synonyms) of dukkha. There isn’t even a clear semantic difference between these words in this context. And it’s is just a linguistic preference by the translator to use any one of these words. The meaning is retained equally by all.

We’re definitely not on the same page here.


It is indeed perplexing. We both speak from the truth of our individual practice. Thanks to the discussion I am learning new perspectives. :pray:

(and I’ve realized it’s cumbersome to keep both sites updated, so the link to the actively edited answer is here)

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I’m gonna be honest here and say I believe you are assigning a difference without a distinction with the word mūla and it being translated as “root’,” when there are two other equally valid words perfectly suitable for it that also have zero ambiguity as well.

Couldn’t agree more!
Metta :heart:

Putting ignorance as the root of suffering is a way of dismissing the second truth that the cause of suffering is craving.
As result someone could see the path as being the path of removing ignorance instead of what it should be, the path of removing craving. This is what I see when people think that vipassana meditation (there is not such a practice in the EBT) is the path to awakening, where by just staying with what is ultimately ignorance will go. This has been called spiritual bypassing.


Are you aware of this course, Karl?


Maybe this article by Bhikkhu Analayo can be of some interest here:

The underlying tendencies—one of them being ignorance—are something rather subliminal that cannot be observed and addressed directly, but there are still ways to uproot them (again, the word ‘root’) clearly pointed out in the EBTs.

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Yes, and when we look at both AN10.61 and AN10.62 we see that beside being aware that craving and ignorance are two aspects of the same problem (of beginingless transmigration) our efforts and priority should be to identify and associate with good people.

By doing so we are kickstarting a natural process that will eventually lead to the uprooting or abandoning of both craving and ignorance, and all the suffering that comes with it.

"It’s like when it rains heavily on a mountain top, and the water flows downhill to fill the hollows, crevices, and creeks.
As they become full, they fill up the pools.
The pools fill up the lakes, the lakes fill up the streams, and the streams fill up the rivers.
And as the rivers become full, they fill up the ocean.
That’s the fuel for the ocean, and that’s how it’s filled up.
In the same way, when the factor of associating with good people is fulfilled, it fulfills the factor of listening to the true teaching.
When the factor of listening to the true teaching is fulfilled, it fulfills the factor of faith … proper attention … mindfulness and situational awareness … sense restraint …the three kinds of good conduct … the four kinds of mindfulness meditation … the seven awakening factors. When the seven awakening factors are fulfilled, they fulfill knowledge and freedom.
That’s the fuel for knowledge and freedom, and that’s how it’s fulfilled.”