Ignorance and the root of suffering


One of my favourite similes! :heart: :heart: :heart:


This is new to me.:heart:

Sadhu sadhu sadhu :pray:


I have meditated more on this and slept on it.

I am a gardener.

I grow the food I eat. I see seeds. I see the earth. I see the water. I see the air. I see the fire of the sun. From these I see the plants. I see the weed. I cut the weed. It comes back. I see the root of the weed. I uproot the weed. The weed does not come back. This is what I see.

When I see a seed, I cannot see if it be good or bad. I am stupid that way. Others are not. When I see a weed, I know it for suffering. When I pull the roots of the weed, ALL the roots of the weed, then this whole mass of weed and suffering does not come back. This is what I see.

I have faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. I have faith in the translations of the suttas. I have faith that when I pull the root of existence, it will not come back. And then there will be no more weeding or seeds of ignorance. This is what I see.



I know what you’re talking about. I just spent 27 months on a very rural farm/vineyard in south eastern Iowa (something of an ideal meditation retreat) and have been gardening since I was a child with my father.

This is right. The root of existence is ignorance and the root of suffering also ignorance. They go hand in hand.

There is no ambiguity. It is very clear in my view.

In your orginal post that started this thread you said you felt ‘ignorance is the root of suffering’ was wrong and misleading…
Again in your last post you said:

The root of existence is ignorance as explained by the Buddha, of course. So have you changed you stance since the original post or not? Do you still feel mislead by the statement that ‘ignorance is the root of suffering?’

Not to disrespectfully disassemble your analogy, but when gardening you romove a weed by the entire root(of the plant) and that particular weed is gone, however, a half dozen ‘new’ weeds are waiting in line to replace the extracted one. I would argue that this garden weeding analogy would much better apply to āsavas(effluents/defilements) not existence as a whole. Where as biology is the root cause of all weeds(the definition of a weed is entirely subjective, by the way) and the seeds they sprout from. The removal of biology as a factor would have a similar sweeping permanent result as the elimination ignorance as the original root(not using this word in the biological meaning) cause of existence.

I really like your analogy, don’t get me wrong, but it seems much better for individual āsavas, not the fundamental original cause of it all.

I could be wrong.


The self that posted the question is not the one typing.

Ignorance is the root of suffering. Ignorance is not the root of suffering

The discomfort I felt and still feel is that I associate root of suffering with the word of the Buddha. It is a key phrase in the canon. For me to say either phrase would be wrong and a complete misrepresentation of what the Buddha actually said. If any enlightened person representing the living Buddha would say either of these phrases, I would have no issue. I do not know you personally, so I cannot say what you can say. I only know what I can say.

(By the way, I am well aware of DO. The issue here is not comprehension. It is right speech)


No one wants to misrepresent the Buddha I hope. Though it does happen. It certainly did happen when he was alive.


It might be worth remembering that early Buddhist texts were not recorded in English. “Root,” as used in the subject heading for this thread is a linguistic representation for an abstract concept, namely, causation. In other words, “root” used in this context is a metaphor. As with all metaphors, it imperfectly captures an abstract concept because there is no perfect way to translate experiences into language in a way that makes a one-to-one connection between that concept and its linguistic representation. So when people speaking English refer to any cause as a “root” of its effect, there is is inevitable ambiguity.

It is more productive to use as literal language as possible when discussing abstract concepts, keeping in mind that all language is a mix of literal and metaphorical expression. So when using a metaphor such as “root” to mean causation, best to acknowledge upfront the limitations of the metaphor to capture the concepts that are under examination.

Edit: “Root” could also serve as a metaphor for the concept of origination, which is different from causation. This only further reinforces my point that all metaphors are inherently ambiguous in the meanings they convey and therefore warrant caution when deploying them in a discussion of abstract concepts.


The Buddha spoke to all. Even nibbhana was used to refer to the cooling of rice (The Island). The suttas rely on analogy to convey meaning to the broadest audience. For example, we have The Seed.

The subtle use of root in MN1 is a case in point. MN1 relates the perception afforded different levels of practice. Buddha was well aware of farming. And all farmers know that origination of a plant is from seed. MN1 deals pragmatically with how the root of existence as perceived should be dealt with. Itś a root, hence can be perceived/seen. However the root is NOT the seed (i.e., origination). Literally. This would have been crystal clear to farmers of that age. Today in our age of metaphor, these literal words are a bit looser and imprecise. We think of root as origination. It is not. Plants originate in seeds and are fed by roots. You cannot take away the seed to stop suffering–it is long gone. You can however, uproot the plant.

As far as I know, nowhere in the Pali Canon is it said directly that the root of ignorance is or is not suffering. The commentaries do in fact sometimes say that ignorance/delusion is the root (of the wheel of rebirth, etc.). We do have delight as the root of suffering. And the literal analogy is quite accurate. The root feeds the plant. Desire feeds suffering. Literally. In fact, even with ignorance gone and fully aware of the truth of suffering and its birth from unwary ignorance, we can still fool ourselves into feeding the plant and stroking the desire. To end suffering, take up the root. Desire.

Remarkably, MN1 does not say that desire is the root of suffering. Instead nandi is used. What is remarkable is that the lightest meaning of nandi is delight. We all understand craving as bad. But delight? How could delight be bad? The innocent flight of the butterfly on the summer day–how could that be bad? Then much later we see the caterpillar and understand that the delight of the butterfly will always be connected to the suffering of the plant.


@karl_lew I find your observation about mūla intriguing. It seems possible that this Pali word was intentionally chosen by the Buddha because of it’s double meaning (causation as well as biological root), especially since there are, I believe, other Pali words that don’t have such multiple meanings (hetu, paccaya). I am not a linguist, so I can only imagine that there are ways to determine if this is plausible. In any case, the English translation as “root”, which has the some double meaning seems quite appropriate.

Are you familiar with ?


It could be that it is more relatable to an agrarian society and not as obtuse or abstract as some other words.


I was not aware. Thank you.

Amusingly, I was born in the year of the Monkey and love bananas. I laughed when I read your referenced sutta.


I think its same meaning, the root, the cause etc, but what is different and argueable is the understanding of ignorance.

From our standing point of view, we can only understand this much because blinded by the choices, names, feeling, craving. If the fruitation occurs and one is enlightened , he might be able to understand but might be unable to explain.

I’d like to add another interesting point of view of avijja ; the unknown, ignorance.

The knowledge we all had is very limited, in fact the more we know , the more we do not know.

The scientist has already proved these, the more they find out about atoms, they found out that there’s even smaller particles than atoms, more unknown. The more they travel through space and universe, now they found out the unobservable universe which is way vast than the observeable universe.

Limitation of the knowledge, intellectual mind, and physical world. One would eventually questioning all his knowledge, the sources, and then, by never arriving to a conclusion, he admit he actually dont know a single thing in everything. All the names, identification, knowledge, conceptual thinking, do we ever really know anything at all?

Buddha helps us build ladders, then we climb, but upon reaching the last door, the unknown, even the ladders we must clear up. If a SE is uncertain for their attainment, sadagami, anagami even more uncertain. An Arahant, absolutely uncertain.

If we let go all of our limitations and small size knowledges, whats left? I’d picked : sense.
One would start all over again the meditation process, and only sense, without acknowledgment, there might lies the truth, sensing the emptiness of self; anatta. To go beyond avijja and vijja, the duality of ignorance and knowledge, One must surrender entirely .One might lose the fetter : avijja. Avijja ; The Ignorance, the source of creation, the root in dependant origination.



Hi Karl,

I’ve been following this thread for a while and find it very interesting.

I think you are making a very good point in that ignorance is not visible, or only in retrospect.

But I’m a bit amazed about your insisting that roots are visible. They are not.

I have also some experience with gardening, though not a professional gardener. And what I can see of a root is only that part that has already been pulled out of the ground. What is still in the ground I cannot see. And often enough my experience has been when trying to pull out a root that I suspected it to go on for, lets’s say, another 3 or 5 cm, but then it turned out to be 50 cm, 1 m, or more! I can’t see what is still in the ground.

The same for a tree for example: Very few people are aware that the root of a tree has approximately the same scope as its crown—it’s invisible. You have to dig it out in order to see it.

This is another point that is true in some cases, but not always. New plants can originate from seeds, but also grow from stems, leaves, or roots. It depends on the type of plant and the circumstances. In the suttas there is for example the simile of a tree that has been cut down, but as long as its root hasn’t been dug out it can grow again from this root. And there is one type of tree (Banyan tree, if I remember well?) that doesn’t work in this way: When the trunk has been cut it won’t grow again. That’s the way the defilements / suffering / ignorance need to be cut.

Also, in Buddhism we don’t find the idea of a “first cause” or “original origin” or something like that. It all goes on in cycles, and there is no identifiable first beginning, in nothing.


Marvelous point!!
The Buddha said that there is no first point decernable by beings wandering-on. That was a very radical view to hold back then and it is still to this today.

There is something about humans that we want to be able to point and say this is the beginning or source of creation, maybe because we want to be reassured of some concrete reason for being/existence. Like a purpose. But the Buddha kinda laid out that there is no purpose, just avijjā.


Funnily enough, the Buddhist version of “creation myth” starts with something along the lines of "There comes a time when the world ends… " (DN 27, en/sujato, #SC 10.1).


Absolutely true. Roots are not visible. They are buried in ignorance. And…

We first see the suffering, the weed. Curious, we follow the stem down to the ground, to the boundary of the perceived and the beginning of ignorance. And then we see the root/stem junction. And we take a little dirt away. More root is seen, and then more. It takes diligent work to reveal all the roots and make them visible to the light of awareness. It requires careful attention to uproot a mature weed. If we simply slam in a shovel we might leave some of the roots. Slowly clearing the dirt away, more root becomes visible. If we pull too hard, the root snaps and the weed grows again. And so, diligently, carefully, we tease out the roots, breaking none, making all the roots visible. When all the roots are visible, we take the weed in our hand and move it to the compost heap for recycling.

To weed, we brush away the dirt of ignorance to reveal all the roots as seen.


I rather like to think of this as the definition of avijja

“Mendicants, there are these four distortions of perception [saññāvipallāsā], mind [cittavipallāsā], and view [dittivipallāsā]. What four?

  1. Taking impermanence as permanence.
  2. Taking suffering as happiness.
  3. Taking not-self as self.
  4. Taking ugliness as beauty.

These are the four distortions of perception, mind, and view.

There are these four corrections of perception, mind, and view. SuttaCentral

When focused on impermanence it becomes possible to become aware when we take something as long lasting like a problem that may arise and we see it as inherently permanent when it isn’t.