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Is "delusion" (moha) the same as "ignorance" (avijja)?


#1

The subject says it all — is “delusion” or “moha” (as in “greed, hatred, and delusion” — in the 3 poisons) the same as “ignorance” or “avijja” (which is the final fetter to fall away, resulting in becoming an arahant)? According to wikipedia, Mahayana Buddhism posits a distinction between the two.

The reason I’m asking is that I was reading through the beginning of the Itivuttaka, and one thing that struck me was verse 1.3:

This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: “Abandon one quality, monks, and I guarantee you non-return. Which one quality? Abandon delusion as the one quality, and I guarantee you non-return.”

There are similar passages that are almost identical, but with delusion (“moha”) replaced with another thing, like contempt or conceit. Apparently abandoning moha is not necessarily enough to become an Arahant. This suggests moha is not the same as avijja, as avijja is the final fetter that falls away at Arahantship.

I also found this comment from ven. @brahmali quoting Bhikkhu Bodhi quoting a commentary that lists moha and avijja separately:

“Vivaṭṭacchado: Here, having been born into the world, he dwells having entirely removed the covering in the world (loke taṃ chadanaṃ vivaṭṭetvā), in the darkness of defilements covered by seven coverings (chadanehi): lust, hatred, delusion, conceit, views, ignorance, and misconduct.”

Any thoughts/relevant suttas?


#2

Hi. Personally, I have never regarded the terms as synonymous. Without having done an in-depth examination of suttas, my impression is:

  • 'Avijja" (‘ignorance’) appears to refer to the most underlying single source of all defilements & unwholesome qualities (refer to SN 45.1 & AN 10.61); thus is the 1st condition of dependent origination (SN 12.2) . Where the primary single source of suffering was identified as craving (tanha) in the 1st sermon (SN 56.11), coming to realize the Four Noble Truths was called ‘vijja’ (the opposite of ‘avijja’). In other words, both avijja (ignorance) and tanha (craving) appear to be very general or broad terms.

  • It appears ‘moha’ (‘delusion’) was first used in the 3rd sermon (SN 35.28) together with greed (raga) and hatred (dosa), with which the sense bases are ablaze. If we do a sutta search for moho, it seems it is always or nearly always used together with greed (rago) & hatred (doso) and also in other lists of multitude specific defilements. Therefore, for me, ‘moha’ represents (later) manifestations of attachment, such as pride, conceit, possessiveness, fear, etc, which arise in relation to the sense bases.

  • The only sutta I am aware of that uses ‘avijja’ arising from sense bases together with greed & hatred is MN 148. However, MN 148 is referring to greed, hatred & ignorance as ‘underlying tendencies’ (‘anusaya’); thus ‘doso’ is not used but instead the underlying tendency of ‘paṭighā’ is used (per AN 7.11). Similarly, SN 22.81, being general rather than specific, refers to ‘ignorance’ (‘avijja’) tainting sense contact (avijjāsamphassajena), which causes ‘craving’ (‘tanha’) to arise. Therefore, ignorance & craving will be used here rather than lust (rago) & moha because SN 22.81 is a general teaching (of dependent origination).

  • Iti 68 below (and the similar Iti 69) was the only sutta I could find using both terms. While in the structure of the sutta both terms may appear used synonymously, this may not be the case, because ‘moho’ is used to describe entrapment by Mara (which can occur to any non-Arahant) where as ‘avijja’ is used to describe what an Arahant is free of. It seems Iti 68 & 69 support your citing of Iti 3, which says abandon delusion guarantees non-returning (but not Arahantship).

  • The later said, Iti 3 may not be a comprehensive guide to the topic because the impression is the delusion in Iti 3 obviously does not refer to the fetters of conceit & restlessness; which are also delusions.

This was said by the Lord…

“Bhikkhus, one in whom attachment (rāgo) is not abandoned, hate (doso) is not abandoned, and delusion (moho) is not abandoned, is said to be in the bondage of Māra; he is caught in Māra’s noose and at the mercy of the Evil One.

“Bhikkhus, one in whom attachment is abandoned, hate is abandoned, and delusion is abandoned, is said to be free from the bondage of Māra; he has cast off Māra’s noose and is not at the mercy of the Evil One.”

One who has destroyed attachment (rāgo)
Along with hate (doso) and ignorance (avijjā)
Is called one inwardly developed,
A Tathāgata become supreme,
Awakened, past enmity and fear,
One who has abandoned all.

Iti 68


#3

Moha is used as a root of bad kamma, whereas amoha is a root of good kamma (AN3.69). This must mean that there is a such a thing as amoha before arahantship, and even for the ordinary person, I would say. At its deepest level, however, moha is probably equivalent to avijjā.


#4

The term avijja, literally “without knowledge” seems to be an adoption from brahmanism (or at least it was generally used before the Buddha to refer to someone who wasn’t enlightened). Because tevijja = threefold knowledge = a tongue-in-cheek reference to the three Vedas.

To the Buddha of course “lack of knowledge” (avijja) meant not scriptural knowledge, but knowledge about reality. So then it becomes close to delusion.

Avijja refers indeed to moha, delusion. See AN3.66 where it is specifically so defined. Also Snp3.12 in a verse equates the two.

Of course it’s not exactly the same. Avijja refer to an absence of something (knowledge) while moha refers to the presence of something (delusion)

Sadly there is no good English word for avijja. Ignorance can have the wrong implications. Vij- is connected to wis- in wisdom. Dutch has “onwetendheid” = un-wis-ness. Which is a very good translation for avijja.


#5

Thanks, Everyone, for your responses!

It seems like moha is like an acute manifestation of avijja, though the terms can be basically interchangeable in some cases.


#6

Maybe. But lust (rago) and hatred (doso) are also manifestations of avijja. Each three manifestations of greed, hatred & delusion involve a not-knowing of their efficacy & results.