Translating "avijjā" as "not-knowing"

Dear forum

It appears “avijja” is universally translated as “ignorance”; even though it is generally understood “avijja” etymologically literally means “not-knowing” or “lack of knowledge”.

Are there any linguistic/grammatical reasons ruling out translating “avijja” as “not-knowing”?

Thank you :slightly_smiling_face:

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After a bhikkhu questions the Buddha about the meaning of ignorance in SN 56.17, this is the response:

Bhikkhu, not knowing suffering, not knowing the origin of suffering, not knowing the cessation of suffering, not knowing the way leading to the cessation of suffering: this is called ignorance, bhikkhu, and it is in this way that one is immersed in ignorance.

The Pali for “not knowing” above looks to be aññāṇa, but it appears the terms are very close in meaning. Going out on a limb, it seems avija is the not-knowing of something very profound with great implications, and perhaps depending on context, can serve to imply that lack of profundity outright with little to no explanation.

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Thank you SDC. The above never crossed my mind and appears very applicable & helpful. I think the distinction between ‘avijja’ & ‘aññāṇa’ warrants discussion & clarification. :face_with_monocle:

What do you think? Is aññāṇaṁ above nominative or accusative? :thinking:

SN 22.129 uses another Pali word as follows:

“Reverend Sāriputta, they speak of this thing called ‘ignorance’.
“‘avijjā, avijjā’ti, āvuso sāriputta, vuccati.

What is ignorance?
Katamā nu kho, āvuso, avijjā;

And how is an ignorant person defined?”
kittāvatā ca avijjāgato hotī”ti?

“Reverend, an uneducated ordinary person doesn’t truly understand the gratification, the drawback, and the escape when it comes to form,

“Idhāvuso assutavā puthujjano rūpassa assādañca ādīnavañca nissaraṇañca yathābhūtaṁ nappajānāti.

SN 22.129


present participle adjective

to know.

Mmm… upon reflection, yes, your limbnastics above was also helpful.

AN 10.61 says the five hindrances are the food (ahara) or sustainer of ignorance. Therefore, viewing this in a practical manner, it appears when the five hindrances thin-out or disappear, wisdom grows. Therefore, the “blindness” that is called “ignorance” may simply be the blinkers of the accumulations of the five hindrances (per SN 46.55, for example).

However, borrowing a phrase from SN 56.11, the Buddha said:

‘This is the noble truth of suffering.’ Such was the vision, knowledge, wisdom, realization, and light that arose in me regarding teachings not learned before from another.

‘Idaṁ dukkhaṁ ariyasaccan’ti me, bhikkhave, pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu cakkhuṁ udapādi, ñāṇaṁ udapādi, paññā udapādi, vijjā udapādi, āloko udapādi.

So ignorance appears to be about something the mind is totally clueless about.

Ven. Sujato translates ‘vijja’ as ‘realisation’ above. Ven. Bodhi uses ‘true knowledge’.

Thus, per Ven. Sujato above, ‘avijja’ may prospectively also be translated as ‘non-realisation’. :slightly_smiling_face:

I would never look to overplay my knowledge of Pali and at best would only be capable of a guess. I think it is better for the quality of the thread to leave it to others who know for sure.

Good find.

It does seem as though the depth of the meaning of avijja would encompass a lack of knowledge of Dhamma altogether, i.e. a lack of knowledge of the scope of the principle. Perhaps this stems from the usage of vijja at the time?

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Avijja is lack of wisdom or vision not the four noble truths and their four respective ennobling tasks.

In other words, a practical and debilitating ignorance of those truths and their implications.

Using the term ignorance is just fine, but surely it requires a proper investigation and gradual understanding of what it really means in terms of one understanding, practice and fruition of the path.

So, instead of changing the translation, one should ask oneself: " ignorance to what is meant here? "

From that angle, a lot can be understood and done.



I’m starting to delight in/attach to the prospective translation ‘non-realisation’. Its so dynamic! :dizzy:

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‘Not-knowing’ is not a word, that’s why you don’t find it.

‘Unknowing’ is a word, although a bit uncommon as a noun.

One of the reasons to translate it with a link to the concept of (theoretical) knowledge, is that it keeps the connection with the brahmin concept of vijja (i.e. veda). Brahmins thought that by knowing the texts and rituals (the Vedas) one would get liberated. But the Buddhist concept of knowledge was something else.

The three vijjas (past life memory, insight into rebirth, and enlightement) are also opposed to the three Vedas, see AN3.58.


Thank you Sunyo. I found the English word ‘nescience’ to be interesting. However, as posted, I really like the prospective translation ‘non-realisation’. ‘Non-realisation’ is more than mere ‘blindness’ but points to something very profound needing to be learned/discovered.

Wow. The above is useful. Wikipedia says:

Vidya primarily means “correct knowledge” in any field of science, learning, philosophy, or any factual knowledge that cannot be disputed or refuted… During the Vedic period, vidyādāna or the gift for the sake of education was considered to be the best of gifts, possessing a higher religious efficacy than even the gift of land. Vidyā comes from the root vid (“to know”); it therefore means knowledge, science, learning, lore, scholarship and philosophy… The word, Vidyā , does not occur in the Rig Veda, it occurs in the Atharvaveda and in the Brahmana portions of the Yajurveda

Therefore, it sounds logical for the Buddha to use the same terminology as the Brahmins yet point to a different realisation. Thank you again. :slightly_smiling_face:


I think the effect of the five hindrances upon the mind is that there is always a taste of ego and dissatisfaction, one feels bad, burdended.

What those hindrances prevent to see is that the nature of mind is not really like this, and is, in contrast, peaceful, not hungry, not craving this or that. But when the hindrances are in the mind you do not taste this and start to seek for an external solution for the suffering or burdening you taste.
I think that’s why they sustain ignorance. The peaceful nature of mind stays untasted.

When in jhana, or just at unexpacted moments, all five hindrances dissolve one can suddenly glimpse the nature of the mind without those hindrances and this is totally relaxed, not hungy, not needy. So one tastes that this suffering is not an inherent aspect of the mind. It might be to life but not to mind.

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“Nescience” is indeed a very interesting word to consider, lacking knowledge(for whatever reason). “Ignorance” can mean that I’m unaware of or haven’t been taught or that I just don’t comprehend. Since the root of ignorance is ignore, it might also point to being aware of or knowing something but choosing to ignore it.

The Buddha used a lot of negatives and double negatives, so “not-knowing” doesn’t ruffle my feathers


I also like that in Buddha-Dhamma ignorance is not only about true knowledge (having a certain knowledge) but especially about how that knowledge has really ended defilements (anusaya, asava, tanha, kilesa). So it also refers to a fruit, a result. From MN36:

…"But as to how to define whether someone is deluded or not, listen and pay close attention, I will speak.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Saccaka.

The Buddha said this:

“Whoever has not given up the defilements (i belief here is refered to asava’s, Green)corruptions that lead to future lives and are hurtful, resulting in suffering and future rebirth, old age, and death—is deluded, I say. For it’s not giving up the defilements that makes you deluded. Whoever has given up the defilements—corruptions that lead to future lives and are hurtful, resulting in suffering and future rebirth, old age, and death—is not deluded, I say. For it’s giving up the defilements that makes you not deluded.

The Realized One has given up the defilements—corruptions that lead to future lives and are hurtful, resulting in suffering and future rebirth, old age, and death.

In that sense, it seems impossible that one cannot be not-ignorant or not-deluded with defilements still arising in the mind. So in that sense a measure for avijja can be…is there or is there not still defilement?

I also think avijja is gradual, like hate and greed. It gradually weakens. Some say moha is the strongest form of avijja and is not present anymore in a Sotapanna, but i have not seen this in the EBT.

One might have very much knowledge, wordly, intellectually, intuition, gnosis, mystic, but it seems the Buddha teaches that one is still deluded as long as defilements are not really uprooted.
So in that sense the measure of ignorance can be the degree of defilement. Only an arahant has really overcome the avijja-anusaya.

Is stream-entrance the end of ignorance? If measured against the above i do not think so. There are still a lot of defilements. Is the opening of the Dhamma-eye the end of ignorance?

What is the counterpart of ignorance?”
“Knowledge.” (MN44)