How We Create Ignorance

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Kopan Monastery, Nepal (Archive #1587)

Lama Zopa Rinpoche discusses ignorance, the root of samsara, in this excerpt from Lecture Two of Kopan Course 39, held at Kopan Monastery, Nepal in November-December 2006. Lightly edited by Gordon McDougall.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at the Twelfth Kopan Meditation Course, Kathmandu, Nepal, 1979. Photo: Ina Van Delden.

I want to try to clarify a little bit how we create ignorance according to the Prasangika Madhyamaka school. That ignorance is the creator of all our suffering, it is the creator of our death, which we don’t like even to hear about. We don’t want to talk about or think about it. It’s where death, rebirth and old age come from, as well as all 424 sicknesses, all the curable and incurable diseases including cancer. That ignorance is where all the global problems come from, and the problems of every individual person in the six realms, including all the relationship problems. Now that you have gone through the sufferings of the six realms, with the sufferings of each realm and the general sufferings of samsara, it’s easy to get the idea.

Where all this comes from is our mind, from this ignorance, this unknowing mind. Including diabetes. I have diabetes so I must remember that this is where it comes from! It is the very root where all the problems of tsunamis and earthquakes come from. Those huge waves that wash away hotels and whole towns or cities, killing so many people. It is very interesting that the animals, the elephants or those cows, ran away to the mountains before the earthquake happened, whereas many people died. Just before this happened, they ran away to the mountains and the people didn’t understand, otherwise they would have run away too. The other day, this happened in Indonesia or Thailand or somewhere; a little bit before it happened, the animals ran away to the mountains.

What is the very root where all these problems come from? They all come from this root, from the ignorance holding the I and aggregates as truly existent. In other words, because we trust them, we hold onto them as truly existent. It is this ignorance that has that apprehension.

How do we create this ignorance, this root of samsara? First, there is the mind seeing the base, the aggregates—the body walking or sitting, the mind meditating or thinking of food! You have taken the eight Mahayana precepts, so you might be hungry! So, you are thinking of food or whatever. Depending on what the aggregates are doing, the mind focuses on the aggregates, which is the base to be labeled “I.” The mind that is focused on the aggregates, that same thought then makes up the label “I,” thinking up the name, just making up the label “I” and believing in that.

So first, the mind focuses on the aggregates, the base, and whatever activity it is doing. Then, it makes up the label “I” and believes in that. It makes up the name “I” and believes in that. The next second, as soon as that is done, the I that has received the label appears back. Now, here is the problem! When it appears back, it doesn’t appear back as merely labeled by mind, which is the reality, which is true. When it appears back, it appears back as totally false, as not merely labeled by the mind. That means it appears back as existing from its own side, it appears back as something additional, something beyond what is merely labeled by mind, as existing from its own side. When it appears back to the mind, it appears as existing from its own side.

The way the I appears back is false. The definition of false is that which is contradictory to how it exists in reality. The reality is the I has been merely imputed by the mind just now, just the moment before, therefore it exists in mere name, therefore it is totally empty of existing from its own side. The moment before it appeared back as not merely imputed by the mind, it was just that, merely imputed, merely named by the mind.

What I, the self, is, is nothing except what is merely imputed by the mind. Without needing to explain it separately, being merely imputed by the mind means it is empty of existing from its own side. The I exists. It exists depending on the base. It exists in relation to the aggregates—the base—and the thought that labels the “I.” Depending on those two, it exists, therefore it exists in mere name. That means it exists, but it is empty. It is empty but it is not totally nonexistent. It exists in mere name, merely imputed by mind; it is empty of existing from its own side; it is empty of being not merely labeled by mind.