Monday, 27 October 2014

Buddhist Agnoiology? Agnotology in Buddhism?

The word “agnoiology” is said to mean “the science or study of ignorance, which determines its quality and conditions” or “the doctrine concerning those things of which we are necessarily ignorant,” and it is said to describe a branch of philosophy studied by James Frederick Ferrier in the nineteenth century. I employ expressions such as “said to be mean/be” to suggest that I am not an authority on the topic and hence I do hold accountable for its correctness, reliability, and the difficulties such statements might entail. Similarly, “agnotology” (formerly “agnatology”), a neologism coined by Robert N. Proctor, Stanford University professor, specializing in the history of science and technology, is said to be “the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.” More generally, the term is also said to highlight “the increasingly common condition where more knowledge of a subject leaves one more uncertain than before.”

My interest here is mainly whether we can speak of a “Buddhist agnoiology,” and to a lesser degree, whether we can speak of “agnotology in Buddhism.” I think we sure can. One may define “Buddhist agnoiology” as the “the science or study of ignorance from a Buddhist perspective.” Just as we may talk of “Buddhist epistemology” or “Buddhist gnoseology,” we can well talk of “Buddhist agnoiology.” I like it. Some venues for exploration would be the ideas of “nescience” (avidyā: ma rig pa), “disorientedness” (moha: gti mig), “lack of knowledge/cognition” (ajñāna: ma shes pa). How have these terms been defined or understood or used? What types of ignorance or nescience can we trace in Buddhist sources? What are lhan cig skyes pa’i ma rig pa (i.e. “innate non-cognition”?) and kun tu brtags (or btags?) pa’i ma rig pa (i.e. “acquired non-cognition”?)? This distinction, though not quite clear to me, seems important. It seems to suggest that there are types of ignorance we are born with and other types we acquire through indoctrination. What about ma rtogs palog par rtog pa, and phyogs tsam rtogs pa? What about the idea of duḥprajñā (shes rab ’chal ba)? What about ’dres pa’i ma rig pa and ma ’dres pa’i ma rig pa? Are all kinds or degrees of ignorance or non-cognition obstructive or impedimentary to the attainment of vimokṣa or vimukti? The Mahāyānic answer seems to be in the negative. This is suggested by the idea of jñeyāvaraṇa (shes bya’i sgrib pa), a kind of obscuration that hinders one to know all objects of knowledge. One can possess such a subtle kind of ignorance or nescience and yet one could attain the state of an Arhatship. To become a buddha, however, one must eradicate all traces of nescience, for a buddha is said to possess omniscience. (Note, however, that there seems to be several concepts of omniscience in Buddhism.) Such a subtle nescience can be due to the spatial remoteness of the object of knowledge, or, due to the temporal remoteness of the object of knowledge, or, due to the infinity-cum-transcendentality of the object of knowledge (e.g. qualities of a buddha), or, due to the subtlety of the object of knowledge (e.g. causes and conditions necessary for giving rise to a single multi-colored patch of a peacock’s feather). Tibetan Buddhist sources would describe the idea of the “four causes of non-cognition“ (mi shes pa’i rgyu bzhi) that even a traditional arhant is said to be subject to. Of course, to understand “Buddhist agnoiology,” we will have to understand the reverse side of the coin, namely, “Buddhist Epistemology” and “Buddhist gnoseology.” Buddhist logic and epistemology would reveal a great deal about the Buddhist concepts of non-perception, non-cognition, misperception, misconception, perceptual and conceptual errors, and syllogistic fallacies of various kinds.

And what about “agnotology in Buddhism”? Can we talk of a kind of culturally induced ignorance in Buddhism? Perhaps we can but only to a certain extent and in certain contexts. Some Buddhist masters might discourage acquiring knowledge that is not of direct relevance to the attainment of Arhathood or Buddhahood. That is to say, they might indirectly encourage certain form/degree of ignorance. Some Tibetan Buddhist masters are said to discourage or even prohibit their disciples, especially young monks and nuns, to study, with the argument that they would not remain in the monastery if they were to study. In other words, such masters prefer that their disciples remain ignorant! Should this turn out to be true, it would be a case in which an effort is made by some sections of the society to induce ignorance so that the status quo can be maintained. Although I can neither sympathize with these masters nor can I conscientiously endorse such an attitude, I must, however, mention that Buddhism does recognize the existence of knowledge or cognition that is considered useless, for example, the knowledge about the number of worms in the world. Also investigations and treatises such as those dealing with the “analysis of crows‘ teeth” (bya rog so brtag) are considered to be totally futile.

What about the idea that “ignorance is bliss”? Usually in Buddhism: “Ignorance is suffering/painful” (mi shes pa ni sdug bsngal lo). On the other hand, we do find some sources which suggest that “ignorance can be bliss.” If I am not mistaken, Āryadeva has suggested that if a common person were to know or see the sufferings of the entire world, he or she would die then and there. That is to suggest that if we do not know or see the suffering of the world, we tend to be naive and happy. Why? My explanation is that we cannot often psychologically cope with the reality or truth! This would bring us to the Buddhist idea of kṣānti. It is often rendered as “patience” or “tolerance,” but if we take the entire semantic range or spectrum of the term, “patience” or “tolerance” does not seem to work. Particularly consider the expression: mi skye ba’i chos la bzod pa. It seems to make no sense to understand “tolerance with regard to the phenomena which is characterized by non-arising.” Thus I am tempted to understand kṣānti in Buddhism as the intellectual and psychological capacity or readiness of the mind to confront reality or truth (no matter how painful, dreadful, unpleasant, subtle, or profound). To cope with reality, truth, or knowledge or cognition, one would require the necessary courage to confront it. Buddhist sources speak of “fear for emptiness,” that is, comparable to horror vacui or kenophobia. In my view, it is because of the phobia for reality, truth, knowledge, or cognition, that people induce or resort to ignorance, rejection, and denialism. 

What about the idea of docta ignorantia in Buddhism? I would suppose the idea of “learned ignorance” would be cherished by the wise/learned ones in Buddhism as a very useful convention. Usually people in the society transact on a conventional level and those conventions adopted by the wise and the learned are said to be preferable. For example, the distinction between “good and bad,” or, “wholesome and unwholesome” is occasionally said to be whether or not something is found to be “irreproachable or reproachable by the wise/learned.” If a fool knows or does not know something, it may not mean much or anything! If a learned/wise person does not know something, it would mean something! So much for now on Buddhist agnoiology and agnotology in Buddhism. 


  1. But you know it's important to translate docta ignorantia as the two-syllable learnéd ignorance, and not just a kind of ignorance that you learned. At least that's my understanding. It refers to limitations the learned doctors have to their knowledge. Anyone who has spent much time in the academic world knows there is a whole lot of it there.

    Someone recently wrote a study of ignorance that I have to confess I haven't read. In it I wonder if he is learnéd enough to know about this special kind to which people who write "studies" are especially susceptible. It's been argued that science has to deal with ignorance (the ignorance of the scientist herself) on a daily basis, otherwise they won't be able to find out the truths of the matters (without the ignorance there could be no revelation...). If a person can't admit ignorance they won't be motivated to work on their knowledge... Hmmm, I'm not sure I know what I'm talking about.

  2. Hi,
    thank´s for these critical, embracing reflections; just some attached thoughts (split into 6 parts) about the complexity with “avidya“ in relation to the “mystifying” tension between reason and faith; hope that these remarks do not appear as too obstinate; if yes, sorry...;

    1st part:
    I think, there is a big difference between giving the “truth“ to others and receiving the “truth“ from others! [Let us cautiously assume that there is a “truth“ and a “truth-possessor“ (regardless the philosophico-religious system) transmitting this “truth” to “truth-receivers”].

    The fundamental "problem", if I´m not mistaken, consists in or is engendered by the "truth-pronouncement" itself, namely, it´s a question of "understanding" (it always turns around this perplexing notion of understanding, this “vicious circle“ must be broken or at least should become more obvious). Let me try to paraphrase it a little bit, perhaps recordable as the “pedagogical paradox“:

    The “truth-announcer“ gladly offers the “truth“, the “truth-receiver“ eagerly receives the “truth“. But in “truth“ it never can happen like this. Why? Because the “truth-announcer“ demands/expects from the “truth-receiver“ to have faith in this “truth-pronouncement“ (without understanding), further to apply this faith in thinking and acting (again without really understanding), hence, self-confidently to build up faith as the ultimate basis of existence!

    Yes, no doubt, that´s the noble objective of (religious) teaching but we should never forget or think away how the “truth-announcer“ him/herself has attained this faith?
    Evidently the answer will come promptly: “Exactly by the same learning process as succinctly described above!“ Really?

    But it isn´t as easy as it looks. Because the “truth-announcer“, if he/she has achieved “authentic faith” or is really able to live in/with faith, has undergone a thoroughly structured “spiritual formation“ (monastic or academic) which allows (if followed “painstakingly”) precisely to find and actualize this faith!
    We might think, well, that´s alright and sounds normal, so where is the problem? Ultimately there is none but conventionally there appear many troubles (at least to my ignorance).
    Namely, the “truth-announcer“ preaches the truth in simultaneously knowing that the “truth-receiver“ cannot really understand the “truth“! [and most probably will not understand the “truth“ because of not having or not getting the same “exceptional possibility“ of a “systematically structured spiritual (or scholastic) education or formation“].
    So, what does the “truth-announcer“? He/she develops a pedagogical strategy (upayakausalya) to make the “truth“ understandable or plausible for the “truth-receiver“, hence a gradual way, a step-by-step approach of “truth-assimilation“ will be mapped out.

  3. 2nd part:
    Well, again everything seems to be fine, so where is the problem? The problem (again perhaps only in my own foolishness) lies in the fact that the “truth-announcer“, if he/she really wants to induce his/her “total faith“ (and not an adopted “simulation/analogue-faith“) to others, has to bring the “truth-receiver” towards this “total faith” through conceptual formulations (pointers) and thereby has to enter (in trying to offer the maximum of a possible “truth-assimilation”) into the deepest and subtlest philosophical matters which our human intelligence ever since has “constructed“.
    If this were not so then the quality and fidelity of the supposed faith seems to be highly controversial or incredible (it would be only a soteriological hypothesis, a wishful thinking, a fancy).

    So the question arises: “Must this painstaking procedure of reasoning be done? Or is this purely the seductive circle of reasoning?”

    We would say: “It depends!” We insist further: “On what?” The (probably deceptive appearing) answer is: “Precisely on this perplexing tension between reason and faith!” (Our whole existential struggle for “truth” is contained therein).

    Now, in this context it doesn´t help in smartly answering that since it (the way of reasoning) is a “philosophical construction“ for arriving at faith (and construction signifies conceptualizing through ideational performances where our cognitive immediateness will/must be sacrificed) then why to waste one´s time with such a “proliferating nonsense of conceited conceptualizations“, precisely because such a smart-appearing assertion made by such (which I would identify as) a cunning „faith-imitator“ or “faith-cheater“ simply shows his/her disguised self-deception/self-belying insofar as this person cannot “explain“ or “make convincingly clear“ his/her “faith-assertion“. Either one has authentic faith or one does not have it (but such a drastic judgment seems to be of no help in this issue because most probably we are always somewhere in between…).

  4. 3rd part:
    If this short indication seems to be admissible or makes sense then it should be recognized (or its worth thinking about) that it doesn´t suffice whether we can master “introductory“ and/or “intermediary“ (philosophico-religious) topics provided by “truth-pronouncement“ simply because thereby, owing to the topical emphases itself in these preliminary learning-stages, the “ultimate faith“ cannot (sorry, I know that´s again a delicate assumption where protests are foreseeable…) be achieved definitely.
    Since for the definite (!) attainment of this aimed faith the “truth-receiver“ has to enter into the “advanced stage/level“ of the aspired “truth-assimilation”. However (and “regrettably”) this would imply a “thorough demonstration“ of faith in offering clearly and vividly the argumentations and “proofs“ (whereby a rationally-accompanied understanding becomes a sensitive reproduction and assimilation in one´s own mental capacity so that the natural evidence of faith never more can/will be questioned!) for this imperturbable, easeful state of mind.

    Yet (in our painful, regrettable feeling) what to do if the intellectual/rational capacity of the “faith-receiver” for such demonstrations isn´t (as hinted above) sufficiently prepared or manifests itself insufficiently?
    The “truth-pronouncer” then has to opt for another, more incisive strategy which – certainly – by its appearing “fastness” seems to be more attractive, since the intellectual requirements are intentionally leveled down but simultaneously it expects from the corresponding “faith-receiver” the strict following of the “truth-pronouncing” advices and thereby this kind of “truth-transmission” becomes a risky mediation-affair because we know only too well the lack of discipline in our cognitive engagement with reality. So again this proposition of “truth-assimilation” has also its inherent pedagogical shortcomings. There will be other methods for gaining faith but no matter how well-designed, it always turns out to be “somehow insufficient” owing to the “inherent cognitive laziness” to surmount for becoming capable to follow the helping advices!

  5. 4th part:
    And by all these proposed excellent methods, we concomitantly know (or we already believe to know) that faith, in the end, can only be a subjective affair of mind-application, so strictly seen, it (faith) ultimately cannot be demonstrated “tangibly“ – it´s essentially a personal experience because the final leap must done individually! (and that´s the wriggling worm, the disconcerting point!)

    Anyway, whatever method we use (and I trust we have excellent methods!), one thing is certain, namely, we must communicate with others to get the necessary information/consultation/guidance and this naturally imply teaching as such. However, we know, teaching includes teaching- and learning-techniques and that further inevitably denotes/involves conceptuality, on whatever degree of subtlety and intensity; it´s impossible to bypass this natural behavior codex (“the undercover compassion of existence!”). Consequently, without teaching (hidden conceptuality!) faith cannot meaningfully be transmitted, let alone be achieved and therefore (!) we (as philosophically inclined aspirants) intensively believe that through spiral-elevating reasoning (“bhumi-processing advances“), reasoning itself will/can (if we trust the philosophical intuition and corresponding elaborations) procure faith (the true faith!); thereby reasoning itself can/will be resolved and consequently dissolved – “bammmm”, the sudden “turnover in cognitive immediateness“ (Faith!).

    [Hence, in the expression “blessed are the poor in spirit” as suggested in the last message, the word “poor” shouldn´t be taken as those who are “naïve, uncritical followers of faith”; rather the “poor in spirit”, in fact, signifies the “pure” (or “purified”, “purified of reifying conceptualizations”) and that means or should mean the “realization of sunyata”].

  6. 5th part:
    But what, in the context of this attempted elucidation to indicate the status of reasoning in the quest for truth and faith, makes me worry is the impression (but perhaps I´m again in error), that precisely the “advanced parts (!)“ of this suggested (reasoned) path structure, which, according to many (considered by “lineage-tradition as reliable“) sages, are absolutely necessary and could provide (at least the theoretical basis for) such a “liberating“ / “omniscient“ [please do not become perturbed by such a term, it must be understood in its technical contextualities] experience of “authentic faith”, are more or less “hidden away“ from public eyes (intentionally and/or unintentionally).
    The reasons for this may be multiple (justified or not – but who wonders in thinking simply on the “faith-cheaters” in this world…); but there´s probably nothing we can do about it…;

    Now, in the course of this reflection, I´m just wondering how we could expect that sincerely inclined “seekers for truth” could assimilate “anutpatti-dharma-ksanti“ / “mi skye ba´i chos la bzod pa“ (“tolerance/readiness of/for dharma-non-arising“) [tolerance understood as the passive aspect of ksanti and readiness as the active aspect of ksanti] in their mind-stream without “advanced study-support and corresponding meditation”?
    Since without “anutpatti-dharma-ksanti” the operational conversion of truth in practice (“the prized realization”) cannot be fulfilled with awareness (at least as I am meagerly able to understand it…).

    And further, when I think on the mentioned limited access to such necessary resources for support and encouragement, I cannot avoid the feeling of unease and unfairness; I must sadly confess, as long as the corresponding teaching/research materials for the indispensable philosophico-religious training are not completely accessible (perhaps “the academic ivory tower”?) for all interested people so long the development of mutual understanding will certainly be retarded. Evidently, on the other side, the access without restriction to the sources (scriptural and oral) doesn´t automatically guaranty the desired mutual understanding but it certainly will procure the chance for an improvement (if patience, endurance and open-minded curiosity are present) – Ahhhhhh, now I feel how depressive thought proliferations want to get the upper hand over me because probably I´m too idealistic with this vision; sincerely, mikael.

  7. 6th part:
    Still just a hasty remark concerning the “docta ignorantia“ (“learned ignorance“). The English “learned“ seems to allow a larger interpretation of “docta“. In German it is translated as “be-lehrte Unwissenheit“. This “belehrte“ could be interpreted more in the sense of the “instructed ignorance“. Perhaps, at first sight, this sounds strange, but if pondered more extensively we can learn to “appreciate“ ignorance because it gives “avidya“ also a positive connotation. Generally, I mean avidya has an ontologically neutral character. But through soteriological advices it often becomes enveloped with its negative aspect which consists in pushing forth the illusory/delusory play of cognition (the unfledged grasping of inherently projected points of references, “the mental glueing”), etc. The positive side of avidya is precisely its character of “instruction“. “Avidya instructs us and we become strengthened to instruct avidya“. Avidya also can be seen as the ontic guarantee of existence; thanks to avidya we have samskara, vijnana, nama-rupa, etc. of the pratityasamutpada-dynamism, recognized in its forward and backward rotation. Softly said, avidya has the “security-function“ of the impenetrable enigma of existence as such – and that´s perfectly good so.

    “There is nothing to be denied and nothing to be affirmed. See the real rightly, (for) one who sees the real is released”. [Nagarjuna, Pratityasamutpadahrdayakarika, stanza 7]

    We could insinuate, the “secret” lies in the “soteriological handling” of “avidya” and the regulative, ultimate factor for this is what?
    What else, faith! Sincerely, mikael.