Avidya (Avijja) is expounded in various ways and across different tiers within diverse Buddhist teachings and traditions. At its most fundamental essence, it denotes a lack of awareness or misconceptions regarding the true nature of reality. This pertains more specifically to the concepts of non-Self and dependent origination doctrines. Avidya is not a mere absence of information, it signifies a deeply entrenched misperception of reality. Avidya can be characterized as a ‘positive misconception’ rather than a mere absence of knowledge. This concept holds pivotal importance in Buddhism, where Avidya concerning the nature of reality, not sin, is recognized as the primary source of Dukkha or suffering. Overcoming this Avidya is the key to transcending Dukkha.
Although Avidya in Buddhism and other Indian philosophical systems is often translated as “ignorance,” This translation falls short as it encompasses more than mere ignorance. The term “unwisdom” is a more accurate rendition. This term encompasses not only ignorance stemming from darkness but also includes obscuration, misconceptions, and the mistaking of illusion for reality or the impermanent for the permanent, as well as suffering for bliss or non-self for self (delusions). Incorrect knowledge is another manifestation of Avidya.
In the context of understanding Avidya, there is a passage from the Samyutta Nikaya where monks discuss how the uninstructed ordinary person, driven by spiritual ignorance (Avijja), mistakenly identifies with the five sense faculties and the mind organ, thinking “I am.”
Furthermore, Avidya extends to various other aspects, including the lack of knowledge or comprehension of the phenomena’s impermanent nature, the Four Noble Truths, other Buddhist doctrines, and the path to alleviating suffering. Sonam Rinchen contextualizes Avidya within the framework of the twelve links, noting that it opposes the understanding that individuals and phenomena lack inherent existence. Those influenced by this ignorance generate actions that lead them into further cycles of worldly existence. Avidya also encompasses the failure to grasp the implications of the Four Noble Truths.