22 August 2011

The enemy within: Ignorance

The website www.maithri.com  [http://www.maithri.com/offers a neat exposition on the notion of ‘I’ in its section on ‘Ego and desire’:

‘The feeling of a separate "I", which we call ego-consciousness, is directly related to the strength of ignorance, greed, and hatred. The deepest meaning of ignorance is the believing in, identifying with and clinging to the ego, which is nothing but an illusionary mental phenomenon. But because of this strong clinging to ego-consciousness, attachment/desire, anger/hatred arise and repeatedly gain strength.’
Ego and desire are likened to two sides of a coin and even more interestingly to the pedals on a bicycle.  If ego is projected desire and desire projected ego, ‘then it is like pedalling a bicycle; if we go on pedalling, the bicycle keeps moving!’  The one feeds the other, in other words. 
Ignorance, greed and hatred not only feed on one another but makes for a grip on ego so tenacious that extrication becomes extremely difficult.  These are of course notions that require deep study and experimentation through practical engagement, observation and arrival at conclusion.  On the other hand, this side of such engagement leading to bicycle-stop, so to say, i.e. in the everyday of our doing and being, reflection on the notions of ignorance, greed and hatred can have positive outcomes for both the particular individual and the collective he/she interacts with. 
Let’s start with ignorance.  The simple, common sense meaning of the word is ‘not knowing’.  An extended meaning could include ‘not knowing that one does not know’ and ‘believing erroneously that one knows’, the latter containing an element of arrogance.  I have found that the greatest obstacle to acquiring some degree of humility is the refusal to acknowledge the dimensions of our ignorance.  The sum total of human knowledge still amounts to nothing more than a grain of wisdom-sand compared to the limitless universe of human ignorance.  What an individual knows is in turn a grain of sand compared to the vast dimensions of accumulated human knowledge.  Individuals and collectives, therefore, are prone to err at every turn.  Assertion, the professing of full knowledge, totalizing claims and such are essentially indicative of ignorance, i.e. the not-knowing of knowledge-limit.  
This ignorance or the acknowledgement of knowledge-limit does not necessarily have to inhibit action or for endless second-guessing.  There are ‘truths’ that are context bound, there are odds that can be played given experience and recognition of pattern. 
It is tough enough even at the individual level.  It can’t be any easier when one has to decide for collectives.  Not everyone is an expert on several fields.  Politicians, for example, are ‘experts’ at reading and playing with and within the power equation.  While people from any profession can enter and even thrive in politics, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are experts on things they have no training on. 
This is why they need advice.  This is why effective governance structures are those that consistently facilitate the appointment of right people for the right task.  Where governance structures do not facilitate this, politicians are forced to rely on their own understanding of things they may not know much about, both in decision-making and in appointments.  The room for error is naturally great. 
The cultivation of humility always helps, but it does not insure against error.  This is why the astute politician or leader will err on the side of institutions rather than personalities; it is a better insurer against error in the long term and, again in the long-term, has a positive impact on the particular individual’s (or party’s) political future. 
If politicians can move from ‘I know’ to ‘I think I know’ or even ‘I may be wrong, but’, if not in statement but in thinking, then the collective can hope for a minimizing of error and even rectification of flaw.  Greater reflection on the nature of things and the underlying principles of their being and becoming, as indicated at the beginning of this essay, would certainly help, for recognition of the dimensions of ego and desire is perhaps first step in the battle to vanquish ignorance and the arrogance it produces. 
It’s all there in the Grade 9 Buddhism text book, pages 81-85, if I remember right.  No, not the deep philosophical engagement that seeks to understanding suffering, its cause(s) and the pathways to end it, but simple, day-to-day engagement in the public sphere.  Or indeed, any sphere where ‘collective’ is relevant. 

[Courtesy, Daily News, August 22, 2011]