There is a big difference between ignorance in the common sense of the word and the Buddhist sense of the word. In the common sense of the word, ignorance is being unaware, lacking in general knowledge or understanding. This common kind of ignorance when applied to people who seem different from us, different races, different cultures, different sexual orientations, different abilities can lead to division, derision, hate and violence. People, ignorant of our ignorance imagine that the problem and threat rests in those we perceive as different, rather than in our own faulty perception.
In the Buddhist sense of the word, rather than a general lack of understanding, ignorance is a specific false awareness, a false sense of self. We wrongly imagine that we are something separate from everything else. Buddhism teaches that this sense of a separate self, this ignorance, causes our suffering. It is one of the three poisons, along with anger and desire, that afflict us. It is the source of distance between ourselves and people we perceive as different from us.
In my college intro psych class we were asked to a simple psychological experiment on ourselves. The professor told us to be aware of the saliva in our mouths and then to swallow it. No problem. Then we were asked to imagine spitting that saliva into a sterile glass and drinking it. Disgusting. The spit that was part of us, became spit that was separate from us and suddenly became repulsive. Like the spit experiment demonstrates, we can have dramatically different reactions to the same thing depending on our sense of separation from it. Setting ourselves apart from the world and those different from us leads to all the hate, intolerance and violence in the world.
People are different from each other like we are different from the rocks and trees of the planet. Unlike the rocks and trees, as people, we suffer. We suffer from our general ignorance and specific ignorance. We don’t have to be Buddhist to practice awareness of our suffering and the suffering of others and to practice compassion for ourselves and each other by identifying the source of our suffering and trying to make things better. With enough awareness we could uproot our ignorance, see the world from each other’s point of view and create peace. We are one in our desire for peace, personal, interpersonal, and world peace.