From Views to Vision
By Bhikkhu Bodhi
The Buddha's teaching repeatedly cautions us about the dangers in clinging -- in clinging to possessions, clinging to pleasures, clinging to people, clinging to views. The Buddha sounds such words of warning because he discerns in clinging a potent cause of suffering, and he thus advises us that the price we must pay to arrive at the "far shore" of liberation is the relinquishment of every type of clinging. In a move that at first glance may even seem self-destructive on the part of a religious founder, the Buddha says that we should not cling even to his teachings, that even the wholesome principles of the Dhamma have to be treated like the makeshift raft used to carry us across the stream.
Such astringent words of advice can easily be misconstrued, and if misconstrued the consequences may be even more bitter than if we simply disregard them. One particular misinterpretation into which newcomers to the Dhamma (and some veterans too!) are especially prone to fall is to hold that the Buddha's counsel to transcend all views means that even the doctrines of Buddhism are ultimately of no vital importance. For these doctrines too, it is said, are merely views, intellectual constructs, filaments of thought, which may have been meaningful in the context of ancient Indian cosmology but have no binding claims on us today. After all, aren't the words and phrases of the Buddhist texts simply that -- words and phrases -- and aren't we admonished to get beyond words and phrases in order to arrive at direct experience, the only thing that really counts? And doesn't the Buddha enjoin us in the Kalama Sutta to judge things for ourselves and to let our own experience be the criterion for deciding what we will accept?
Such an approach to the Dhamma may be sweet to chew upon and easy to digest, but we also need to beware of its effect upon our total spiritual organism. Too often this kind of slippery reasoning provides simply a convenient excuse for adhering, at a subtle level of the mind, to ideas which are fundamentally antithetical to the Dhamma. We hang on to such ideas, not because they are truly edifying, but in order to protect ourselves from the radical challenge with which the Buddha's message confronts us. In effect, such claims, though apparently aimed at safeguarding living experience from the encroachment of stodgy intellectualism, may be in reality a clever intellectual ploy for refusing to examine cherished assumptions -- assumptions we cherish primarily because they shield deep-rooted desires we do not want to expose to the tonic influence of the Dhamma.
When we approach the Buddha's teachings, we should bear in mind that its vast array of doctrines have not been devised as elaborate exercises in philosophical sleight of hand. They are propounded because they constitute right view, and right view stands at the head of the Noble Eightfold Path, the chisel to be used to cut away the dross of wrong views and confused thoughts that impede the light of wisdom from illumining our minds. In the present-day world, far more than in the ancient Ganges Valley, wrong views have gained widespread currency and assumed more baneful forms than earlier epochs ever could have imagined. Today they are no longer the province of a few eccentric philosophers and their cliques. They have become, rather, a major determinant of cultural and social attitudes, a molder of the moral spirit of the age, a driving force behind economic empires and international relations. Under such circumstances, right view is our candle against the dark, our compass in the desert, our isle above the flood. Without a clear understanding of the truths enunciated by right view, and without a keen awareness of the areas where these truths collide with popular opinion, it is only too easy to stumble in the dark, to get stranded among the sand dunes, to be swept away from one's position above the deluge.
Both right view and wrong view, though cognitive in character, do not remain locked up in a purely cognitive space of their own. Our views exercise an enormously potent influence upon all areas of our lives, and the Buddha, in his genius, recognized this when he placed right view and wrong view respectively at the beginning of the good and evil pathways of life. Views flow out and interlock with the practical dimension of our lives at many levels: they determine our values, they give birth to our goals and aspirations, they guide our choices in morally difficult dilemmas. Wrong view promotes wrong intentions, wrong modes of conduct, leads us in pursuit of a deceptive type of freedom. It draws us towards the freedom of license, by which we feel justified in casting off moral restraint for the sake of satisfying transient but harmful impulses. Though we may then pride ourselves on our spontaneity and creativity, may convince ourselves that we have discovered our true individuality, one with clear sight will see that this freedom is only a more subtle bondage to the chains of craving and delusion.
Right view, even in its elementary form, as a recognition of the moral law of kamma, the capacity of our deeds to bring results, becomes our gentle guide towards true freedom. And when it matures into an accurate grasp of the three signs of existence, of dependent arising, of the Four Noble Truths, it then becomes our navigator up the mountain slope of final deliverance. It will lead us to right intentions, to virtuous conduct, to mental purification, and to the cloudless peak of unobstructed vision. Although we must eventually learn to let go of this guide in order to stand confidently on our own feet, without its astute eye and willing hand we would only meander in the foothills oblivious to the peak.
The attainment of right view is not simply a matter of assenting to a particular roster of doctrinal formulas or of skill in juggling an impressive array of cryptic Pali terms. The attainment of right view is at its core essentially a matter of understanding -- of understanding in a deeply personal way the vital truths of existence upon which our lives devolve. Right view aims at the big picture. It seeks to comprehend our place in the total scheme of things and to discern the laws that govern the unfolding of our lives for better or for worse. The ground of right view is the Perfect Enlightenment of the Buddha, and by striving to rectify our view we seek nothing less than to align our own understanding of the nature of existence with that of the Buddha's Enlightenment. Right view may begin with concepts and propositional knowledge but it does not end with them. Through study, deep reflection and meditative development it gradually becomes transmuted into wisdom, the wisdom of insight that can cut asunder the beginning-less fetters of the mind.