The best view

Thus the Buddha defines the path factor of right view expressly in terms of the four truths: “What now is right view? It is understanding of suffering (dukkha), understanding of the origin of suffering, understanding of the cessation of suffering, understanding of the way leading to the cessation to suffering.”

Ordinary or mundane right view, accepting that we are the owners of our actions, is enough to get us started on the path to awakening. It’s also a good way to have a more satisfying life right now.

Once we have practiced with the whole path for a long time (possibly lifetimes), we come to the end of it. When we know, down to our toes, that clinging generates suffering, and see that clinging can be released, we let go of all forms of clinging. This is one definition of complete liberation: the release of all clinging – to self, to experience, to ownership of anything whatsoever. This can be a directional sign and an encouragement to keep using the Buddha’s 8-fold path as a guide. At every step, recognizing and releasing clinging will point us in the best direction.

On our way to this understanding, the value of friends who are teachers or mentors becomes clearly apparent. If we know someone who has moved along this path to a point of less clinging, we may recognize a buoyancy, a lightness of touch that is appealing and refreshing. Some part of our wise heart knows that we’d like to be more like that person. This is why so many people want to be near the Dalai Lama; it’s just nicer in that atmosphere.

As we try to create a more wholesome, freer environment around ourselves, we can look to those who have somehow done it before us, or who are actively doing it now in ways that make sense to us. We can ask ourselves, not only “What would [our admired person] do?” but also “What would that person NOT do?”.

As we reflect on our words and actions using this guide, we can also be aware of how our actions are affecting others. Are we someone else’s admired person?

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Wrong view

Buddha himself says that he sees no single factor so responsible for the arising of unwholesome states of mind as wrong view, and no factor so helpful for the arising of wholesome states of mind as right view. Again, he says that there is no single factor so responsible for the suffering of living beings as wrong view, and no factor so potent in promoting the good of living beings as right view (AN 1:306,307).

What is wrong view? One obvious answer is the position that it doesn’t matter what we do, that our actions are not morally significant, don’t really have the power to affect us or the people around us.

But we may approach our day-to-day experience differently. Rather than thinking “nothing matters”, we might think of how things could or should be better than they are. If we watch our thought process, we might see a pattern. How much resistance do we have to our direct experience? Are we re-framing our experience as it happens to make it into a picture we want to see rather than what’s actually there?

What are the things that annoy us most? What do we most object to? It is probably different for you, but the thing that most irks me is when people don’t make space for each other or are carelessly unkind. This leads to the understanding that I have a deeply held view that people SHOULD be nice! And sometimes they are, but sometimes they’re not. But my clinging to the view that people should always be kind to each other causes me problems. It’s a view that puts me in the judgment seat, and I find the world wanting. I can feel “ME” getting bigger when I think of this; it’s the clinging that creates a strong sense of self and an accompanying disregard for things as they are. Ironically, this can also make me careless about the feelings of others. There is plenty of evidence that I’d be better off (as would others) if I didn’t cling to this view.

Other possible wrong views:

– “This is all X’s fault.” (X could be a person or God)
– “I deserve better.”
– “No one has ever suffered as much as I have.”
– “I’m the worst human being in the world.”
– “It shouldn’t be like this”.

It is difficult to recognize our own wrong views; they seem to be integral parts of our selves. The only way to discover them is to pay close attention to how we think and act. It could be as simple as hearing ourselves complain about the weather. Also, a good friend could help us if we ask them to. Is there anyone with whom you could have a conversation about the importance of choosing the best point of view? Anyone you trust enough to ask, “Can you help me with my attitude? Is there another way I could look at this situation?”

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Right view

The Buddha’s eight-fold path begins with Right View, which gives you an idea of its circular nature. Wisdom is the ultimate goal, but we also have to have at least some wisdom or we wouldn’t bother with the path at all. Where’s the beginning?

From the N8FP by Bhikkhu Bodhi (
Our views might not be clearly formulated in our mind; we might have only a hazy conceptual grasp of our beliefs. But whether formulated or not, expressed or maintained in silence, these views have a far-reaching influence. They structure our perceptions, order our values, crystallize into the ideational framework through which we interpret to ourselves the meaning of our being in the world.

Mundane right view involves a correct grasp of the law of kamma, the moral efficacy of action. Its literal name is “right view of the ownership of action” (kammassakata sammaditthi), and it finds its standard formulation in the statement: “Beings are the owners of their actions, the heirs of their actions; they spring from their actions, are bound to their actions, and are supported by their actions. Whatever deeds they do, good or bad, of those they shall be heirs.”

We have encountered this verse before. The path starts right here, with our point of view. Does it matter what we do or don’t do? If no one sees us commit a wholesome or unwholesome act, is the karma the same as if someone does see? Do we understand that our actions and words affect others and, at least as much, affect our state of mind?

Because we are so influenced by others, we are sometimes not mindful of our own intentions. We respond by liking what others like, by wanting what others want, by avoiding what others avoid, etc. The more we drift along on the currents of those around us, the less we are aware of “ownership of action”. It can be terribly confusing, which is why it’s so important to choose our companions and activities wisely. One way to think of it is to ask ourselves: Do the people around me have the same values that I have? Do they behave in a way I aspire to? Would I be better off (spiritually) with these people, with other folks, or on my own?

It’s never a bad time to think about where we stand in relation to the world. Each of us sees the world and ourselves through a unique window. Can we clarify that view?

Next time: recognizing wrong view

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Friends on the path

Since we’ve been thinking about adjusting our perspective on things, it occurs to me that it’s time to re-visit the Buddha’s eight-fold path, which starts with Right View. But first, I want to add an element. In considering each of the steps on the path, I’d like to add the questions: “And how might a noble friend assist in this? How might we be a noble friend to others in this regard?”

We are animals, and as such, we are highly sensitive to our immediate environments and the people around us. Those of us lucky enough to have been born into secure and (at least somewhat) happy families are likely to have more confidence and success in whatever we do than those who struggled with insecurity and fear in their early lives. Now, at whatever age and in whatever situation we find ourselves, the same is true. The people and environment we are in contact with on a daily or weekly basis are still influencing our actions and attitudes.

Because this is true, it is worth paying particular attention to who we are associating with. It has been proven that the most influential decision in anyone’s life is the choice of a life partner, for good or ill. It’s also true that many friendships last longer than partnerships, so we could benefit from thinking about all our important relationships.

Particularly critical to our spiritual progress is our selection of friends and companions, who can have the most decisive impact upon our personal destiny. It is because he perceived how susceptible our minds can be to the influence of our companions that the Buddha repeatedly stressed the value of good friendship (kalyanamittata) in the spiritual life. The Buddha states that he sees no other thing that is so much responsible for the arising of unwholesome qualities in a person as bad friendship, nothing so helpful for the arising of wholesome qualities as good friendship (AN 1.70,71). Again, he says that he sees no other external factor that leads to so much harm as bad friendship, and no other external factor that leads to so much benefit as good friendship (AN 1.110, 111). It is through the influence of a good friend that a disciple is led along the Noble Eightfold Path to release from all suffering (SN 45:2).

Good friendship, in Buddhism, means considerably more than associating with people that one finds amenable and who share one’s interests. It means in effect seeking out wise companions to whom one can look for guidance and instruction. The task of the noble friend is not only to provide companionship in the treading of the way. The truly wise and compassionate friend is one who, with understanding and sympathy of heart, is ready to criticize and admonish, to point out one’s faults, to exhort and encourage, perceiving that the final end of such friendship is growth in the Dhamma. The Buddha succinctly expresses the proper response of a disciple to such a good friend in a verse of the Dhammapada: “If one finds a person who points out one’s faults and who reproves one, one should follow such a wise and sagacious counselor as one would a guide to hidden treasure.” (Dhp. 76)
– from an essay, Association with the Wise, by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Do we have any friendships that are so deep we are willing to hear (constructive) negative things about our behavior? Is there anyone we trust enough to tell us the truth if they see us harming ourselves or others? This is a very high standard for friendship, but anything less may just be adding to our delusions.

It’s easy to see flaws in others that they are unaware of. The same is true for us – our flaws are more obvious to others than they are to us. This doesn’t mean we should choose friends who constantly criticize. It does mean we should invite our trusted friends to speak up when they see us do or say something out of alignment with our intentions, and we should listen to them when they bravely tell us.

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Adjusting our view

I’ve been reflecting on Bhikkhu Bodhi’s words, quoted in the previous post. So much seems to depend on our view, how we frame our activities and reactions in our minds. Do we have a vision for what we want to do, where we want to go? When we start the day, what’s our attitude? What are our expectations, hopes, and fears? Do we scramble around trying to respond to every thought that appears in our minds? Do we drift along, avoiding anything that seems difficult? Or do we start with a sense of confidence that the day will hold opportunities for us to develop our understanding?

We can also feel free or trapped, depending on how we view our situation. Do we feel we’ve got options? Or do we feel boxed in by our own expectations? Is there a sense of being supple, flexible and creative, able to see things in new ways? Or do we feel brittle, as if nothing works as it should?

One thing that Bhikkhu Bodhi pointed out by implication is the importance of knowing what our vision for ourselves is; what’s our intentional, big-picture direction? It could be something as simple as becoming kinder. And then, what are we doing right now? Are our vision and actions in harmony? It takes a lot of attention, but this sort of training can be enlivening. We start to understand that what we do matters, even in the most mundane situations. How we set and adjust our view of ourselves and the world affects everything. Just understanding this has opened a door for me. I know that I have a choice about how to view events. I know I have the freedom to ignore some of my own thoughts. I know that most situations do not require that I become involved in them.

When I do mantra meditation (rarely), this is the mantra I use:

Dukkha – Samodaya – Nirodha – Magga
Suffering – Origin – Cessation – Path

It’s a compressed form of the Buddha’s Four Truths, and it works as a vision, as a way to re-set our attitude. Our suffering comes from clinging, and its end comes from letting go. It’s as simple as that, but we like to complexify things. We think that if we could control our minds and events, we could make everything OK. But it doesn’t work that way. Instead, if we can acknowledge a specific instance of suffering, reflect on it until we see what we’re clinging to that causes the suffering, then we have a chance to release the clinging and end the (specific instance of) suffering. And the Buddha’s eight-fold training will help us in learning and refining that process. That’s the big picture. The work is in the details.

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Vision and routine

We’ve been talking about habits – how to cultivate wholesome habits and how to disrupt and abandon unwholesome habits. In an essay, published by the Buddhist Publication Society in 1985, Bhikkhu Bodhi makes an interesting observation about how human success requires both routine and vision, and that this principle is clearly applicable to reducing our suffering and increasing our mental clarity.

All human activity can be viewed as an interplay between two contrary but equally essential factors — vision and repetitive routine. Vision is the creative element in activity, whose presence ensures that over and above the settled conditions pressing down upon us from the past we still enjoy a margin of openness to the future, a freedom to discern more meaningful ends and to discover more efficient ways to achieve them. Repetitive routine, in contrast, provides the conservative element in activity. It is the principle that accounts for the persistence of the past in the present, and that enables the successful achievements of the present to be preserved intact and faithfully transmitted to the future.

Though pulling in opposite directions — the one toward change, the other toward stability — vision and routine intermesh in a variety of ways and every course of action can be found to participate to some extent in both. For any particular action to be both meaningful and effective the attainment of a healthy balance between the two is necessary. When one factor prevails at the expense of the other, the consequences are invariably undesirable. If we are bound to a repetitive cycle of work that deprives us of our freedom to inquire and understand, we soon bog down, crippled by the chains of routine. If we are spurred to act by elevating ideals but lack the discipline to implement them, eventually we find ourselves wallowing in dreams or exhausting our energies on frivolous pursuits. It is only when accustomed routines are infused from within by vision that they become springboards to discovery rather than deadening ruts. And it is only when inspired vision gives birth to a course of repeatable actions that we can bring our ideals down from the ethereal sphere of imagination to the somber realm of fact. It took a flash of genius for Michelangelo to behold the figure of David invisible in a shapeless block of stone; but it required years of prior training, and countless blows with hammer and chisel, to work the miracle that would leave us a masterpiece of art.

These reflections concerning the relationship between vision and routine apply with equal validity to the practice of the Buddhist path.
Full essay here:

Ven. Bodhi goes on to say that on the whole, most of us prefer vision and find the ordinary routines of our lives (including meditation) a bit boring and tedious:
Thus we are elated by expectations concerning the stages of the path far beyond our reach, while at the same time we tend to neglect the lower stages — dull and drab, but far more urgent and immediate — lying just beneath our feet…Every wholesome thought, every pure intention, every effort to train the mind represents a potential for growth along the Noble Eightfold Path. But to be converted from a mere potential into an active power leading to the end of suffering, the fleeting wholesome thought-formations must be repeated, fostered and cultivated, made into enduring qualities of our being. Feeble in their individuality, when their forces are consolidated by repetition they acquire a strength that is invincible.

This is the warrior aspect of the path. We attend to what we are doing as continuously as possible, recognizing our actions, words and thoughts as wholesome or not. We can ask ourselves, “Is this activity in line with my vision, my best intentions?” It is not glamorous work, but it will get us where were want to go.

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Feeling OK

One variant on mindfulness practice is that it’s possible to widen our feeling-range within which there’s no problem. Instead of treating each mildly negative feeling as if it needs to be remedied, we can simply notice what we’re doing and what the feeling tone is without expecting it to be pleasurable.

An analogy might be that when I moved to Australia from the northern hemisphere, the range of air temperatures I perceived as acceptable was expanded. In America I’d been accustomed to being outside only when the temperature was perfect – not too hot, not too cool. As a consequence I spent a lot of time indoors, where the temperatures were kept to a narrow range. Here in Brisbane, for some mysterious reason, it has to get a lot colder before we think of putting the heat on, and the humidity has to be awful before the air conditioner goes on. We spend a lot more time outside, and there’s an unspoken understanding that “too hot” and “too cold” are usually temporary conditions. It’s as if people adjust to the air temperature instead of adjusting the air temperature to be perfect for people.

In a similar way, we can widen our field of expectation. If we think we must always feel happy and contented, we’re sure to be unhappy a lot of the time, because things just don’t work that way. If we could feel OK being moderately happy or sad, sleepy or energetic, comfortable or not, imagine how much more smoothly things would flow.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t try to remedy sleepiness or address the causes of significant unhappiness or discomfort, but most of life falls into a big middle range where kicking against things as they are just makes more trouble, for ourselves and others. I’m recommending mindfulness, not passivity.

Here’s an example: one person tells you that another person said something critical about a third person. Your normal reaction might be to become indignant, and an urge would rise to confront the second person and set them straight. Another possibility would be to recognize that by your getting involved, the situation might grow into something bigger than it is now, to no one’s benefit. Without the particulars of the people and situation involved, there’s no obvious choice, but by remembering that there IS a choice, we can avoid making trouble when letting it go would have worked better. We could call it the “let it be” option.

Learning to let things be as they are is an important skill to develop. A corollary to keep in mind is that all conditions are passing, and if we don’t grab onto them and make them into problems, they will move on in the normal course of things. By expanding the scope within which we can feel OK, we are moving towards a reliable inner peace.

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