This is part of a series on the eightfold path. You can read the other articles here.
What is right view, and why does the Buddha place it first in the eightfold path?
At first glance, it seems obvious that sound spiritual practice needs to be rooted in sound understanding of life. But how do we attain this kind of wisdom?
On one level, the Buddha is asking us to be more “philosophical” about the opinions we hold, to become aware of what we think, and then to inquire more deeply into why we think what we think. Only then can we know if our thoughts are true, false, or confused.
Greek and Indian philosophers challenged us to do this work two thousand years ago, but it seems that few people today take the trouble to submit their most cherished assumptions to rigorous questioning. Why, for example, do we think love is good and war is bad? Why are we so certain that all human beings are equal? Why do we think that we do or do not have souls? What are our moral principles really based on?
Our thoughts about these things affect our daily decisions and relationships deeply, and we would make better decisions in all aspects of our lives if we were clearer about the foundations of our own thinking. But this kind of clarity is hard to arrive at without friends, teachers, and sometimes enemies—it can take a political crisis, for instance, to make us articulate our real thoughts about what society should be or what true leadership is.
The phrase “right view” is a translation of the Pali samma ditthi. Here, “right view” does not mean that there is only one right way to look at things. Samma is a rich word that translates to something like “completed, perfected, fulfilled”—similar to summa in Latin, as in the word “consummated.” Ditthi encompasses one’s “view” or “vision”—the perspective we take on something, as well as the way we perceive. As “perspective,” ditthi is similar to the English word theory, which comes from a Greek word, theaw, meaning “behold.” The word theater has the same root. Thus, our “theory of life” is our ditthi, the perspective from which we make sense of things, the “view” that guides our daily decisions and judgments.
We all have ditthis, even though most of us are not fully conscious of the views we hold until some situation prompts us to express them. Often our views are unexamined opinions or assumptions that we have inherited from other people or from our culture. After we become aware of these views we can choose to hold them as true, modify, or reject them. If the views we cling to are confused or misguided, they will surely undermine us in all aspects of our practice. For example, if we believe strongly in the existence of eternal individual souls, how deeply will we be able to understand impermanence and see it in all aspects of our experience? Or if we hold convictions about our own racial or ethnic superiority so fervent as to justify war to further the interests of our group, how receptive will we truly be to teachings about lovingkindness or compassion to all sentient beings?
The Buddha points out many times that we need to reflect on what we think, because thoughts lead to actions. For instance, in a sutta called “The Seed” in the Anguttara Nikaya (10.104), he reminds us that wrong views lead to wrong decisions, and wrong decisions lead to wrong speech and action, and so on, until we reach “wrong release.” By “wrong release” the Buddha is referring to the ends put forth by other religions or philosophies: a secure place in heaven, dissolution into an eternal world-soul (or Atman, according to the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism), and the termination of suffering by suicide would all be examples of “wrong release,” which are all built upon prior views. The opposite is true of what the Buddha sees as right views. Our ideas about life are like seeds and are fed by practice. If they are right, all the other elements of our practice will nourish them into wisdom: “Just as when a sugarcane seed, a rice grain, or a grape seed is placed in moist soil, whatever nutriment it takes from the soil and the water, all conduces to its sweetness, tastiness, and unalloyed delectability.”
One of the most appealing aspects of Buddhism for a contemporary person is that the Buddha never asks us to have blind faith. Mindfulness requires disciplined mental effort and detailed empirical inquiry; we are always being asked to understand. In the great sutta on samma ditthi (Majjhima Nikaya 9), the Buddha includes under “right view” a condensed overview of the chain of cause and effect that leads to suffering; at each point in the chain he emphasizes that the student has to “understand” or “discern.” It is not enough to be told. We have to see for ourselves—through meditation and through experience, which includes the act of thinking—how exactly one thing leads to another. For example, in understanding karma, or the laws of actions and their consequences, we have to understand not only what karma is but also what the wholesome and unwholesome types are, as well as their roots. This is long, hard work; it can take decades to get clarity about some things, if not lifetimes.
As we struggle to understand, do we have to put everything in our life on hold in fear that if we act without clarity we have a 50-50 chance of committing wrong actions? Here it is useful to have a framework of reasonable doctrines from a teacher we trust—not from blind faith, but from confidence in a teacher who has previously given us reason to trust them. It is like following the advice of a doctor who has succeeded in healing us before. While we are following the doctor’s instructions, we do not need to turn off our critical intelligence—we continue to test and investigate for ourselves. In this case, the Buddha’s doctrines function something like guidelines. We consciously hold and practice them, and as we practice, we continually test them and understand them more deeply. The great value of this is that in our thinking, and in the words and actions that spring from it, we are always aware of where we are coming from, of our starting principles. The novelist Terry Pratchett puts it eloquently in the novel I Shall Wear Midnight:
It is important that we know where we come from, because if you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.
In contrast, the tendency of most people is to live adrift in an ocean of unconsciously held opinions and assumptions. In this respect, we reach samma ditthi when we become fully aware of what our thinking—and therefore our speech, decisions, and actions—rests upon and grows from. This would result in samma ditthi being translated as something like “completed understanding.” But there is another aspect to the term ditthi, and that is its meaning as “vision.”
In the terse and difficult Kaccayanagotta Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 12.15), the Buddha describes samma ditthi not as a guiding theory, but as the transformation of perception that results from living the dharma. Speaking to Kaccayana, a disciple famed for his knowledge of sacred texts who later became one of the most astute teachers of the dharma, the Buddha says:
By and large, Kaccayana, this world is in bondage to attachments, clingings [sustenances], and biases. But one such as this does not get involved with or cling to these attachments, clingings, fixations of awareness, biases, or obsessions; nor is he resolved on “my self.” He has no uncertainty or doubt that, when there is arising, only suffering is arising; and that when there is passing away, only suffering is passing away. In this, one’s knowledge is independent of others. It is to this extent, Kaccayana, that there is right view.
In other words, the advanced practitioner understands attachment in such a way that thoughts and feelings never arise that might cause attachment. The knowledge is no longer theoretical, but perceptual. Our practice transforms us into beings who no longer see things in such a way as to become attached and cause suffering. In this sense, Samma ditthi is more than “right view”; it is “perfected vision.”