13.3 Right view
The first factor of the path, right view, can be spelled out in various ways. In one sense, right view can be defined with respect to its opposite, namely, wrong view. The latter is explained as follows:
Mendicants, and what is wrong view (micchādiṭṭhi)?
‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed; no fruit or result of good and bad actions; there is neither this world, nor the other world; there is no mother, no father; no beings who are reborn spontaneously; in this world there are no fully accomplished renunciants and brahmins, who practice rightly, and who, having realized it for themselves through direct knowledge, declare this world and the other world.’ Mendicants, this is wrong view. (MN 117)
Wrong view is here presented as an ideology that denies any moral value, any idea of moral responsibility, and any acknowledgment that there might be human individuals who explored alternative ways of living and knowing, and more generally any possibility of transcending one’s current condition. In contemporary Western jargon, we could associate wrong view with what Nietzsche called ‘nihilism.’ Notice: wrong view includes a denial of the belief in kamma and rebirth. Holding on to wrong view, one would never have any reason to even think about giving an alternative shape to one’s life. Wrong view dismisses as meaningless the whole soteriological concern for finding an escape from ordinary life. This view is wrong, according to the discourses, because it denies what is actually the case: that there are moral values and a principle of moral responsibility, and that it is possible to transcend one’s current condition.
Within worldly views, however, there is also a mundane right view, which is the opposite of the wrong view just mentioned. Mundane right view affirms that there are moral values and responsibility, it acknowledges that certain individuals have explored alternative ways of living, and that transcending one’s condition is possible. A belief in kamma and rebirth constitutes an essential ingredient of mundane right view. As discussed in Lecture Twelve, this sort of ideology is propaedeutic for undertaking the Buddhist training, most likely because it brings attention to the importance of moral action, which entails some sensitivity to the problems engendered by desire and aversion.
But mundane right view is still affected by limitations. As the Buddha puts it: ‘Mendicants, this [mundane] right view has intoxicants (āsavā), is concerned with meritorious deeds, results in appropriation’ (MN 117). The intoxicants are one of the ways that the discourses refer to the underlying factors that bias the worldly common attitude towards the world and reality. Mundane right view acknowledges the right set of values and is open for improvement, but the adherent to it is mostly concerned with getting something out of this, namely, performing something meritorious in order to gain a better form of existence, in this life or in future lives to come. Mundane right view remains blind to the fact that no form of existence, regardless of how lofty and divine it might be, escapes the basic problem that concerns all forms of existence, namely, their inherent dissonance and uncertainty.
Nonetheless, while wrong view makes it impossible to even hear the Buddha’s teaching, mundane right view makes one open to it. If one is seeking one’s genuine welfare and happiness, possibly in a long-term perspective (and even not just this present life, but also in lives to come), then the Buddha has something crucial to say: one’s true happiness and welfare cannot be found in moving from one existence to another, but rather in letting go of any appropriation of any form of existence and overcoming the very structure of selfhood and mastery that goes with appropriation. To take this further step, one needs to develop what is sometimes called supramundane (Pāli lokuttara) right view. While mundane right view is presented as shared by several other teachers and sects, and is not necessarily connected with the Buddha’s teachings, supramundane right view is based on a distinctive insight provided by the Buddha, which in turn sparks the actual training.
In the discourses, there are two common ways of presenting how an ordinary person can approach the teaching and develop supramundane right view: by faith or by investigation. One kind of person will be moved by faith, trust, inspiration, they might not fully understand the reasons why the Buddha teaches what he teaches, but they will decide to become followers out of faith in him. Another kind of person, instead, will be able to grasp that the teaching put one’s own experience in a new perspective, and that this perspective makes sense on its own. This is not because the Buddha says it, but because one can see that there is some inherent problem with the quest for always better forms of existence, and one begins to realize the impossibility for the ordinary way of life to leave behind the dissonance and unsatisfactoriness that any form of existence always entails. Despite this difference, faith and investigation are mutually supportive, and most likely one will need to develop both to some degree, sooner or later on the path. Nonetheless, they represent two different starting points for different character-types.
As previously mentioned, a standard formulation of supramundane right view is spelled out in terms of understanding the four noble truths: (i) suffering (dukkha); (ii) thirst (taṇhā), which is the originating condition of suffering, (iii) the cessation (nirodha) of suffering which is entailed by the abandonment of thirst, and (iv) the eightfold path (magga) which leads to the cessation of suffering. These four ‘truths’ are perhaps better interpreted as ‘things’ since what they present is not propositional content or information that ought to accept. Their function is rather to direct attention to certain constitutive features of reality, certain states of affairs, or ‘things’ that one should carefully investigate. In turn, each of the four truths or ‘things’ is articulated into three phases (SN 56.11): (a) initial grasp, (b) development; (c) complete fruition. This threefold scheme thus needs to be applied to the topology of the four things, so that each of them can be explored fully: the first thing (dukkha) needs to be understood, the second thing (taṇhā) needs to be abandoned, the third thing (nirodha) needs to be realized, and the fourth thing (magga) needs to be developed. This suggests that supramundane right view is not something acquired at the beginning of the practice and then left unchanged. One might even see the whole path as nothing but a means of bringing right view from an initial grasp to its complete fruition. In any case, until this complete fruition is reached, one’s understanding of right view will necessarily remain to some extent incomplete. Right view is a teaching about how one learns to see things rightly, step by step. It is the unfolding and deepening of understanding supported by a devoted training.
The four noble truths can be characterised as pointing out a fundamental alternative: if one cultivates thirsting for sensual pleasures and existence (second noble truth), one is bound to experience the dissatisfaction of existence (first noble truth); but if one relinquishes any thirsting for sensual pleasures and existence (third noble truth), one is freed from that same dissatisfaction. This reveals that at the very core of the four noble truths there is an implicit assumption: one is free to make a fundamental choice regarding how to handle intentionality, by deciding whether to go with the grain of thirst, or rather going against it. Freedom is the pivot around which the teaching turns, and also the ultimate goal that the teaching aims at disclosing.
The alternative between thirst and its cessation runs against the assumption that underpins mundane right view (and even more mundane wrong view), which dictates that, by craving for better existence (often spelled out as a more pleasurable existence), one will gain that better existence. The initial grasp of this alternative consists in taking it as a working hypothesis (because of faith or understanding) and genuinely try to test whether experience can confirm it or not. This means that one put effort into practicing the eightfold noble path (fourth noble truth), which runs against the mundane assumption, and one checks what the results are. The eightfold path is entirely centred on the attitudes of letting go, dispassion, renunciation, which are directly opposite to thirst and craving. If the mundane assumption is correct, then cultivating this path should be experienced as painful and depressing. If the Buddha is correct, then the cultivation of the path should result in increased tranquillity, ease, contentment, and freedom. If one experiences this latter result, then the initial working hypothesis is confirmed, at least to some extent, and one can begin to deepen one’s own understanding of why and how it works.
The testing of the working hypothesis is not left to individual preferences. The eightfold path itself sets the method prescribed for conducting this test. This means that the first domain in which one should apply one’s understanding of the four noble truths is the domain of moral conduct, covered by the next four factors of the path.