Right Views or No Views?

By Bas Rijken van Olst

What are reliable guidelines on which to base our actions? Which views are right and which are wrong? What views should one hold? People have always tried to answer these questions, and in fragments from two different parts of the Pali Canon we find Buddha recommending the seemingly contradictory courses of right views and no views. In the well-known Noble Eightfold Path, "right views" are placed as the first step. What did the Buddha intend by this phrase? Perhaps we would expect a list of virtues to be practiced; however, in the Pali Canon right view (in Pali, sammaditthi), is explained as follows:

Monks, what is right view?
Monks, the knowledge about suffering, the knowledge about the origin of suffering, the knowledge about the cessation of suffering, and the knowledge about the way that goes to the cessation of suffering, this, monks, is called right view. -- Digha Nikaya II: 311, trans. Rune Johansson, Pali Buddhist Texts, 1981, p. 72.

Here knowledge of each of the Four Noble Truths is right view and, according to the scriptures, the Buddha emphasized the awareness of these Truths as an essential element of his enlightenment. Tradition also tells us that during the experience of enlightenment the Buddha had this awareness in the fourth stage of dhyana or meditation.

Professor Tilmann Vetter interprets this first step of the Noble Eightfold Path as "the belief that not all comes to an end with death and that the Buddha proclaimed a path to salvation which he, himself, had successfully followed (The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, Brill, Leiden, 1988, p. 12). "Views" here does not mean personal conceptions, opinions, or ideas; instead the Buddha gives a vision of our own future and possibilities, since one day we also will have expanded our consciousness so that we will know and realize the Four Noble Truths.

This first step gives an overview of the whole Eightfold Path. From the second step onwards we find a list of virtues to be practiced as part of the "way that goes to the cessation of suffering." These virtues are: right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness. The eighth and final step is right samadhi or deep concentration. Here we reach the four stages of dhyana or meditation. Through practice of the above virtues one prepares oneself for dhyana:

This first stage is a state of joy and happiness, accompanied by contemplation and reflection. In the course of time contemplation and reflection cease, giving way to inner calm and becoming one of heart. Joy and happiness remain. . . . This is the second stage. Then the joy disappears, but happiness conceived as physical well-being remains. This happiness is joined by equanimity and awareness. This is the third stage. Finally even the feeling of happiness disappears and equanimity and awareness reach a state of perfection. This is the fourth stage. -- Ibid., pp. xxv-vi.

We thus see that right view to the Buddha means having the right perspective on our possibilities as human beings, the vision of a path which we ourselves can follow and on which the Buddha has led the way. By the time that we have completed the last step of the Noble Eightfold Path we know by experience the way to overcome the illusions which cause suffering.

Turning to another portion of the Pali Canon, to certain fragments from the Sutta Nipata which belong to the oldest texts of this Canon, we find the word "view" used differently, and this applies also to the Pali word which in this case belongs to the realm of personal theories, opinions, beliefs, and preconceptions. Here the Buddha refers to those who enjoy disputes and who like to speculate and theorize; to this he contrasts the behavior of the wise.

What some regard as the highest view others consider to be worthless. They all claim to be experts: Which of them indeed is right? (903)
Each one claims that his own view is perfect and that the belief of others is inferior. Thus they enter into dispute; thus each of them says that his own opinion is true. (904)
He who is attached enters into debate about doctrines. By what and how can an unattached person be characterized? He has nothing to grasp or to reject. He has purified all views here. (787)
The sage . . . is indifferent among sectarian squabbles, not embracing them whilst others remain attached. (912)
Having abandoned former defilements, not inducing new ones, not becoming partisan, he is free from dogmatic views . . . (913)
Giving up assumption, unattached, he builds no reliance on knowledge itself. . . he does not rely on any view whatsoever. (800) -- Sutta-Nipata, trans. H. Saddhatissa, London, 1987, except verse 800, trans. from Luis O. Gomez in Proto-Madhyamika in the Pali Canon, Philosophy East and West, 1976, pp. 137-65. In the text the Pali word for view, ditthi, appears in verses 787, 913, and 800. In verses 903 and 904, however, view in the original is dhamma, Pali for Sanskrit dharma, meaning view, doctrine, or law of nature.

In this context, having no views is considered wise, for the sage has reached a level of understanding where he knows that strife and dispute end once you stop being attached to this or that theory. These fragments from Sutta-Nipata breathe an atmosphere of tolerance and freedom from all doctrinal limitations.

How can right views and no views both be recommended? Contradictions are typical of our "this or that" way of thinking. The word view has many different meanings varying from vision to opinion or theory. There is a stage on the path recommended and implied by right view where "contemplation and reflection cease." At this stage of the Eightfold Path one has no views. In both cases, therefore, the recommendations point to a stage where one has reached through knowledge and wisdom the inner calm and silence of the mystic.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, February/March, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Theosophical University Press)

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