A person who associates himself with certain views, considering them as best and making them supreme in the world, is not free from contention with others. Those skilled in judgment say that a view becomes a bond if, relying on it, one regards everything else as inferior. Therefore a bhikkhu should not present himself as equal to, nor imagine himself to be inferior, nor better than, another. Among those who dispute he is certainly not one to take sides. He does not recourse to a view at all. Concerning the seen, the heard and the cognised he does not form the least notion. He who does not grasp at a view, with what could he be identified in the world?
Condensed from the Paramatthaka Sutta, Sutta Nipata
The Paramatthaka Sutta from the Sutta Nipata cautions us not to hold to our views in such a way that other views are seen as less valid. I strongly resonate with this teaching. It’s so easy to get caught in our own “inner wisdom” or someone else’s interpretation of a spiritual idea. When I was young I used to have the notion that there was a “right answer” for every situation. My hope would be to discover it, like the answer in the back of a math text. Over the years, as I have gone through various phases, my views of what is important in life have changed dramatically. My primary motivations for practice have also gone through major shifts: to free myself from my neuroses, to develop good karma, to achieve enlightenment, to open the heart, to purify the mind. . . . My concept of good practice has also gone through major shifts. Good practice in my mind has sometimes meant to be a diligent yogi who moves like a snail, while other times, it has meant to be simple and easy, without attachment to form. How can I possibly know for sure what my opinions will be ten years from now?
With so many divergent thoughts about the dharma, it seems very presumptuous for anyone to put out their own current ideas as the absolute truth. And who can know with undeniable certainty what the Buddha actually said? Eighteen schools arose after the Buddha’s death. Hundreds of years later, monks in the Theravada, the one surviving school, recorded the Buddha’s words in written form, the Pali Canon. Then, hundreds of years after the Pali Canon was written, scholars wrote commentaries on it which had enormous influence on how Buddhadharma was understood. Still later the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools developed their own perspectives. Great disagreements over the Buddha’s teachings have sometimes resulted in disparate factions which are terribly vested in the validity of their own interpretations. A student of Buddhism may become thoroughly confused as to which view is the true view. That is why it’s a real comfort for me to see my view as just that, a particular outlook, that I don’t have to defend to the death.
These days I try to take my wisdom from wherever I find it. The challenge is to trust my own perception of what’s true while not getting so attached to my view that I dismiss the other person’s position as “wrong.” That means trying to stay open to someone else’s perspective even if I disagree with it. For whatever reason, their view makes sense to them. If I can understand their thinking I’m not only keeping the dialogue open, but also possibly learning something new.
If, O monks, there were no enjoyment in the world, beings would not become attached to the world. But as there is enjoyment in the world, beings become attached to it.
If there were no misery in the world, beings would not be disgusted with the world. But as there is misery in the world, beings become disgusted with it.
If there were no escape from the world, beings could not make their escape from the world. But as there is an escape from the world, beings can escape from it.
The Book of Threes
Gradual Sayings, Vol. 1
(Anguttara Nikaya 3:102)
These words of the Buddha, and the message they convey, point to an issue I’ve struggled with both in my personal practice and in teaching. It is possible that the passage describes a true picture of life, as well as the Buddha’s purpose in teaching. However, the words can easily be seen to suggest an attitude of escape in which the world is pictured as a grim place, with its joys and beauty as traps we need to avoid.
By nature I’m a fairly intense person. I love to sing, watch football games and have fun. What I do is often done with passion. Of course that passionate side can lead to suffering. Fortunately, I got passionate about something that has helped bring more balance in my life—the meditation practice. For quite some time, though, I was operating on a subtle but powerful belief that enjoying life was somehow unskillful because it would lead to attachment. Enjoyment was something I needed to resignedly accept, until I could transcend it. As time went on, it became harder to squelch a strong inclination toward celebration and wonder in the mystery of life that is a major part of my spiritual fuel.
Several years ago a spiritual crisis made me examine the beliefs I’d formed during years of practice. Not only had I developed the stance that I should be wary of joy, I was teaching that stance to others! I found that I could no longer share this as an honest representation of what my heart told me was true. I realized that for a long time I had not allowed my natural vitality and joie de vivre true expression. Taking an equanimous, nonattached appearance, I developed a much flatter relationship with people and events which felt, upon reflection years later, as a deadening of my spirit.
There is a fine line between appreciation and addiction; the practice can help us make that subtle discrimination. In fact, seeing how we create suffering through grasping is a precious gift of practice for which I’m deeply grateful. Unfortunately, some yogis reject appreciation of life, as well as grasping. On retreat, in the simplicity of intensive meditation, one may touch such a wonderful fullness. If a yogi, in that open space of quiet and receptivity, regularly hears talks that suggest how miserable and painful life is, this can color his or her attitude about returning to daily activities after retreat. It seems to me that through dharma talks, yogis often internalize the perspective that the appreciation of the world and its joys is to be avoided. Perhaps this is not an accurate understanding of what the teachers are saying, but too often it is the interpretation.
The Buddha’s teaching comes from a monastic tradition. Monks are encouraged to take refuge from worldly entanglements—close relationships, aesthetic appreciation of the arts, “frivolous talk” to name a few. While that is entirely appropriate for someone leading the renunciate life, I don’t think it is a very balanced way to live for most of us who are not nuns and monks. Buddhist meditation practice can be quite attractive to people who tend to be depressed and see things in a negative way. In my experience, it’s not uncommon for people to misuse practice to further withdraw from life even though they don’t want to make the full commitment of living in a monastery. This generally leads to more isolation and dissatisfaction with their actual situations.
With the perspective of seeing life as suffering, enjoyment as something to avoid and the world as a place from which to escape, it’s a challenge not to be cynical. Why should one engage with others, if all of life is dukkha (suffering) anyway? Why be moved to act with strong intention in regard to ecology if we see this world as a place to get out of as quickly as possible? And how can we contribute in an uplifting way that inspires others, if an attitude of aversion and distaste for life colors what we do? I’m pleased with the development of “engaged Buddhism” in recent years. From a spiritual appreciation for life, that movement encourages us to express our wisdom, compassion and lovingkindness through active participation in the world. I believe that this approach toward the Buddha’s teachings provides a crucial balance to the message that life is miserable and we should escape from it.