This is Part 1 of a series of exploration and practice into the first factor of The Eightfold Path. This first factor really holds within it the entire path. It’s not something you master and move onto the second, but is a journey of exploration that carries over into all the other factors as well.
I am caught in a “thicket of views.” I know I’m caught because I feel the powerful sense of self arise, the me that is right, a self who clings to ideas, opinions, etc. The illusion of self solidifies, creating attachment, angst, and frustration. What to do . . .
In the diagram above, I have reworded the first factor of the Eightfold Path from Right View to Seeing into experience. The path is not dogma to adhere to, nor is it a belief to form, and lastly it is not a philosophy to undertake. Instead it’s an instruction to see directly into our moment of experience, which then gets us out of the thicket of views, the many ways we create our own suffering.
I feel how clinging gives rise to an illusory self, yet when I’m caught in it, that sense of self feels solid and righteous. Time to revisit the first factor of Eightfold Path. As I listened to this recording of my teacher’s talk Teaching on Right View by Shaila Catherine it really struck home for me. I followed up by reading one of my favorite suttas Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta: To Vacchagotta on Fire, MN 72.
What struck me on listening to my teacher and reading this sutta is how secular Gotama, the Buddha was. But even more, he describes a kind of openness concerning viewpoints, opinion, ideas that is incredibly difficult to match. The US prides itself on Freedom of Speech, and indeed this is a crucial human right. But because we are so freely forming and sharing opinions, the slippery and invisible vise of clinging catches hold of us unaware.
I step back, take a deep breath, and read what Master Gotama had to say . . . After being asked whether the world is eternal or not, Buddha gives the answer no to both questions. Vacca asks: “Does Master Gotama have any position at all?”
Gotama referring to himself as Tathagata, replies, “A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with.”
Positions and views often ‘define’ who we think we are. But the heart of this factor on the Eightfold Path asks us to “see” into our experience. In doing so, you can see how the position has taken on a life of it’s own, a fabrication that is causing a flurry of thoughts, emotions, bodily reactions . . . suffering.
To explore the first factor, as shown above in the diagram, we employ mindfulness and effort to our direct experience, and through that wisdom begins to emerge. In my case, this unfolds naturally into the next row of the diagram, and I am dropped squarely into the first of the Four Truths: Dissatisfaction, frustration, suffering. I feel it. I don’t have to look far. I also see how it arises, how the angst fades, the impermanence. That leads to the next, which is the cause. I’m caught in a thicket of views, clinging to ideas, righteousness, despair.
As I examine more closely, I find the usefulness of the three characteristics of existence: impermanence, dissatisfaction, and not self. I see the thicket clearly, how it creates a false sense of self, the suffering within me that it creates, the clinging. Yet, when I let go, even if only for a moment, I see thoughts arise and fade away. Feelings arise and fade away. There is nothing solid. This self that arises, this self that knows how things should be, is but a ghost riding on emotional reactions. It’s but an illusion.
The thicket is dense and full of thorns, but little by little, stepping back and just looking into this moment, seeing experience as it arises instead of how the mind wants to create, brings reveals space between the branches of the thicket.
How do we understand views without becoming attached to them? Clearly, in the suttas, Gotama does express some views, gives information, provides instruction, yet he was free of attachment to all of these. I have to admit this a huge a struggle for me. Yet, from past experience I know that letting go brings freedom, peace.
- Teaching on Right View by Shaila Catherine: Shailia Catherine teaches at the South Bay Insight Center and she is the author of Focused and Fearless A Meditator’s Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm, and Clarity
- In This Very Life: The Liberation Teachings of the Buddha by U Pandita
- Right View: Sama ditthi