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.

Anatomy of Seeing into Experience: Right View

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.

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  1. Earl Rectanus on July 12, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    The intensity of interest on the facebook debate about rebirth, generated by your piece was really interesting to observe. From a secular viewpoint it seems pretty clear that religions develop in cultures to serve certain purposes for people in general, and the “secular buddhist” interpretation of Buddhism, doesn’t necessarily fulfill those many purposes. Some of them have to do with cultural conflict and competition for the “heart and minds” of the mass of folks..

    As some of the David Chapman blogs, and Ted’s interview this past week demonstrate, the sort of Buddhism which we are interested in, is very much a product of traditional Buddhism, in the form of a cultural Meme casting about for ways of attaching itself to the Western Meme of Science which was allowing Western nation states (and cultures) to subjugate Eastern ones.

    At the same time, any organic cultural religion has to cope with the inherent paradox of there being a powerful yearning to survive and live, which in humans coexists with a certain awareness of death.

    So in the competition between cultures and religions (as a kind of software which the hardware of culture uses), if one culture/religion is offering eternal life, in a way which people actually buy into, you had better be able to come up with an alternative. At least if you are going to appeal to the masses of people, which organic cultural religions need to do.

    It also tends to mean that the rarefied understanding of Buddhism which secular buddhism represents is likely to be appropriate only for a very small percentage of the population, like Humanism, or Agnosticism/Atheism (whatever it’s flavor).

    Finally, once someone has fully engrained (often from childhood) a belief in a certain protocol by which death is fundamentally psychologically denied, they have been practicing avoidance of their death anxiety through a form of denial. From such a stance it is extraordinarily threatening to let go of those protocols, as one is left defenseless against the primal anxiety which humans have for death. Whereas, those not having such supports, have been practicing the acceptance of death in a wide variety of ways and so are more free to examine wise teachings without this driving and primal imperative.

    Probably the first step in any such process would need to be the deconstruction of the death anxiety which the “true believer” has. Although typically there will be so much denial active, that even the admission of a death anxiety itself, can be a challenge of self-awareness.

    • David Chou on August 3, 2013 at 6:31 am

      The whole world is moving towards popular enlightenment (I know that sounds ominous, but bear with me), and though it be a matter of decades (it won’t be centuries because we haven’t that much time) people will find a way to live and work and grow together. It’s in the nature of things to self-organize, and despite our inherent egotism so subtle few of us are aware of it (and even those of us who are have a hard time letting go — viz., Buddhist practice), life inevitably wills out.

      Once people understand that life is not so much a choice as an inevitable condition of the universe, I think the egotistical anxiety which animates so much ignorance will subside, allowing for more open attitudes toward agnostic and even atheistic perspectives.

      Until we genetically engineer a way out of our egoism (assuming everything is indeed physical), there will be the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path for those who need treatment (some people are talented in happiness and all right as they are).

  2. Linda on July 5, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    Just a little correction to the above. You said:

    “After being asked whether the world is eternal or not, Buddha gives the answer no to both questions.”

    That isn’t quite what the texts say. Here’s a quote from

    As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One:
    “How is it, Master Gotama, does Master Gotama hold
    the view: ‘The cosmos is eternal: only this is true,
    anything otherwise is worthless’?”


    The Buddha is denying that he HOLDS THE VIEW. He is not denying that the cosmos is eternal, nor that it is not eternal, nor that it is finite or infinite. He is not making any statement at all about the status of the cosmos. All he is saying is that he does not hold a view.

    • David Chou on August 3, 2013 at 6:15 am

      Hmmm, the essay seems to have noted just that (“Gotama referring to himself as Tathagata…”), though you certainly emphasize the point more!

  3. David Chou on August 3, 2013 at 5:58 am

    In your last paragraph, you ask, “how do we understand views without becoming attached to them?”

    For me, this is indeed the crux of my problems in relating to others. I believe this to be the case for everyone, actually, but not everyone realizes this!

    I certainly didn’t for quite a while. Because I think we all instinctively believe in the ideal of Socratic Debate, of putting ideas to the test by arguing them to see which one wins out — “may the best idea win” — which is basically a rhetorical version of the Scientific Method (indeed, it’s probably what lead to the Scientific Method, a kind of intellectual trial by combat).

    What I did not see, and many still do not, is how easily we become attached to our ideas and identify them with our selves. I’m actually pretty magnanimous when it comes to debates, and even I have always noticed a certain “instinctual heat” that naturally attaches to the defense (or propagation) of an idea, a view.

    This instinctual heat was quite gratifying, ego-based as it was. In debate, one felt as if reborn, in the act of re-birthing oneself — which, indeed, it is, the ego/self re-creating itself, calcifying…ossifying…this I now see. But on the surface it’s so immensely gratifying to define oneself by one’s ideas and see them proven right, time and again! And so the self is reaffirmed and reified once more, no matter the existential angst and ennui of quiet nights and deep winters, like a sun-god reborn each day, each year….

    (Hey, don’t laugh; just because you wouldn’t think to use such a floridly turgid description doesn’t mean that that isn’t what’s actually happening for you as well!)

    This is why I’ve come to Buddhism now, because I sense that mere intellectual analysis can only yield so much understanding. Indeed, it results in an impasse — what is a person but what s/he does, and what would s/he do but what s/he thinks…therefore, what is a person but his or her thoughts? — but there’s some way out of this construct and that appears to be the Noble Eightfold Path.

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