On Clinging to Views


A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” — Max Planck

I have a confession to make: I cling to views. When I was a child, perhaps the most stimulating way I would interact with my parents was through intellectual argument. My mother professed to hate it when we would get into argle-bargle with my father, but given half a chance she would do the same with me. Coming from an academic and literary family, it all seemed perfectly normal. Instead of using physical activities to show social dominance, we would do so through creative argumentation: take some controversial topic and argue it out. Sometimes we would get quite heated, but there was a life to the interactions that made them stimulating. They got the blood to run.

At school I was trained in reasoning and argumentation: how to source evidence, how to analyze it, how to cross-examine apparent counter evidence, how to put together and defend a thesis. At its best, this process of evaluating truth-claims lead to more accurate results: after all, it’s what peer review and the scientific method are all about. But at the personal level it also promoted psychological identification with theses, claims, movements, “-isms”.

I think it’s fair to say that in the academy one becomes identified with the particular views one has put forward in published papers, colloquia, and so on, and a combination of originality and stubbornness is a requirement for position and tenure. Though I decided to leave that behind, the training remains.

It’s not only in the academy that one finds this kind of stubbornness, of course. How many of us self-identify with one or another view or “-ism”? Do we see ourselves as liberals or conservatives? Democrats, Republicans, Independents? Fans of a team, patriots of a country, torch-bearers of a movement? “Believers” in Buddhism, science, skepticism, rationalism, secularism? Or, perhaps, do we cling stubbornly to the view that we are free from all that?

The Snake and the Raft

In his Alagaddūpama Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 22), the Buddha argues against such an approach to truth-claims or “views”, perhaps most famously in his simile of the raft. The dhamma, he says, is like a raft: it’s for crossing over the river of saṃsāra, not for carrying around on our head once we’ve reached the far side.*

It’s possible to take the the Buddha to have been rejecting views entirely: perhaps he’s saying that views are a hindrance that we must see through in order to reach true freedom; perhaps no truth claims are ever valid and worth holding.

But the simile must be seen in context to be properly understood: it comes just after the Buddha’s castigation of the wayward monk Ariṭṭha. Ariṭṭha apparently argued that monks should be allowed to have sex, since the training allowed them to do so without the obstruction of sensual desire.

In response, the Buddha reiterated his view about “genuine obstructions”, with some firm emphasis:

Worthless man, from whom have you understood that Dhamma taught by me in such a way? Worthless man, haven’t I in many ways described obstructive acts? And when indulged in they are genuine obstructions. I have said that sensual pleasures are of little satisfaction, much stress, much despair, & greater drawbacks. … But you, worthless man, through your own wrong grasp [of the Dhamma], have both misrepresented us as well as injuring yourself and accumulating much demerit for yourself, for that will lead to your long-term harm & suffering. (6)

The Buddha doesn’t mean that we are to abandon all views, nor that ‘anything goes’ with respect to our cognitive approach to the world. His approach, whatever it is, certainly does not preclude castigating a wayward monk.

There is, he says, a right way and a wrong way to grasp the dhamma. In the simile of the snake, which gives the sutta its name, the Buddha compares our approach to the dhamma to grasping a poisonous water snake. If we grasp it wrongly, it will turn and bite us, causing us great harm or even death. If we grasp it rightly, we may use it to beneficial purpose.

The Buddha says that those who wrongly grasp the dhamma “study [it] both for attacking others and for defending themselves in debate.” (10) Or put another way, they “cherish it, treasure it, regard it as ‘mine,'”. (MN 38.14). They make out of it a possession, a fetish, an item of personal adornment. I think we can safely assume from the context that Ariṭṭha was a skilled and enthusiastic debater in the saṇgha, likely something of a sophist.

There is a subtle paradox involved in the simile of the snake. The difference between grasping the snake correctly and grasping it incorrectly is itself partly a matter of grasping. That is, when we grasp the dhamma, holding to it to engage in debate, or to regard as mine, then we grasp it wrongly. When we do not grasp the dhamma as mine, to cherish and treasure as some sort of dear possession, then we grasp it rightly.

This way of putting things is prone to misunderstanding, because in English the word “grasp” has two senses. In its first sense it means “to seize hold of”, in its second sense it means “to comprehend fully”. Clearly, the Buddha means that to comprehend the dhamma fully we cannot cling to it. Or to put it in an apparently paradoxical form, to truly grasp the dhamma we need to stop grasping the dhamma.

Indeed, to escape dukkha, we need to stop grasping at any view:

“Monks, you would do well to depend on a view-dependency (ditthi-nissaya), depending on which there would not arise sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair. But do you see a view-dependency, depending on which there would not arise sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair?”

“No, lord.”

“Very good, monks. I, too, do not envision a view-dependency, depending on which there would not arise sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair.” (MN 22.24)

Grasping at views for support, depending on views, identifying with views, is just as liable to produce sorrow as grasping at objects, people, experiences, or mental states. Instead, we are to approach views dispassionately. The Buddha uses himself as an example: his views are sometimes misrepresented, but since he has eliminated grasping at views, he feels no pain or elation at the reactions of others, be they positive or negative.

So saying, bhikkhus, so proclaiming, I have been baselessly, vainly, falsely, and wrongly misrepresented by some recluses and brahmins …

Bhikkhus, both formerly and now what I teach is suffering and the cessation of suffering. If others abuse, revile, scold, and harass the Tathāgata for that, the Tathāgata on that account feels no annoyance, bitterness, or dejection of the heart. And if others honor, respect, revere, and venerate the Tathāgata for that, the Tathāgata on that account feels no delight, joy, or elation of the heart … (MN 22.37-38, using Ñāṇamoli/Bodhi).

We are to assume from this that when the Buddha berated Ariṭṭha he did so without annoyance, bitterness, or dejection of the heart. My eyebrow rises a bit on the claim, however I suppose it’s not impossible to accept.

Arguments and Biases

We’ve all been around the internet long enough to know that some people are very attached to their beliefs or pet theories. Much of the attraction of web forums, chatrooms, and comment threads is to attack or defend such views.

More importantly, businesspeople, politicians, scientists, people from all walks of life become similarly attached in their professional capacity. It’s too quick to say that this is necessarily a bad thing: adversarial discussion, debate, and peer review are essential to modern progress. Often it seems that to give a thesis the seriousness it deserves, we must take full possession of it. Then, it’s thoroughly cross-examined, and we become the defense attorney, giving our idea the best turn possible.

In the open light of day, often it seems that better options trump worse. But for this process to work, we can’t restrict honest examination out of a misguided sense of politeness or a wish not to offend propriety. Indeed, the Buddha said as much in his Kalama (Aṇguttara Nikāya 3.65) and Vimaṃsaka Suttas (MN 47): the Buddha and his dhamma should also be open to thorough investigation.

Still, it’s difficult to cross-examine the beliefs of others, and painful to have one’s own beliefs cross-examined . To be done skillfully, it should be done without clinging. Psychological research has turned up a list of cognitive biases, many of which spring from our own capability to delude ourselves when it comes to reinforcing our own sense of ego. To protect ourselves from the pain of losing our view, or having it disintegrate before our eyes, we resort to mental sleights-of-hand.

Perhaps the most famous of these is Confirmation Bias, in which we selectively favor information that confirms views we consider ours, and selectively dismiss information that might disconfirm our views.

We’re all susceptible to these biases: skeptics, naturalists, and secularists no less than believers in one or another form of supernaturalism. We would like to claim that those of us in the former group are less attached to our views and hence more open to cross-examination and counter evidence. But even if that were true, it wouldn’t lessen the importance of the Buddha’s message.

Like objects, people, or experiences, views themselves may be good and useful. Clinging to them is not. Clinging leads to a greater likelihood for bias and delusion. It leads to “sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.”

I should know: I cling to views!


* Bhikkhu Bodhi remarked in an exegesis on this sutta that the simile doesn’t quite work: by definition anyone who had actually reached the far side would not be the sort to carry around the raft. The problem is rather with folks on the near shore who wear it on their heads rather than putting it in the water and using it to cross over.