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.

No Comments

  1. Dana Nourie on March 15, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Doug, thank you for this wonderful article. I know the whole Buddhist thing around views was very confusing to me for a long time. I agree that it isn’t that we shouldn’t have views, but it’s all about how we present our views to others, using right speech, how attached we are to our views so we are not closed-minded, and that we don’t get so emotional about outcomes that we get caught “in a thicket of views” so we become offended, angry, etc because others don’t understand our view.

    If you think about it, Buddha went around teaching his views! I’m not sure calling this guy “worthless man” or fools is right speech, but we all know the frustration of having someone attribute a view to us that is not what the view is at all!

    As human beings with thinking brains, we are going to have views. I am trying to be more mindful to attachment to my views, and my intentions in sharing them, and I’m trying to be mindful as to expectations. I’m finding in doing so, I am having more conversations that are benign in nature, even when we don’t agree. Also, it’s important to recognize when someone challenges my view that sometimes the most compassionate thing for both of us is for me not to take the bait and just leave them with their view, no matter how I disagree.

    Great article!

    • Doug Smith on March 15, 2013 at 1:05 pm

      Thanks, Dana. I’m glad you found it useful. I’ve also had a lot of difficulty understanding the stuff on views, and finally got round to looking at the texts more closely. I think it pretty clearly fits in with his … view … on clinging or grasping, generally. Just like we shouldn’t cling to things, people, experiences, so too we shouldn’t cling to views. That doesn’t mean they aren’t real or good or useful, though.

      You’re right to also point to “right speech”. One way we cling to views in practice is by not using right speech, particularly when attacking or defending. (And yeah, even the Buddha gets into it pretty well when he’s scolding someone … “without annoyance”).

      It’s an area that’s very difficult, and that I’ve been learning a whole lot about. I think it’s going to involve a big change in how I approach a lot of stuff. It’s going to take time, and I’m not sure how successful I can be with it; we’ll see.

  2. Robert M. Ellis on March 16, 2013 at 1:10 am

    Hi Doug,
    I think this is a good survey of the canonical material on views, and I’m glad to see you address this important topic. However, you don’t seem to really focus the obvious question that arises from this material. If the ultimate ideal is no views, but in the meantime views are OK, how are we to reconcile these two positions? Like you, I’m sceptical about the likelihood of the Buddha having no views at all and no attachment to those views, but nevertheless the ideal of no views can be seen as an attempt to articulate an insight about the lack of ultimate justification for all views.

    For me, there’s an obvious answer to the question of how we reconcile the fact that we need views with the lack of ultimate justification for those views – that is provisionality of view. The question of what provisionality of view really means, philosophically and psychologically, has been a central concern of my research and writing for about 15 years now. My thesis is to offer interlocking philosophical and psychological accounts of provisionality: philosophically, it is the Middle Way, and psychologically, it is integration. It is that perspective that has led me to the other conclusions about which we have argued elsewhere, e.g. my disagreement with naturalism.

    I do not share Max Planck’s pessimism about the possibility of changing one’s views, because methods are far more important than views, and views can change if one’s primary commitment is to an objective method. An objective method has to take into account all conditions, including those of mental state and perspective, not just the best ways of investigating the world. I am still optimistic that anyone who genuinely wants to practise the Buddha’s insights, and investigates the Buddha’s approach to view will reach similar conclusions to mine as to the primary importance of provisionality of view as overriding commitments to particular models of reality such as those of naturalism. Alternatively, if I am wrong but am practising the right methods, my views will also come to be modified in the light of those methods.

    • Doug Smith on March 16, 2013 at 5:21 am

      Hello Robert, and thanks. I included Max Planck’s quote not because I agree with it completely. Scientists do in fact change their minds from time to time on important theoretical topics. Nevertheless I think it expresses more the norm than the exception: people tend to be stubborn about views. So anyway it expresses an important generality.

      I don’t see that the ultimate ideal is “no views”. Perhaps you can enlighten me on where the Buddha says such a thing in the suttas. My understanding is that the ultimate ideal is “right view”, perhaps integrated to such an extent that the view is no longer internally expressed conceptually, but is simply seen as the way things are.

      For example, in the Ditthi Sutta, the householder Anathapindika says to the wanderers near his park:

      “Whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently originated, that is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. Whatever is stress is not me, is not what I am, is not my self. This is the sort of view I have.”

      And the Buddha later agrees. Then of course there is Sariputta’s Samaditthi Sutta.

      IIRC sometimes the Buddha inveighs against “views” in general, but I take that to be short for “wrong views” or perhaps “clinging to views”.

      • Robert M. Ellis on March 16, 2013 at 4:09 pm

        Why are we restricted to the Pali Suttas? Is there a peculiar Theravadin bias going on here? The best expression of no view as an ultimate ideal is Mahayana rather than Pali Canon. Say in the Heart Sutra:
        “Form is only emptiness, emptiness only form.”
        An enlightened being is said to recognise that form is emptiness – that is,that there are no correct views about reality. This is more explicit in the Diamond Sutra:

        “Subhuti, what do you think? Has the Tathagata attained the consummation of incomparable Enlightenment? Has the Tathagata a teaching to enunciate?
        Subhuti answered: As I understand Buddha’s meaning there is no formulation of truth called consummation of incomparable Enlightenment. Moreover, the Tathagata has no formulated teaching to enunciate. Wherefore? Because the Tathagata has said that the truth is uncontainable and inexpressible. It neither is nor is it not.
        Thus it is that this unformulated principle is the foundation of the different systems of all the sages.” (Section 7, trans. Price and Mou-Lam)

        The same point is repeated ad nauseam all the way through the Prajnaparamita literature and also in Zen. The idea of the emptiness of form (and thus the emptiness of views about it) and the signless nature of samadhi also come up in the Pali Canon in the Sunna Sutta and the Kamabhu Sutta – though certainly the interpretation is less clear at this stage. The Mahayana just took the Buddha’s Middle Way teachings a bit further towards their logical conclusion.

        • Doug Smith on March 17, 2013 at 3:05 pm

          The philosophy embodied in the Pali Canon is not entirely consistent with later Mahayana elaborations. My interest is in figuring out the Buddha dhamma of the Pali Canon, basically because I consider it the most credible, down-to-earth, and philosophically tractable exposition of the dhamma. Others may disagree, of course, but I don’t consider texts from later suttas to be evidence of the Buddha dhamma.

          That said, the claim that “form is emptiness” is often interpreted along the lines that form is dependently originated. That is itself a kind of view: “right view”, as in the Ditthi Sutta I quoted above. The claim that the Tathagata had no formulated teaching certainly appears a kind of absurd falsehood, one that contradicts the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, as well as the first fold in the path itself. It’s certainly not true that “the truth is inexpressible” since the Buddha expresses it again and again in the suttas.

          It’s true that one cannot reach true wisdom simply by cognitively taking onboard these truths as propositions; more needs to be done. But that can be expressed more clearly in other ways, I think.

          These are the kind of confusions (and other ones such as non-duality and Buddha Nature) that lead me to shy away from the later texts as a useful entry into the dhamma.

          • Robert M. Ellis on March 18, 2013 at 2:36 am

            I’m glad to see that you’re avoiding a historical justification for reliance on the Pali Canon – “credible, down to earth and philosophically tractable” sounds carefully phrased to avoid that. You’re probably aware that the Pali Canon wasn’t written down for around 500 years after the Buddha’s death, and thus that historical priority is not very clear. However, credibility depends on coherence and practical applicability, and “philosophically tractable” sounds suspiciously like “fitting analytic/ naturalistic assumptions”. I find the Mahayana account of view adds a keystone that makes the Pali Canon material far more coherent (though there is much else in the Mahayana literature that is far from coherent). Adding this element is also more practically applicable because it enables us to resolve the fact-value distinction rather than imposing it on the material.

            The underlying issue with view is how it fits other elements of the path. If you see “right view” as a naturalistic representation of the universe as dependently originated, this tells us nothing about how we need to respond to it, or why we should do so in one way rather than another. If, on the other hand, you recognise all representations of the universe as being provisional and incapable of isomorphism with ultimate truth (which is all that “the truth is inexpressible” means – the Diamond Sutra is not using your modern non-absolute reduction of truth), but nevertheless capable of degrees of objectivity depending on the integration of the person concerned, then ‘right view’ can just as much be about objectively justified moral beliefs as about factual ones.

            In other words, I’d say that “right view” means “beliefs about facts and values justified and motivated through incremental objectivity”, not “accurate factual beliefs about reality”. The meaning of the relatively justified beliefs we may have is not solely cognitive either, but embodied and inter-related with our emotions, meaning that right view is not even conceptually separable from the other, more emotionally-focused, elements of the eightfold path such as Right Aspiration, Right Effort, Right Concentration and Right Mindfulness. For that same reason Sangharakshita translates samma ditthi not as “right view” but as “right vision”.

          • Doug Smith on March 18, 2013 at 4:15 am

            The scholars who study the Pali Canon the deepest, such as Gombrich, do believe it to be historically prior to the Mahayana, with reasons I find compelling.

            I didn’t bring that up however because it is rationally irrelevant: historical priority does not imply credibility, clarity, or tractability. As the Buddha said in the Kalama Sutta, just because something comes from tradition doesn’t mean it’s true.

          • Robert M. Ellis on March 18, 2013 at 4:39 am

            I agree with you entirely there. The issue is what our criteria for credibility are, and whether you are prepared to admit a further one: practicability

          • Doug Smith on March 18, 2013 at 4:43 am

            Yes. I do find the Buddha dhamma to be practical and practicable, though as to whether a true “end-of-suffering” is possible, to that I remain skeptical.

          • Robert M. Ellis on March 18, 2013 at 5:03 am

            But is practicability a criterion by which you would judge right view? If one admits this, it means that it’s not just a question of deciding right view and then practising it, but that practice is itself formative of right view, and thus its meaning is not merely cognitive. The Kalama Sutta certainly suggests this in its practical criteria for sifting views:
            “Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them….Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.”

          • Doug Smith on March 18, 2013 at 6:19 am

            But is practicability a criterion by which you would judge right view?

            It is by knowing what is right that we know what is practicable, not the other way around. That’s what the Buddha says in the Kalama: when you know these things are wrong, you abandon them.

          • Robert M. Ellis on March 18, 2013 at 6:35 am

            This isolates a crucial point that we disagree on. I think the two are interdependent and neither can be established independently of the other. You talk in your article about cognitive biases – and these alone establish that we cannot establish knowledge independently of practice. However clear and coherent our beliefs they are still subject to the limitations imposed by physical and emotional conditions. The work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson has also established pretty clearly that the meaning of what we think we know is based on bodily states and metaphorical extensions of those states. I think you’re interpreting the Buddha in terms of an account of meaning that does not stand up to investigation of how we actually process meaning or establish cognition.

          • Doug Smith on March 18, 2013 at 6:43 am

            Robert, this gets way far afield of the discussion in this text, but you’re confusing epistemology with metaphysics. It’s true that our epistemology depends upon how theories are useful to us: the way we choose the right theory is by how well it makes predictions, as well as by how simple and elegant it is, which are in their own ways marks of usefulness.

            So yes, I do think that in the same way a scientist would say, “This theory predicts the motion of Venus better than that,” the Buddha would say, “This theory aids our overcoming dukkha better than that.” And both would use those as criteria for truthfulness. But both also believe we are ‘seeing things as they really are’, nevertheless, at least in the limit of success. That is, the usefulness doesn’t make the claim true, the usefulness is a mark of its truth.

            If anything, the Buddha was more optimistic that real, living people actually did see the way things were than many scientists, who tend to be a bit more circumspect about that, at least if pressed in the right way. Very few if any scientists believe we have achieved a real “theory of everything”; the Buddha thought he had done something very similar.

  3. Linda on March 16, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    Bhikkhu Bodhi is right, it makes no sense that a liberated person who has crossed the river of samsara would keep carrying the boat around. I wonder why the brokenness of the metaphor doesn’t make him question whether he actually understood what was being said? That’s what it makes me do. I don’t assume the Buddha was not sharp enough to build a decent metaphor (or the other alternative, that someone got in there and messed up the sutta) — I assume there is something wrong with my reading, and work harder at understanding it.

    I said before in my post about “the raft” here on this site ( )that it is a mistake to see the raft simile as being about crossing over to liberation, and the Buddha saying to give up his dhamma when we get there. (The Buddha does not say the raft is for crossing over samsara, he just says “for crossing over” and doesn’t specify what the river stands for, so we have to work at it a little to get it — great danger in making quick assumptions!) A close look at the sutta’s context and choice of words shows that he’s talking about crossing over to a correct understanding of the dhamma, and the raft being the understanding each of us builds. Then — not yet fully liberated, but being certain we’ve got it, we’ve finally figured out what he said — we carry the raft with us. Then the metaphor makes sense.

    The sutta’s frame story is about such a person, Arittha, who is quite proud of his raft. That alone should tell us what the sutta and the metaphor is about.

    I’m grateful, Doug, that you understood it was about clinging to views. Thanks for a great post.

    • Doug Smith on March 17, 2013 at 3:16 pm

      Thanks, Linda. Yes, I saw your post on the raft, which I did enjoy. I think that the simile of the stream as saṃsāra and the far shore as nibbāna is a pretty central part of the Buddha’s approach to teaching dhamma, so it’s most likely to be the point in this sutta, at least offhandedly. Maybe the most explicit form of this simile occurs in MN 64, the Mahāmālunkyaputta Sutta where the Buddha compares crossing over the Ganges in flood to one being taught the dhamma for the purpose of cessation.

      AFAIK “crossing over” is usually a way of describing the final escape from saṃsāra, and the notion of “stream entry” follows the same simile: making the effort to cross the stream.

      But I suppose it doesn’t make too much difference whether we take it that the far stream isn’t quite nibbāna, or that the Buddha’s use of the simile in this context isn’t quite right. Either way there’s a bit of looseness.

      • Linda on March 17, 2013 at 7:21 pm

        Yes, the metaphor of a river for samsara is often used, I agree. But that doesn’t mean it always has to be used in that way. What I find intriguing, though, is how often, when there are two ways to read a sutta, one in which the Buddha is being crisp and logical, and one in which he isn’t quite making sense, you prefer the latter.

        • Doug Smith on March 18, 2013 at 4:07 am

          What I find intriguing, though, is how often, when there are two ways to read a sutta, one in which the Buddha is being crisp and logical, and one in which he isn’t quite making sense, you prefer the latter.

          I wouldn’t say that. Most of the time the Buddha is being crisp and logical. What I try to do is to understand each point in the context of the larger dhamma, so if a simile tends to appear with a particular interpretation, I assume it has the same interpretation in this case. Also, the distinction between banks that are “dangerous and fearful” and “free from fear” map best onto this interpretation: the far bank represents escape from dukkha.

          • Linda on March 18, 2013 at 5:35 am

            You can’t see that misinterpretting the dhamma is dangerous and fearful?

      • Linda on April 7, 2013 at 8:02 am

        I happened across this sutta again recently, and noticed on rereading it, that I was mistaken. I recalled the Buddha talking about a river, but the text doesn’t say the raft is for crossing a river, it says a great body of water (mahantaṃ udakaṇṇavaṃ), so perhaps it’s an ocean we are talking about here. The udakaṇṇava only appears in one other sutta in SN 35 [pts S iv 174] in which the Buddha uses almost identical wording:

        “Then the man would think: ‘There is this great expanse of water whose near shore is dangerous and fearful, and whose further shore is safe and free from danger, but there is no ferryboat or bridge for crossing over. Let me collect grass, twigs, branches, and foliage, and bind them together into a raft, so that by means of that raft, making an effort with my hands and feet, I can get safely across to the far shore.’”

        What’s cool about this sutta is that the Buddha spells out *exactly* what he means by this great expanse of water (and every other bit of the metaphor). He says:

        “I have made up this simile, bhikkhus, in order to convey a meaning….”

        and then he says:

        “ ‘The great expanse of water’: this is a designation for the four floods: the flood of sensuality, the flood of existence, the flood of views, and the flood of ignorance. ‘The near shore, which is dangerous and fearful’: this is a designation for identity.’ ‘The further shore, which is safe and free from danger’: this is a designation for Nibbāna. ‘The raft’: this is a designation for the Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view … right concentration.”

        No looseness in any of that, though it seems as though he perhaps doesn’t use the metaphor of a great expanse of water with complete consistency — it might mean something else in the Alagaddupama Sutta.

        (all quotations taken from The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, Bodhi, Bhikkhu.)

        • Doug Smith on April 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm

          Good catch, Linda! Thanks.

          Re. the great expanse of water, I suppose it might be an ocean, although as I say MN 64 talks about the Ganges in flood, which I imagine is what he’s after with the ‘four floods’. Mentioning the lack of ferryboat or bridge also calls rivers to mind: if he’d meant an ocean, it would not have been relevant to point out a lack of ferry or bridge.

          I suppose it could be a large lake, but the metaphor of the saṃsāra as a stream seems at least to me to make more sense than its being a lake. A stream is more turbulent, active and dangerous than a lake, which is usually pretty placid. When the Buddha gives lake similes they tend to be clear, mountain lakes (e.g., with the jhānas), and then the issue is turbidity or clarity rather than danger.

  4. mufi on March 16, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    Doug: How do we recognize when we’re clinging to a view, as opposed to defending a view that – for whatever reason (e.g. supporting evidence, occam’s razor, etc.) – merits such a defense?

    In any case, I’m glad to hear you say (in your comment) that “the ultimate ideal is ‘right view'”, as I believe that the stakes can get pretty high. That is, holding a right view vs. a wrong view could mean the difference between life and death, flourishing and suffering.

    I admit that I generally have little patience for those who make light of these stakes or who dismiss them entirely. I’m working on that – although not even I have ever gone so far as to call such folks “worthless.” I have, however, thought much worse.


    • Doug Smith on March 17, 2013 at 3:26 pm

      How do we recognize when we’re clinging to a view, as opposed to defending a view that – for whatever reason (e.g. supporting evidence, occam’s razor, etc.) – merits such a defense?

      Well, that’s the thing: clearly the Buddha thinks this is possible, since in the same sutta he both inveighs against clinging to views and defends against a misunderstanding of views that he considers pernicious.

      I imagine that the key is in how you hold to the views you are dealing with. In particular, do you identify with them as “I”, “mine”, “myself”? If so, you have a problem. Then they are likely to cause you dukkha, since you take everything personally.

      If, OTOH, you don’t do these things, you’re taking views objectively as views, which can be right or wrong, wholesome or unwholesome, but aren’t “I”, “mine”, “myself”. Then you can defend those views that merit defense, and attack those views that merit attack, without creating dukkha for yourself. (Modulo the other problems about “right speech”, of course).

      I’m glad to hear you say (in your comment) that “the ultimate ideal is ‘right view’”, as I believe that the stakes can get pretty high.

      Yeah. I’d also pay attention to the “perhaps” that follows that claim, however. It’s one thing to have a lot of “right views”, and another to have them properly integrated into one’s internal wisdom and external behavior such that they arise spontaneously rather than being the sorts of things we recall when convenient and forget more often than not.

      I mean, who really believes that there are any permanent external objects out there in the world? It’s very easy to assent to the three marks of existence (anicca, dukkha, anatta), and very hard to really understand them thoroughly in a way that produces wisdom.

      So while ‘right view’ is critical, I can sympathize with those practitioners who understand that it’s only one stepping stone on the path.

      • mufi on March 18, 2013 at 6:58 am

        Doug: So while ‘right view’ is critical, I can sympathize with those practitioners who understand that it’s only one stepping stone on the path.

        For that matter, one might say that it’s a “wrong view” to treat “right view” as if it could stand on its own, apart from the other steps on the path, but that might be a bit too ironic.

  5. GuiDo on May 23, 2013 at 1:08 am

    “Worthless man …” – do you think this is right speech? And why then does the Buddha carry around views himself on the other shore, like the one of abstinence?

    • Doug Smith on May 23, 2013 at 4:44 am

      Right, well, these are very good questions, GuiDo. I believe the Pāli word the Buddha used is “moghapurisa”. “Mogha” means “empty, vain, useless, stupid, foolish”, and “purisa” means “man”. I think “worthless man” is probably too strong a translation, since it implies that the man is literally of no worth. It’s probably better translated something like “foolish man”. At any rate, it’s clearly a term of abuse.

      The Buddha never says one must be nice to each other all the time, nor that one cannot say something upsetting. He only says that one must pick the time and place appropriately, and speak in such a way as to educate when education is possible. So I think we have to assume that the Buddha endorses some stronger techniques from time to time.

      Similarly with the question of “views”. Clearly the Buddha has opinions about things, so he cannot be recommending we give up all opinions. This is why I say he must be recommending we cease clinging to views. Now, you may well say that it seems as though the Buddha is clinging to views. Then the question must be, how can we tell? I think the only way to tell is with the 22.37-38 section quoted above: the Buddha claims not to feel annoyance or elation if he is reviled or venerated for his views. This basically constitutes his not clinging to them. However, it also implies that he did not feel annoyance at Ariṭṭha, which sounds a little odd since he calls him “moghapurisa”. Perhaps he is only using the word for strong effect? That must be what we are meant to assume.

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