Western Buddhists tend to be wary of strongly-held views. Holding and asserting views with strong emotion or passion is often seen as a form of unskillful clinging, based on an egoic need to be recognized as right, a competitive struggle over who has the best views, or an aversion to another person’s ideas. Strong views would thus seem to conflict with the Buddhist path, which is based on non-attachment and equanimity.
I want to push back gently against this view. Yes, strong views are often primarily based on attachment, but they need not be, provided we have a clear understanding of how to hold and assert strong views wisely. And, I will argue, strong views are essential if we want to live a life characterized by skillful action oriented toward the full development and flourishing of all human beings.
It’s a good time to look at this issue, as we consider how to challenge the incoming Trump administration, which will likely cause serious harm to working people and oppressed groups in our society. Shortly after Trump’s Electoral College victory last November, some well-known meditation teachers, such as Pema Chodren and Norman Fisher, emphasized the need for compassion and equanimity toward oneself and others, and a recognition of the reality of constant change and our lack of control over that change. While their comments were certainly consistent with the Buddhist inclination to turn inward to gain balance and peace in difficult times, they elicited a sharp response from Pablo Das, who found their response lacking. Das acknowledged that mindfulness is a fundamental and necessary component of our stance in this situation, but argued that we also need to recognize the value of a socially-engaged, passionate response to the Trump administration. Das, a gay man, called on Buddhists to value anger and strong, passionate views as part of a compassionate fight for social justice.
Fronsdal and Batchelor on Views
Since the Buddha did not provide us with an explicit epistemological theory, it’s not surprising that there are a range of perspectives among Buddhists about the status and truth-value of views. Positions on this issue vary, depending on one’s lineage and which aspects of the Buddha’s teachings are seen as essential.[i] I think it is fair to say, however, that contemporary Western Buddhists typically highlight the pitfalls of holding any views whatsoever or, at the least, emphasize the negative effects of holding strong views based on afflictive emotions.
This skepticism and negativity toward views is expressed in recently-published books by two secular Buddhists – Gil Fronsdal and Stephen Batchelor. Both assert that holding views is inconsistent with a non-dogmatic, secular approach to Buddhism and leads to suffering because of the link between views and clinging.
Gil Fronsdal, who prefers to describe his approach as “natural Buddhism,” shares with secular Buddhists a profound skepticism about a belief in a transcendent realm of nirvana as the goal of Buddhist practice. In his new book, The Buddha Before Buddhism he provides a translation and explication of what he claims[ii] is one of the earliest group of suttas – the Atthakavagga or the “Book of Eights,” in which such a notion is completely absent. Instead, enlightenment is understood in these suttas as “letting go” or non-attachment, a process which is possible to achieve in our daily existence.[iii]
An essential aspect of letting go is not just the renunciation of sensual cravings, but not holding on to views, particularly metaphysical views. According to Fronsdal, someone who is a “sage” in these suttas (the term in the Book of Eights for someone who has let go of attachments) is not attached to any particular view and understands that holding views leads to suffering and conflicts.
Letting go of their attachments, sages have no need for any doctrines in terms of theories, concepts, or beliefs. With no reliance on such doctrines, the wise person does not oppose anyone else’s doctrines. (p.11)
Here is how one verse of the Dutthatthaka Sutta, the Eightfold Discourse on the Corrupt, reflects this approach:
One who is attached over doctrines-
How and with whom does one argue with someone
Embracing nothing, rejecting nothing,
Right here, a person has shaken off every view. (p. 51)
Similarly, Stephen Batchelor believes that non-attachment to views should be an essential aspect of a secular approach to Buddhism. In his books, articles, and talks he has consistently argued that the core of Buddhism is not about the acceptance of certain metaphysical or cosmological beliefs, but about the pragmatic actions that allow one to achieve a release from attachments in this world and contribute to the flourishing of all human beings.
In his latest book, After Buddhism, Batchelor identifies several currents within Buddhism which eschew discussion of a transcendent realm and focus on achieving a release from suffering in our daily lives. In addition to Korean Son Buddhism, he highlights the value of the “non-oppositional and non-dogmatic perspective of the sage” which is found in the Book of Eights.[iv] Batchelor thinks that such an approach points:
…..to a possibility of being in this world here and now, freed from any entanglements in views and opinions. The “sage” is a metaphor for being optimally human: totally detached but totally alert to whatever is occurring….(p.249)
For Batchelor, the qualities of openness and non-reactivity which the sage attains “…..leads to a spontaneous vitality in which the world is revealed as questionable, mysterious, and radiant” (p.251). This mode of being in the world is crucial if we want to live with integrity and contribute to the flourishing of all human beings.
Consistent with this approach, Batchelor argues that the value of the Buddha’s insights is not that they yield certain truths about the world, but that they offer practical injunctions about how to act. The Four Noble Truths need to be understood not as propositions about the world, but, in Batchelor’s’ view, as four tasks: “Embrace life, Let go of what arises, See its ceasing, Act!” (p.70). These are the essential tasks that need to be struggled with on a spiritual path which leads to the flourishing of all human beings.
Batchelor has argued that this perspective has an affinity with two contemporary philosophical trends: phenomenology and pragmatism. A common theme in these philosophies is the notion that we cannot determine the truth of a proposition or view by its correspondence with a non-linguistic, separate reality; we can’t know things as “they really are”. Like the phenomenologist Gianni Vattimo, Batchelor instead believes in striving for “an ethics of truth” in interpersonal interactions which contributes to human flourishing. (p.119) Thus, holding views and disputing about them leads to suffering while skillful actions based on pragmatic injunctions lead to human flourishing.
Views versus Skillful Actions: A False Dichotomy
Batchelor correctly asserts that a secular approach to Buddhism will not be fruitful if it becomes merely the antithesis to traditional Buddhism, with our own set of dogmatic, metaphysical and cosmological views in opposition to traditional Buddhism’s notions of rebirth, gods, and various cosmological realms. Instead, we need to develop an approach which is non-dogmatic, questioning and open, one that focuses on how we can contribute to the flourishing and happiness of all human beings in our daily existence.
At the same time, he points out the philosophical problems with the notion that we can identify some objective standard – separate and apart from human interaction – which determines what is a true and what is a false view. There is no “God’s Eye” perspective that allows us to do that.
But in his laudable effort to develop a pragmatic, skeptical form of Buddhism, Batchelor mistakenly creates an either-or alternative between holding particular views about important questions and engaging in pragmatic actions to achieve important goals.
Surely, when we engage in the spiritual path as Buddhists (whether secular or traditional), we do so with certain understandings, views, and beliefs about ourselves, as human beings, and about the world. To assert, as Batchelor does, that one can only be happy if one renounces all attachments, depends upon his having particular beliefs about the nature of happiness, the capacities and limits of human beings, and the essential structures and processes of the world.
Doug Smith pointed out in a blog post that Batchelor’s four tasks are premised on certain views of what is true or false:
The problem is that one really cannot make much sense of the early teachings without some notion of truth or accuracy in view and understanding. …..If we are to come to the deep awareness that the five aggregates of clinging are dukkha, it must be true that the five aggregates of clinging are dukkha. Conversely, we cannot come to the deep understanding that consciousness is my self, because it is not true that consciousness is my self. Truth and understanding, truth and knowledge, truth and comprehension, all go hand in hand in this way. It may be that these are all truths present to us in our awareness in some fashion; they are not hidden or secret. But that doesn’t make them any less true.
Further, even if the “truth” cannot be determined in some absolutely, objective way, we need standards or a set of criteria to differentiate between views and their effects on human beings. That these standards are a product of human beings in particular historical and social contexts does not mean that they are irrelevant or completely subjective. It just means that the standards will always be created and revised as part of a continuing human conversation in history.
For Batchelor and other secular Buddhists, the goal of the full flourishing of human beings through individual, spiritual practice and the creation of a more just society is one such standard. I would argue that the “truth” of a view will depend, in part, on whether it contributes to such flourishing. Even if there is no standard which provides us with an objective measure of truth, we don’t need to reject totally the notion that views can be fruitfully compared and respectfully argued about.
Strong Emotions and Views
While Batchelor and Fronsdal are not urging that we rid ourselves of emotions to achieve a state of non-attachment in our daily existence, they do believe that holding views is inextricably connected to strong, unskillful emotions, such as desire and anger. As forms of clinging, these emotions directly cause suffering. And because views are often based on such emotions, disputes and conflicts will inevitably arise between individuals holding views, which, in turn, causes more suffering. Their analysis of the causal connection between strong emotions and unskillful views dovetails with a more general predisposition in Western culture to view strong emotions as detrimental to the goal of human flourishing.
However, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that emotions actually play a crucial role in imagining and creating the good life insofar as they “…..are forms of evaluative judgment that ascribe great importance to things and person’s outside one’s control. Emotions are thus, in effect, acknowledgements of neediness and lack of self-sufficiency…..” (p.185).[v] In this respect, emotions, even those that Buddhists would consider to be unskillful and a cause of suffering, are crucial to developing the kinds of ideas and behaviors which contribute to human flourishing.
Batchelor notes approvingly the similarity between the Buddhist view of a state of non-attachment or letting go and the goal in the Hellenistic philosophy of Pyrrhonian skepticism of attaining “….the untroubledness of ataraxia, a state akin to nirvana…” (p.255) based on not holding views with strong emotion. While recognizing that the skeptic’s “removal of belief removes arrogance and irascibility which now creates barriers between her and others,” Nussbaum argues in her book The Therapy of Desire[vi] that there is another side to such an indifference to views; namely, the removal of the “…intensity to the commitment to virtue that makes people risk their lives for justice, or endure hardships for those that they love.” (p. 314)
Following Nussbaum, I believe that strong emotions and passions provide us with the energy and motivation to buttress our life-long commitment to arduous projects like the Buddhist spiritual path and social justice. Even as we strive to be equanimous about the results of these projects – by recognizing our limitations, the reality of constant change, and the interdependence of all things – we need strong emotions and passion to help us continue the struggle based on our fundamental views about human beings, society, and nature.
Buddhist Insights for Holding Strong Views Wisely
Rather than attempting to relinquish all views as part of an effort to attain a state of non-attachment or letting go, we should strive, as part of a secular Buddhist spiritual path, to hold views wisely. And Buddhism certainly offers us several important tools in this respect.
As Das pointed out, mindfulness of the various phenomena which we experience provides the basic foundation for assessing the views which we hold. It is only by paying close attention to what is really happening to us, and how we are reacting and responding to our experiences, that we can discern on what basis we are holding a particular view. Is the view based mainly on anger and competition with other? Do we recognize that any of our views are likely to be limited or partial, given the reality of constant change in the world? For what reasons are we asserting the view?
The Buddha’s guidelines on right speech actually provide a useful template for evaluating our views. In the Anguttara Nikaya 5.198 the Buddha identifies the following criteria for determining whether what we say is skillful: “”It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”
Note that skillful speech depends not just on the truth-value of what we say, but our intentions and the impact of the speech. Similarly, in assessing a view, we need to take account not just the accuracy or truth-value of our view point, but the purposes for which we hold and assert the view, and its likely impact. When we assert a view, are we doing so from a place of compassion and an interest in furthering the flourishing of all human beings? If we are angry because of social injustice, is our view of the situation based solely on a reactive need to lash back at those who we believe are guilty or is the anger an impetus to gain a clear understanding of how the situation can be transformed and the injustice rectified in a way which promotes human flourishing?
Of course, these guidelines based on the Buddha’s teachings don’t provide us with a formula for exactly determining what is a wise view, but they do give us useful tools to discern between wise and unwise views.
Non-Buddhist Perspectives for Holding Strong Views Wisely
Buddhist insights on this issue provide us with necessary but not sufficient resources to hold strong views wisely. One limitation of the Buddha’s teachings in the suttas is the assumption that the assertion of views is necessarily linked with conflict and disharmony among people. In fact, I would argue that the exchange of views – even those most strongly held – is actually an essential condition for social progress and human flourishing.
I’ll just briefly mention three important perspectives which emphasize the crucial importance of the exchange of views. First, for the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, democracy and the scientific method are the essential basis for social progress and human flourishing. Both democracy and the scientific method require a robust debate within a community, based on alternative, sometimes quite divergent views. As Dewey noted in his book Democracy and Education “….a democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, a conjoint communicated experience…..” (p.87) in which, by taking account of the views and interests of others, we gain a better understanding of the appropriate response to difficult situations.[vii] Second, the radical pedagogy of Brazilian Paolo Freire emphasizes the role of a dialogical process of communication and learning as the means for an oppressed community to identify the structural roots of social injustice and the path to a more humane society.[viii] And finally, the socialist Rosa Luxemberg argued against a top-down, dictatorial version of radical social transformation in which one group or party determines all policies. Instead, she called for the widest participation and debate in a socialist society:
The public life of countries with limited freedom is so poverty-stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off the living sources of all spiritual riches and progress. ……The whole mass of the people must take part in it. Otherwise, socialism will be decreed from behind a few official desks by a dozen intellectuals.[ix]
In short, secular Buddhists should not see strong views as necessarily suspect or harmful. Provided we strive to be mindful and compassionate, having strong views is essential if we want to respond wisely and creatively to life’s challenges, including the Trump administration. Dialogue and debate over strongly-held views are not just a necessary evil; they are an essential means for creating a society in which the full flourishing of human beings is our primary goal.
[i] For the more philosophically-minded, there is a useful group of articles on various approaches to epistemology within Buddhism in A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, Steven M. Emmanuel (ed.), Wiley Blackwell, 2013, pp. 223-306.
[iii] Gil Fronsdal, The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from Early Teachings, Shambhala, 2016.
[iv] Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Yale University Press, 2016.
[v] Martha Nussbaum, “Emotions as judgments of value and importance,” in Thinking About Feeling: Contemporary Philosophers on Emotions, C. Robert Solomon (ed.), Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 183-199.
[vi] Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire, Princeton University Press, 1994.
[vii] John Dewey, Democracy and Education, Free Press, 1966. (originally published in 1916)
[viii] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum, 1993. (originally published in 1970)
[ix] Rosa Luxemberg, The Russian Revolution, “The Problem of Dictatorship” – https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/russian-revolution/ch06.htm