At the beginning of our spiritual journey, most of us have a sense that the path we’ve traveled until now is not, by itself, the path that will lead us to liberation. We know, vaguely or with certainty, that there must be another way, but we’re not yet able to discern what that is. And even though there is no way of knowing where we’ll end up, built into the journey itself there are certain guideposts which can help set our course. When it comes to the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, the first of these markers is right view.
The Buddha said to his disciples: “Just as the dawn is a forerunner and first indication of the rising of the sun, so is right view the forerunner and first indication of wholesome states.” Right view, according to the Buddha’s own definition, is knowledge with regard to the truth of suffering, its origination, its cessation, and the path. So, strictly speaking, right view is a clear understanding of the Four Noble Truths. But as the Buddha said above, it is also the first indication of the arising of any wholesome or skillful state. So, establishing right view at the beginning of our practice is like setting off with a detailed map. We know our direction, we know where to start, and how to get back on track when we wander off. Of course, having a map is no guarantee against getting lost, especially since we’re the ones who have to do the walking. But having a way to check our course is extremely helpful when we start to doubt ourselves or the road.
Right view has two aspects: one is conceptual, the other experiential. First we need to understand the Buddha’s teachings and their meaning, then we need to verify them for ourselves. This is an important point for Zen students, because we constantly hear that the truth does not rely on words and letters. This is true—it doesn’t. But neither does it ignore words and letters. When used skillfully, conceptual understanding helps to strengthen and clarify our personal experience of the Buddha’s teachings on liberation. It’s like ensuring that our foundation is solid before building a house on top of it. We can develop concentration until we’re blue in the face, but unless it’s also accompanied by a clear understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish, it won’t be liberating. So we need to understand what the Buddha meant by suffering and by its cessation, then we need to verify whether what he was describing matches our experience. Together, both aspects help to establish right view.
In the Sammaditthi Sutta Shariputra, teaching the sangha about right view, says:
“Friends, in what way is a noble disciple one of right view, whose view is straight, who has perfect confidence in the dharma and has arrived at this true dharma?”
The students reply, “Indeed, we’ve come from far away to learn from the venerable Shariputra the meaning of this statement. It would be good if the venerable Shariputra would explain it. And having heard it from him, we will remember it.”
We shouldn’t miss the preamble to this exchange, because none of it is casual or extra. In their own way, these introductory phrases help prepare our minds to establish ourselves in right view and to receive the teachings.
“Friends,” Shariputra addresses his fellow practitioners. “Noble friends,” the Buddha used to call his disciples. These aren’t just any old friends. These are our fellow travelers in the dharma. They are the ones who will help guide our inquiry, who will hold us accountable when we’re not doing what we said we would. “Are you with me?” Shariputra is saying. Are you ready to inquire into this matter? And the other disciples confirm that they do. They’ve traveled far. They’ve brought themselves to the right place and the right time in order to hear and retain the teachings. In essence they’re saying, “We won’t forget and we won’t lose sight of it, because we know it’s important.”
It makes me think of the beginning of a dharma discourse. After zazen, the attendant lights the altar and offers incense before the talk. The timekeeper strikes the han and in a clear voice says, “Prepare for dharma discourse.” But still, it’s easy to get distracted. How many discourses have you heard? How many times have you stood in the zendo, waiting for the teacher to come in. So in case we’re distracted, we get another chance to come back. The drum is hit five times, loud and stately. Are you here? it’s asking. Are you ready? Where is your mind?
Shariputra continues: “Then friends, listen and attend closely to what I shall say. This is what right view is: When a noble disciple understands the unwholesome and the root of the unwholesome; understands the wholesome and the root of the wholesome. In that way they’re of right view; the one whose view is straight, who has perfect confidence in the dharma, and has arrived at this true dharma.”
When we understand what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, and we understand how these two states arise, then our view is “straight.” It’s not meandering. It’s not vague or clouded. Instead it’s clear and bright, and therefore it gives rise to “perfect confidence in the dharma”—perfect meaning complete and whole-bodied. Then we’ve arrived at this true dharma. Of course, we never left it. But that’s not our view yet. Not until we understand the wholesome and the unwholesome. Not until we understand how they are created or put to rest.
“Understanding the wholesome, the unwholesome, and how these are created, the noble disciple abandons desire, aversion and the conceit ‘I am.’ And by abandoning ignorance and arousing true knowledge they, here and now, put an end to suffering.”
Abandoning the conceit, this fanciful notion of “I am,” ignorance, desire, and aversion don’t stand a chance. This fanciful notion is exactly what they’re rooted in. In setting up this sense of “I am,” I immediately set up “you are,” and “it is”—everything that is not me. And in that gap between me and you, between me and it, aversion is born, desire is born, fear is born.
I read an article by Robin Wall Kimmerer who, among other things, is a student of the Anishinaabe language, and was arguing for what she calls the “language of animacy.” Imagine someone calling your grandmother an “it,” she says. We’d be horrified, wouldn’t we? We’d consider it profoundly disrespectful to call a person a thing. In that moment they would no longer be someone to relate to, but something to be used. Isn’t this exactly what we’ve done time and time again throughout history? We’ve done it to whole races, to animals, to the natural world.
The view that we’ve been created in God’s image and likeness, and that we have, by right, dominion over all the earth and its creatures is deeply embedded in our culture, and it’s a view that won’t yield overnight. Neither is the view that certain groups of people are more capable, deserving, or trustworthy than others.
After Katrina, all sorts of news outlets showed images of people of color “looting” and “raiding” the stores for food items. But when virtually identical images featured white people, they were invariably described as “finding” the food. These images and these words work in our psyches to create very particular views. But are they wholesome views? Do they lead to non-attachment, compassion, and wisdom? We don’t have to look very far to see.
Kimmerer suggests that we change our language in order to influence our view, especially when it pertains to protecting those who cannot speak for themselves. In the Anishinaabe language, the word for land is “ki,” so why not use this word to refer to the Earth? she says. In Japanese, ki means spirit, life force, mind, or energy. I think all of these would apply as well. And for the plural, she adds, we could use the English word for “kin.” “Ki” and “kin” would encompass all manner of beings and things. She says, “Let us speak of the beings of Earth as the ‘kin’ they are.” Let us speak of them as our family, our brethren, our very lifeblood. Let us, through our careful use of language, give rise in our mind to a skillful, wholesome view of ourselves and the universe we live in. Let’s start there, so that everything else may follow.
Also included in right view, Shariputra says in the Samaditti Sutta, is the understanding of “nutriment”—all the ways in which we perceive the world and take nourishment from it. Understanding the Four Noble Truths, as well as the chain of interdependent origination: old age and death, birth, becoming, clinging, craving, feeling, contact, the six senses, body and mind, consciousness, formations, and ignorance. Think of this as a chain we keep looping around in until, in a moment of insight, one of the links is broken: “Oh, this body is not me. Oh, this craving is empty.” It just takes an instant to see that there’s actually nothing holding together those links.
Finally, Shariputra ends with the the three taints—the taint of sensual desire, of being, and of ignorance. He says that understanding these taints, we also understand their cessation. Which is what? The Noble Eightfold Path. Another chain, another loop. Except this is the chain of Unbinding. Instead of imprisoning you, this chain breaks all chains. It renders them useless.
In sum, right view is understanding, first and foremost, what is true and what is not. It’s understanding how the whole of life unfolds and how that understanding—or lack of it—affects everyone and everything.
When our view is right and straight, we don’t turn our pain into someone else’s suffering. We know we’re the only ones responsible for our actions. We know that, as Shariputra says, if we want to suffer, we just need to give rise to what is unwholesome. If we want to be free, then we search for, give rise to, and develop what is wholesome. It’s not rocket science. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to practice either.
The Buddha said: “Just as the dawn is the forerunner and first indication of the rising of the sun, so is right view the forerunner and first indication of wholesome states.” We shouldn’t take for granted this rising sun, this light dawning. The fact that it happens every day makes it no less of a miracle. The fact that we can actually see each other—that we can, if we really want to, see everything clearly—is the greatest miracle of all. That’s what this light is showing us. It shines on all things equally, which means that all things—sentient and insentient—are equally deserving of our respect, our regard, our care. And so, as human beings we have, not privilege over, but responsibility for all of creation. We have the responsibility to uphold such a view. Not just once or twice, but with every step along the path, from the beginning, through the middle, all the way to the end.
Vanessa Zuisei Goddard is a lay Dharma Holder in the Mountains and Rivers Order.