Whatever is great in the sphere of the universally human must not be communicated as a subject for admiration but as an ethical requirement.
— Soren Kierkegaard
When we first hear the Buddha’s Teaching we listen, each of us, already imbued with our own set of views and opinions. Some of these views will harmonize with this Teaching. Others, just as surely, will not. Were it otherwise the Teaching would be quite needless, for either there would be nothing for us to learn from it or else everything. And if everything then there could be no avenue of approach, no common ground upon which we might make a beginning. It is because of this partial match that it is possible for us to benefit from the Buddha’s right-view guidance if we wish to and will allow ourselves to do so. And it is because of this partial mismatch that we fail to see how to do so.
Commonly, the initial reaction is to judge the Teaching in the light of what we already accept as true. We try to understand it in terms of our own views. Some will be uninterested in doing otherwise. They will have no greater use for this Teaching than as a device for confirming to themselves what they have already decided to be the truth. To such people nothing useful can be said. Yet there are also those who genuinely desire to learn — i.e. to change themselves — but who do not see any way to proceed other than to evaluate the Teaching in the light of their own beliefs. But it can be said that in a sense the whole of this Teaching is a caution to do the opposite. Right-view guidance is offered as the standard by which we may judge our own views. By accepting that criterion we can understand those views fully, and thereby perceive the conditions upon which those views depend.
The Teaching, after all, informs us from the start that there are such things as “right view” and “wrong view.” Wrong view, the Teaching insists, is as inextricably tied up with craving and suffering as right view is with their absence. But right and wrong view, it seems, are not just a matter of a difference of opinion. They differ more fundamentally in that the former is a seeing of what the latter is blind to. And we, who are not free from craving and suffering, are not free precisely because we fail to understand what is meant by “right view.” Thus we are faced with a dilemma. For if we do not understand what is meant by “right view,” then how is it possible for us to judge our own (wrong) views by that standard, and thereby come to understand wrong view as being wrong view?
This essay is not an effort to answer such a question. It is, rather, an attempt to indicate a way in which each of us can resolve the dilemma for himself; for it cannot be resolved in any other way. Each of us must see for himself what it is that he is blind to.
That blindness — so the Buddha’s discourses repeatedly assert — is involved centrally with our failure to see, to know, the nature of impermanence. And yet in our own experience everywhere we look we see that things are indeed impermanent. If the Buddha is correct then what have we missed?
This question provides us with the basic strategy of our essay. Our procedure will be first (in sections 1, 2, and 4) to critically examine one common response to this question, “What have we missed?” This reply derives from a misconception about the Teaching which is both common and pernicious. We shall discuss not only the unsatisfactoriness of this response but also the nature of that unsatisfactoriness. Then, after taking our bearings (in section 5) by means of some relevant discourses, we will suggest an alternative understanding (already introduced in section 3 and developed more fully in section 6) and discuss its implications.
It is a feature of this alternative understanding that it is organically connected with our first question, “How is it possible to understand wrong view as being wrong view?” In order to illuminate this connection we will discuss (in sections 7 through 11) impermanence and the failure to recognize it for what it is. We shall do this using light shed by the central doctrine of this Teaching, the four noble truths. When we understand the nature of blindness, or wrong view, there is then the possibility of ending that blindness by seeing.
However, if we aim at changing ourselves in a fundamental way it would surely be ineffective to merely substitute one view (however “right” it may be) for another (however “wrong”). Such a task would be more-than-Herculean, inasmuch as Hercules was only required to clean out the Augean stables and was never required to replenish them.
Even more fundamentally, it would fail to be fundamental. To achieve a basic change we need to understand not only specific views. We must also comprehend the general mode in which we perceive the world. This mode or attitude is the context dependent upon which all specific views, right and wrong, arise. For views, like everything else, arise with condition, not independently. If therefore we can come to see the general attitude dependent upon which there arise fallacious views about impermanence, then that attitude can be relinquished. And with its abandonment all views which persist dependent upon that fallacy will be automatically abolished.
We will find, then, that this thorough discussion of impermanence, and of the failure to see it for what it is, will also be a discussion of the requisites for an examination, each for ourselves, of the human dilemma — ours. We shall then conclude our study with a consideration (in section 12) of the overview by means of which there arises a wrong view of impermanence, and we shall compare it with the overview by means of which there arises right view. In doing so we shall have set forth a method whereby one can see for oneself what is meant by “wrong view” and “right view.”
The mode of expression of this essay is essentially descriptive, analytical, and comparative. The analytical descriptions offered herein — particularly those of the structures of ignorance, of craving, and of experience-in-general — though straightforward, may strike readers variously as intriguing, exotic, alien, or even objectionable. If the objection is no more than a rigorous insistence that anything radically different from one’s already-familiar outlook must necessarily be mistaken, then (as has already been observed) nothing can be said. Nothing, that is, except that with such an attitude one will in any case never be able to make proper use of the Teaching. But others, though wishing to understand, may still find the mode of expression foreign to their own way of thinking and therefore baffling. This is the same problem as that of changing oneself: however willing, one may yet not see how to do so. In such a case the first change that is necessary is a change in the way one sees the problem.
If the mode of expression of this essay is foreign it might be possible to use that very alienness as a tool in achieving for oneself a primary change. For although the essay employs a discussion of impermanence as its base, its real concern is not just the problem of change but the problem of changing oneself, in a radical manner. Such a change is difficult to see and difficult to achieve. But if we would put an end to craving, to blindness, to suffering, and to all the unhealthy states that are involved therein, then it is utterly necessary that we see the utter necessity of such a change. Only by doing so can we make a beginning.
Reliable source material is to be found in the four major collections (Nikāyas) of the Sutta Pitaka, in its companion, the Vinaya Pitaka, and in a few other short texts: the Sutta Nipāta, the Dhammapada, the Udāna, the Itivuttaka, and the Theratherīgāthā. In this essay these texts are referred to collectively as “the Suttas.” In this essay no other texts are relied upon as representing the Buddha’s Teaching.
Sutta references are firstly to discourse number and, after a colon, to volume and page of the Pali Text Society edition, except that for Theragāthā, Dhammapada, and Sutta Nipāta primary reference is to verse number. Vinaya references are to the Khandhaka number of the Mahāvagga or Cūlavagga, in roman numerals, followed in arabic numerals by subsection and paragraph as well as volume and page number.
Vin. : Vinaya Pitaka
D. : Dīgha Nikāya
M. : Majjhima Nikāya
S. : Samyutta Nikāya (Roman numerals indicate Samyutta number, according to P.T.S. enumeration.)
A. : Anguttara Nikāya (Roman numerals indicate Nipāta number.)
Thag. : Theragāthā
Dh. : Dhammapada
Sn. : Sutta Nipāta
Ud. : Udāna
1. Concluding Unscientific Postscript (London: Oxford University Press, 1945) tr. by D. F. Swenson, p. 320. [Back to text]
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