circularity of advice?: clinging to views

Matthias Mauderer recently wrote to ask about clinging to views and the apparent contradiction that follows from clinging to the view that views are not to be clung to:

In one of your recent posts, you mention the translation of the Atthakavagga by Gil Fronsdal. In this translation, Gil Fronsdal comments as follows on ‘The Discourse to Pasura’:
“The ideal person doesn’t cling to anything as being ultimate. This doesn’t mean the Buddha is suggesting that one should have no views. In fact, the narrator seems to advocate the view or teaching that one should avoid holding tight to any view; there is no peace in clinging.” (p. 71)
Isn’t there a contradiction in advocating the view ‘that one should avoid holding tight to ANY view’ while at the same time propagating the view that there is no peace in clinging to views?
Doesn’t here the Buddha himself cling to a view, namely the view that there is no peace in clinging? How can the difference between his propagated view and the views he advises not to cling to be explained? Or does the Buddha in the end even not cling to his view that there is no peace in clinging?
(First off, let me say—though it is doubtless obvious—that what follows is my answer and not Gil’s.)
This is an important and difficult question, and there have been some discussions that apply to this. Perhaps the most immediately appealing is to distinguish between right and wrong views, which may for example be taken from the eightfold path’s inclusion of “right view” (samyak-dṛṣṭi). One could argue  (and at times I have myself) that as not just one of the eight but as the first, right view is foundational to the others. Classically this included such matters as understanding that actions have consequences, and the formulation of this idea as the four noble truths.
However, if one takes the symbolism of the eight-spoked wheel seriously, right view is not fixed—it is not a single set of doctrinal claims that are to be clung to. Rather, it is—in contemporary terminology—constantly updated. As a wheel, rather than an eight-runged ladder, as one moves through each of the other seven, until one eventually comes back to right view. As I interpret this symbolism, it means that one’s view is changed, modified, revised, updated as a consequence of having gone through the other steps. This willingness to move off one’s position, change in response to having paid attention to the fact that actions do have consequences, is one way to understand the advice that one should not cling to views.
We can amplify this by considering more closely what the term dṛṣṭi means, though we have to keep in mind that connotations vary, even in canonic literature and over relatively short timespans. Not being a Sanskritist, my recourse for such a question is to Buswell & Lopez, Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. There we find it defined as
dṛṣṭi: “In Sanskrit, view’ or ‘opinion; nearly always used pejoratively in Buddhism to refer to a ‘wrong view.'”
That would suggest that views negatively valued as mistaken are the general category, and why “right view” is the marked category. The next two entries indicate just how complex Matthias’ question is, however:
dṛṣṭiparāmarśa: “‘attachment to (wrong) views’…Dṛṣṭiparāmarśa suggests that a person mistakenly and stubbornly clings to one’s own speculative views as being correct and superior to all others.”
dṛṣṭiprāpta: “‘one who has attained understanding’ or ‘one who attains through seeing'”
Another approach might be to consider the advice to be therapeutic—by which I do not mean “psychotherapeutic,” but rather as a kind of correction to one’s mistaken conceptions. And mistaken conceptions not in a sense that while it includes simple errors about how things work, more relevantly includes mistaken conceptions created by thinking itself. In this regard, we may think of Wittgenstein’s attempt to cure philosophy of the entanglements created by language by using language. No conceptual system is so entirely “crystallized” (or hermetically sealed) that there is no leverage from within, that is, from within philosophy, or within language, or within the scope of views, as to have no “point of leverage” upon which critical reflection may take hold. Instead, it is the case that we are in fact capable of commenting on the system from within the system itself (this is also the character of self-referential conscious awareness, svasaṃvedana). And, perhaps paradoxically, at the same time admitting that any such comment is constrained by our own positionality and is therefore partial.
To take the limitations consequent upon perspectival awareness as a defeat of all criticism (all views are equally views and therefore no view can critique another view) is nihilistic, however, and fails to take the final radical step of criticism, which is the realization that there is no alternative to a positioned, or located critique. That is, all critiques are positioned, located—there is no angelic perspective, or view from nowhere, that is the true, or absolute, or absolutely true one. And that means that there is no final view. Nothing is ever settled.
There are only better and worse views, and that in turn raises the question of better or worse according to what criteria? And, of course, in the next critical turn, on what basis are those criteria the ones to be employed? Why are those criteria better than others–that is, by what criteria does one judge criteria?
The alternative, of course, is to claim absolute status to some views, which means denying that they are “views” or constructs or conventions, but rather discoveries. And the distinction between a view and a discovery is an important one. To discover where I last put my glasses is not an opinion or a view or a construct or a convention. I now have my glasses in hand and can put them on my face and see whether it is a squirrel or the neighbors’ cat out there by the garage.
The same dynamic has come up in relation to the teaching of emptiness. A very sincere theology student who was struggling mightily with Buddhist thought once asked: Since you say that emptiness applies to all things, including my claims regarding the eternal, doesn’t that mean that emptiness itself is an absolute? So then, doesn’t Buddhism also teach, at least implicitly, that there are absolute, timeless, eternal, unchanging truths?
The logic of this was so obviously circular that I knew there must be something wrong. And then, to pile anecdote on top of anecdote, I remembered the cute girl I met during my freshman year in college—a strict behaviorist, à la Skinner, you know, conditioning rats to push the pedal to get the treat kind of thing. She, very frustratingly, was quite complacent in being able to answer every objection I raised with a behaviorist answer—Why are you maintaining a behaviorist position? Because I’ve been conditioned to. (okay, this is not a case of perfect recall, but something I’ve appropriated from Daniel Dennett’s recent From Bacteria to Bach and Back)
At the time the fact that there was no possible counter-evidence did not strike me as anything other than frustrating, but should have been a clue that there is something fundamentally wrong with the position—this is not science, but an act of faith, or a belief in magic as discussed by Terence Deacon in Incomplete Nature, with “conditioning” filling in all of the explanatory gaps.
So, back to the previous anecdote—what I was finally able to think through is that there is a difference to be drawn between “universal” and “absolute/timeless/eternal/unchanging.” Emptiness applies universally to all conditioned entities (and anything that actually exists is conditioned), but that does not make (the concept of) emptiness absolute, eternal, timeless, unchanging. The concept was thought up by someone, at some time, in response to a certain set of intellectual issues. As a concept it is an intellectual tool that is good from some things, such as understanding the conditioned nature of our views, and not for others, such as grocery shopping.
 This was an extrapolation to emptiness based on my long struggle to figure out an argument for a postmodern understanding of mathematics and logic, despite the fact that they both apply everywhere and always. In just that (limited) sense they are universal, but not absolute. They also have a history, were thought up by someone, at some time, in response to set of issues. In addition to intellectual, these can include practical issues, like allocating land following the flooding of the Nile basin. This is where the knowledge that a triangle with units of 3/4/5 per side always and everywhere forms a right-angle came into being, and which Pythagoras later generalized as applying to any triangle with sides in which the sum of the square of two sides equals the square of the third: particular issue with a universalizable solution.
The same argument applies to the relation between nature and culture. I once tried to work out that a fundamental (ontic) difference between the two could be claimed on the basis that physical laws are ahistorical, while everything else has a history. Then, recent understandings of the origin of physical laws themselves in the big bang convinced me that everything has a history. The “law” of gravity may be universal, but it is not eternal. The speed of light may be universal, but it is not eternal.
So here we are floating in midair, something that makes some people uncomfortable, and who then cling to some concept, some way of thinking in order to think they know which way is up. And part of that clinging is to forget their own agency in having chosen to cling to this concept whatever it is as absolute. The significance of the bumper sticker: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” is to locate responsibility for one’s own decision someplace other than oneself—which really only works if you manage to forget the choice to accept that “God said it.” Likewise, floating in midair, the advice to not cling to views is not to simply cling to the view that one should not cling to views. Nagarjuna talks about the emptiness of emptiness, that is, that clinging to the view of emptiness is, if I remember the metaphor correctly, like holding a snake by the tail—but even if you hold the snake (view) behind the head, it is still a snake (view). (I just made that up, not Nagarjuna, and I might be pushing the metaphor beyond the breaking point, sorry.)
So, the advice to not cling to views can be another view if it is clung to (emptiness as a view), or it can be a comment about the human tendency to cling to views (the emptiness of emptiness). It seems to me that the advice is more the latter than the former, and one needs to hold to that very gently, very loosely.


8 thoughts on “circularity of advice?: clinging to views

  1. Sorry to butt in…but I can’t resist here. As your tone seems to suggest, Richard, I’m guessing you’re aware that you’ve hedged and avoided answering the question here? Personally, I find it unhelpful when Buddhist teachers rely on metaphors to avoid a direct answer. The one about the snake is common, but so is the one about “holding gently.” What exactly might that mean? What is being held? What is “gentle” in this metaphor? We usually rely on these metaphors and forget that they haven’t really explained anything–the common Buddhist discourse is to say “oh, how wise,” and only later does one realize that she or he has no idea what to actually DO in the world.

    The problem seems to me to be with the vague use of terms. What exactly is the meaning of “views” or of “emptiness”? We use these terms loosely–especially views, which in English can mean anything from the rate of acceleration caused by gravity to which kind of apple tastes best. When we use the term so loosely, the question becomes confused. Views, or dirsti, clearly had a specific meaning, and can’t be properly translated as loosely as it usually is. It seems to mean somethign like an ideological concept, as opposed to a factual point–the “view” that rocks are beautiful as opposed to the “fact” that this rock weigh ten pounds. The reification of ideologies seems to be what is being warned against, not “holding” the “view” that murder is bad. We can be strongly commited to preventing murder, while still being aware that our ideological assumptions are culturally constructed. Also, if emptiness is understood as the assumption that something has an essential nature, is not produced by causes and conditions, then there is no contradiction–we can understand that the “doctrine” of emptiness is made necessary by causes, particularly our cultural tendency ot reify all our ideological practices.

    Sorry if this is cryptic–it perhaps is not best discussed in a comment. But in matters like this I usually find that one concrete example goes much farther than a dozen metaphors about weeds and flowers.

  2. I’m usually one of the last persons to call up dead authorities to resolve live discussions. In this case, though, I can’t resist mentioning something Gampopa quotes Saraha as teaching (here rendered loosely into iambic pentameter). I don’t think this resolves anything (I don’t think Gampopa or Saraha think so, either), but I love the cautionary advice:

    Those attached to things are dumb as cows.
    Those attached to emptiness are dumber.

  3. Yes, buddhaauthor, that’s exaclty what I meant–Buddhist teacher reply in that way all the time. And the response is usually that it’s terribly “wise” to be able to insult people and dismiss their beliefs in verse. Until the next day, or week, when it dawns on us that this just avoided explaining what exactly “attached” and “things” means, here–avoids saying anything more than “everyone but me is as dumb as a cows.” And how exaclty could a cow be dumb, anyway? Richard usually doesn’t settle for this strategy–avoiding the question with fake “wisdom.” So I thought I’d see if he’d give us a more, well, troubling kind of answer.

  4. Provoked by your reply, wtpepper, I looked into why I like the quote I mentioned. I believe it’s because I read it as insulting precisely those folks who put wisdom (perhaps I should write that word with scare quotes, as you did) ahead of action. The President of the United States is about to declare war on the First Amendment to the Constitution. I feel, perhaps more than any previous period in my life, this is time for action ahead of wisdom. This may be in error. If so, I choose be as dumb as a cow. Meanwhile, I, too, hope Richard will tell us what he really thinks.

  5. Quite possibly this will not make anybody happy, but–
    Because of the self-referential way in which the question was framed, simply answering it seemed to be futile, in the same way that simply answering “When did you stop beating your wife?” is futile (the question is framed in such a way as to foreclose alternatives). Sorry to employ another metaphor here, but sometimes the best thing to do when someone has thought themselves into a box is not to say LEFT, RIGHT, or whatever, but to try to talk them into thinking their way backwards out of the box.
    Therefore, indeed, rather than simply giving an answer, I wanted to offer for examination a number of possible ways of thinking about the box. In rough order, these were (along with some tangential self-indulgent reminiscences):
    1. distinguish between right and wrong views, wrong views being the ones not to be clung to
    2. assert that even right views are not fixed—and therefore even right views are not to be clung to,
    3. point out that all views are wrong or at least suspect, except those explicitly marked as “right views,”
    4. interpret the advice as a view that comments on clinging to views, that is, it is given at a different level, which is possible because no system of thought is closed, and it is possible to step outside the system to comment on it (alternatively, this can be interpreted as the danger of leveling all claims to the same kind, in this case views, just like the problems created by the abhidharma ontology that levels everything to dharmas)
    5. suggest that rejecting the advice as just another view may depend on the belief that there is something other than views (the truth)—and that views are not to be clung to, but that that something else (the truth) is to be clung to
    6. point out that one can understand the advice as self-reflexive, and that it is in fact part of the self-reflexive structure of consciousness—just as we can think about thinking, for example, we can offer views about views,
    7. finally, observe that clinging to the advice makes it a view, whereas taking the advice means shifting to that self-reflexive orientation in which views are not held to (there is more to conscious awareness than a set of beliefs, i.e., views)
    Hopefully at this point, one has walked backwards far enough to be able to see the puzzle in a different way, and rather than having an answer, stop being bothered by the puzzle (oops, another metaphor)
    Tune in again next week, when our hero solves the eternal problem—What’s for breakfast?

  6. Dear Richard,

    at first I’d like to thank you very much for dealing in such a deep way with my question. I was not aware myself that I framed the question in such a way as to foreclose alternatives. But I think it’s true that this is a thing I often do. François Laruelle, among others, is my medicine to cure this character trait.

    You showed me several ways to deal with my question. I won’t add much myself, but list them again, as time is scarce while rising a one-year-old girl 🙂

    “All critiques are positioned, located—there is no angelic perspective, or view from nowhere, that is the true, or absolute, or absolutely true one. And that means that there is no final view. Nothing is ever settled.”

    “So here we are floating in midair, something that makes some people uncomfortable, and who then cling to some concept, some way of thinking in order to think they know which way is up. And part of that clinging is to forget their own agency in having chosen to cling to this concept whatever it is as absolute.”

    “Floating in midair, the advice to not cling to views is not to simply cling to the view that one should not cling to views.”

    “The advice to not cling to views can be another view if it is clung to (emptiness as a view), or it can be a comment about the human tendency to cling to views (the emptiness of emptiness). It seems to me that the advice is more the latter than the former, and one needs to hold to that very gently, very loosely.”

    So thanks a lot again. You gave me much to think about! Now it’s nurture time again.

    • Richard, like Matthias I am caring for a daughter (though mine is twelve) and have just a moment. But I wanted, as he did, to express my appreciation for your continued reflections (indeed, highly reflexive reflections). One more thought, prompted by your last line: “The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?” (Douglas Adams, _The Restaurant at the End of the Universe_)

  7. I wanted to note Paul Fuller’s book The Notion of Diṭṭhi in Theravāda Buddhism (Routledge, 2005), which I came across after stumbling through the different options discussed above (and admittedly have not read). But, the description of it says:

    The notion of ‘view’ or ‘opinion’ (ditthi) as an obstacle to ‘seeing things as they are’ is a central concept in Buddhist thought. This book considers the two ways in which the notion of views are usually understood. Are we to understand right-view as a correction of wrong-views (the opposition understanding) or is the aim of the Buddhist path the overcoming of all views, even right-view (the no-views understanding)? The author argues that neither approach is correct. Instead he suggests that the early texts do not understand right-view as a correction of wrong-view, but as a detached order of seeing, completely different from the attitude of holding to any view, wrong or right.

    One could turn that last into yet another view, but that is simply the result of treating everything as view, rather than recognizing the possibility of comments on a common mental process from a different level.

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