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.