Noble Eightfold Path, Right View
In order to craft a ceramic object a potter needs to understand his materials and tools: the varieties of clay, how much water to add to the clay, how the clay behaves under pressure, what conditions will cause a pot to crack or explode in the kiln, what happens to clay at different baking temperatures, various types and properties of glaze, etc. In order to craft a life in the Dharma the Buddhist practitioner also must understand his materials and tools: the body, the mind, the nature of the world we are embedded in, how thoughts are triggered, how actions are triggered, how our habit patterns evolve.
Right View is seeing things as they really are. It is not accepting an orthodox set of unexamined beliefs. This gives Buddhism one of its startling properties. The skilled potter has to work with the conditions at hand: he must not pretend he has clay when he is out of it, he must not pretend his clay is other than it is or that the temperature of his kiln is not five degrees above what the knob says. Pretending will lead to unanticipated results. So it is with the Buddhist practitioner. This gets Buddhism into trouble with the outside world, where it has gained a reputation as pessimistic, focusing on such things as suffering, on sickness, old age and death. The Buddha even recommended the practice of observing corpses in various stages of decay. These are all the things we prefer to turn away from, yet these are realities, and it is advisable not to fashion a life out of what is not real.
This is not to say Buddhism has no doctrine. Buddhism provides many pointers and many observations that highlight particular things as they are and makes many statements about what you should discover there. Buddhism points to impermanence, suffering and absence of self as characteristics of existence and correlates suffering with clinging or aversion. Clinging and aversion arise from false views, particularly a false conception of the self, which then cannot keep pace with an ever-changing world. Tendencies to clinging, aversion, wrong view, and hence suffering are unskillful aspects of a personality that can be mitigated and eventually disappear altogether through skillful action in the present. Skillful action is related to the purity of one’s intentions. Buddhism also introduces the notion, often controversial in the West, that the process of shaping one’s life continues right past the end of this life an into another. These all become objects for contemplation and personal observation.
In the beginning many Buddhist views are obscure and complex, and therefore not immediately verified in one’s own experience. Although verification in one’s own experience is always encouraged, i.e., blind faith is discouraged, and verification leads to greater confidence in Right View, it is important from the beginning that one be ready to accept Buddhist views with and open mind and an open heart, as working assumptions. Too much skepticism will inhibit coming to terms with the parts of things as they are that Buddhist doctrine points to. A degree of faith is necessary in this and in all aspects of life, because of the incessant gap between the little we know and the great deal that we need to know just to function in the world. Even in the training of a scientist one taught particular viewpoints, but then invited to challenge these viewpoints if they seem untenable. So it is in Buddhism. Right View comes right at the beginning of the Eightfold Path because we need to begin our practice within the framework of Buddhist understanding. However we never step beyond Right View as a critical concern for the Buddhist practitioner. Right View will deepen with the remaining practices of the Eightfold Path, and in fact deep penetrating insight into the way things are is often regarded as the culmination of the Eightfold Path.
So far I’ve been presenting Right View as a doctrinal or conceptual understanding. That does not go far enough. First of all a conceptual understanding has a way of staying in our heads without really changing our attitudes and behaviors. Think of the physicist who during the day inhabits a world in which nothing is substantial, everything is strings or particles that can instantaneously disappear from one place and appear in another, then goes home to play with the kids and the dog as if it were not the same reality; nothing has carried over. Sometimes we experience an “Aha!” moment in which our already clear conceptual understanding moves into something deeper, a recognition that this really IS the Way Things Are. The word collectively had such a moment of insight when one of the astronauts in the Apollo 8 mission to orbit around the moon took a picture of a half-earth against a lunar foreground. We all knew what to expect, but what we viewed was surprising anyway, we were surprised that what we already knew really was true! Buddhism encourages this kind of deepening of insight.
But Right View goes even deeper; eventually extending beyond the limits of conceptual understanding., the limits of what we can wrap actual words around. Consider that most of the knowledge of a good potter comes from actually working with the clay, it is in his fingers not in his head. An apprentice potter does well to listen carefully to his master, to remember what he says about the variety of clays, what happens to clay at different baking temperatures and so on. But the apprentice will continue to gain insight, often inexpressible insight, far beyond those instructions. So it is with the Buddhist practitioner. The genius of Zen Buddhism is that it has a language, partly poetic, partly conceptual, but also comfortable with the contradictions that arise between the concepts, that can accompany the Buddhist apprentice a bit further in gaining insight into how things really are.
I suggest that, on this Uposatha Day, this day of the new moon, you do a little Web surfing. Follow some of the links I’ve put at the bottom of the Dhamma page and get an idea of the range of Buddhist teachings. These Upodatha Day postings are of course themselves intended as an entry into those teachings.
For extra credit, consider this question: Do moon Buddhists have an Uposatha Day at the same time that Earth Buddhists do, if moon Buddhists use the phases of the Earth as the determinant? (Warning: trick answer)