|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1998|
It is interesting that the first factor on the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the Extinction of Suffering is Right View (or, Perfect Understanding), and also that the first of the Four Noble Truths concerns suffering - that it is a fact of life and also that it should be understood. It is almost as though the Buddha out of his infinite kindness and compassion is taking us by the scruff of the neck and pointing our nose at the very uncomfortableness or tension of this moment, saying: 'Look! This is what you should be attending to. You will not escape, you will not be free, you will not find peace until you have attended to and understood this!'
And yet, somehow, even with this clear and uncompromising instruction from the Buddha, we still manage to spend a great deal of time and energy caught up in debate both with ourselves and with each other about how things are, and how we should be responding to them. We get stuck in the web of views that we have unwittingly tumbled into.
It seems in fact that the main problem is not so much to do with the different points of view in themselves, but in the clinging to our own as being the 'correct' one - which immediately puts everyone else's view into the category of 'incorrect'.
Years ago, long before I discovered the Buddha's teaching, I used to be part of a group that acknowledged the validity of each of the great religious teachings and found myself focusing particularly on practices from the Christian tradition and on certain of the mystical teachings of Islam - both seemed 'right', but it was impossible for me to reconcile the apparent contractions on a rational level. Eventually I came to the point of realising that was neither necessary nor particularly helpful - that it was possible for both to be correct if the heart could expand beyond the frontiers of each convention to encompass the vastness of the Ultimate Reality towards which each, in its own way, was pointing; or through the simple acknowledgement that there could be different points of view and therefore different approaches to the realisation of that Truth. It was such a relief; I didn't have to be right, I didn't have to have the perfect answer to the problems of existence - there were many possibilities and, without compromising one's integrity in any way, it was possible to remain open and to learn from each.
It is through not understanding, not realising four things that I, as well as you, had to wander so long through this round of rebirths.
And what are those four things?
They are: The Noble Truth of Suffering....
the Origin of Suffering...
the Extinction of Suffering...
the Path that leads to the Extinction of Suffering.
Digha Nikaya 16
In a sense the Buddha's teachings on Right View and Suffering bring us to a point concerning which there can be no room for debate. The answer is always apparent to the discerning eye: 'Do I feel a sense of tension? What's it about? Where's the investment , the clinging?' Once this work of the heart has been done, there is the opportunity to undertake the next step - to stop clinging, to let go of the attachment to the particular view, method, identity that we have invested in.
From the time of birth until now we have each had innumerable opportunities to develop our own views or to adopt the views of a particular group to which we may be affiliated. We're all familiar with the tendency to fixate of some particular 'party line', e.g., 'Samatha (the practices that emphasise calm) is not necessary, it's vipassana (insight practice) that is important for liberation' - or the reverse; or, 'No need to study the scriptures , you can learn everything from Nature', or, It's vital to build a foundation for practice through studying the scriptures, otherwise there can be no real progress in practice'. As a result of such a fixation, either we can end up totally confused if we try to allow any kind of acknowledgement of the validity of another approach ; or even more firmly entrenched in our own 'party line' - thereby eliminating the possibility of experiencing another way of practice that could perhaps in fact be more suitable for us at that time - such a shame.
So, how do we find the middle, the way between these extremes? The answer is, of course, 'Mindfulness'; mindfulness of our own confusion or reactivity - the tension or distress, in short, the dukkha of the moment. This leap of faith, whereby we relinquish our trust in the conditioned thought process and bring our awareness right into the moment, allows us to witness the insecurity or fear that keeps us bound, identified with our view point. With practice our sense of Refuge grows stronger, and we know that clinging to any view point or identity is a very precarious form of security. When that Refuge becomes instinctive, we can avoid those things that keep us bound and helplessly wandering in search of what can never be.