The Thicket of Views

In the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, the Buddha cautions Vacchagotta, the wanderer, against adhering to the “thicket of views,” i.e., forming an opinion one way or the other about a variety of metaphysical topics (Is the cosmos eternal or infinite? Are materiality and consciousness the same or different?  Do Buddhas still exist after death?)   The Buddha tells Vachagotta that any position one can take:

“is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering…. and does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening…”

Anyone can have opinions.  They come cheap.  I have a million myself  — If you want one just ask.

How’s President Obama doing?  Gay marriage: good or bad?  Are karma and rebirth real?  “The Tree of Life”: Cinematic magic or pretentious bore?  It’s amazing how much of an expert I am on everything!

In case it’s somehow escaped your notice, the Buddhist Blogosphere might more properly be called an “opinion-o-sphere.” The “Maha Teachers” Council: Promise or menace?  Stephen Batchelor: Visionary or turncoat? The Mindfulness Movement: diluting or spreading the Dharma? Buddhism: Religion or philosophy?  The Pali canon: Authentic words of the Buddha?  Genpo Roshi:  Sufficiently contrite?

We Buddhists are as contentious a group as any on the planet.  One might have hoped we would have turned out better — but we seem to be suspiciously human.

It’s fun to have opinions — they keep the conversation lively.  In any case, it’s  impossible not to form them.  The question is whether it’s possible not to be overly attached to them.

Zen Master Seung Sahn wrote a book entitled Open Mouth Already a Mistake[1], and was famous for admonishing students to “only keep ‘Don’t-Know’ mind.”  In a similar vein, Larry Rosenberg reported seeing a bumper sticker years ago which read:  “Don’t believe everything you think,” and thought it offered sage advice.  Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s “Beginner’s Mind” is the touchstone of American Dharma, but admonitions to take opinions lightly have been part of practice forever.  Bankei (1622-1693) advised us not to “side with ourselves,” just as the Buddha himself warned millennia ago of “the thicket of views.”

The truth is, all of our interesting and colorful opinions seem to have very little to do with the progress we make, or fail to make, in our practice.  If anything, they separate us from the clear, still place we aspire to. Our practice is best when we have little or no concern for what others do or think — and even or especially what we ourselves think — and pay attention, instead, to how we unfold in our own unique dance with the present moment.

That’s not to say there are no such things as facts, reality, or truth.  It’s just that reality is often more slippery, nuanced, and multifaceted than what we’re able to capture in our net of words — and that the deepest and most meaningful truths often elude language altogether.  Alan Watts used to joke that his business was “effing the ineffable.”

As we say in Zen, there is just “this.”

That’s my opinion for today.



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  1. [1] Barry Briggs has pointed out this attribution is in error.  While Seung Sahn coined the phrase, the book is actually by his Dharma heir, Wu Kwang (Richard Shrobe). See Barry’s correction in the comments section.

Don’t Side With Yourself

Bankei, the seventeenth century Zen master, had this to say: “Don’t side with yourself.” By this he meant don’t give your own wants and desires such importance; don’t reinforce your own sense of being a separate, unchanging self; don’t be selfish; don’t take sides. The Buddhist universe doesn’t have sides or edges.   It doesn’t have an inside or an outside. The universe doesn’t take sides.  It doesn’t side with the east wind; it doesn’t side with the west wind.  It doesn’t prefer sunny days to thunderstorms.  Everything is just as it is.

Zen Master Dogen once wrote about an eternal mirror of the Buddhas that had “no blurs or flaws within or without.”  Dogen went on to say, “The mirror is unclouded inside and out; this neither describes an inside that depends on an outside, nor an outside blurred by an inside.  There being no face or back, two individuals are able to see the same. Everything that appears around us is one, and is the same inside and out.  It is not ourself, nor other than self, but is naturally one and the same.  Our self is the same as other than self; other than self is the same as our self.  Such is the meeting of two human beings.”  This is our Buddhist practice.

What does it mean to be socially and politically involved if one doesn’t have a side?  Politics demands to know “which side are you on?”  The Abrahamic religions believe in dichotomies: good against evil, God against Satan.  Our Western culture reflects this everywhere.  We find ourselves in the midst of multiple wars both here and abroad, whether the war against terrorism, or the culture wars between fundamentalists and secularists, conservatives and progressives.

And yet, the universe does not have sides.  Buddhists do not see the world as a conflict of absolutes.  We see that everyone has his or her own limited interests, points of view, and desires and that these clash with each other. We see history as great waves of historical forces crashing into each other and creating cataclysms that resolve over time in the same way that air currents crash into each other and create weather.  The universe does not favor the east wind or the west wind.  The universe does not favor calm weather or hurricanes.  At the highest level of understanding everything just happens and just is.

Our Buddhist practice is one of cultivating compassion and wisdom and alleviating suffering wherever we encounter it.   This leads us to make certain choices in the way we vote, donate money, and communicate within the political community.  Is it possible to support a course of action without demonizing, demeaning, or ridiculing those who support another course?  Is it possible to view those who disagree with us with respect, caring, and loving-kindness?  Is it possible to do this even when we think someone’s views reflect their greed, hatred, or delusion?  This is Buddhist practice.

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