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.

 

 


  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.

13 Replies to “The Thicket of Views”

  1. That was fun! Nice writing. Great verse — wonder if a Buddha said it or if it was used to stop questioning.

    Imagine a garden. If you spend all your time looking for problems, weeds, new areas to trim or plant and never sit back and enjoy your garden, there is a great loss. On the other hand, if you ignore issues, soon your lovely garden is ugly.

    Ah, if quick answers were only so easy.
    The squeaky wheel gets oiled; The nail that sticks out gets hammered.
    Which of these deep proverbs is true?
    We use them as we feel appropriate.
    The thicket analogy I am sure has counter analogies even in your favorite Buddhist scriptures, no?
    Either way, I am suspect your use of this will help many and harm others.

  2. Thanks, Sabio for pointing out the one-sidedness of my opinion!

    As I wrote, “reality is often more slippery, nuanced, and multifaceted than what we’re able to capture in our net of words.” It’s just another case in point.

    American Psychologist Marsha Linehan suggests that all human truths are dialectical — and Dutch psychologist Hubert Hermans, that they are dialogical. The truth emerges in an approximation through the interaction of opposites, or the ongoing dialogue of many voices.

    My only intention is to point out that while the intellect is a delightful and important tool, (perhaps even our most important tool) it also needs to know its place. Another dialectical truth?

  3. Heck with Hegelian Taoist dalectical idealistic simplicity. To navigate through life, we need to triangulate — or quadrangulation or pentagonulate … But sorry, I can’t think of a famous author that said that — only the mundane. 😉
    Bottom line : cute answers never suffice. Smile!

  4. Seth, the book “Open Mouth Already a Mistake” was actually written by Zen Master Wu Kwang (Richard Shrobe), a dharma heir of Zen Master Seung Sahn and guiding teacher of Chogye Int’l Zen Center in NYC.

    The phrase “Open mouth already mistake” was used frequently by ZM Seung Sahn, however, at it does point directly to both the way in which we make problems and also the urgency that many of us feel to get our view “out there.”

    My favorite ZM Seung Sahn aphorism in this regard was “Mouth number one problem gate.” Better to keep the stopper in the bottle.

    Unless something needs to be said.

  5. Nagarjuna said that contention was the root of suffering, all views are empty, and that he, himself, had no opinion to express or argument to make, in spite of the fact that he most certainly had an opinion, a point of view.

    While I can’t disagree with a single word you’ve written here, I personally find it rather difficult to sit back and remain passive and silent like the Buddha when I see so much wrong-headed, mixed-up, and just downright nutty stuff being put out these days by people who after practicing a few years think they are masters of Buddha-dharma and having read a couple of books imagine themselves to be historians.

    Life is too short to spend your time bothered by the opinions of others and yet, to allow people to be misled by an ill-informed few is not good either. As in all things Buddhist, the Middle Way, striking a balance between these two extremes is probably the answer.

    By the way, in my opinion, which I am not expressing, your previous layout/theme was better.

  6. David,

    The middle way? Hmmm… sounds like a good idea.

    Thanks for the design feedback. I’ve been trying out WordPress’s new “twenty eleven” theme. Should revert to “twenty ten,” or are there specific design fixes you’d recommend? Feel free to back channel!

    1. Sorry, I don’t know what back channel means. Maybe I am just used to the old look. (I accept change as a reality, but I don’t always like it.) I will say that the header seems to be extremely large. I like to be able to see as much of a page as possible without having to scroll, but that’s just me . . .

  7. Seth, thanks for this piece. You may like to know of these talks on “The Book of Eights“ in the Sutta-Nipata. They are: “The Buddha’s teaching before Buddhism?” is the title of a recent talk (60 minutes)) given by Gil Fronsdal at the San Francisco Zen Center and addresses the issue of attachment to views primarily. Gil also covered the topic in a talk, “The Book of Eights” (46 minutes) at the Insight Meditation Center, available from Audiodharma.

    Both talks offer a fascinating and perspective on the early teachings of the Buddha and are worth adding to your talks to listen to list – well, that’s my view!

    Regards, Terry

  8. Thank you for your post. As what might be called an opinion Buddhist blogger (I blog on Buddhism and recovery) I love having my activity questioned (laugh).

    I have no issue with opinion blogging, whether on the topics you mentioned, or my own topic. The issue seems to me not whether one engages in these opinions, but whether one has become attached to them.

    1. Exactly, Kevin! Do we feel attacked when someone disagrees? Do we become defensive or combative? Can we listen to opposing views thoughtfully rather than quickly jumping in to debate them? Do we view those who hold opposing views as existential equals? Can we maintain our equanimity when challenged? Are we open to new information and to changing our minds? What role do our views have in creating and shoring up our self-image?

  9. Beautiful article. But what actually caught my eye was the Buddha picture at the start from Chuaug Yen Monastery. I feel in love with Buddha there and get so excited when I see that other people have been there and have hopefully shared in the beauty!!

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