A very common idea about Buddhism is the notion that what is required is for one to come to see things as they truly are. We all know that different people see things differently. I have recently read a couple of novels by Iris Murdoch. One of the particular skills that this author has is in showing how different participants in a similar drama may see the things that eventuate in completely different ways. One can empathise with the different characters and think, well, yes, she would see it like that wouldn't she, or, yes, of course, whan that happens he is goping to think it means something quite different from how his brother sees it, and so on. This can lead us to think, But what is the correct way? And it is a common assumption to think that spiritual enlightenment consists in coming to see things the 'right' way.

I have recently been working on a book about a text written by Zen Master Dogen in the thirteenth century. A lot of other people hav e also already written about this same text and topic so I have been studying their works. Really, I did not originally intend to write a book on the subject myself; it has just grown naturally out of my personal study. It has been a wonderfully rewarding exercise in the course of which I have learnt a lot and changed my views, sometimes several times, on what it was that Dogen really means. Now a number of the other people who have commented on the text seem to belive that what it is about is Dogen trying to get us to see things as they actually are - that this would constitute a spiritual awakening. The more I study the text however, the more sure I am that this is a mistake built simply upon our prejudice. I say 'our' because I think that I may well have held this opinion myself some time in the past.

No, the aim of Buddhism is not that we all arrive at a similar ('correct') view about the nature of things. One could be an enlightened person who believed the world was flat. Two people could be equally spiritually awakened and one believe in fairies and the other not. It is not really about such things. The person who is spiritually enlightened is deeply humble, compassionate, willing, and not a slave to greed, hate or pride. One could be all of these things and talk to mountain spirits or believe that no such spirits exist. One could be such a person and live alone or in a community, never leave your home village or spend your whole life travelling the world. But whichever you were and whatever you did you probaqbly would have a sense of doing it as part of the Way of Heaven rather than of satisfying some personal whim or desire. The characters in Murdoch's novels usually are trying to satisfy personal desires and cravings and generally end up in a sorry state as a result. This is not because they fail to see the truth of situations, it is because they are selfish, and/or lack courage/faith.

This matter is of some importance for at least two reasons. The first is that an awful lot of people do spend a large amount of energy trying to get a totally adequate 'map' of the social and physical universe into their heads and it is important that they not think that doing so has anything to do with spiritual progress - it is a purely practical utility. The second reason is that there can be a good deal of prejudice and rejection in the world attaching to whether people are thought to hold the approved view (whatever it happens to be in a particular set or culture) and it is important that this kind of prejudice not invade the spiritual community.

All churches and sanghas advance a variety of views and 'positions' on issues and sometimes these are criteria of membership of the particular group. Groups have every right to draw their own boundaries, however this should not be made into a moral crusade. There is no one right way to see most things. It all depends on perspective and angle of view. A mountain looks one way to a person viewing it from the east and looks different to somebody viewing from the north, and, of course, to the person who is half way up the mountain it looks totally different again. All these views can be 'right'. A person who sees things as they are may still be unelightened and selfish and a person who is spiritually awakened may still hold views that do not correspond with reality.

We should not, therefore, make a fetish of an exaggerated idea of 'right view'. Right view as a part of the eightfold path means that an enlightened person sees in a kindly and understanding way and is able to consider a matter without their ego getting tangled up in it. That's all.

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Very useful summary, thank you.

I notice now that the notion of fully enlightened beings amongst us, when understood in the sense above, as those who are gone beyond all error, beyond conditioned, partial perception, those who now 'see things as they really are'...all that is an idea that I find both unconvincing and unappealing.

Especially, perhaps, when its used as a basis for organising community. I see many of the heart-breaking betrayals of trust (or projection) that have dogged the movement of the Dharma to the West less as bad-apple betrayals of Buddhism's true spirit, than as the inevitable outcomes of this idealised notion of an awakened, error-free, no-longer-partial individual. 

It also lands me in a curious place . The place I first named after reading The Feeling Buddha. Is this the 'truth' of the Buddha's transmission? It is a relief to admit that I have not the slightest chance of speaking with any final conviction on that. There is a forest of interpretations that declare what it is that the Buddha - or Dogen - said, and what they meant by it. If the Buddha meant this, then I am, I suppose, a Buddhist. If not, that doesn't make this point of view one iota less convincing to me.

Thank you, all best,


This is important when working in an interfaith arena where we are trying to work together while holding different views yet all of us are trying to enable a kinder and "better" world whatever that means!

Yes, thank you Modgala and Mat. It is important not to let the essentials get buried in clever sounding ideas.

Story of my life.

Yes, I think that right or wrong views arise from interaction. We are not fixed entities, but we take part of reality insofar as we interact with the world. It is unavoidable, we are  interacting with nature all the time in different ways, also with things and with people, and this interaction is alive and has movement…This is reality: everything changing and beating.Then, how could a particular view be “right” if it does not move? I think that a view or a theory also should be alive…They are necessary and useful sometimes as points of reference for our human minds, may be just to see: how could it be different?. But again I think if the idea/view/theory is assumed as completely true, maybe it means we are trying to fix what is always changing.



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