Right View

by on Apr 11, 2017Zen Master Bon Hae

The first step on the eightfold path is right view. Right, of course, doesn’t mean the opposite of left. It means correct. View here doesn’t mean “oh what a pretty view.” It means viewpoint, how you organize your perceptions.
In the Theravada tradition, correct viewpoint means to see everything through the lens of impermanence. Things arise, they stick around for a while, they disappear. Everything is changing all the time. No matter what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, you are aware of its impermanence. No matter what your situation, you are aware of its impermanence. Whatever you are thinking about, you are aware of its impermanence. Your thoughts themselves are impermanent, and you are aware of this. Ideologies are impermanent. Relationships are impermanent. War is impermanent. Peace is impermanent. Your life is impermanent. The sky is impermanent. Even earth. Even space. Time, by definition, is definitely impermanent.
That’s the Theravada version of correct viewpoint: everything is impermanent.
A long time ago I read an exchange in which someone began to ask Zen Master Seung Sahn a question by saying, “Since everything is impermanent . . .” and Zen Master Seung Sahn immediately interrupted, “Where did you hear that? Everything is originally emptiness!” Which brings us to the Mahayana view of correct viewpoint.
In the Mahayana tradition, correct viewpoint means to see everything through the lens of emptiness. Everything is empty. No matter what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, you are aware of its emptiness. Your situation is fundamentally empty. Everything you think about is empty. Your thoughts themselves are empty. Ideologies are empty. Relationships are empty. War is empty. Peace is empty. Your life is empty. The sky is empty. The earth is empty. Space is empty. Time is empty. Even emptiness is empty. But this is not nihilism. Emptiness is not the same as nothing. It is not the void.
We can try to understand emptiness intellectually. But then we’re just being seduced by grammar—emptiness is a noun, so there has to be some thing it represents. That is a well-known philosophical trap known as reification, inventing some kind of reality because there’s a word for it. Also, the adjective empty isn’t like green or purple. Green and purple are adjectives that distinguish things—some things are green and other things are purple and still other things are neither—but every thing is empty. What can an adjective mean when it applies to everything?
The Mahayana view understands all this. It understands that emptiness is not a thing. It understands that saying something is empty is not like saying it is green or purple. Emptiness/empty is a tool for overthrowing our conceptual thinking, so trying to understand it conceptually isn’t very helpful. Sometimes we say “no self nature” to explain emptiness. But Sanskrit has two different words: sunyata for emptiness, and anatman for no self nature. They are not quite the same. Metaphors are more helpful. Zen Master Seung Sahn used the metaphor of cookie dough—everything comes from emptiness in the same way that you can make tree cookies and house cookies and soldier cookies and dog cookies out of the same cookie dough. Another metaphor comes from quantum physics: quarks and leptons and bosons continually flicker in and out of existence not only in space, but of space. That is, it is the nature of space to continually produce sub-atomic particles that instantaneously disappear, just as it is the nature of emptiness to produce the manifestations of form we see all around us—form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Both of these metaphors (cookie dough, space) of course fail because they still have some thing—cookie dough, space. Metaphors are helpful, but the only real way to really perceive emptiness is to practice hard. To attain emptiness. To carry it in our awareness like the air we breathe.
That’s the Mahayana version of correct viewpoint: everything is empty.
In the Theravada version of correct viewpoint, everything is seen through the lens of impermanence. In the Mahayana version of correct viewpoint, everything is seen through the lens of emptiness.
But why have any lens at all? The sky doesn’t say “I am impermanent” or “I am empty.” Your dog doesn’t say that either, or your shoes. Human beings like to make stuff up, so they say things like that, but it just gets in the way.
So we come to the Zen version of correct viewpoint: correct viewpoint is no viewpoint. No viewpoint means completely open. Completely open means don’t know. Whatever you see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think is exactly what it is. You don’t have to know anything about it in advance. In fact you don’t know anything about it, or about anything else, and you never will. Your world doesn’t need to be run through any filters, except of course the natural filters our bodies supply (for example, we can’t see light waves that are too high or too low on the electromagnetic spectrum, and we can’t hear sounds that are too high or too low).
A long time ago I was sitting a solo retreat and suddenly I felt I was possessed by a demon. Everywhere I looked, it wasn’t me looking, it was the demon looking through my eyes. It was terrifying. I felt that if I woke up the next morning with the demon still inside me, I would have to check myself into a mental hospital (because that’s how our culture deals with demons). But I kept up my retreat schedule—sitting, chanting, walking, bowing. And then, while doing walking meditation outside on my small porch, my view of the trees shifting as I walked past them, and I realized that nobody looks out through my eyes; the world comes in through my eyes. And the demon vanished.
This is correct viewpoint, right view. Letting the world in completely. No viewpoint. Only don’t know.

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