The Importance of Wise View in Buddhism
Two types of wise view as the foundation of Buddha’s 8-fold path
As we enter the path of practice, it’s good to have some understanding of where we’re going. Otherwise, what am I doing? Why am I practicing? Where am I headed? If I don’t know where I’m going, how am I going to get there? Yes, I can meditate, but if it’s not connected to a sense of direction, practice can be difficult and may lose its meaning. And so a view is very helpful: a vista, if you will. We might suggest that the path begins with this clearer vision that is the first fold of the noble eightfold path: wise view.
There are two types of wise view. There’s the mundane, or worldly, wise view, and there’s the supermundane, superior wise view. The starting point of the mundane wise view is a very basic understanding that my actions have consequences: karma. Here in the west, karma is often misunderstood; it’s a loaded word, a term that has taken on its own sort of slangy meaning, as in “Oh, that’s your karma coming back to get you”—like just desserts or revenge. But karma, I think, is better understood as action: what I do impacts my life for better or for worse. I recognize that I have some agency over what I do with my life. Of course, there are circumstances of family, of society, and of time and place that are far beyond my control, yet at the same time, there’s an understanding that my actions do lead to good, wellbeing, and wisdom… or to my detriment and self-harm.
I think it’s really important to understand this first view, action and consequence, as it relates to practice. I want to cultivate a mind that will bring about good in my life. And this good will bring me space for ease, space to cultivate qualities that allow my mind to practice more naturally. I like what makes me want to sit. I don’t want to think of meditation as a chore—”it’s too hard, I don’t like it, it’s painful.” Sometimes it really does feel like that, so I want to nurture qualities that incline me to practice regardless, and one of the ways I can do this is through my skillful actions.
The mundane wise view holds this basic understanding that my actions count for something. And not just my physical actions, but also the actions of my words as well as of my mind. I have choices about where I place my mind and what I choose to pay attention to. What I take in with my mind has an impact on me. In today’s media- and information-rich environment, what I choose to place my attention on is vital to my wellbeing and the depth of my understanding. This too is karma. Actions related to what I take in, who I choose to be with, and how I choose to engage will impact who I become. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha basically says, if you hang out with people who are striving to develop their hearts and to give back, that is going to influence you to move in the same direction. And if you hang out with numbskulls, you’ll become a numbskull, right? The same goes for the information that I take in. Awareness of this belongs to mundane wise view.
Then we have the sort of more philosophic, supermundane, superior wise view: understanding the four noble truths. The Buddha explained this using a prescription based on the medical model of his time: There is an issue, a malady, that is dukkha, which translates as dissatisfactoriness. Dissatisfactoriness has a cause. This cause has a cure—there’s no point in treating something that can’t be cured, is there? The cure is the eightfold path. In this way, these things start to fold together. The fourth noble truth is the eightfold path, and the first fold of the eightfold path is the four noble truths.
Let’s go back. What is the cause of dukkha? At the end of the first noble truth, the Buddha says something very interesting. He briefly lists the different things that cause dukkha: Birth is dukkha, death is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, old age is dukkha, dying is dukkha. So is not getting what you want, and even getting what you want, since it won’t last. But then, at the end of the list, in summation, he says something that seems strange at first glance. He says, the “five clinging aggregates are dukkha.” So what does that mean? What are the five clinging aggregates? Do I have to look for another list? Four noble truths, eightfold path, now I’ve got the five aggregates. It’s hard to keep track of all the lists—the Buddha liked lists, apparently.
Here we start to see another piece of the supermundane wise view, which is an understanding of the concept of “not-self.” Understanding the essence of the “five clinging aggregates” is a perspective of not-self. These five aggregates that we mistakenly identify as a “self” are the body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.
From my understanding, the Buddha isn’t saying there is no self; I can’t deny that I experience these things. They’re real to me: I hit the concrete and it hurts, right? The supermundane view isn’t saying that the experience isn’t there. It’s saying that my perception of this experience should not be assumed to be I, me, or mine. I think this view that the Buddha is putting forth, this perspective of not taking my phenomenal experiences as my self is really important.
Somewhere in the texts somebody asks the Buddha to sum up all of his teachings in one sentence. I leaned into that, I was like, yeah, quick, what is it? What’s your elevator pitch for the Dharma? And the Buddha’s answer was, essentially, that we should refrain from confusing our experiences with I, me, or mine. “Don’t identify the five clinging aggregates as a self,” he said. This is a very different statement from there is no self, which is what many people struggle with: “Well, if there’s no self, then who and what am I?” and all sorts of philosophical questions which are not helpful and get us stuck in a thicket of views and arguments.
So how do I approach my sensory and conscious experiences? First off, by not identifying with them as I, me, or mine. Non-identification is the key to not clinging. If, thanks to wise view and meditation, I can stop the clinging to and identifying with my experiences as I, me, and mine, the path to inner peace and clarity will be accessible. A helpful way of furthering this understanding is found in the four seals of Buddhism.
Now that we have some understanding of wise view, this can greatly inform our journey. We can practice the 8-fold path with a vision of what we want to accomplish – to reduce suffering for ourselves and others through our behavior and meditation practice. And as we practice, this in turn further develops our right view. In this way, our path becomes a complete, 8-spoked wheel that can support our chariot to liberation.