Beliefs

Belief in Buddhism is a confusing thing. On the one hand, there are dozens of suttas saying that having fixed beliefs is a huge problem that the sage avoids by having no fixed views. Here is a quote form the Attavagga translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

Because entrenchments in views
aren’t easily overcome
when considering what’s grasped
among doctrines,
that’s why
a person embraces or rejects a doctrine —
in light of these very
entrenchments.

Now, one who is cleansed
has no preconceived view
about states of becoming
or not-
anywhere in the world.
Having abandoned conceit & illusion,
by what means would he go?
He isn’t involved.

On the other hand, the very first step of the Eightfold Path is Right View. Over and over the Buddha clearly says things like, “This view is wrong and this view is right.” For example, he is clear that nihilist or eternalist views of the self are dead wrong. Here is the Buddha telling the monk Sati in no uncertain terms that he is wrongheaded about the nature of the self (translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi):

Foolish man, to whom do you know me having taught the Dhamma like this? Haven’t I taught, in various ways that consciousness is dependently arisen. Without a cause, there is no arising of consciousness. Yet you, foolish man, on account of your wrong view, you misrepresent me, as well as destroy yourself and accumulate much demerit, for which you will suffer for a long time.

This harly sounds like someone that doesn’t take a strong position on issues of doctrine. So what’s the deal? Is there a contradiction in the teaching? Or worse, a corruption?

My own understanding is that both positions are important but at different times in the practice. For an enlightened being, there are no fixed views. Views are just opinions that constrict freedom. A liberated person is free, even from the doctrine that they teach. It’s not that a liberated person will go around murdering and stealing. It’s just that they naturally embody that behaviour utterly freely without in any way having to restrict their mind. They naturally and spontaneously act with love, kindness, peace, and clear seeing.

That simply isn’t possible for a normal person. If it was, we would already be liberated. At the beginning (and middle) of the path, a strong sense of Right View is necessary to make progress. Until I can spontaneously act with kindness in all cases, having a teaching of loving-kindness, having a view of compassion, having rule against lying, are all valuable tools to progress along the path. Teachers that see that the end of the path has no view, sometimes teach that we should begin the path with no view. The Buddha was wiser than this.

Having beliefs serves a purpose, but it is nothing to be proud of. They are not something to fight for, to kill for, even to die for. Instead, they are a support for someone who doesn’t yet have the freedom to act with spontaneous wisdom.

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