Saṅkhāra Dukkha and the Suffering of Views (A Cautionary tale)

by John Peacock

From the Buddha’s perspective one of the major causes of violence and contention in the world are the delusions produced by subject-centred views – diṭṭhi. Views, as the Buddha explained them, are not solely ‘ideologies’ in the sense of logically coherent systems of thought, which proceed from an assumed first premise. The Buddha’s understanding of diṭṭhi – viewpoints – encompasses ideologies in this sense: they are ‘views hammered out by reason (Dīgha Nikāya I. 23)’ and ‘constructed’ in ways that appears to be both compelling and persuasive, that is, they exert a strong emotional pull. However, the central thrust of his critique of views – be they, philosophical, religious, or ‘common sense’ – is that they produce distorted or partial views of ‘reality’ (I place ‘reality’ in scare quotes because this is not a reality that is somehow independent and outside of us, but something that we are actively engaged in constructing). They appeal, and are clung to, because they reflect individual and collective fantasies. People can be seen to cling to their views and mental images more fiercely than a miser clings to his or her hoard of money. So much so, that so-called ‘graven images’ may, and can be banned, but there is nevertheless a falling down in adoration to the distorted images produced by the mind filled with delusion. The Buddha’s elucidation of the bewitchment of views can be compared to Francis Bacon’s conception of ideologies as idola (from the Latin idololon – ‘spectre,’ ‘apparition’)‘idols’ of the mind, which he considered impediments to true knowledge.

The Buddha frequently referred to ‘view points’ as ‘impediments’ and ‘hindrances.’ In the Brahmajāla Sutta, in the Long Discourses (Dīgha Nīkāya), the Buddha lists sixty-two viewpoints that he considered are hindrances to the pursuit of liberation because they substitute ‘thinking’ for empirically verifiable practice. He summed these up as ten indeterminate, or unanswerable questions  – avyākatāni. It is unnecessary to go into the details of these questions because they are all representative of metaphysical speculation – even if that speculation appears under the guise of common sense and almost inevitably the ordinary language of common sense is replete with unacknowledged metaphysics. As speculation they also appear as highly articulated belief systems that generally lie outside of that which can be confirmed or denied.

The Buddha categorically refuses to delve into these matters because they cannot be resolved through empirical investigation. The nineteenth century thinker Auguste Comte came to a similar conclusion as the Buddha: ‘Theological and metaphysical questions are set aside by me because they cannot be answered; that is all.’ Such questions are set aside not because they are disproved, for Comte atheism is just as much a belief as other theological and metaphysical positions, equally incapable of demonstration. Both the Buddha and Comte appear to agree that doctrines that put forward views and propositions that go beyond experience, and the articulation of that experience, are to be looked upon with deep suspicion. In the Sabba Sutta in the Connected Discourses the Buddha states that one who states such a view of the world will ultimately meet with distress because, ‘it is simply a groundless assertion’ and ‘is not to be found within his or her own sensorium.’

 

The ‘distress’ that the Buddha refers to is to be found in the multiplicity of viewpoints and opinions that lead almost invariably to quarrels and disputes, which often escalate into violence, both physical and verbal. Clinging tenaciously to such non-verifiable views, people become hot tempered and confrontational. We have only to witness contemporary political and religious debate to acknowledge a degree of veracity in this ancient perspective. Contending parties are not content to have their ‘view points’ as working hypotheses, but tenaciously cling to them, either implicitly or explicitly. This situation leads the Buddha to voice the following: “those who have grabbed hold of certain perceptions and viewpoints traverse the world looking for conflict. (Sutta Nipāta 847)”

According to the Buddha, in the name of…(a Pure idea, a ‘truth’ etc) the sword is drawn, the Kalashnikov brandished and the grip on the rod tightened. Once an ‘Absolute’ is invoked, this linguistic sign can be made to alight and strike absolutist claims on a variety of sites: ‘pure’ religion, race, nation, sex, class, etc. The Buddha condemned this obsessive craving to monopolise ‘truth’. Whether one calls them ‘Oriental’ or ‘Occidental’, dogmatism is based on the deluded belief that there is an encompassing, objective and redeeming totality which exists independent of human perception. Adherents of revealed truths believe that it has been revealed to a select few, namely themselves.

Dogmatists, and we can all be dogmatists with regard to certain issues, are unwilling to demonstrate that their truths are the outcome of verifiable procedures: wherever and whenever they can, they resort to power, religious or secular to make their truths prevail. Unverifiable claims are used as final judgements – sententiae, or fatwas. People are pilloried, crucified, burnt at the stake or beheaded, literally and metaphorically in the name of ‘truths’.

In the Sutta Nipāta the Buddha states that: “having taken contending positions those experts that ‘know’ the truth dispute: “One who knows this has realised the True Way. Those that deny this are inferior and imperfect.”

“Having taken this position they dispute and claim: ‘the other is a fool and no expert or adept.’ Since all, however, claim, to be experts in the truth, which one holds the ‘real’ truth?’

“If one who does not subscribe to another’s view is a fool, then all claimants to truth are fools because they all equally abide in fixed views. (Sutta Nipāta 880-2)”

By positing a ‘single truth,’ an enunciating subject establishes themselves as the competent speaker and goes on to hierarchize other views with this truth as the norm. People are then pigeonholed according to their views and beliefs and one point of view is jabbed into ‘the other.’ It is unsurprising that the Buddha often compared views to barbs and spoke of dogmatists as wagers of wordy warfare, wounding each other with daggered tongues:

“Those who think themselves ‘equal,’ ‘superior,’ or ‘inferior’ to others for that very reason are compelled into dispute.

But the one who does not acknowledge ‘equal’ and ‘unequal’, would they say: ‘this alone is the truth, or this is a lie? With whom would they engage in dispute when no such distinction is made? (Sutta Nipāta 842-3)

The frenetic search for ultimate meanings and final truths, and the competition that necessarily ensues between competing ‘truths’ – be they ultimate or mundane – turns our societies into a dangerous jungle. As the Buddha puts it:

‘…the jungle, the wilderness, the puppet show of mere speculation is accompanied by bickering, by resentment, by feverish excitement…’

The Buddha’s refusal to enter into disputes about the truth of ‘views’ – diṭṭhi – was not due to a liberal, laissez parler attitude, but because it would be an exercise in vanity, in both senses of the word. The Buddha’s diagnosis of the restless quest for final truths and ultimate meanings as diṭṭhi taṇhā – the craving for viewpoints, anticipated Freud’s disclosure of philosophical and religious views as products of the desire for mastery; a desire linked to the aggrandisement and establishment of a fixed self. As such diṭṭhi represents one of the most pernicious aspects of saṅkhāra dukkha –‘constructed distress’ – and something we need to pay constant attention to in our assumption of views and opinions as they are articulated in our speech patterns and thought. ‘Views’ are not somehow neutral and having no effects in this world, but are all to obviously ‘there’ and manifest in our interpersonal, religious, social and political lives.