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July 28, 2011

A Queer Eye for the Eightfold Path: Right View ~Richard Harrold.

“It is easy to stray from the path into ineffective mental and spiritual fits of masturbation…”

Let’s say I’m shopping—it doesn’t matter where, it could be Armani Exchange (though I seldom find anything that fits, but I love the ambience! All the Asian hotties that shop there!) or Nordstrom (unfortunately, I am more likely to shop here, amongst the straight men, who have absolutely no sense of style and who couldn’t dress themselves out of a paper bag if it weren’t for their girlfriends or wives)—and I find a fantastic pink polo-style knit shirt. The price is right and I want it. But what to wear with a pink polo? Obviously, one must wear either black or dark gray with a pink polo shirt, because wearing this beautiful pink shirt with blue jeans or bone trousers would make me faint. Every gay man knows you don’t match a pink shirt with anything but black or gray.

That, my pretties, is a mundane example of right view. To dress sensibly, a man must know ahead of time the appropriate matches for whatever items of clothing he desires. A basic understanding of style—the color of your belt needs to match the color of your shoes, for example—is necessary to start. From there, one’s “view” of how to match items of clothing continues to develop until one becomes very skillful and has his or her own sense of style and taste. But you gotta start with the basics.

The same goes for your Buddhist practice. Without the “right view” of things, your practice will lack focus and direction. And as you progress, without a solid foundation, it is easy to stray from the path into ineffective mental and spiritual fits of masturbation: it may feel good at the time, but you’re often left with a mess to clean up. Oops, sorry about that; was that Right Speech?

It may help to think of Right View as Skillful View, as it becomes the  moral compass that helps you negotiate your way along both the path and through the distractions of the world. Consider the words of Bhikkhu Bodhi from “The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering”:

“Right view is the forerunner of the entire path, the guide for all the other factors. It enables us to understand our starting point, our destination, and the successive landmarks to pass as practice advances. To attempt to engage in the practice without a foundation of right view is to risk getting lost in the futility of undirected movement.”

We don’t need to have clear and concise views right from the start—views that can accommodate every circumstance—but we do need to have some sense of what is right and wrong; what is skillful action and what is not. Most of us, I hope, know that you don’t date your best friend’s ex. To do so leads to all kinds of uncomfortable scenarios and would likely lead to you losing your best friend; you know that ahead of time, so you don’t date his ex no matter how hot he is. That’s a very basic form of Right View; there are just some things you don’t do and you know that.

This basic understanding of what is right and what is wrong is commonly referred to as mundane Right View; it’s simply a basic understanding of kamma and how it affects you. Doing stupid things—such as hopping into bed with a stranger after you’ve had too much to drink—can lead to very unpleasant results. To avoid unpleasant consequences in the future, we need to pay attention to what is occurring in the present moment. That is mundane Right View.

To help us identify actions that may get us into future trouble, the Buddha laid out the 10 Courses of Wholesome Kamma, which can also be described as the 10 shitty things to avoid, because when you act in such ways, you screw up your life every time. These 10 guides include everything in the Five Precepts, as well as a bit more specificity: don’t kill sentient beings, don’t take what doesn’t belong to you, don’t get carried away with your senses or have sex with the wrong people, which also includes don’t get smashed because you’ll do stupid things every time; don’t lie, but also don’t talk trash about other people, even if you think they deserve to be bitch-slapped, which leads into not holding ill will toward others; stay away from harsh speech because it just makes you look like a troll or a member of Fred Phelps’ family; avoid idle chatter, which, oh-my-god, is one of the hardest things for we mos to get a grip on; and don’t pine away wanting what somebody else has. Finally, don’t get caught up in Wrong View; regardless of whether they are your own views or somebody else’s.

Those are a lot of “do-not’s,” but unless you are operating from that base, you aren’t going to get much out of Buddhism. In fact, you’ll likely end up like one of those New Age folks who put a fake smile on their face all the time. Or perhaps, like Michael from “The Boys in the Band”: you’ll have a bunch of really nice sweaters, but none of them will be paid for.

As Bhikkhu Bodhi says:

“The law connecting actions with their fruits works on the simple principle that unwholesome actions ripen in suffering, wholesome actions in happiness. The ripening need not come right away; it need not come in the present life at all. Kamma can operate across the succession of lifetimes; it can even remain dormant for aeons into the future. But whenever we perform a volitional action, the volition leaves its imprint on the mental continuum, where it remains as a stored up potency. When the stored up kamma meets with conditions favorable to its maturation, it awakens from its dormant state and triggers off some effect that brings due compensation for the original action.”

You can have a solid practice, one that leads you to greater happiness and understanding as well as acceptance of the world around you, by simply developing and honing your mundane Right View. But it’s only a start, as you will fail to gain true insight into your actions and motives unless you move to the next step, what Bhikkhu Bodhi calls Superior Right View.

“The right view of kamma and its fruits provides a rationale for engaging in wholesome actions and attaining high status within the round of rebirths, but by itself it does not lead to liberation…This superior right view leading to liberation is the understanding of the Four Noble Truths.”

Ah yes, the Four Noble Truths; there are four of them. Sticking with mundane Right View works well for dealing with the first Noble Truth—that life is unsatisfactory and always ends with death—but to really gain insight into the endless cycle of rebirth and death we need to fully understand the second, third, and fourth Noble Truths. So, we must fully comprehend and grasp how we create our own suffering and how we contribute to the suffering of others. When we realize that we are able to do something about it, that is Superior Right View.

Bhikkhu Bodhi explains that Superior Right View comes in two stages with our understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

“The first is called the right view that accords with the truths (saccanulomika samma ditthi); the second, the right view that penetrates the truths (saccapativedha samma ditthi). To acquire the right view that accords with the truths requires a clear understanding of their meaning and significance in our lives. Such an understanding arises first by learning the truths and studying them. Subsequently it is deepened by reflecting upon them in the light of experience until one gains a strong conviction as to their veracity.”

Let’s say that while growing up and hanging out with your pals, you heard some of them talk about this other boy—we’ll call him Claude—and all this talk was about how hung Claude is. Claude is alleged to have a ginormous penis, but you’ve never seen it. There is no reason to doubt your friends; some even say they’ve seen Claude’s organ with their own eyes, so you’re pretty confident that it’s the truth. However, you still don’t know it for a fact. Then the day comes when you see it for yourself; its size is startling! But now it is also real—you have directly experienced Claude’s member (seeing something is direct experience, so don’t get carried away with the analogy, OK?), and any doubt you had prior to this moment is completely erased.

Think back to when you were a young boy just before you reached puberty. There’s all this talk around you about sex, what happens to your body and what your body will be capable of doing in a short time. Perhaps you’ve witnessed some older boys in the act of self-gratification and seen its results, so you know that someday you’ll be able to do that as well. But until that day comes—pardon the pun—you don’t have a concrete understanding of it as something real. When it does occur, it is such a powerful and joyful experience that it can be dangerously beguiling.

As puerile as that may sound, that’s the process of developing Right View, as explained in the Four Noble Truths; it is developing that strong conviction by experiencing direct knowledge of how they work in your own life. It is verification.

When you reach this realization, your meditation takes a quantum leap into true, penetrating insight. Prior to this, we think we know how things really are, but after attaining this level of understanding, we begin to experience how things really are.

This is no easy task. I am nowhere near Superior Right View, as I am still working on my Mundane Right View. But progress is observable. If you’ve been practicing in earnest, take a moment and reflect: are there some things you just do not do any more, or do less of, because you have a deeper understanding of how those activities contribute to your general dissatisfaction with life.

And if you’re new to the practice, or have been contemplating its potential benefits, think about the basic wisdom and equanimity you see in those who are experienced practitioners. If this creates a desire to be around them—not because they’re cute and you want to bed them—then  you’ve already taken the first step in developing mundane Right View. Because this desire you feel is a reflection of the fact that those of us who sincerely practice the Dhamma exude a sense of safety: We are safe to be around, we have no desire to harm you or anything else.

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Richard Harrold is a lay practitioner who follows the Thai Forest Tradition for his core Buddhist practice. When he finds time from his real life as a web content director for a television broadcasting company, he manages to write three blogs that a few people actually read: My Buddha is Pink, which covers topics related to Buddhism and written with a gay twist; Frank Zappa’s Revenge, which is gradually covering Frank Zappa’s vast recording catalog, both legit and bootleg; and My Wine Cellar is a Closet, which isn’t a metaphor at all – my wine cellar really is a closet.

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