Views and Values


Whether it’s turning on the tv news or logging into Facebook, we’re faced with a lot of views and opinions in the modern world. Sorting through them is a full-time job, and necessary as it is almost impossible to get facts without some kind of spin. Everywhere we look people are taking stances on different issues. Even when people get their way, the path to that victory tends to be full of challenge and opposition.

Politics creep in everywhere. When I was first starting out at the monastery, I remember hearing about a recurring movement in Theravada Buddhism to return to the original Pali texts as a basis. No modern material, no commentaries, just the Buddha’s own words. I thought it was a great idea – after all, it wasn’t by accident I had arrived at a Theravada monastery instead of a Zendo. I don’t reject Zen, I just prefer the Pali suttas. Fast forward to earlier this year when I first heard the term ‘EBT’, or ‘Early Buddhist Texts’. Some people had started identifying with this trend, and now teachers and whole monasteries were being called EBT. As with any label, though, there were those who were using it as a banner for shunning other traditions and even creating debates around the legitimacy of all sorts of canonical texts. At first I was quite startled, but it didn’t take long before I recognized and said, “Well, this is the human realm.” Truly, we are programmed for this. A value had become a view; a view had become a stance; and in no long time a stance had become a politically-charged point of controversy and debate.

Views are like fire. We are so used to using them as tools to see the world that we forget how they burn if touched.

We all hold values, as certain as we all feel a mix of pleasure and pain in daily life. Our values help guide us and orient us in the direction of things that are for our benefit. But it’s very easy for us to take something that we value and form a view around it, “This is the right way,”, “This is the only way for me.” We do this to try to simplify our life and create a perspective from which to see the world. But it’s a dangerous tool that if not held very carefully can create more suffering than it prevents.

Views are like fire. We are so used to using them as tools to see the world that we forget how they burn if touched. The moment we say, “This is my view,” we are declaring that we have already decided which direction we are seeing a particular issue from, and we are casting those with a different view in opposition. Even if an argument doesn’t ensue, we have created a division. Also like fire, views burn indiscriminately – often we adopt a view because it casts us or those we like in a positive light. Yet it’s hard to stay on the good side of a view indefinitely. Sooner or later we find we are called to do the very thing we decided was wrong, and have to justify the hypocrisy.

Views are created to address a particular problem – we want to adhere to this and avoid that. But if held to, views continue to burn even after that have done their job. Dhamma teachers took on EBT, for instance, to address getting lost in the complexity of all the later Buddhist traditions with seemingly contradicting messages. But scouring away the more recent buddhist traditions turned to throwing out commentaries on the suttas, turned to picking and choosing only certain parts of the Theravada canon as ‘legitimate’. There’s no defining EBT as a political stance. You keep rejecting things until you are left with nothing, or you finally have to reject the view.

A wanderer once came to the Buddha and declared, “I hold the view that everything in the world is disagreeable.” The Buddha looked at him and asked, “Do you also find that view disagreeable?” It seems the best thing to do with a view, in the end, is to let it go. The moment if forms and becomes stable, the ever-changing world and even our own minds have continued changing all around it. We move on, but the view does not.
The good news about views is that we don’t need them to begin with. They are only an expedient to explain what we value and the direction we want to move in. We take on views because we want to consistently get what’s important to us – but how often do they work against us? How often do we find the political party we are attached to starts acting contrary to our wishes? How often does the figure we claim personifies our values act differently? How often are we certain something is the one true way only to find when we pursue it we end up all alone and at odds with others?

Which is easier when the political party we identify with stops representing our values – changing the party, or changing our vote? It turns out all along we were supposed to be voting and supporting the values we believe in, not just a party we identify with. Likewise, if we don’t form strong views about what is right and wrong, then we don’t have any obstacles to seeing the good side of current circumstances whether or not it was what we would have chose. A view can be the source of incredible frustration when things don’t go our way, but one outcome or another doesn’t change our values. We can always move steadily towards them.

It’s our values that actually define us, and if we can see how our values arise through what is pleasant and beneficial for us, then it’s not a difficult matter to start devoting ourselves to them instead of views. A value doesn’t represent a static ideal, and how we live our values is sensitive to the opportunities we have. Likewise, while people of different views are at odds, even if we meet someone with a different set of values, we can know that they are also trying to move towards happiness. There’s no need to cast them as a political adversary. Why wouldn’t they move towards what benefits them? Maybe there are some values we actually have in common?

So what do we value? Can we put it into words? What do we enjoy, what makes us happy, what keeps us feeling safe? When we know these things, choosing political candidates, or voting on a particular issue, or choosing which teacher or sect to follow becomes far more straightforward. We’ll be more effective too – because as situations change we will be able to change in response, and adapt the way we bring our values forth. The most effective leaders are the ones who display values that people can get behind, and the most effective teachers and teachings are those displaying universal truths that benefit everyone. We’ll start to see these in the things we previously shunned, and find new ways to work with what we have.

So I’ll have to start tiptoeing around the matter of Early Buddhist Texts, as in a famous simile, “Like a snake on my path,”. Until the next view comes around, then I’ll be shaking my head at that. But my love of the suttas is as strong as ever, so there’s no doubt I’ll continue doing as I do. Those beings I’ve seen who incline towards peace are all the same. They might not be easy to label, but you can tell them by the way they move through the world – clinging to nothing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *