The texts define right view as knowledge with regard to the four noble truths.
The phrase "with regard to," here (expressed by the locative case
in Pali), can also mean "in terms of," and this alternative meaning
is especially relevant in this case. It reflects the point that the knowledge
constituting right view is not a theoretical knowledge about the truths but
is a way of using the truths to categorize all of conditioned experience. Because
these truths view experience in terms of function -- how unskillful and skillful
mental qualities play a role in the causal chain of creating suffering or bringing
it to an end [D.1; MFU, p. 64] -- the right way to view right view itself is
not to stop with its definition but to regard it in terms of its function and
then put it to its intended use.
The function of right view is to look at events in the mind in a way that gives rise to a sense of dispassion, leading the mind to a state of non-fashioning and then on to Awakening. It does this by focusing on the way in which passion and desire lead to suffering and stress. In this, it develops the mind's basic reaction to stress -- the search for a way to escape from the stress [§189] -- in a skillful way so that this reaction actually leads to utter release. When the mind sees, without its normal bewilderment, the actual process by which stress is caused, it will naturally let go of the causes. When it sees passion clearly enough to catch that passion in the act of leading to stress, it will naturally develop a sense of dispassion for and detachment from the passion, so that it can view it simply as a mental event, with no meaning in terms of anything else. This opens the way to the state of non-fashioning where the cause of stress is allowed to cease.
The causal connection between passion and desire on the one hand, and stress on the other, is explained in the standard formula for dependent co-arising under the factor of clinging/sustenance. A passage in the Canon [S.XII.121, MFU, pp. 44-45] analyzes this factor into four forms of passion and desire for the five aggregates: clinging to sensuality, clinging to precepts and practices, clinging to views, and clinging to theories about the self. The third form of clinging listed here points to one of the paradoxes about right view: it is a form of view that has to loosen attachment to all views, ultimately including itself. Passage §187 shows how this happens. When faced with a variety of views about the world and the self, right view looks at the views, not in terms of their content, but simply as events in the mind, in and of themselves. It sees them as part of a causal chain: fabricated, inconstant, stressful, and thus not-self, not worthy of attachment. In this way it makes the mind dispassionate to all other views: dispassionate toward the terms they use, dispassionate toward their claims to truth. Right view then turns on itself to see itself as part of a similar causal chain. This loosens any sense of attachment even for right view so that the mind can see the view simply as an event: "there is this." This entry into the perceptual mode of emptiness leads straight to the "higher escape" -- the state of non-fashioning -- that then becomes present to awareness.
Because right view is the only form of view that contains the seeds of its own transcendence in this way, it is the only form of knowing that is skillful enough to lead to Awakening. The Canon gives no room for any alternative "skillful means" that would contradict right view. After the experience of Awakening, the texts tell us [S.XXII.122], one continues to make use of right view, without any sense of clinging, as a pleasant abiding for the mind and for mindfulness and alertness, much as one would use jhana for the same purpose [III/E]. This process of transcending right view even as one makes use of it shows that non-attachment to views does not mean agnosticism or an openness to all views. Instead, non-attachment is a skillful way of making use of one's discerning faculties, seeing through to the causal function of all views, so that one may attain Awakening and then maintain a pleasant and mindfully alert abiding after one has become awakened.
The steps in the functioning of right view correspond to the three stages of frames-of-reference meditation [II/B]. The first step, in which one focuses on events in and of themselves -- and not in reference to anything they might mean outside of the range of immediate experience -- corresponds to the first stage of frames-of-reference meditation, in which one stays focused on the body, etc., in and of itself, putting aside all greed and distress with reference to the world. The second step of right view, in which one focuses on events in terms of their role in the causal chain -- fabricated, inconstant, stressful, and not-self -- corresponds to the second stage of frames-of-reference meditation, in which one remains focused on the phenomenon of origination and passing away. The third step of right view, in which one sees even right view simply as an event, corresponds to the third stage of frames-of-reference meditation in which one moves to the perceptual mode of "entry into emptiness," noting simply, "There is this" -- without being caught up in the "this" -- and from there on to non-fashioning and Awakening. Because the practice of jhana is also implicated in these three steps -- steadying the mind in the first step, sensitizing it to causality in the second, and providing the basis for the fifth factor of noble concentration in the third -- mindfulness, concentration, and discernment are thus inextricably intertwined as they develop along the path to Awakening.
It is important to note that right view functions in two time frames: small and large. Its primary frame is in the small frame, dealing exclusively with the immediate present. As it focuses on the phenomenon of origination and passing away, it reduces its terms of analysis to more and more basic levels until reaching the point where it sees even such simple categories as "being" and "non-being" as extraneous, inappropriate, and irrelevant to the simple flow of events arising and passing away in the present [§186]. As a result, it strips everything down to the most basic categories of experience -- the presence and absence of stress -- without adding anything further. This phenomenological mode of perception, or "entry into emptiness," sees things simply in terms of what is present and what is not [M.121; MFU, pp. 82-85]. Here, realizations are expressed merely as pointers to present phenomena without any content that would point to anything outside of direct experience: "There is this," [M.102; MFU, pp. 81-82] "Such is form, such is feeling," [§149] etc. The Pali name for this/that conditionality, idappaccayata, points to the fact that not only the phenomena but also their relationships are a matter of immediate, "right here-and-now" insight.
Once these insights are gained on the level of radically immediate experience, one realizes that they have implications for the larger time frame of the whole process of transmigration, and one's entire experience of the cosmos as well [§211-15]. The process of stress arising and passing away in the present is precisely the same process as that of living beings arising and passing away on the cosmic scale. One sees that one has participated in this process from an inconceivable beginning in time; one knows -- now that the process has been disbanded -- that one has found the end of the cycle of rebirth. This is because, in entering radically into the present moment by stripping away all clinging, one ultimately steps out of the dimensions of time and the present; having done so, one can see the totality of what it means to be in those dimensions.
This point is illustrated in two passages [§§74, 64] that express the content of right view immediately before and after the experience of the Deathless:
'From an inconceivable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. The total fading & cessation of ignorance, of this mass of darkness, is this peaceful, exquisite state: the resolution of all fabrications; the relinquishment of all acquisitions; the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding.'
'This is stress... This is the origination of stress... This is the cessation of stress... This is the way leading to the cessation of stress... These are effluents... This is the origination of effluents... This is the cessation of effluents... This is the way leading to the cessation of effluents.' His heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, is released from the effluent of sensuality, released from the effluent of becoming, released from the effluent of ignorance. With release, there is the knowledge, 'Released.' He discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'
The first passage depicts the act of discernment that verifies the principles of conviction. The second passage depicts the act of discernment that confirms the fact that the five faculties, when fully developed, do lead to the Deathless [§89]. Notice that both passages follow a similar pattern, even though they deal with vastly different time scales. Transmigration and darkness, in the first passage, correspond to stress in the second. Ignorance and craving are the origination of stress, and the sentence, "The total fading & cessation of ignorance... Unbinding," describes the cessation of stress. The act of discernment that sees all these things is the way leading to the cessation of stress. This repetition of the same pattern on two different frames of space and time in non-linear systems is called scale invariance: the same process on two different scales [I/B]. It is one of the most distinctive features of the Buddha's teachings, for it shows how an insight into a present moment in the mind can have repercussions on one's entire involvement in the cosmos. The principle behind the scale invariance of right view is this/that conditionality: the fact that one's continued participation in the cosmos is kept going by one's present contribution to the causal stream initiated over the long course of the past. By reaching the state of non-fashioning, one stops contributing to the present, and thus can bring the totality of one's participation to an end, leaving the utter freedom of Unbinding. In this sense, the principle of this/that conditionality explains the possibility of attaining the Deathless, while the actuality of the Deathless -- once it is attained through skillful mastery of kamma -- is what proves the principle of this/that conditionality as an adequate description of the causal process that fabricates conditioned experience and provides an opening to the Unfabricated.
Passages from the Pali Canon
§ 184. I do not envision any one other quality by which unarisen unskillful qualities arise, and arisen unskillful qualities go to growth & proliferation, like wrong view. When a person has wrong view, unarisen unskillful qualities arise, and arisen unskillful qualities go to growth & proliferation.
I do not envision any one other quality by which unarisen skillful qualities arise, and arisen skillful qualities go to growth & proliferation, like right view. When a person has right view, unarisen skillful qualities arise, and arisen skillful qualities go to growth & proliferation.
Just as when a nimb-tree seed, a bitter creeper seed, or a bitter melon seed is placed in moist soil, whatever nutriment it takes from the soil & the water, all conduces to its bitterness, acridity, & distastefulness. Why is that? Because of the evil nature of the seed.
In the same way, when a person has wrong view, whatever bodily deeds he undertakes in line with that view, whatever verbal deeds... whatever mental deeds he undertakes in line with that view, whatever intentions, whatever determinations, whatever vows, whatever fabrications, all lead to what is disagreeable, unpleasing, unappealing, unprofitable, & stressful. Why is that? Because of the evil nature of the view...
Just as when a sugar cane seed, a rice grain, or a grape seed is placed in moist soil, whatever nutriment it takes from the soil & the water, all conduces to its sweetness, tastiness, & unalloyed delectability. Why is that? Because of the auspicious nature of the seed.
In the same way, when a person has right view, whatever bodily deeds he undertakes in line with that view, whatever verbal deeds... whatever mental deeds he undertakes in line with that view, whatever intentions, whatever vows, whatever determinations, whatever fabrications, all lead to what is agreeable, pleasing, charming, profitable, & easeful. Why is that? Because of the auspicious nature of the view.
-- A.I.181-82, 189-90
§ 185. Right view, when assisted by these five factors, has release of awareness as its fruit & reward, has release of discernment as its fruit & reward. Which five?
There is the case where right view is assisted by virtue, assisted by learning, assisted by discussion, assisted by tranquillity, & assisted by insight (vipassana).
When assisted by these five factors, right view has release of awareness & release of discernment as its fruit & reward.
§ 186. Kaccayana: 'Lord, "Right view, right view," it is said. To what extent is there right view?'
The Buddha: 'By & large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by (takes as its object) a polarity, that of existence & non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, "non-existence" with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, "existence" with reference to the world does not occur to one.
'By & large, Kaccayana, this world is in bondage to attachments, clingings (sustenances), & biases. But one such as this does not get involved with or cling to these attachments, clingings, fixations of awareness, biases, or obsessions; nor is he resolved on "my self." He has no uncertainty or doubt that, when there is arising, only stress is arising; and that when there is passing away, only stress is passing away. In this, one's knowledge is independent of others. It is to this extent, Kaccayana, that there is right view.'
§ 187. Then Anathapindika the householder went to where the wanderers of other persuasions were staying. On arrival he greeted them courteously. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat down to one side. As he was sitting there, the wanderers said to him, 'Tell us, householder, what views the contemplative Gotama has.'
'Venerable sirs, I don't know entirely what views the Blessed One has.' [§188]
'Well, well. So you don't know entirely what views the contemplative Gotama has. Then tell us what views the monks have.'
'I don't even know entirely what views the monks have.'
'So you don't know entirely what views the contemplative Gotama has or even that the monks have. Then tell us what views you have.'
'It wouldn't be difficult for me to expound to you what views I have. But please let the venerable ones expound each in line with his position, and then it won't be difficult for me to expound to you what views I have.'
When this had been said, one of the wanderers said to Anathapindika the householder, 'The cosmos is eternal. Only this is true; anything otherwise is worthless. This is the sort of view I have.'
Another wanderer said to Anathapindika, 'The cosmos is not eternal. Only this is true; anything otherwise is worthless. This is the sort of view I have.'
Another wanderer said, 'The cosmos is finite...'... 'The cosmos is infinite...'... 'The soul & the body are the same...'... 'The soul is one thing and the body another...'... 'After death a Tathagata exists...'... 'After death a Tathagata does not exist...'... 'After death a Tathagata both does & does not exist...'... 'After death a Tathagata neither does nor does not exist. Only this is true; anything otherwise is worthless. This is the sort of view I have.'
When this had been said, Anathapindika the householder said to the wanderers, 'As for the venerable one who says, "The cosmos is eternal. Only this is true; anything otherwise is worthless. This is the sort of view I have," his view arises from his own inappropriate attention or in dependence on the words of another. Now this view has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently co-arisen. Whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently co-arisen, that is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. This venerable one thus adheres to that very stress, submits himself to that very stress.' (Similarly for the other positions.)
When this had been said, the wanderers said to Anathapindika the householder, 'We have each & every one expounded to you in line with our own positions. Now tell us what views you have.'
'Whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently co-arisen, that is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. Whatever is stress is not mine, is not what I am, is not my self. This is the sort of view I have.'
'So, householder, whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently co-arisen, that is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. You thus adhere to that very stress, submit yourself to that very stress.'
'Venerable sirs, whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently co-arisen, that is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. Whatever is stress is not mine, is not what I am, is not my self. Having seen this well with right discernment as it actually is present, I also discern the higher escape from it as it actually is present.'
When this had been said, the wanderers fell silent, abashed, sitting with their shoulders drooping, their heads down, brooding, at a loss for words. Anathapindika the householder, perceiving that the wanderers were silent, abashed... at a loss for words, got up & left.