Fixed Views VS Unfixed Certainties

by Sister Medhini

Some of corrupt mind will speak;
While others speak from truthful mind.
The sage does not embark in debate born of this,
And so, the sage is not fixed anywhere.

How to transcend one’s very own view
When settled in preference, carried by zeal?
One who has formed conclusions of his own
Would speak in just the way he knows.

The one who, even unasked, speaks
To others of his own precepts and way
Is ignoble in nature, the skilled would say
Declaring himself on his own.

The calm and self-extinguished monk
Does not say of virtue “I am like this”
He, says the skilled, is of noble nature,
protruding nowhere in the world.

Whatever ideas are made and done
become polluted with preference:
Wherever one sees his own advantage
On that he rests his unstable peace.

Domains of views are not easy to surmount
where ideas are picked out and taken up.
And so, a man among these domains
In dropping one idea, takes hold of the next.

Nowhere in the world has one of clarity
A view made of being-this or not-being-that.
Clarified by giving up deception and conceit,
In what way would he, who is disengaged, go?

One engaged among ideas embarks in debate
But how to debate the disengaged – on what grounds?
It is not for him to take up and let go,
He has shaken off all views right here.

Octad on the Corrupt (Snp. 4.3)

There is a line of thinking regarding the practice of Dhamma that is fairly common, and which appears, on the surface, quite admirable and good. It goes along the following lines:

“Don’t trust the mind. It is dangerous to think that you know something, because it is easy to build an ego out of knowledge, even knowledge of Dhamma. I don’t feel the need to be certain of things. I’m okay with accepting that I am still ignorant and have much to learn.”

The first thing to sort out in regard to this is what we mean by ‘knowledge.’ If by ‘knowledge’ you mean a kind of static fact or idea, then we can agree that it is indeed something for ‘ego’ to be built on. But there is another kind of knowledge, that can never be a fixed idea like this, but which is also certain beyond doubt, in a way that the first kind of knowledge never can be. It is only this second kind that I would call actual ‘knowledge,’ and this cannot be the basis for ego, because it removes the space for it.

Before trying to describe further what I mean by knowledge, I wanted to say one or two other things about fixed ideas or views. The main point is that it doesn’t really matter what the idea is about, or how correct it might appear to be in terms of the information it contains: relying on, and taking for granted, any idea or ‘statement of fact,’ is what we can call ‘trusting the mind’.

In this sense, even the idea that, ‘I don’t know, my understanding is incomplete, I still have some wrong view,’ can be just as dangerous as the idea ‘I know, I am right.’ Even if the first of those two statements sounds better and less egotistical, it can still be a comfort zone which, in the end, causes the same kinds of problems as the first. For example, if you say ‘I don’t know, I’m ignorant,’ then it can take away some of the heaviness of the responsibility to think and say things that are actually true and right. If you make the disclaimer from the beginning that you are probably at least partly wrong, then you don’t feel obliged to make your words and actions true and correct. If what you say does turn out to be wrong, it’s not because you were really wrong, but because you happen to be ignorant.

In other words, accepting your ignorance as something that is just a static ‘fact,’ means it’s not something you feel directly responsible for.1 And in this way, the idea that you don’t know becomes just something else to rest in; indirectly feeding the tendency to rely on views based on inspiration and preference. Far from being a genuine recognition of your own lack of certainty and wrong view, it’s just covering it up even further.2

In short, you can be attached to the idea of knowing, but you can also be attached to the idea of not knowing, and in either case, the attachment to the idea is the problem, not the idea as such.

How does one become attached to such ideas? The answer is: ‘by trusting the mind,’ and by this I mean taking an idea for granted, in other words, not recognising it as an idea.

It is because of this bad faith that one ends up feeling certain about what is inherently subject to doubt. Some common examples of this include things like “The sun will rise in the east tomorrow”; “I was born in X town”; “All swans are white”; “There is no such thing as a unicorn.”

But – and this is a very important ‘but’ – ‘not trusting the mind’ does not mean arbitrarily questioning everything and anything, a kind of blanket denial of any certain or absolute statement. On the contrary, there are things that you can’t help knowing regardless of whether you want to or not, and doubting these, or at least overlooking their certainty, is bad faith just as surely as it is bad faith to be certain of what is doubtful.

Some examples of things that are ‘already known’ in this sense include: “I am currently sitting down [or insert whatever body posture you are in]”; “Black is not white”; “All circles are round”; “Pain is not pleasant.”3

These are examples of statements that simply describe what it means for things to be the way they are, as they are experienced. They are not explaining them, or giving any new information. In a sense, they don’t really say anything at all, which is one of the reasons they tend to get overlooked – they are so obvious that one doesn’t usually think them important or worth noticing. But this is also exactly why they are certain, and why they are important.

Note that the difference between certainty and uncertainty does not depend on what these statements say, but on how you take them, and what is your basis for making them. It’s possible to take anything at all as an idea and to rely on it as an idea, rather than as referring to one’s own experience and describing its nature. Someone who accepts, for example, ‘pain is not pleasant’ as a static idea or fact, is still ‘trusting the mind’ and is wrong for this reason, even though whenever they feel pain, it is indeed not pleasant. Because of this, if there happens to come along a very awe-inspiring Spiritual Leader with a lot of prestige, claiming to Know and See; and he makes a brilliant argument about how, in Ultimate Reality seen through Higher Consciousness, pain can actually be pleasant; then that person will be able to doubt their former belief that pain is never pleasant. (Even though whenever they feel pain, it is still not pleasant.)

The same applies even if you do actually discern the nature of pain through your own experience once or twice, to the point of being able to describe it accurately without needing to refer to an idea or view – but then afterwards go on to make it into a static notion or memory.

If anyone asks the question ‘Is pain ever pleasant?’ you then just refer to the memory or idea of what you previously saw, overlooking the experience as it is here and now. This is a very easy trap to fall into, because it is this kind of ‘dead fish,’ of an idea, easy to grasp, that one is used to dealing with. (In fact, it’s precisely because of feeling the need to grasp it in this way that one creates a dead fish, ignoring all the slippery live ones.)

So the statement ‘pain is not pleasant’ is certain in the sense I’m talking about only when it refers directly to the present experience. As such, it cannot be a fixed, theoretical ‘fact,’ and also cannot be doubted. But it is also, clearly, timeless. The certainty of it is completely universal: it is about what it means for pain to be pain. When I say ‘pain is not pleasant’ I don’t mean ‘this pain here is not pleasant’ (suggesting that it might not apply to other pains on different occasions) but ‘all pain is, by definition, not pleasant,’ (although that is still being discerned on the basis of this pain right here.)

The reason that all this is important is because the statement that ‘all arisen things are impermanent’ is of exactly the same kind as those described above, and is certain in exactly the same way. If someone is not able to see even these ordinary certainties, it will be impossible for them to see the certainty of impermanence.

I will have a couple more things to say about that, but before I do, I want to address a lurking objection that sometimes arises in regard to this subject: “But a puthujjana is certain that he has a self.”

The idea with this objection is that if a puthujjana is wrong in being certain that he has a self, then he might also be wrong about other things of which he is seemingly certain. And so, we might conclude, as a puthujjana, one is not permitted to be certain of anything.

There is more than one problem with this way of thinking, some of which might already be clear from what has already been said. But the main point I want to make about it can be made with the help of a simile, which goes like this:

There is a moth flying in circles around a flame. The reason for this, so the Latest Science informs us, is not that the moth is attracted to the flame as used to be assumed, but because the light confuses his perception of direction. When he attempts to fly in a straight line, and seems from his point of view to be flying in a straight line, he instead ends up flying in circles that bring him closer and closer to the source of light (which then, of course, confuses his sense of direction even further.)

Now, suppose this moth were to hear from somewhere that although he appears to be flying in a straight line, he is, in reality, flying in circles. How should he think, then, so as to overcome the confusion and perhaps free himself from danger? In particular, would it help him to dismiss the very real impression he has of flying in a straight line as an Unreal and Uncertain illusion, adding on top of it what is, from his point of view, the purely theoretical notion that ‘In Reality, I am Flying In Circles’?

It’s obvious that this theoretical notion makes no difference at all to the fact that the moth still perceives himself to be flying straight, and is still perilously close to the flame. But aside from this, it results in adding a further layer of self-deception to the illusion of the light, making the problem worse. Once the moth starts denying parts of his own experience in this way, he may now feel free to ignore other aspects of it – such as the heat he feels as he gets closer and closer to the flame.4

The only way for him to get out of his predicament would be to understand why the impression of flying in a straight line is not what it appears to be. But this can only be done on the basis of first admitting it for what it is.

For the same reason, one of the worst mistakes you can make as puthujjana is to deny the reality of things that you are certain of, including your own sense of self. You are guaranteed to be closer to ‘seeing things as they really are’ by honestly admitting, and describing as accurately as possible, your actual lived experience as you really see it, especially if this differs from the ideas and information you have of how you are supposed to be seeing it. (And this applies to everybody, puthujjana or not.)

For someone who is able to admit this, there are the following points that can become clear regarding the ‘certainty’ of one’s own self, which are relevant to understanding it for what it is (i.e. not what it appears to be):

First, it is obvious that one is not fabricating a false belief in self out of nowhere and holding to it out of sheer stubbornness. A puthujjana’s ‘certainty’ of his self is not just a kind of pig-headed refusal to change his mind (if only abandoning ignorance were that easy).

But at the same time, an authentic recognition of one’s own self is invariably bound up with at least a degree of anxiety and doubt, and comes with various questions that demand to be answered and yet are clearly unanswerable.5 The knowledge of one’s own self is inherently something uneasy, ambiguous, and even contradictory – yet still unmistakably there. In other words, it contains internal evidence of involving some sort of mistake, even if one can’t see what the mistake is. (‘Why do I feel more heat the more I fly away from the flame?’)

The bad faith of both kinds described earlier – being certain about what is uncertain, and not recognising the certainty of what is certain – is actually central to this mistake. A puthujjana is certain of something, which he believes, or takes for granted, to be his self. However, he is habitually trained in turning a blind eye to certainties, and holding beliefs as though they were certain. And so he cannot distinguish the ‘belief’ that identifies his self as a kind of superfluous and unnecessary taint of the phenomenon whose certainty (and impermanence) underlies it.

The crucial point, especially when it comes to undoing this, is that it’s not simply a matter of intellectually sorting out the difference between certain and uncertain statements. (This would not require a Buddha – a decent logician would be good enough.) The unwholesome ‘training’ I’m referring to is on the level of day-to-day attitudes, habits and actions; and it can be basically be boiled down to appeasing doubts with explanations, and justifying actions with some form of excuse.

Some examples of this are things like: ‘I’m angry because others are being cruel’; ‘It’s okay because others do it’ ‘I should do this because others expect it,’ ‘I don’t need to keep this rule because I’m not a monk;’; ‘I’m justified in saying this because there’s a tradition of it6; ‘It’s not a waste of time because it’s to do with the Dhamma’; ‘Others don’t see this, so I must be imagining it (or they must be lying)’; ‘It’s because of certain hormones in the brain’; ‘It’s because I’m ignorant’; ‘I mustn’t do it because it’s against the rule,’ ‘If the teacher says it, it must be right,’; ‘I must not do this because it is bad.’
And so on.

It will be clear that these types of acts of body, speech and mind come in varying degrees of subtlety and are extremely pervasive. What they all have in common is that they are ‘trusting the mind’. They take for granted an idea that is uncertain – “Others/things in the world are like X, Y or Z” – and prioritise it over and above what is absolutely certain, because it is the very basis for that same action: namely the intention behind it, and the feeling that it is rooted in, whether agreeable, disagreeable, or neither-agreeable-nor-disagreeable.

Anything that goes against the basic precepts follows this principle. And so it is not incidental that the most practical way to train in ‘self-effacement’ – in other words, to undo the bad faith involved in maintaining one’s sense of self – is described by MN 8 in the following terms:

‘Others will be cruel, but here we will not be cruel.’
‘Others will kill living beings, but here we will not kill living beings.’ ‘Others will steal, but here we will not steal.’
‘Others will be unchaste, but here we will not be unchaste.’
‘Others will lie, but here we will not lie.’
‘Others will be jealous, but here we will be without jealousy.’
‘Others will be stingy, but here we will be without stinginess.’
‘Others will be devious, but here we will not be devious.’

MN 8

The point of putting in this specific way – ‘Although others will do X, here we will not do X’ – is that, while unwholesome actions always involve some form of the kinds of denials and excuses I’ve been describing, even the undertaking of ‘wholesome’ actions needs to be developed with an attitude that does not depend on any idea relating to ‘others’ in order to justify or support it. (And here, ‘an idea relating to others’ ultimately means any idea at all, whether its content involves ‘the world’, or ‘my self’ or even ‘my mind.’)

Of course, one will inevitably begin by relying on such ideas. The point then, (which requires already being established in quite a degree of virtue and restraint,) is simply to start noticing whenever you are falling back on any idea to explain or justify what you believe and how you act; including in seemingly ‘good’ ways. You cannot get rid of these ideas, nor do you need to, but you can become aware of them as ideas, and this is already enough to avoid taking them for granted as a basis for actions and views.

The other side of this same coin is to start recognising or admitting the intention, or even more immediately, the pain or pleasure behind whatever you may be doing. This is possible precisely because it precedes any idea, explanation or excuse for it, and as such, is already known beyond doubt.

Practically speaking, this feeling will most accurately be found right where your ‘sense of self’ is. This point leads me finally back to what I mentioned earlier in regard to the certainty of the statement that ‘all arisen things are impermanent.’ Like the example of ‘pain is not pleasant’ which does not require examination of a large number of painful experiences, because it is about what it means for pain to be pain; the statement that ‘all arisen things are impermanent’ is a description of what it means for an arisen thing to be an arisen thing.

This means that in order to see the certainty of impermanence, all you need is one clear and undiluted example of an arisen thing. All the difficulty in seeing it is to do with obtaining just one such example.

The problem is that whatever is seen ‘ignorantly’ (i.e. through eyes of avijja) is not an arisen thing in its entirety, but ‘an object (appearing to me)’ or ‘me (looking at an object)’.7 In other words, no matter where and what you look at, ‘you’ are there in the background looking at it, and whatever impermanence you see in any object will be only a kind of relative impermanence against ‘you’, which by definition is a kind of unchanging reference point for everything else.

This is why learning to recognise that which is already certain or known, in the sense that’s relevant to this problem, comes down to the same thing as becoming aware of the ‘background’ of your experience, which is where your ‘self’ is. Or, more accurately, it is where certain less obvious aspects of whatever has arisen are always being pushed out of the picture and overlooked (through prioritising ideas, sense objects, explanations as described above), and that is how they are implicitly identified as one’s self. The point of the practice is to get to see whatever is ‘in the background’ as simply an inseparable aspect of the entirety of whatever has arisen.

It will be obvious from all that has gone before, but might be worth repeating nonetheless, that ‘the background’ is not a fixed or static thing. It just refers to the fact that, to take again the example of feeling, whatever is experienced is felt (as agreeable, disagreeable or neither), and the feeling is always ‘in the background’ in regard to the experience. Whenever you turn to ‘look’ directly at feeling, now what you are looking at is no longer feeling, but an idea of it; and that in turn involves feeling in regard to it.

So in order to know vedana for what it is, you have to know it through ‘feeling it’ in regard to things you are experiencing, without making an idea out of it. In other words, you have to learn how to let it be what it is on its own terms; by ‘enduring it,’ and not acting out of it, whether by leaning towards or away from whatever thing is being felt.

It’s through this ‘leaning’ and acting out, far more than any lack of active thinking about it, that what is already known gets ignored, pushed out of the picture, and identified as one’s self. And so, if you train towards not acting out of feeling to any extent at all, you will be making it possible to see its impermanence, and practising self-effacement, even if everything else I’ve attempted to say here goes in one ear and out the other.

  1. If we were not responsible for maintaining ignorance (albeit ‘ignorantly’, and not deliberately) virtue, effort and wisdom would not be able to extract us from it – we would need the Grace of God or some similar concept. ↩︎
  2. This shows that the Dhammapada verse that says ‘a fool who understands that he is a fool is wise to that extent’ (Dhp 63) is not as trivial as it might look at first glance. Understanding one’s own lack of understanding is not a simple matter of accepting or declaring that you don’t understand, not least because it is very uncomfortable to admit it honestly. Real recognition of doubt or uncertainty involves at least a degree of anxiety; the feeling that something is wrong, without knowing what, nor how to resolve it. ↩︎
  3. The  suttas are full of these types of statements. To gives just a couple of examples:

    ‘There are some ascetics and brahmins who perceive that it’s day when in fact it’s night, or perceive that it’s night when in fact it’s day. This way of being of theirs is muddled, I say. I perceive that it’s night when in fact it is night, and perceive that it’s day when in fact it is day.’ (MN 4)

    ‘On the occasion when a man feels pleasant feeling he does not feel painful feeling or neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling: on that occasion he feels only pleasant feeling.’ (DN 74)

    ‘Furthermore, when a bhikkhu is walking he understands: ‘I am walking.’ When standing he understands: ‘I am standing.’ When sitting he understands: ‘I am sitting.’ And when lying down he understands: ‘I am lying down.’ (MN 10.) Every description of the practice of satipaṭṭhānā or recollection is also an example of the same principle. ↩︎
  4. We might even suspect that turning a blind eye to the imminent sense of danger (which brings some measure of relief for someone who does not see the escape from it) is, at least in part, the real motivation for adopting this sort of view in the first place. ↩︎
  5. The questions of the puttujhana in MN 2 are the ideal illustrations of this: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? This creature—where did it come from? And where will it go?’ ↩︎
  6. ‘Tradition’, it’s good to note, means the particular tradition with which one feels associated, even if that happens to be a very tiny minority in relation to the general tradition of ‘Buddhism’. ↩︎
  7. “Q. When is a thing not a thing?
    A. When it is mine.” (Seeking the Path, 2010 p. 411) ↩︎