|Without falling into mistaken views,
Endowed with insight and integrity,
Guiding away greed for sensual things,
One would not be born again in a womb.
|diṭṭhiñ ca anupagamma
sīlavā dassanena sampanno
kāmesu vineyya gedhaṃ,
na hi jātu gabbhaseyyam punar etī ti
Without falling into mistaken views
Are not all views mistaken views? This certainly seems to be the perspective of the earliest discourses (e.g. the Rhinoceros Horn Sutta and the Atthakavagga of the Sutta Nipāta), which seem to suggest that the whole tendency we have of mediating experience through various perceptions, beliefs, assumptions and concepts is fundamentally flawed. The word used in the text is simply “views;” the word “mistaken” is added by the translator. The “right view” of the eight-fold path has more to do with removing distorting views than with building up a better set of views. It is not that impermanence is a better view than permanence, for example, or that non-self is a better view than self. Rather it is the case that constructing the view of permanence and self are mistaken processes, and dismantling those obscuring views allows us to see things as they actually are.
Notice, either when you sit in meditation or as you move throughout your day, the relentlessness with which the mind constructs views. It’s Tuesday? That’s a view. You really should be doing this or that? That’s a view too. Your attention keeps slipping off the breath, and you are thus not meditating very well right now? Yup, that’s a view. So too is: My attention is steady on the breath; I’m doing it! The closer you look, the more ubiquitous view-making is revealed to be. The mind cannot help constructing symbols, thinking in metaphors, commentating verbally upon all that is happening, authoring and critiquing a running narrative of everything.
The Mettā Sutta is not telling us here that these things are evil and we should make sure they never happen. It is warning us not to “fall into” these views—that is, not to believe everything the mind conjures up for us, but to recognize its habitual function of creating limited versions of reality. When grasping after views, one of the four primary forms of grasping, we are caught by them. When, on the other hand, we view them with insight, then we view them with equanimity as an object of interest. The internal constructions of the mind can be viewed with as much non-attachment as the external play of sensory input.
Notice the effect when, having noticed yourself constructing a view, you drop down into the experience of loving kindness. It serves to dispel the solidity of the view. It is not that it vanishes, but rather it becomes diaphanous. One can then view things through the shimmering veil of views without painting them with the primary colors of permanence, satisfactoriness, and self.
Endowed with insight and integrity
There is an inherent interrelationship between loving kindness (mettā) and insight (vipassanā; here: dassana), and both are dependent upon the development of integrity. They are not the same thing, nor do they regularly co-arise; but they do support and inform one another in many ways. There is also a fundamentally symbiotic relationship between integrity (sīla) and wisdom (paññā), the first and last constituents of the three-fold Buddhist path to awakening (sīla-samādhi-paññā = integrity-meditation-wisdom). As one text puts it: Just as one hand washes the other, so wisdom is purified by integrity, and integrity is purified by wisdom: where one is, the other is. The moral man has wisdom and the wise man has morality, and the combination of the two is called the highest thing in the world. (Digha 4)
When we understand the nature of something, for example something unwholesome or unhealthy, it is natural that our behavior toward it changes and integrity is relatively easy to embody. And correspondingly, when we act with restraint in our relationship to things that can cause harm, such as acquisitions, sexuality or intoxicants, their ability to cloud our vision is diminished and it becomes easier to see their nature clearly. Just as ignorance leads to craving and craving results in ignorance, the interdependence of their opposites is also the case: wisdom leads to non-attachment and non-attachment results in wisdom.
This is something that can be seen and appreciated in practice. Next time you find yourself craving something, notice the mistaken view that will inevitably be bound up with that. Then see if you can bring the deconstructing influence of insight to an examination of that view in light of the three characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. Does the object or experience you were craving present itself in a different light? If not, repeat. Insight can help us “fall out of” mistaken views, which will greatly facilitate the ability to become endowed with integrity.
Guiding away greed for sensual things
As with views, above, the same dynamic works with desire for sensual things. It is not that one stops having greed for gratification, but with insight one learns to de-substantialize the desire and see through it to the object on the other side. Until the moment of final awakening, as occurred to the Buddha under the Bodhi tree, greed will rear its head regularly as one lives in the world. Notice that the Mettā Sutta is not calling on us to eradicate the greed but to “guide it away,” which is a much gentler and more subtle approach. If any of the afflictive emotions is cast in the role of the enemy, aversion is sure to follow, which will only make the situation worse. And yet embracing the afflictive emotion as a friend will just strengthen the tendency toward greed. The middle way is to notice the desire that has arisen, see with insight that it is an unhealthy afflictive emotion, and gently but firmly lead it away from the levers of power that influence behavior.
The guiding away of greed for sensual things will be at once an expression of one’s insight and a factor strengthening that insight. It will be both a demonstration of one’s integrity, and an important moment for training in integrity. And it will make room for a moment of loving kindness. For while it might appear that greed and loving kindness are poles on the same continuum of caring for something, they are actually from entirely different pedigrees in the mind. Greed is rooted in the toxic poisons of our primitive instincts, while loving kindness is rooted in the benevolent aspect of human nature. Since each mind moment can have only one emotional tone, leading the greed away makes room for the loving kindness to manifest.
Try this out for yourself when investigating experience closely and practicing mindfulness. See if you can feel the game of musical chairs that takes place in each moment’s experience, when either a wholesome or an unwholesome state manages to find a seat in the mind.
One would not be born again in a womb
This is a short-hand way of referring to the liberation of the mind from suffering. I think we generally prefer to think of it in its psychological sense of experiencing great happiness and freedom of mind, rather than in this metaphysical aspect of cessation of rebirth. But in the Buddha’s day people felt a true oppression about the idea of rebirth, more correctly perhaps understood as re-death, and the prospect of experiencing great physical pain in illness and death and great emotional pain from the recurrent separation from loved-ones, was truly oppressive. There may yet be room to view rebirth literally in the modern physics, but many people also take it symbolically and relate it, for example, to being free from descending again and again into repetitive distressing thought cycles or behavioral patterns that cause on-going suffering.
So this might be one way to think of working with this phrase in practice. Notice how moments of insight can help prevent you from falling into familiar old patterns of interpretation and action. And notice in general how the cultivation of loving kindness can have the effect of loosening up some of the patterns into which the mind can easily become stuck.
Warning: I was once asked on very short notice to read a passage at a friend’s wedding, and naturally reached for the Mettā Sutta. Everything was going along fine until I hit this very last line, which, on an audience entirely unfamiliar with Buddhism, it fell flat like a ton of bricks. Such a blessing is best understood in a particular context, and it is one not widely understood in our popular culture. So by all means read the Mettā Sutta at a friend’s wedding; but you might want to leave off the very last phrase.