This is Part 2 of a two-part interview on Vedanā with Bhikkhu Anālayo.
IJ: How does the craving that arises in dependence on vedanā lead to the view-forming process? And how can that process be worked with or transcended?
BhA: Psychologists call it the Myside Bias, which means that I always assume that my views are correct and others’ are wrong. Any information that comes in I manipulate in such a way that it confirms that my views are right and the views of others are wrong. The underlying cause for this is the hedonic investment I have in my own views – the pleasant feeling they give me – the pleasure of feeling that I got it right, and it’s the others who got it wrong. There is something psychologists call Cognitive Dissonance, which we all try very hard to avoid. This means that if I say something is so and you agree, I experience pleasant feelings. If you disagree, unpleasant feelings. If you bring up evidence against what I have said, very unpleasant, very painful feelings.
When we really work with feelings, we learn to hold views without clinging to them. And that is a huge issue. There is a part in the Suttanipāta – the Atthakavagga – which is very famous for a lot of beautiful, poetic expressions of not holding on to any views. Some scholars think that this is different from the rest of the teachings, but other scholars have pointed out that this is not the case, and I agree with the latter. The Atthakavagga highlights in a very powerful and poetic fashion what we also find in the discourses in the four Nikāyas, namely the need to be detached with respect to one’s own views. Which does not mean having just no view. The point at stake is not to rest in silence with whatever happens and pretend to be a transcendental vegetable. The point at issue is to be able to express one’s opinion and view without holding on to it, to be able to allow space for the views of others, and even more so to allow for the possibility that MY view might not be correct.
So what the Atthakavagga and other such passages show is that you can have your opinions and views without investing your identity and happiness into them. If you don’t “invest” in your views, you don’t have to hold on to them so tightly. You can be more objective about them – less dogmatic – less influenced by this Myside Bias. Then it might be actually possible for you to emotionally handle the fact that your opinion might not be correct. You can allow for that possibility. That is such a huge difference. And this is so important. And it’s something that I find is not often enough emphasized.
It’s a real feedback on our mindfulness practice also. We can tell if somebody’s mindfulness practice is working correctly when we see that he or she is getting less attached to views. This doesn’t mean not having any opinions or being utterly indecisive or unsure. It means that you can very clearly formulate your ideas and views, but you don’t hold on to them tightly. The open awareness that you have is then able to understand the other side. Somebody who is diametrically opposed to your views – you understand why he or she is saying that. You may even be able to appreciate the logic and coherence of their thinking. So beautiful. So powerful. And this is all because the hedonic investment in your views and opinions is something that you are consciously monitoring through awareness.
For my own practice, this has been very important to understand, because when I started to get into meditation I was quite puzzled by how some monks and meditation teachers could be so dogmatic about their views and opinions about the Dhamma. This is something I found difficult to understand. But if you look at it closely, you can see a relation between being dogmatic and fundamentalist and the type of practice one is doing. You can see how the conception of mindfulness some are working with does not allow for a wide-open receptive awareness, but instead nurtures a mindful awareness that is narrow and sticks to things.
In the worst cases, some don’t understand that mindfulness is present moment awareness, but conceptualize it as a form of memorizing or remembering. When you lose the aspect of open awareness and receptivity in the present moment, you can really start to live in a tunnel, where there’s only one thing that’s true, and I am the only one who knows it, and everyone else is wrong, and I’m going to tell them. Very sad.
In Buddhist thought we have this beautiful tetralemma. In Western philosophy, everything is black and white – either something is true or else it is false. But according to the tetralema, something can be true, can also be false, can be neither true nor false, or can be both. And that opens up an alternative to this kind of fundamentalist black and white worldview. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe you’re both. Maybe you’re neither.” If I can hold these different possibilities with an open receptivity of awareness that knows the hedonic part of experience – is aware of how this hedonic part of experience can push me – then all this dogmatism, fundamentalism, aggressiveness really goes down – really becomes less and less.
IJ: This is such great stuff, Bhante. It’s not so uncommon for meditators to say things like, “Oh, that’s a view. That’s an opinion. I shouldn’t have those. I shouldn’t cling.” Things can maybe shift when we understand that there really is a payoff – we’re getting that pleasant feeling. Then maybe we can also understand, “Okay. There’s a reason why I’m doing this. There’s a reason why I’m clinging.” Then it’s no longer a matter of being crazy or delusional or simply bad. Once we see what we’re getting out of something, we can decide whether or not it’s really worth what we’re giving up to get it.
BhA: Yes. That’s exactly the point. And it’s a gradual path. It’s not that suddenly you have no more attachment to views. The point is just to be aware of it. That’s all. Every moment I’m aware of the hedonic part in my clinging is a moment where I’m learning to live with cognitive dissonance – learning to live with not being the way I would like to be. And this is precisely what I want. I want to be able to be with myself when I’m not the way I want to be. Because that is the reality of the present moment. And from there, step by step, step by step, the gradual improvement happens.
IJ: So beautiful, Bhante. It’s easy to miss that part and think, “I’m not allowed to have strong views anymore. I shouldn’t form strong opinions.” But looked at in this way, you can have strong views and opinions. It’s just a matter of not clinging to them.
BhA: The Buddha had very strong views. When a monk would misrepresent his teaching, he’d call him and say, “You are a fool. What did you say? Did I ever teach that?” Scolding him in front of everybody. And the monk sits there, shoulders drooping, head down, sad, unable to talk. The Buddha really lets him know it, but there’s no aversion there, no clinging. Now, we’re not in the position of the Buddha, and we don’t have to be so strong. But it’s not a matter of becoming blurry and not knowing what is right and wrong – that is not the point. The point is simply allowing the basic capacity of mindfulness to see the whole situation.
Let’s say, for instance, I am for this candidate and against this other candidate. There’s one way of seeing that – this one is the right candidate – he or she should be president, and everyone else is wrong. The other possibility is simply to hold both options. “I prefer that this one wins the election, but I can also see that there are certain advantages and certain reasons why people will vote for this other person. And if this other person wins, I will also be able to live with that.”
We’re trying to be very inclusive – receptive and open. To allow for others to be different. To allow for racial differences, gender differences, differences in interest – allow people to be the way they are. That doesn’t mean that I have to be like them, but it does mean that there can be space for others to be the way they are. That’s the way out of discrimination, out of fundamentalism, out of dogmatism, and out of so many other evils. Very spacious and allowing, but at the same time also very clear and discerning. The two come together in that quality of being aware.
IJ: It also allows space for peaceful and productive conflict, rather than just saying, “Okay. That’s his view. I have my view. Whatever.” But instead to feel like we can disagree – and even disagree strongly – and I can express my disagreement, and you can express your disagreement, and we can have a conversation about it. And in the end we might still disagree, and that can be okay.
BhA: Yes. In fact there is a beautiful saying by my teacher Godwin Samararatne from Sri Lanka. Sometimes when I would express a strong view, he would say, “Bhante, let us agree to disagree.” I love this statement. It means that he accepts that I have this position, and he lets me keep it, and he also expresses his willingness for us to live together in harmony (“let us agree”). But this does not require that he relinquishes his viewpoint – we can still “disagree.” He still has his opinion that is different from mine. The two stand side by side in the same mental space and . . . they can smile at each other.
Out of this the possibility arises that we both better understand why the other has their opinion. That is the point. When I strongly hold on to my view, I can’t allow my mind to understand what you are saying because that threatens what I believe. However, instead of closing down I can choose to get interested. “Wow. He has such a different opinion from me. How did he get into that? That’s very interesting. Let me understand.”
I can allow myself to step out of my position, put myself into your position, and look at the situation from your viewpoint. So fascinating. And that doesn’t mean that afterwards I can’t go back to my viewpoint – that I have somehow lost it for good just because for a moment I let go of it to explore the other position. I can still have my opinion, but I will also have a greater understanding of the whole situation. I now understand the situation from the opposite viewpoint. If I’m just holding on to my viewpoint, I’ll get a sort of tunnel view, like I’m wearing those blinders they put on horses, and everything that is different from my view has to be out – cut off. Not allowed.
IJ: Bhante, what you’re talking about is a sort contemplation of views that people could practice in their daily lives and really see what it feels like to be in conversation with somebody that they disagree with, and see what it feels like to express and receive opinions without being attached.
BhA: Exactly. And this is all based on feeling. It’s all based on this awareness of the hedonic side. Maybe we don’t catch it at the moment it happens in discussion, but we can see it afterwards. “Yes. At that point I got really excited. And I had all these strong feelings, and then I went really overboard with the way I was discussing it.” Just acknowledging it. Not saying, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done it.” No. Just being aware that this is how it happened. And next time closer to it, closer to it, and eventually we’ll notice it right at the time it happens. And maybe at that time we can just let it go.