A thought is merely a thought, and a view is just a view—not ultimate reality. It’s easy to forget this. There can be the assumption that if we hold a view about something that it must be right, otherwise we wouldn’t hold it. That makes it particularly easy to declare people with a different opinion as wrong. It can be helpful to remind ourselves, ‘this opinion or view that I currently hold may be correct but maybe not.’ Otherwise we might sometimes confuse being strong and independent with being pushy and bossy. But there is no real strength in being attached to views. Strength is found in a broad mind and an open heart.
Independence means being free, and there is no freedom when we are a slave to our attachments. The more reflective among us may realize that our views modify with time, and in some cases change completely, as we mature and become better informed.
However, there is still a strong tendency to see our current view as the best, wisest and most enlightened—in short, the truth. You could say that views are a tool, and like a tool there is a skilful way to handle them.
For example, if you need to build a hut, but you are convinced that clinging onto hammers is un-Buddhist, you will very likely hurt yourself or somebody else as the tool slips out of your hand. A good grip is essential when using a hammer. But if you grasp it too tightly, it’s exhausting: your hand hurts and you lose flexibility.
To use a hammer effectively you have to be mindful and relaxed and pay close attention. You have to have focussed awareness, understand the overall purpose of the tool and know when to set the hammer down. You don’t carry it to the dinner table with you. And you don’t hit other people over the head with it—although it’s very effective for that as well. However, interpersonal violence is not what a hammer is designed for. Ultimately, you want to get to the point where the hut is completed, and in the process you have mastered the use of the hammer. It was one heck of a useful item to have when putting nails into wood, but the objective was completing the hut, not grasping the hammer. Once you move into the hut, the hammer is still around in case you need it. You don’t throw it out, but you don’t worship it. A healthy relationship to views is similar.
The Buddha encourages us to avoid the extremes of, on one hand, holding views which are by their very nature simply inaccurate; and on the other hand, clinging to even accurate views so tightly that it is a cause for suffering. In the middle there is a practical area of sincere searching for truth where we hold views to the degree that it helps us further refine our behaviour and deepen our wisdom.
As we gain first-hand experience, we gradually and naturally discard less realistic views for more realistic ones. All views, however, arise as a result of external and internal circumstances. Every thought, however individual or personal it may feel, is a result of certain causes and conditions coming together in a particular way.
Conditioning comes in myriad forms: our culture, parents, spiritual training, and everything we have read, heard and seen in the past. Closely observing the conditioned responses of the mind, it would be easy to conclude that even our thoughts are predetermined through a fixed cause and effect relationship. That is, even what seems to be an independent choice made by free will on our part, upon closer examination, is so strongly influenced by our conditioning that it can look like we had to make that decision. We had no choice.
The Buddha taught that we do have the freedom to choose which intentions we follow. However, it is fair to say that without mindfulness, clear assessment, inner strength and skilful reaction to what is happening in the present moment, our life becomes very robotic. Our buttons get pushed, and we react. Acknowledging the degree to which our thoughts are merely conditioned responses can help us reduce attachment to our views and be more accepting of those of others. A view is just a view—not my view.
Within this matrix of thoughts, opinions and views, arising from past influences and conditioning future perceptions, where is the justification for even claiming that these views belong to us? If even our thoughts arise from an impersonal process of cause and effect, who’s to say that our views are actually ours? Or more precisely, where or what is this perceived sense of individual self that identifies with thoughts and clings to views?
In actual fact, it appears it is the views that give rise to, shore up and reinforce our sense of self rather than our self holding views. Seen in this light, getting angry or violent because of views seems completely deluded and foolish. If our thoughts and views are not ‘ours’ in any real sense beyond the conventions of language and expression, then what is the point of arguing over them? Discussion and a calm exchange of ideas can foster greater understanding, but identifying with a view and clinging to it merely reinforces an already deluded ego.
Usually the bigger the ego, the stronger the views and the more upset that person becomes. It is no accident that tolerance of others and reduction of attachment to self both have their roots in insight. To transcend a rather ordinary drama of a life, it can be beneficial to undertake some form of contemplation; and yet if we can’t be serious about contemplation and still be able to listen respectfully to others, learn from other viewpoints and, very importantly, laugh—well, then I think we have seriously missed the point. There is a certain element of the cosmic joke when we look deeply into life, and if we lose sight of that, we lose touch with one of the most lovable aspects of our humanity: our humour.
When people of a particular religion or political party can no longer laugh at themselves, then it is time to look at how we are holding our views. Attachment to views generally arises from the longing for certainty in a world where the essence of life is, at its core, uncertain. It is natural that when the world does not conform to our desire for reliability, we experience stress. This encourages us to cling even more tightly to views with the hope of finding a stable refuge. It is precisely the fear, insecurity and frustration arising from this existential conflict that fuels the inflexibility of fundamentalism.
Buddhist teachings are particularly helpful for understanding and accepting the world’s unreliability. With the insight that all is unstable and uncertain, tension dissipates. Insight into the impersonal nature of conditioning allows conflict to dissolve. Seeing things as they actually are, particularly with the support of sustained and deep meditation, one’s views no longer become a cause of suffering. This leads to a wise peace, and when peace is felt within one human heart, we are that much closer to peace in the world.