The Noble Eightfold Path: Right View

Reading time: 5 minutes

When you move to a new city, it helps to buy a map. It wouldn’t make much sense to ramble around the city, scratching out notes as we go. Many people have traveled those roads before and documented every turn and landmark.

This principle holds true for anything new skill. We rely on the expertise of those who have “traveled those roads” before us. When we set out on this journey of learning, we have to trust in the accuracy of the map or the expertise of the teacher. The more we practice with this new skill, the more embedded it becomes in our minds. The more embedded it becomes in our minds, the easier it is to practice it. Soon, we start to breeze through the tricky twists and turns. We understand some of the ideas that at the beginning might not have been very clear.

Returning to the fundamentals after long periods of practice can highlight the significance of those fundamentals. We often realize how much depth lies within even the most basic of teachings.

The practice of Right View falls in this category of “fundamental teachings” that seem simple at first but that hide deep complexity. “Right view” from a Buddhist perspective involves recognizing the consequences of our thoughts and actions — that some lead to suffering, while others lead towards well-being.

This part of the Eightfold Path is first on the list, but here we are returning to it at the end of this series. Why not start there in the first place?

The fruit of wisdom

As mentioned in the post on the Fourth Noble Truth, the Eightfold Path is not intended to be followed in a sequential fashion. Rather, it is an interconnected series of practices that we return to again and again on the journey to liberate our minds from suffering. As we progress on this journey, we will likely start to see the wisdom behind these basic teachings. The more time and effort we put towards the practice, the more often we will recognize suffering and its causes in our lives.

With this idea in mind, we can look again at the three main groups of the Eightfold Path: wisdom, morality, and mental discipline. The practices of Right View and Right Thought contribute to the cultivation of wisdom.

So while Right View is typically first on the list, often a true understanding of the path only comes from working with the other practices in the path. Acquiring wisdom tends to require profound experience.

The more we apply the technique we’ve seen throughout the Eightfold Path — asking ourselves, “will this lead to more suffering or less?” — the better we can distinguish wholesome from unwholesome thoughts. We can see the seeds of suffering or wellbeing in our minds before our bodies plant those seeds through actions.

Much of the time, though, we might not catch ourselves before unwholesome thoughts become harmful actions. We only gain wisdom through direct (and sometimes repeated) experience of making mistakes, overcoming difficult situations, having painful lessons — or perhaps for the best among us, learning from watching others do so.

The practice of Right View encourages us to remember this simple idea. Fruition of this wisdom practice follows dedicated effort at working with all the other practices of the Eightfold Path.

Can there really be a “right view”?

But wait, isn’t the idea of a “right view” a bit elitist? Are we saying here that Buddhists have got it all figured out, and that other views are invalid?

Despite the gravity of the term, Right View isn’t as rigid as it might sound. In general, many of the Buddha’s teachings are presented as an invitation to experiment with an idea to see if we can verify the truth for ourselves. Buddhist teachings encourage us to get in touch with reality, to explore what is happening in our minds and in our interactions with the world.

Thus far in the Eightfold Path, none of the teachings requires a shift in belief, but rather a willingness to shift our behavior. To ask ourselves a series of experiential questions: Does this help or harm? Does this lead to suffering or well-being? As we ask these questions throughout our many activities in life, we can start to see for ourselves whether the “map” offered by the Buddha is accurate.

Right View and the SDGs

In what ways can the practice of Right View support achievement of the SDGs? In previous posts, we looked at the relationship between the SDGs and the Four Noble Truths (First, Second, Third, and Fourth). Exploring the effects of these truths in sustainable development work is one potential application of Right View. We can regularly pause and reflect on the presence of suffering, its causes, and the actions that might alleviate that suffering. And to take that a step further, we can ask “how do we know this is true?” Just as the Buddha promotes a kind of self-experimentation, we could engage in systematic processes of uncovering causes of problems and potential solutions.

Here are some questions to ask based on the framework provided by the Four Noble Truths:

  • First truth: What is/are the most critical issues at the heart of a sustainable development program? Where we see that suffering or dissatisfaction pervades human experience, are there similar fundamental issues or threats at the root of “unsustainable” development (aka business-as-usual)?
  • Second truth: What are the root causes — or drivers — of these problems? How far back can we trace the drivers? Are there “root drivers” — those factors farthest back in the chain of cause and effect leading to producing the problem?
  • Third truth: Is it possible to eradicate the threats or drivers of threats? What evidence exists that this is possible? Do these examples of successful eradication of threats come from a similar context? What is similar? What is different?
  • Fourth truth: What actions can be taken to successfully eliminate these threats or problems? Are there general principles that can be applied across many kinds of problems? What practices have proved successful for specific problems in other contexts? What kinds of tests can we create to verify our theory of change and refine as needed?
  • At each part of this process: What do we know is true? What evidence do we have?

This approach of systematic analysis of root causes and potential solutions lies at the heart of approaches like the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation, Ray Dalio’s five-step process, and other theory-of-change-driven frameworks. With the right view of a problem, we’re far better positioned to find the right solutions. Much like learning a new skill or exploring a new city, we might get lost from time to time doing this work. But the more we do it, the better our capacity to understand the challenges in front of us.

In the next and final post in this series on the Eightfold Path, we’ll take a look at Right Thought — the foundation of everything we do in this world.

Photo credit: edwin josé vega ramos from Pexels