Right Understanding is the first practice of the Eightfold Path, and is also known as Right View. It provides context and perspective for the whole path, and is the foundation for all the other practices because it’s about perception. Right Understanding is about seeing yourself and the world as they really are. Sounds simple, right?
Most of us like to think we have a pretty good grip on reality. When you take it at face value, reality appears to be mostly solid and relatively unchanging with lots of annoying obstacles for you to bump into. You also tend to assume you’re separate from the world because that’s how it appears. But the way you see the world is based on a misperception and your brain is fooling you.
You may understand, on an intellectual level, that nothing is really solid, the planet isn’t really stationary, and that you’re hurtling through space at a ridiculous speed. You may even be able to grasp that you’re a vortex of energy flashing in and out of existence so fast you can barely comprehend it.
You might, in a reasonable mood, concede that you’re not as in control as you like to believe. You can flip a switch and the light comes on, turn a tap and water gushes out. But these actions are at the end of a long, long chain of interconnected events, and a break in that network at any point means the light doesn’t work and you go thirsty.
But your biggest misperception centres on your own self. You might think: “I’m the same person I was when I got up this morning – I can remember cleaning my teeth so that must’ve been me, right?” But the self who cleaned its teeth is long gone, burnt up in the furnace of impermanence and entropy.
You’re not even the same person breathing out as the person who breathed in.
Your normal view of reality is obscured by all the ideas you have about yourself and the world. You’re always conceptualising and telling stories about what you think is going on. You don’t see reality as it is because it’s hidden behind an invisible layer of concepts. You think reality should conform to your ideas about it, and that the world should give you what you want and make you happy.
Reality has other ideas.
This is a problem because the way you think about reality influences everything else that you do. And your perceptions are coloured by the conditioning buried in your subconscious, which means you rarely see things as they are, but as you are.
You see what you expect to see.
If you believe you’re separate from the world it will have a serious impact on your life. Whenever you split reality into a subject and an object, you feed the roots of your own suffering.
“To perceive means to perceive something. Perception means the coming into existence of the perceiver and the perceived. The flower that we are looking at is part of our consciousness. The idea that our consciousness is outside of the flower has to be removed. It is impossible to have a subject without an object. It is impossible to remove one and retain the other.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching
Right Understanding asks you to look into the nature of reality and the self, and find out what’s really going on. You need to come to terms with reality as it is, not as you believe it to be or imagine it should be. This means getting to grips with the Three Marks of Existence and the Four Noble Truths. Doing this will enable you to see yourself and the world as they really are.
The Nature of Existence
In Buddhism, the facts of life are stated in the Three Marks of Existence, sometimes also known as Dharma Seals. These are:
- Impermanence – anicca
- Non-Self – anatta
- Suffering – dukkha
All beings share these characteristics and without them nothing could exist. The true nature of reality is impermanence. Everything that is born, will die. Nothing stays the same and everything changes. Because of this, nothing inherently exists. In other words, there’s no self in anything because everything is interdependent and nothing can exist without everything else also existing. These facts lead to suffering as stated in the Four Noble Truths.
You don’t like the ephemeral nature of your own being; it makes you feel insecure because you can’t stop the people and things you love from changing or dying. You try to control reality by imposing your ideas and concepts on it, by telling yourself stories and then hoping reality will agree with you. But in the end this attempt to defy reality always fails and so you suffer.
Even when life is going well, there’s often a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. You hide behind your ideas about reality, but it doesn’t stop the gnawing sense of things not being quite right. You might even blame yourself and think there’s something wrong with you for feeling this way. But it’s just your mind getting confused because you’re living inside the echo chamber of your own thoughts rather than living in the real world.
You can’t live inside an idea. You have to get intimate with reality in order to see it clearly, and that means dropping all the conceptual barriers and assumptions and fears that you’ve placed in the way of your perception. At the start of your practice you won’t see reality as it is because you haven’t yet seen through the illusion. But by following the other practices in the Eightfold Path you can burn through all your delusions, misunderstandings and confusions, until the illusion is thin enough for you to see right through.
“Right View is the absence of all views.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Next time: Right Thought