Paul Fuller’s The Notion of Diṭṭhi in Theravāda Buddhism, as its title might suggest, is a dry, abstract, technical monograph. It may also be one of the more spiritually beneficial books I have ever read.
I suppose maybe both of these things are appropriate to the book’s subject matter, the Pali Canon. One of the Canon’s “three baskets”, the abhidhamma, is notorious for its level of technical abstraction – and yet Theravāda tradition has consistently held it to be of great spiritual benefit. Erik Braun has demonstrated how the modern Burmese traditions of vipassanā meditation, now enormously popular around the world, have their origins in study of the abhidhamma.
As for Fuller: his book is an exploration of the concept of diṭṭhi, literally “view” or “seeing” (equivalent to the Sanskrit dṛṣṭi). It is quite important to Buddhist tradition in general: sammādiṭṭhi, right view, is the first of the components of the Noble Eightfold Path. English translations usually render diṭṭhi as “view” rather than “seeing” because it also has a connotation of “belief” or “opinion”. So the Pali suttas depict the Buddha’s opponents – Jains, Ājīvikas, and so on – as having micchādiṭṭhi, wrong view. And so scholars of Buddhism often understand micchādiṭṭhi to mean holding opinions with incorrect content, which it does often mean.
But what was powerful to me about Fuller’s account is how it shows that that is not the only thing that micchādiṭṭhi can mean. It is wrong view when one holds a belief whose content is incorrect. But, Fuller notes, it is also wrong view when one holds a belief with correct content, in the wrong way. For, he claims, the concept of diṭṭhi “has less to do with truth and falsehood, than with craving and its cessation.” (7) Fuller points to the Khemaka Sutta, in which the monk Khemaka says:
With regard to these five clinging-aggregates, there is nothing I assume to be self or belonging to self, and yet I am not an arahant. With regard to these five clinging-aggregates, ‘I am’ has not been overcome, although I don’t assume that ‘I am this.’
Like David Burton, Khemaka is not liberated even though he assents to the proposition that there is no self. Going further, Buddhaghosa in the Aṭṭhasālinī says that there is a “conceit” (māna) “based in view”, which right view abandons.
The key implication of all this textual analysis: one can be attached to truth, to true ideas, and this attachment can itself be a form of wrong view. (It would be strange to describe this attachment as “wrong opinion”, which is a reason “opinion” is likely not a good translation of diṭṭhi.)
That is Fuller’s really helpful point. He may not have been the first to make it, but he did a lot to hit it home for me. It resonated in particular with the background of my own anger. I don’t think the content of my views was incorrect when I found George W. Bush to be disastrous or thought my friends on the left were being excessive. But the content was not the most important thing! I held those views with such anger, such bile, as to make them wrong in the most important sense: they did not help me see the situation clearly. My own progress, on what I took to be the best philosophical path, was being held back by true statements.
The number of true statements that one could speak, or think, is infinite. Whatever true statements we in fact think or speak are necessarily a subset of this number. And it is quite possible to focus excessively on those true statements that most outrage us, in a way that keeps our thoughts in a loop that distracts us from other truths.
The point is not far from Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s claim that “Is his philosophy true?” would once have meant not “Does he hold a correct set of philosophical beliefs?” but “Is his love of wisdom genuine?” A true philosophy is like a right view: something less to do with the truth or falsehood of statements and more to do with ennobling and liberating insight.
I do think Fuller goes too far in his positions. He tries to claim that sammādiṭṭhi is not a diṭṭhi, that right view is not a view. I think if one is going to try to assert such an obvious paradox, it would help if one has some textual evidence that actually claims it, and I don’t think Fuller has much. (Maria Heim and Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad tried to assert a similar claim, in a way resting on a presumed distinction between diṭṭhi and dassana, for which I do not think they found evidence.) Fuller wants to claim that classical Theravādins do not have a correspondence view of truth, and I think this is also going too far: they regularly insist on the idea of yathābhūtadassana, seeing according to what exists. (Not “according to what has arisen”.) But, it is crucial that, as in Augustine, this correspondence is not primarily a matter of statements, propositions. Rather, it is the act of seeing that must correspond to reality – and one does not see according to reality if one’s view is clouded by attachment and anger, even if one is assenting to true statements.