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Samma Ditthi: Right View

Bhikkhu Seelawimala

The Middle Way Journal, U.K., volume 76:1, p. 37, May 2001

The topic of this talk is samma ditthi. This is a very important subject in Buddhism. From the beginning to the end of the Buddha's teaching we find samma ditthi everywhere. I shall try to explain what is samma ditthi, its many meanings, the different areas it covers and finally its significance.

Samma Ditthi and the Four Noble Truths

The simple meaning of samma ditthi is right view. The Noble Eightfold Path starts with samma ditthi. You may know that the other factors are right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. This is the path leading to the cessation of suffering and the attainment of Nibbana. In the Noble Eightfold Path samma ditthi is defined as knowledge of the Four Noble Truths (catusu ariya saccesu nanam). The complete definition is the knowledge of suffering (dukkhe nanam), the cause of suffering (dukkha samudaye nanam), the cessation of suffering (dukkha nirodhe nanam) and knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of suffering (dukkha nirodha gamini patipadaya nanam). So samma ditthi focuses directly on the core of the Buddha's philosophy.

Samma ditthi means knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, but what is the importance of the other seven factors? The answer is to be found in the Mahacattarisaka Sutta, or the Discourse of the Great Forty, in the Middle Length Sayings. There the Noble Eightfold Path is said to have two aspects. The first one is mundane or worldly (lokiya) knowledge. This is called right understanding in accordance with the truths (saccanulomika samma ditthi). This knowledge is clouded by defilements. The second one is complete understanding. Having gained worldly knowledge, one should start the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha pointed out in his first sermon how to approach the Four Noble Truths. The first truth, suffering, should be understood (parinneyya); the second truth, the cause of suffering, should be abandoned (pahatabba); the third truth, the cessation of suffering, should be realized (saccikatabba); and the fourth truth, the path leading to the cessation of suffering, should be practised (bhavetabba). The resulting wisdom is transcendental or supramundane (lokkuttara). It is called right understanding or penetrative knowledge of the truths (sacca pativedita samma ditthi). This second kind of knowledge is free from defilements as well as complete. Its fruit is the enlightened mind, through which one realizes perfect samma ditthi.

Samma Ditthi and the Noble Eightfold Path

Now we can see how samma ditthi works along with the Noble Eightfold Path. The Mahacattarisaka Sutta says it is very important to understand how samma ditthi works. Right view is not to be taken in isolation. It is always connected with two other factors. It works together with right effort and right mindfulness. Without right effort, right view becomes no more than a glimpse. There will be no practice and no achievements. Right mindfulness works with mind in many ways; keeping the mind in the present moment, it supervises the mind by anchoring it on the right thing. Now right view (samma ditthi) works with right effort (samma vayama) and right mindfulness (samma sati). Right view is like an architect, right effort like an engineer, right mindfulness like the supervisor. Moreover, right view goes with every factor in the Noble Eightfold Path. Each factor combines with right view. Without right view one cannot understand what is right thought, right speech, right action etc. Again, without effort there can be no practice; and without mindfulness there can be no supervision. That means the three factors work together in practice. In the Mahacattarisaka Sutta the Buddha teaches: 'Right view, monks (bhikkhus), is the forerunner, and how is right view the forerunner? If one understands wrong view as wrong view and understands right view as right view. This is right view.' So our way along the whole journey to enlightenment is directed by right view. All eight factors are interrelated and interconnected through right view. 'Right view gives scope for right aim, right aim for right speech, right speech for right action, right action for right living, right living for right effort, right effort for right mindfulness, right mindfulness gives scope for right concentration'.

The Salayatanika Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya) explains that he who practises the Noble Eightfold Path develops the 37 requisites of enlightenment as well. So samma ditthi is the thread which links all the factors together.

Samma Ditthi and Kamma

Now let us see another side of right view. There were 10 kinds of wrong view (miccha ditthi) during the Buddha's time, according to the Sevitasevitabba Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya. These 10 views denied Kamma and its results (nathi sukata dukkhetanam kammanam palam vipako). This means they denied that wholesome or unwholesome actions (Kamma) produce good or bad results. Generally we know that the Buddha said Kamma means volitional activities. These are classified in three groups: bodily, verbal and mental actions. There are three unwholesome roots (mula) and three wholesome roots for Kamma. 'Greed, O monks, is a condition for the arising of (unwholesome) kamma, hatred is a condition for the arising of (unwholesome) kamma, delusion is a condition for the arising of (unwholesome) kamma.' They are called lobha, dosa and moha respectively. In the same manner the very opposite roots produce wholesome Kamma. Right view is the guide and purifier of kammic action. Sariputta, one of the Buddha's chief disciples, pointed out that it is by right view that wholesome states are perfected and developed and that it is by right view that wrong view and its unwholesome states are worn away. This is how Kamma affects us. It is explained in the Samyutta Nikaya: 'According to the seed that is sown so is the fruit ye reap therefrom. The doer of good will father good. The doer of evil will father evil. The understanding of Kamma and its results is a special knowledge (kammassakata nana). It is a part of right view, understanding action and effect (kammassakata samma ditthi) properly. As the Buddha said: 'Just as of the rising of the sun, O monks, the red morning sky is the forerunner and first indication, just so, O monks, is right understanding the forerunner and first indication of karmically wholesome things.'

In the Discourse on Right Understanding (Sammaditthii Sutta) in the Middle Length Sayings, right view covers a vast area of the Buddha's teaching. According to that discourse, right understanding means four things: first, knowing what are wholesome actions (kusala) and what are unwholesome actions (akusala); second, knowledge of the nutriments (ahara); third, knowledge of the Four Noble Truths; and fourth, knowledge of Dependent Origination (Paticcasamuppada).

Samma Ditthi and Dependent Origination

Let us see the connection between right view and nutriments (ahara). In the Book of Protection (Paritta), the first of the 10 questions to be answered by the novice is: what is most essential for existence? The answer is: all beings subsist on food (sabbe satta aharattitika). In the Sammaditthi Sutta the Buddha says: 'When, friends, a noble disciple understands nutriment, the origin of nutriment, the cessation of nutriment and the way leading to the cessation of nutriment, in that way he is one of right view .... and has arrived at this true Dhamma.' These fourfold nutrients are:

1- Material food, gross or subtle (kabalinkahara).
2- Contact (phassahara). The sense organs (including mind) make contact with the external world and get excited, which causes feelings to arise.
3- Relinking consciousness (vinnanahara). As Venerable Nyanaponika has pointed out, 'Though it occurs for only a single moment, it feeds the present existence from birth to death.'
4- Mental volition (manosancetanahara) the will to live, to exist, to become more and more.

We can develop knowledge about conditions for the continuation of this very life. So what about the continuation after death? One dimension of right view is understanding the cycle of rebirth (Samsara). In order to explain the cycle of rebirth, the Buddha explained Dependent Origination. According to this, everything is interrelated and interdependent. The present life is conditioned by past ignorance and kammic activities (avijja, sankharas). The future, which means the next life, will be produced by the present conditions, especially ignorance and craving, and until we eradicate these two conditions the continuity of recycling rolls on and on. In the doctrine of Dependent Origination, ignorance is taken as the first factor. What is ignorance?

Ignorance (avijja) is like a cloud of delusion (moha) veiling reality that prevents us from seeing the true nature of things. Owing to this 'cloud' we see things that are impermanent as permanent and suffer when they do not last. This ignorance is the cause of all our suffering. Because of not understanding, our volitional mental activities (sankharas) produce Kamma. In the Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Origination it says:

Conditioned by ignorance, activities come to pass; conditioned by activities, consciousness arises. Thus conditioned arises name and form . . . Even such is the uprising of this entire mass of suffering. But from the utter fading away and cessation of ignorance [arises] ceasing of activities, and thus comes cessation of this entire mass of suffering.

These sankharas create suffering or worldly happiness. These sankharas are the fuel we have to burn until the end, but they prolong the journey in Samsara. Ignorance is explained in several ways. In Dependent Origination, ignorance is defined as 'non-understanding of suffering, non-understanding of the cause of suffering, non-understanding of the cessation of suffering and non-understanding of the path leading to the cessation of suffering'. This is precisely the opposite of samma ditthi. We can get rid of ignorance by developing right view, which means understanding the Four Noble Truths.

Now we understand that in the Noble Eightfold Path samma ditthi leads to the attainment of Nibbana. In the doctrine of Dependent Origination it works to bring about the end of Samsaric existence. In the Noble Eightfold Path it works to eradicate the immediate cause of suffering, which is craving. In Dependent Origination, it works to overcome ignorance. In both cases what happens is realization of the Four Noble Truths. Craving arises because of ignorance. In another sense, ignorance is non-understanding of things as they really are (yatha bhutam). This means non-understanding of the Three Characteristics of Existence: impermanence (anicca), suffering (Dukkha) and non-self (anatta). In order to realize the Three Characteristics of Existence one should develop insight knowledge by practising vipassana meditation, and we should be able to understand those three characteristics within the five Aggregates of grasping (khandhas). We are unable to see things as they really are because delusion or ignorance, by its nature, covers reality (saccapaticchadaka moha).

Samma Ditthi and Vipassana Knowledge

The Buddha pointed out five ways in which one can develop right view:

By virtue (silanugahita), by learning or listening (sutanugahita), by discussion (sakaccanugahita), by tranquillity (samathanugahita), by insight vision (vipassananugahita). Monks, helped on by these five things right view ripens to mind - emancipation and the advantages therefrom, ripens to insight emancipation and the advantages therefrom.

'Monks, these two things are causes of arising of right view. What two? Listening to the Dhamma (paratoghosa) and through attention (yonisomanaskara).'

In the Buddha's teaching there are two types of knowledge. The first is the knowledge which comes through sensory perception or indriya nana. In the Madupindika Sutta in the Middle Length Sayings the Buddha says:

Visual consciousness, your reverences, arises because of eye and material shapes. The meeting of the three is sensory impingement. Because of sensory impingement arises feeling. What one feels, one perceives. What one perceives, one reasons about. What one reasons about, obsesses one is the origin of the number of perceptions and obsessions which assail a man in regard to material shapes cognizible by the eye, past, future and the present. And . . . auditory consciousness arises because of the ear and sound. . . Olfactory consciousness arises because of nose and smells . . .

In this way he explains how this sensory knowledge is acquired, how one sees the world through one's experiences, which are based on the situation of one's mind. Venerable Nanananda has examined in detail in Concept and Reality how this knowledge, which is based on worldly sensory experience, is different from and far from reality.

One sees and understands that experience is the result or product of craving, conceit and views (tanha, mana, ditthi). These conceptual proliferations are called papanca. Knowledge based on worldly sense experiences is not perfect. The Samyutta Nikaya gives the analogy of a magic show. The audience sits in front of the show and is surprised when it sees the magic. But when one of the audience sits at the back of the stage, he can see all the magician's tricks. The Buddha asks:

What essence, monks, could there be in a magic show? Even so, monks, whatever consciousness - be it past, future or present, in oneself or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near - a monk sees it, ponders over it and reflects on it radically. He would find it empty, hollow, void of essence. What essence, monks, could there be in a consciousness? Form is like a mass of foam and feeling but an airy bubble. Perception is like a mirage and formations like a plantain tree. Consciousness is a magic show, a juggler's trick entire.

This kind of knowledge is not successful in enabling us to see things as they truly are. In order to develop that understanding we have to practise vipassana meditation. This way enables us to find the truth which lies within the Five Aggregates by developing awareness. Through this kind of meditation one is able to understand mind and matter (nama-rupa). One gains the knowledge to divide mind from matter (namarupapariccheda nana), the knowledge of delimitation of mentality and materiality. The physical body or rupa is a compound of four elements: hardness (pathavi), cohesion (apo), heat (tejo) and motion (vayo). The smallest part of the materiality or the body are subatomic particles (kalapa), which are not solid. They are mere vibrations. In the Upacala Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya it says: 'The entire universe is nothing but combustion and vibration' ('Sabbo pajjalito loko sabbo loko pakampito').

The mind part is connected with the physical body. Without an object, mind cannot arise. The six faculties open to the external world and apprehend objects. Objects can also arise from memory. Thereby they create the sixfold consciousness (vinnana), and this is followed by perception (sanna) and sensation (vedana). After sensation, mind creates mental formations (sankharas). The well-known meditation teacher S. N. Goenka clearly shows the picture of mind and its functions.

Understand that this process is going on constantly at one sense door or another. Every moment something or the other is happening at one of the sense doors. Every moment the respective consciousness cognizes: the perception recognizes: the feeling part of the mind feels: and the reacting part of the mind reacts, with either craving or aversion. This happens continuously in one's life.

This is how reactions or sankharas create suffering. The vipassana meditator, without reacting, just observes the sensation. In the Satipatthana Sutta the Buddha explains how to establish the fourfold awareness, 'He dwells observing the phenomenon of arising in the body. He dwells observing the phenomenon of passing away in the body. He dwells observing the phenomenon of arising and passing away in the body.'

This is not just suppressing emotions. Some people have a misunderstanding that emotion should be suppressed. No, this is a wrong idea. Just observe the feeling without reacting. In order to break our natural or habitual thinking pattern, the meditator trains his mind. As the Buddha advised Bhahiya, 'Train yourself in the seen, there will be just the seen; in the heard, just the heard; in the sensed, just the sensed; in the cognized, just the cognized.'

This helps us to overcome the fetter of personality belief (sakkaya ditthi), by gaining purification of view (ditthi visuddhi). 'In reality there are only mental and material phenomena but not a self-I.' As the Buddha pointed out to Kaccayana:

This world, Kaccayana, usually bases its view on two things: on existence and on non-existence. Now he who with right view sees the uprising of the world as it really is, does not hold with the non-existence of the world. But he, who with right insight sees the passing away of the world as it really is, does not hold with the existence of the world. Grasping after systems, imprisoned by dogmas in this world, Kaccayana, for the most part. And the man who does not go after that system - grasping, that mental standpoint, that dogmatic bias, who does not grasp at it, does not take up his stand upon it, [does not think] 'This is my soul.' - who thinks - 'that which arises is just ill (suffering), that which passes away is ill (suffering). This man is not in doubt, is not perplexed. Knowledge herein is his that is not merely another's. Thus far, Kaccayana, he has right view.

As Steven Collins has pointed out in detail, the understanding of the concept of non-self (anatta), which is widely discussed in the discourses in various ways, is a main aspect of samma ditthi. This is called vipassana samma ditthi. In this way we have to understand the three characteristics of existence within oneself.

Vipassana meditation, then, is a strong technique to realize right view and to eradicate the defilements and attain Nibbana. The Buddha said: 'realizing that this body is (as fragile) as a jar, establishing the mind (as firm) as a (fortified) city, he should attack Mara (defilements) with the weapon of wisdom. He should guard his conquest (newly-developed) insight (vipassana) and be without attachment (for the jhanas).'

Samma Ditthi and Spiritual Attainment

Knowledge of right view becomes fulfilled with spiritual attainments, which we call the fruits of the path. There are four spiritual stages in which the 10 fetters of samsaric existence are gradually eradicated. A person in the first stage is known as a stream-enterer or sotapanna. He has eradicated personality belief, sceptical doubts and attachment to mere rites and rituals. A person in the second stage is called sakadagami or once-returner, and has weakened sensual desire and ill will. Those in the third stage are called anagamis, or non-returners. They have completely eradicated sensual desire and ill will. Those in the fourth stage are Arahants or Enlightened Ones. They have eradicated craving for fine material existence, craving for immaterial existence, conceit, worry and, last of all, ignorance, because all these fetters are rooted in ignorance. In the final stage, ignorance can be overcome by realizing the Four Noble Truths through right view of penetrative knowledge.

The Significance of Samma Ditthi

The Buddha's teaching is based on understanding. Without understanding, there can be no Nibbana or other spiritual attainment. It is clear that the Noble Eightfold Path leads us to attain final deliverance, that is Nibbana. 'Just as, monks, whatsoever great rivers there be such as the Ganges, Yumuna, Aciravati, Sarabhu and Muhi, all of them flow, slide and tend to the ocean. Even so, monks, a monk who cultivates and makes much of the Noble Eightfold Path flows, slides, tends to Nibbana.' As we have already discussed, the Noble Eightfold Path begins with samma ditthi. It points in the right direction, towards nibbanic bliss. It is like a compass on a journey.

There may be many views of samma ditthi. For example, during the Buddha's time, according to the Brahmajala Sutta in the Digha Nikaya, there were 62 views. So how do we know this is right and others are wrong? The Kalamas were a people who lived in Kesaputta. They said to the Buddha that there are many different doctrines and views which are explained in many different ways. So people are confused. What is right and what is wrong? Then the Buddha pointed out 10 possibilities on which we may accept a view as right. But he said they should set aside all those possibilities. 'When you yourselves know these things are bad, these things are blameable, these things are censured by the wise. These things lead to harm and ill, abandon them.' So we have our own responsibility to understand 'things as they really are' or what is the correct view.

Therefore, having accepted one's own responsibility, one is able to find what is right. As Bhikkhu Bodhi has pointed out, 'right view is able both to understand the nature of actuality and discriminate between right and wrong doctrines about the nature of actuality. Wrong view both confuses the nature of actuality and cannot distinguish between right and wrong doctrines about the nature of actuality. With the doctrine of Dependent Origination, we saw that the cause of samsaric existence is ignorance. It is samma ditthi which is the key tool with which to dispel the darkness of ignorance and to cross the samsaric ocean. The Buddha compared wisdom to an eye (panna cakku). Wisdom is no more than samma ditthi. We can see through the eye of samma ditthi and understand the Four Noble Truths.

In the world, in the past and in the present and certainly in the future as well, there are so many problems: financial problems, ethical problems, environmental problems, family or personal problems. There should be a universal solution to these problems of mankind. Samma ditthi has shown us that the method is to understand one's own problem, the cause of the problem, the solution and the way to be followed for the solution. This is a universal method for any human problem. Many personal problems can certainly be solved by practising sila or virtue. If one practises the Five Precepts to the maximum effect, many problems will be finished. But sila is not enough to solve all our problems, especially for those people who have mental problems such as stress, depression, unfulfilled aspirations, being united with the unpleasant and separated from the pleasant etc. We can find a solution by practising meditation or developing tranquillity in order to become peaceful. Finally, if one keenly understands that this existence is suffering and that the Five Aggregates themselves are suffering, then we have to find a solution. Samma ditthi will help to eradicate suffering by overcoming ignorance and craving. Then enlightenment is the solution, and this can be achieved by the realization of what samma ditthi says. Therefore, right view is a universal solution for the suffering of mankind.

The Middle Way, U.K.,  May 2001, p. 37 (volume 76:1)


Source: The Buddhist Society, U.K., http://www.thebuddhistsociety.org.uk

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updated: 13-11-2001