Awareness of Views and Beliefs 03-23-2020

The theme of tonight’s Dharma talk is Awareness of Views and Beliefs. Jack Kornfield reminds us that the Buddha taught, “Seeing misery in those who cling to views, a wise person should not adopt any of them. A wise person does not by opinions become arrogant. How could anyone bother those who are free, who do not grasp at any views? But those who grasp after views and opinions wander about the world annoying people.” 

Jack recalls that his teacher, Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah, used to shake his head and smile, “You have so many opinions. And you suffer so much from them. Why not let them go?” That advice sounds simple, but we are often unaware of how opinionated we are. 

At an early age, we adopt many of our beliefs unconsciously from family and cultural influences. Some of those beliefs entail unacknowledged bias, prejudice and fear that can lead to polarizing thoughts, words and actions. In daily news reports, we see how proselytizing about ethics, politics and religion often results in bitter arguments. The more attached we are to our views, the more entrenched we become in our position, and the more aggressively we defend it. Going against the stream requires examining the truth of our beliefs and listening to points of view that differ from our own. 

Of course, it is impossible to be completely free from views. The Buddha taught that Right View entails understanding the Four Noble Truths. When we comprehend that all beings experience suffering, that the cause of suffering is craving, and that suffering ceases by letting go of clinging, we realize that the problem lies not so much with a particular viewpoint but with our attachment to it. 

For many years, I have supported environmental causes. Decades ago, Mark and I drove along the coast of Oregon, where the sight of a jagged clear-cut area of woods moved me to tears. The naked gashes on the hillside looked like the earth was wounded and scarred. That image still motivates me to advocate for environmental protection. It is a challenge to care passionately about a cause while remembering that all views are partial.

In his book From Suffering to Peace, Mark Coleman cites the seventeenth-century Zen master Bankei: “Don’t side with yourself.” It’s so easy to side with myself, justifying particular positions and perspectives and preparing to defend them if challenged. For instance, I tend to regard conservationists who protect Monarch butterflies as heroes and loggers who cut trees in butterfly reserves as villains. 

Upon reflection, I acknowledge that I am making judgments without knowing any of those people personally or understanding what motivates them. Honest self-examination helps to soften my rigid stances, freeing me to consider creative solutions, such as World Wildlife Fund’s initiative—hiring loggers who are afraid of losing their livelihood and paying them to serve as tour guides and stewards, guarding forests instead of destroying them. 

Coleman points out that when we are mindful, we can see through the veils of beliefs, views and opinions, which influence our perceptions, thoughts and actions. Although we need principles to guide us, awareness of our beliefs can affect whether we cause suffering or cultivate conditions for peace and happiness for ourselves and others. 

Sophia Lyon Fahs, a Unitarian Universalist, writes about the power of beliefs to close or open hearts and minds:  

Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.

Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies. 

Some beliefs are like shadows, clouding children’s days with fears of unknown calamities. 

Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness. 

Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies.

Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.

Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one’s own direction.

Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration….

Throughout history, worldviews—some later regarded as erroneous—have influenced entire societies. Centuries ago, sailors were afraid of falling off the edge of a flat world. Authorities in the Roman Catholic Church persecuted Galileo for heresy when he asserted that planets revolved around the sun, instead of the earth, as they believed. Seemingly endless wars are waged over differing worldviews about political systems and religious doctrines. 

On an individual basis, Coleman says, we can practice paying attention to our own personal views, becoming aware of belief systems that we have held unquestioningly. Then we can assess whether our views are actually true, aligned with reality and supporting our well-being, or if they are harmful. For instance, the belief that we are not good enough can stem from the voice of an inner critic absorbed during childhood. Such views can operate undetected, undermining our confidence. With awareness, we can see the damage they cause and stop believing them.

The wisdom of uncertainty frees us from what Jack calls the thicket of views and opinions. Holding views more flexibly allows us to stop taking life for granted and to look anew. Jack quotes Rachel Carson, the great naturalist: “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout their life.”

Zen Master Suzuki Roshi called this kind of open mindedness “Beginner’s Mind.” When we loosen our clinging to views, we are willing to learn. In the vast universe, says Jack, what we know for sure is actually very limited. Dae Seung Sahn, a Korean Zen Master, used to ask his students questions like “What is love? What is consciousness? Where did your life come from? What is going to happen tomorrow?” Each time the students answered, “I don’t know,” Seung Sahn would reply, “Good. Keep this ‘Don’t Know Mind.’ It is an open mind, a clear mind.”

Jack observes that in intimate relationships, if we rely on assumptions, we lose our freshness. What we know about those close to us is only a small part of their unfathomable complexity. Without fixed views, we listen more deeply and see more clearly. Jack cites the poet Rilke: “These are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.”

Suspending views and agendas allows us to be with the mystery of death. As I learned in my Buddhist chaplaincy internship at hospice, there is no “right” way to die. Some dying people weep, rage or struggle. Others are filled with love, faith, and acceptance. Family members may be caught in anger, grief, fear or blame. At the bedside of those who are terminally ill, my Zen teacher Koshin Paley Ellison practices spacious, equanimous listening no matter what attitudes and emotions arise. 

Likewise, Jack Kornfield brings an open mind and heart, bowing without judgment to each dying patient’s experience. Jack finds that when the whole person’s experience is allowed, everyone present relaxes into the luminous mystery. 

He refers to Arnold Mindell, a Jungian psychiatrist and author of the book Coma. Mindell sits and breathes in unison with comatose people until he senses his consciousness connecting with theirs. Letting go of preconceptions about people who appear unresponsive, he follows his intuition about how to communicate with each person. Sometimes comatose patients indicate that they have been listening, or they wake up to express surprising insights. 

One patient taught Mindell about the possibility of letting go of fixed views even in the final moments of life: For six months, John had been lying in a coma, rasping and making lots of noise. During a final visit, Mindell vocalized with him and gently squeezed his hand. After about ten minutes, John opened his eyes and said, “You saw that too?” 

With Mindell’s encouragement, John described a big white ship that was coming for him. But he refused to board what looked like a recreational cruise ship, and claimed, “I got to get up in the morning and go to work.” Bedbound with terminal cancer in his 80s, John was in denial about his frail body. He was stuck at the end of life because he was attached to his work ethic and couldn’t permit himself to go on vacation. 

Mindell asked who was driving the ship. John reported excitedly that an angel was at the helm. Upon further investigation, John discovered that the ship was going to Bermuda and that the trip cost nothing. He admitted that he had never been on a vacation—just “workin’ and workin’ and workin’.” After a while, John announced his decision: “I’m goin’ on vacation. It don’t cost nothin’.” He finally let go of his rigid view that relaxing was a waste of time. John closed his eyes, and thirty minutes later he died peacefully. He’d gone to Bermuda. 

Years ago, when I was working as a music therapist at a hospice, a comatose patient gave me a lesson about keeping an open mind. One day I encountered several adults sitting vigil at the bedside of their elderly mother, “Nora,” who had slipped into a coma several days earlier. The siblings told me that when she married, Nora had immigrated to the United States from a small village in Italy. In honor of her Italian heritage, they requested her favorite song, Santa Lucia

I assumed that the music would console the family and did not anticipate any response from the comatose patient. As I played the first bars of the melody on my portable keyboard, however, Nora opened her eyes. To our amazement, she sat up and sang by memory all the lyrics in Italian. Her voice was weak but sweet and true to pitch. At the close of the song, she folded her arms across her chest, lay down and surrendered to coma once again. Nora died soon after singing herself home. 

Coming home to our true nature entails dropping our attachment to fixed views and beliefs about who we are. Not separate and independent as we believe ourselves to be, we are interconnected on an energetic level with all life.

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