Opinions

In Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, the Buddha teaches the meaninglessness of holding on to opinions. This is the key part of the story:

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying in Savatthi, at Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. Then the wanderer Vacchagotta went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One: “How is it, Master Gotama, does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is eternal: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is not eternal: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is finite: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The cosmos is infinite: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The soul & the body are the same: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

“Then does Master Gotama hold the view: ‘The soul is one thing and the body another: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless’?”

“…no…”

[…]

“How is it, Master Gotama, when Master Gotama is asked if he holds the view ‘the cosmos is eternal…’… ‘after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless,’ he says ‘…no…’ in each case. Seeing what drawback, then, is Master Gotama thus entirely dissociated from each of these ten positions?”

“Vaccha, the position that ‘the cosmos is eternal’ is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, & fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding.

“The position that ‘the cosmos is not eternal’ […] does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding.”

[…]

“Does Master Gotama have any position at all?”

“A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception…such are fabrications…such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.’ Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading away, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsessions with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.”

[©2004 Thanissaro Bhikkhu. From Access to Insight. The text of the above quote (“Vacchagotta Sutta: With Vacchagotta”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. To view a copy of the license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/.]

This is one of my favorite Buddhist teachingsIt teaches us about the meaninglessness of holding on to opinions and metaphysical speculations. The wanderer Vacchagotta approaches the Buddha because he seeks the Buddha’s knowledge. He wants to know about the universe and about whether soul and body are the same. We all are drawn to these questions: Does God exist? Is there a life after death? Do we have free will? Are people basically good or evil? What is truth? We want to know, because this absolute knowledge promises satisfaction in the sea of uncertainty we face in our lives.

Also on a more mundane level, we are obsessed with our opinions. What is social justice? Are poor people responsible for their misfortune or are they victims of society? Should we allow more immigration or restrict it? Who is responsible for economic problems? We all are very attached to our particular set of opinions, because we use them to build our ego. Unfortunately, we waste a large part our time hitting each other over the head with them. For this reason, the Buddha explains that holding on to opinions only leads to suffering.

Arguing with someone about our opinions is like fighting with wooden sticks: the sticks may touch, but we never touch the other person. A fruitful exchange can only take place if we accept that others have a different perspective, and if we try to understand why they have a different perspective. If we do so, and if we truly listen, we inevitably come to understand another facet of the other person’s personality and perspective, and the exchange becomes an experience of connection rather than of separation. Needless to say, the underlying motivation for doing so is love. We will succeed only if our motivation to listen and to understand is stronger than our need to defend ourselves and to protect our ego. If we do succeed, instead of a battle of opinions we have an encounter based on benevolent interest, an encounter that opens our mind and fosters growth. Such an encounter will always require us to let go of preconceived notions, to be open, and to be in the present moment, rather than in the library of our opinions.

If we go to the bottom of our need to hold on to a certain opinion, we inevitably see that it is born from suffering and from our need to hold on to something. Let’s take an example. Person A says: “People are basically good”. Person B disagrees, and says: “People are bad, fundamentally inclined towards evil”. You can imagine a long argument about this, involving a wide range of topics, from the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the Holocaust. For some reason person A needs to believe that people are good. There are several reasons why this may be convenient: if we believe that people are fundamentally good, we do not have to look too closely at our own flaws and the flaws of the people around us, because these are minor, negligible blemishes on the basic goodness. Person B, on the other hand, is very attached to the opinion that people fundamentally incline towards evil. Maybe person B has been abused verbally or physically. The belief could also serve as a justification for treating others abusively: if everyone is evil, I can cheat and betray them before they do the same to me.

Obviously, people are just the way they are, irrespective of our opinions about them. Some are predominantly good, some are predominantly bad. Good people may behave in bad ways from time to time, bad people may show a sliver of goodness from time to time. Opinions tell us much more about the people who hold on to them, than about reality. Ultimately, opinions are empty and meaningless, neurotic knots in our minds.

The Buddha explains that if we see impermanence clearly, we see that opinions are unnecessary, an illusion of our selfish minds. If we know who we are and what we have to do, if we are aware of the our own suffering and of the suffering of others, there is no need for opinions. We just act, without the need to hold on to opinions and to defend them.

I used to be very attached to my political convictions. Nowadays, I care less and less about political battles. I have become more tolerant, but I am still quite attached to some of my opinions. It can be very hard to be tolerant about matters that directly affect you; it is an ongoing practice. Which opinions keep getting you into futile arguments, and prevent you from connecting to other people?

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