‘I proclaim such a teaching that espouses non-contention with anyone in the world.’
Madhupiṇḍika Sutta (‘The Honeyball’) M 18.4
The phrase ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ is the archetypal expression of our tendency to attach to views and opinions: ‘If I think it, it must be true, and if you think differently, sorry, but you’re wrong. You might be a good person, but you’re just wrong.’ This is the very opposite of the attitude expressed in the last four lines of the Mettā Sutta (SN 1.8):
By not holding to fixed views, the pure hearted one, having clarity of vision, being freed from all sense desire, is not born again into this world.
‘Not holding to fixed views’ means letting go, not clinging. In a number of his teachings the Buddha talked about four different kinds of clinging, four different zones of attachment. The first kind is clinging to sense-desire, sense-pleasure (kām-upādāna). The second kind is clinging to precepts and practices: rules, observances, conventions (sīlabbat-upādāna); the blind belief in conventional structures. This can include rules of religious behaviour, but also be things like the value of money. The next kind of clinging is clinging to the feeling of self, attavād-upādāna, the ‘I, me and my’ feeling. But the kind of clinging examined here is clinging to views and opinions, as in the line from the Mettā Sutta: ‘not holding to fixed views’, diṭṭhiñca anupagamma in Pali. This final type of clinging is called diṭṭh-upādāna.
In our culture we tend to hold opinions in very high regard. The tendency to take our opinion or view as an ultimate reality is a strong habit for all of us; if I see something in a particular way, what I think is right, and so I’m right! But if we attach to that way of thinking, if we take it to be absolutely valid, we will find ourselves in conflict with those who think differently: ‘If you think differently from me, you must be wrong.’ This can lead to friction, contention and all kinds of quarrels at the family, social or political level, even to the point of leading to warfare over a view, or a simple difference in understanding. This is an important issue in our lives and if we don’t understand its core, how it works in our own minds, there’s no real hope of solving it on a broader scale. So we need to explore that quality of contention, that divisiveness, that polarity. Where does it come from and what can we do about it?’
One problem that may arise is that if I’m right and you’re wrong, I might feel it’s my duty to set you straight: ‘I’m pure, you’re impure, and it’s my sacred duty to fix you so that we have purity.’ On a social level this led to the terrible depredations of Nazi Germany or the Rwandan genocide, ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Balkans, or those ‘religiously’ inspired militias who feel it’s their duty to defend the word of their lord by wiping out those who think or act differently. Similar evils have been frequently committed in the name of democracy. This kind of attachment and clinging, of getting lost in our own viewpoint, creates very real difficulties, tensions, suffering and harmful experiences in the lives of many people.
The more we believe in our opinions, the greater our investment in the rational mind. Indeed, the more logical our thoughts may be, the more tidy our rationale, the more perfectly valid it may seem to be to straighten somebody else out because they’re ‘wrong’. And even if we don’t think of setting someone straight as a sacred duty, we can still have a strong attitude of righteousness.
It might be the case that we have been praised for that quality during our childhood and upbringing, taught that righteous indignation is a good quality. On one level we can make a tight logical case for thinking that way, and say it’s absolutely true by our own judgment and reasoning. But then we won’t recognize what it does to our own heart and the way that we relate to others. The issue is further complicated by the fact that sometimes stepping up and taking action may be exactly the appropriate thing to do, irrespective of our feelings of righteous indignation.
The basis on which we take action is the element that makes the difference.
This reflection by Ajahn Amaro is from ‘I’m Right, You’re Wrong’, page 9.