The Four Inverted Views

Kuden Paul Boyle

Forest City Zen Group


In the Forest City Zen Group, we practise chanting the Heart Sutra after almost every sitting. The Heart Sutra is a very condensed version of the Perfection of Wisdom teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. It's like a package of that freeze dried camping food you can buy at MEC or some other camping goods store. You have this little package, maybe a few centimetres square. Then, on a camping trip you add hot water and let it sit for awhile and voila! – you have this big bowl of pasta primavera or something.


Every sentence in Heart Sutra is like that. Every sentence is a full Dharma meal. When approaching the Heart Sutra, I think it is useful to keep two things in mind. The first, is what I just said – you have to realize that it is a very compressed teaching, and it is up to us to unpack the fully explicated teachings and understand them. Second, is that every sentence is practical can be practised concretely in this moment, here and now. There is no other time or place to practise and the Heart Sutra is ready to guide and support your practice.


In Zen, when we chant the Heart Sutra, we just chant, without making a conscious effort to understand it's meaning. Chanting gets the Heart Sutra in your bones. However, that's only half the story. The other part is to unpack, and understand. In this talk I would to take one sentence from the Heart Sutra and reconstitute its fullness and show its practicality for practice.


In the Heart Sutra, there is a line which reads,

Far apart from every inverted view, one dwells in nirvana.

We start unpacking this sentence by investigating what are “inverted views”. We can make something up, like, “it means its an 'upside down' view.” But, what does that mean, and more importantly, how do you practise with it? And, if you really jump the gun, you can decide something like, “I'll just think and do everything in the opposite way I would normally do them.” Hint: Don't do this – it will wreck your life. While that is sort of an extreme example, it does point to a possible danger in trying to practise Buddhist teachings without knowing what they mean. This approach of trying to figure it out on our own, usually doesn't get us very far. Or, at least it hasn't gotten me very far. It turns out that inverted views are an older teaching in the Pali Canon. Specifically, they are outlined in the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, and are a way to categorize our delusions. There are only four of them, so it is not too difficult to commit them to memory. The four inverted views (Sanskrit: viparyasa, Pali: vipallasa) are described in the Pali cannon1 as the following:

  • Regarding impermanent phenomena as permanent

  • Regarding phenomena as having self when they have no self.

  • Regarding unpleasant (dukkha) phenomena as pleasant (sukkha)

  • Regarding unwholesome2 (asubha, literally, “un-lovely”3) phenomena as wholesome

Impermanence/Permanence, in it's mundane sense, means that after a certain amount of time some activity will be over. For example, in our sitting schedule, a period of zazen starts at a certain time and ends at a certain time. In a zazen or practice sense, impermanence means “no second moment”. Our moments of experience are just moments and there is no experience which lasts for more than one moment. However, because the current moment bears some similarity to the previous moment, we tend to conceive of “an experience” as having a sense of continuity or permanence. Just as we experience the rapidly passing frames of a movie as continuous action, in our everyday lives we are too full of activity and thinking to notice this fundamental impermanence, and buy into the illusion of permanence.


Personally, I find the term “permanence” a little misleading because it implies, at least in my mind, “forever”. For example, no one sees some emotion as “permanent”, so calling it permanence really sort of misses the issue of concern. This is not what is meant, in a technical sense, by ”permanence”. Rather, I think “persistence” is maybe a better word. We tend to see phenomena as persisting beyond a second moment.


However, in zazen we make ourselves more available to a direct experience of impermanence of no second moment. Because our everyday lives are so full of activity, we tend to imagine that certain phenomena possess the characteristic of permanence when, in fact, they do not.


Self/No-self refers to the presumed property of a dharma (i.e. an experiential moment) to sustain itself. In Tibetan Buddhist traditions practitioners talk about a phenomenon's ability to exist “from its own side”. The phrase, “from its own side” means to have the power to exist intrinsically, independent of causes and conditions Another term for this is “inherently existent”.


“No-self” is closely related to impermanence. Just as permanence is a temporal delusion, “self” is a delusion regarding the ability or powers of phenomena – that phenomena have as a property in and by themselves the ability to persist and sustain themselves independent of conditions. Because we fall into the delusion of permanence due to a perceived continuity, we, in turn, further our delusion by imagining that the phenomenon we are observing as “permanent” is upholding it's permanence under its own power.


With both permanence and self, we are externalizing or projecting the quality of our own mis-perception onto phenomena which, in actuality, do not have these properties. One of the problems with this mis-perception of an inherently existent self is that such a belief violates the principle of causality. We live in a causal universe, and therefore holding to an inherently existent self is a detachment from reality. When we detach from reality we are deluded and we suffer.


Much of Buddhist teaching and practice is about encouraging and training ourselves to give up this mis-perception or delusion of a permanent, and independent self. The Heart Sutra summarizes these teachings in the first part of the sutra, and again it appears in these four inverted views.


Although in Zen we talk a lot about “no-self”. The term “no-self” doesn't mean the complete absence of a self. Rather, it refers to holding to a notion of a self which is inherently existent. In our everyday lives, we need to have a self, which I'll call a contingent or conventional self, in order to function, and we don't negate that. What we negate is assigning qualities to this self which it does not possess. Namely, that it is independent of causes and conditions and exists inherently.


Often in contemporary Buddhist books, when certain philosophical concepts like “impermanence” or “self” are being discussed, we read about how a table or chair is impermanent or lacks self-nature. While these examples are illustrative, they can also be misleading. The point of Buddhism isn't to make philosophical points about the ontological status of tables and chairs. The practice of Buddhist teachings becomes immediately concrete when we apply them to our immediate state of mind, emotion, or sensation. So, we can investigate whether we believe or acting as if it is true that any state of mind we are experiencing is permanent (or persistent) and has the ability to sustain itself independent of the attention we are giving it. This is how we pierce through the inverted views of permanence and self.


Unpleasant/Pleasant refers to suffering (dukkha) and contentment (sukha). In Buddhism, when we say that something is “unpleasant” or “suffering” it does not necessarily mean that an experience is immediately unpleasant. Rather, it means if we do some activity for long enough, the once pleasant experience becomes unpleasant. For example, if you were to take a nice warm shower, its a pretty nice experience. Now, suppose you had to spend the whole day in the shower, it would probably become unpleasant.


Moreover, when evaluating what is “contentment” versus “discontentment”, Buddhism tends to look at phenomena through the lens of the effects or results of phenomena rather than the actual phenomena per se. So phenomena which may be pleasant or provide contentment in the middle of doing it, may be seen as unpleasant because of the unpleasant or disagreeable results it may bring.


We tend to buy into the inverted view of seeing things which cause discontentment as providing contentment because we are either oblivious to or wish to ignore the consequences of our actions. We fool ourselves in this way.


Unwholesome/Wholesome I use the terms “unwholesome” and “wholesome”. Red Pine translates these as “impure” and “pure”. The original Pali term, asubha, literally means “un-lovely” and has also been translated as “foulness”. In early Buddhism, meditation on the foulness of the body was, among other things, used as antidote for lust.4 This was probably a useful exercise for celibate monks. However, most of us here aren't celibate monks, so I think some broadening of the meaning is appropriate. Maybe another way to look this inverted view is to recognize that things, people, and places that we may find ourselves “enchanted with” a someone or something which are not intrinsically enchanting.


What does enchantment mean? If you look at fairy tales, when someone is enchanted, they lose their ability to think or act independently. They are governed by someone or something else. Enchantment carries to connotation of captivation and being bewitched. In this inverted view we are enthralled with something or someone which does not merit having such a spell cast over us, but we think this is like the best thing that's ever happened to us. That's the big and dangerous difference between being controlled and being enchanted. This sense of good fortune is what makes this delusion especially seductive. We think we are being made whole by something which is not making us whole, but is actually a cause for greater estrangement from ourselves and others.


Our work, then, is to become disenchanted. Sorry if this sounds like buzz-kill. Disenchanted in the sense in which I am using it doesn't mean to try to live a gray, flavourless life. We aren't aiming to be listless, disaffected people. Rather, we strive to live life from a sense of balance and centredness, and seeing the dependent arising of our various selves, and our relationships to other living and non-living dependent arisings around us.


The teaching of the four inverted views does not end with a simple cataloging of the types of mistaken beliefs (delusions) we tend to have with regard to phenomena. Each of these inverted views has three areas of application:

  • an inversion of perception

  • an inversion of thought

  • an inversion of view

The most fundamental of these is the inversion of perception. This is like when we are walking in the dark and mis-perceive a piece of rope for a snake. Inversion of thought represents a higher mental activity, which normally involves talking to ourselves about something. Naturally, if our perception is incorrect, then our thinking about regarding what we perceive will be incorrect. The last aspect, “inversion of view” refers to a habituated pattern of perceiving and thinking. We should note that these three aspects are cyclically reinforcing. If we become habituated to a certain view, we will tend to perceive and think about what we experience in accordance with that inverted view.


So, with the four inverted views and the three areas of application, we have 12 concrete approaches to practice. Inquiry into how we engage in the four inverted views with regard to perceptions is a practical approach. Inquiry into how we engage in the four inverted views with regard to thought is a practical approach. Inquiry into how our inverted views have been habituated is a practical approach.


How do we begin to experience our delusions caused by the four inverted views so that we can undermine and lose confidence in our false beliefs about phenomena? We practise zazen. When sitting zazen, we have our own laboratory to investigate our consciousness. We can be aware of and experience the coming and going of all the various thoughts, emotions, and other mental states. We can watch how they are utterly unable to sustain themselves if we don't attach to them (or “invite them in for tea” as has been said). We practise zazen and we open ourselves up to looking closely at how we construct our experience, and we get some clarity. When we see how things appear to us is not necessarily how they are, it becomes easier to let go of our delusions. When we know our delusions are delusions, then they really aren't delusions anymore; they are just really the scenery of our lives at that point. In this way, we end our delusions and even though we haven't gone anywhere, somehow end up far from every inverted view. Thank-you.


1Anguttara Nikaya IV.49. See Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya, translated and edited by Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi, pp. 91-92, AltaMira Press, 1999.

2Red Pine uses “pure” and “impure” in his translation. See The Heart Sutra, translation and commentary by Red Pine, p. 136, Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004.

3See Andrew Olendzki's translator's notes at:

4For example, see MN 62.22

Copyright Kuden Paul Boyle, 2016