Speculative Views


Kuden Paul Boyle

Forest City Zen Group


The Buddha is well known not only for what he taught, but what he explicitly decided to not teach. Part of what the Buddha “did not declare” (i.e. to take a definitive stand on) were called “speculative views”. Compared to most religions today, this is an unusual stand to take. Many religions today try to explain “everything” by setting up views of how the universe is structured and what is the nature of human beings and their place in the universe. This leads to more views such as, how the universe was created, what happens after death, or what constitutes “proper” relationships, and so on. However, in many cases, these claims about the nature of people and the universe cannot be proven and leads to conflict and controversy.


One of the unfortunate consequences which often happens when someone has a lot of metaphysical views is that they believe that other people should adopt their views. This can cause strife in relationships, families, and even at a political level.


Suzuki-roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, said, “Usually when someone believes in a particular religion, his attitude becomes more and more a sharp angle pointing away from himself. In our way the point of the angle is always pointing toward ourselves”. In in this quote I think Suzuki-roshi is referring to this tendency for people to look outward and impose their beliefs on the world and other people. He makes it quite clear that Zen practice does not entail doing this.


In Zen and in Buddhism as a whole, we focus on ourselves and try to stick to what is actually happening in the present moment – “to be present”. The Buddha had definite teachings about speculative views and their effect on our ability to be present and live a spiritual life. In the collection of suttas called the Middle Length Discourses, which is part of the Pali Canon, there are a couple of suttas in which the Buddha describes his approach to speculative views. It is also interesting to look at these suttas together as an example of how the Buddha took different approaches to teaching the same material in different ways to different people.


In one sutta (MN 63), a monk, asks the Buddha about several speculative views. In the other sutta, (MN 72), a lay person, asks the Buddha similar questions. In both suttas, the list of speculative views are the same:


  • The world is eternal

  • The world is not eternal

  • The world is finite

  • The world is infinite

  • The soul is the same as the body

  • The soul is one thing and the body another

  • After death a Tathagata exists

  • After death a Tathagata does not exist

  • After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist

  • After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist


I am not a scholar of Indian religious culture, so I’ll just assume that these were the hot metaphysical issues of the day. I think to make this relevant to our lives, we can ask ourselves, what are the metaphysical issues of our time and culture, and more importantly, what are our own metaphysical views? Can you name some of them? How do these views affect our practice?


The monk poses his questions about these various speculative views to the Buddha. The first thing the Buddha asks him is, did the Buddha ever tell him that he would take a definite stand on any of these issues? The monk says, no, the Buddha has never said that. The Buddha goes on to say in no uncertain terms that a person will die before before he/she hears the Buddha take a definitive stand on these speculative views.


The Buddha then gives a very compelling image to drive his point home. Suppose a man was hit by a poisoned arrow, and his friends called a doctor to remove the arrow. The stricken man says he won’t let the arrow be removed until he knows certain details about the attacker, the type of wood used for the arrow and the material used for the point, what kind of wood was used for the bow, what was used for the bowstring. The image goes on for the greater part of a page, and I have to laugh at all the hyperbole. In the end, the Buddha says if the stricken man really waited for answers to all these questions he would die before they were all answered.


The Buddha says (MN 63.6):


if there is the view ‘the world is eternal’, the holy life cannot be lived; if there is the view ‘the world is not eternal’, the holy life cannot be lived. Whether there is the view the ‘the world is eternal’ or the view ‘the world is not eternal’, there is aging, there is death, ..., the destruction of which I prescribe here and now.


We need to unpack this quote a little bit. This term, “the holy life”, strictly speaking, this meant living a celibate life and is common to several Indian spiritual traditions. However, the Buddha also used this phrase more broadly to mean, living in accordance with the Eightfold Noble Path. The goal and fruit of the holy life is the cessation of the Three Poisons, greed, hate, and delusion. To adapt this to our time and place, I would read “holy life” as “spiritual life”. Our work as spiritual people is the cessation of greed, hate, and delusion.


The other phrase, “there is aging, there is death” is short hand for a whole list of manifestations of dukkha in our lives. The Buddha is referring to the First Noble Truth of the prevalence of the feeling of some sort of dissatisfaction in our lives.


What the Buddha is saying is that taking up speculative views inhibits our ability to practise, and in the end, don’t really have anything to do with the reality of our lives anyway. The Buddha’s teaching is only concerned with the reality of our lives right here and right now and showing us how to live a life which gives us a sense of satisfaction, fulfillment, and contentment.


In the sutta to the lay person the Buddha also offers a poignant statement on speculative views (MN 72.14):


Vaccha, the speculative view that the world is eternal is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, …, a fetter of views. It is beset by suffering, by vexation, by despair, and by fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.


The imagery here is quite telling, a thicket and wilderness of views points to the quagmire and entanglement of views that leads to more and more views. Not only that, but then we begin to argue with ourselves and others about our speculative views. We can get feverish when advocating for our pet speculative views. Such a fever is blinding.


The Buddha explains why he has left these speculative views undeclared (MN 63.8):


Because it is unbeneficial, it does not belong to the fundamentals of the holy life, it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.


The phrase, “does not belong to the fundamentals of the holy life” is really important. It is saying that having some fancy system of beliefs isn’t going make us spiritual persons, and moreover, fancy beliefs aren’t give our lives a stable sense of meaning and contentment


In the sutta to the layman, the Buddha explains that holding speculative views makes it more difficult to see the truth of the Buddha's teaching (MN 72.18):


This Dhamma, Vaccha, is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. It is hard for you to understand it when you hold another view, ...


This sentiment is echoed by Dogen-zenji in Yuibutsu Yobutsu Shobogenzo when he writes:


When you experience realization, you do not think, “This is realization just as I expected”. ... Realization is not like your conception of it. Accordingly, realization cannot take place as previously conceived. ... You should reflect on this: What you think one way or another before realization is not a help for realization.


So, the question arises – how do we live a spiritual life without the indulgence of taking up speculative views? Also, what do we mean by the term “spiritual life”?


For me, I define spirituality in terms of relationships rather than beliefs. In addition, I would say that spirituality isn't about finding answers, but rather about holding open questions. The questions I use are: “What is my relationship with myself?” “What is my relationship with other beings?”, and “What is my relationship with my environment?” I find posing these questions beneficial because they help me keep mindful and, in addition, very often the amount of suffering I experience is related to my relationship with myself, with others, or my environment. From a Buddhist standpoint, we suffer more when we attach to dualistic notions of self and other. So, by holding open these questions, I allow myself to question whether or not I am attaching to some dualism which is driving some sense of discontentment.


However, just questioning ourselves isn't really enough. We can also change our relationship with our circumstances by changing the nature of our activity. We normally think we have to figure out what to do, and then we do it. However, in practicing the Way, we approach this by putting the bodily behaviour first. Dogen makes this point when he says (Shobogenzo-zuimonki, 6-7),


The essential point to be careful about in practicing the Way is casting aside your tendency (from the past) to cling to certain things. If you first change your physical behavior, your mind will be reformed as well. Firstly, carry out what is prescribed to do and avoid what is prohibited in the precepts; then your mind will be reformed of itself.


Dogen is emphasizing the doing and letting the fruit of that effort take care of itself. This is also exactly our effort in zazen. You might recall when I've given some of you zazen instruction, I make the point that in meditation, we allow the body to lead the mind rather than the mind leading the body. This statement is more generally applicable than to just zazen.


So what can we use to guide our behaviour in our endeavouring to live a spiritual life which is not based on speculative views. Fortunately, Buddhism provides many teachings which we can practise.


In the Tenzo Kyokun, which I talked about in my last Dharma talk, Dogen advised those engaging the Way to practise joyful mind, nurturing mind, and magnanimous mind in all of their everyday activities.


In my practice, I've tended to use the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts, the Six Perfections of a Bodhisattva, and the Four Immeasurable Minds. As an example, I'll only talk about the Four Immeasurable Minds which are: Compassion, Loving Kindness, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity. I'll just briefly give definitions of these terms.


Compassion: The word translated from the Sanskrit simply means “kindness”. Compassion means we care about the suffering of others as if it were our own suffering.


Loving Kindness: The attitude of loving kindness is the wish that all being are happy and free from suffering, that all beings are in a state of wellness. We can focus loving kindness toward ourselves or toward other people or beings.


Sympathetic Joy: This is the mind of being joyful at someone else's joy.


Equanimity: Seeing situations from an impartial point of view. Don't mistake equanimity with not caring. We can both care and be equanimious simultaneously.


When we practise the Four Immeasurable Minds, we change our relationship to ourselves, to other beings, and to our environment and circumstances. Please note that we don't need to believe in anything in particular in order to practise compassion, loving kindness, sympathetic joy, or equanimity. We don't even need to believe it will be effective. We just need to set our intention to do it.


One way to set an intention is to say out loud. You don't need to say in front of other people. I usually say it something like this,


May I, for the benefit of all beings, practise loving kindness is all my thoughts, words, and actions today.


When we set this intention, it doesn't mean we do it perfectly. However, I find it does tend to keep me more mindful of my intention, and sometimes there is a subtle effect that gently tilts my making a particular choice over another. In addition, when we have an intention to practise a teaching like the Four Immeasurable Minds, it provides a framework for our relational questions – what is my relationship with myself, with other beings, with my environment? Am I practicing loving kindness and compassion with myself or another person or creature?


Another aspect of living a spiritual life without taking up speculative views is living life from the standpoint of no-self. With no-self, we let go of the notion that we are somehow the centre of the universe. In Zen, we approach no-self through wholehearted engagement in an activity. When we are fully engaged in doing some activity, then there is no room for speculative views to arise.


For example, if you are washing the dishes, limit your activity, just wash the dishes. When you are wholeheartedly just washing the dishes, fully engaging all the senses arising in the bodily experience of washing the dishes, at that moment there is no one washing the dishes, there was only washing the dishes. When you have an experience like that it is a spiritual experience., It helps you build your confidence, or faith, in the Buddha Way, free from and not dependent on any metaphysics or speculative views. Thank-you.

Copyright Kuden Paul Boyle, 2016