Assume you’re wrong
Updated: Oct 15, 2022
In They Live (1988, directed by John Carpenter), the world is ruled by an invisible alien elite. Everything looks normal and fine, but it isn’t. At some point, Nada, the character, discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see a pervasive layer of subliminal messages that is apparently invisible otherwise, and yet constantly pushes and steers people’s behaviors and beliefs.
If one takes up practice seriously, then the situation is not too dissimilar. There is no alien elite that invisibly rules the world, true, but the world (the whole of experience) is ruled by the unnoticed forces of greed, aversion, and ignorance. Ignorance, in particular, is an active blindness to how this whole process works, and most of practice is designed to make opaque for the practitioner those structural conditionings that are otherwise transparent and remain invisible.
One scheme to map the progress towards awakening is provided by the ten yokes (saṃyojanāni AN 10.13), the first three of them are what needs to be relinquished in order for true practice to get off the ground. They also provide a helpful checklist of areas where one should bring attention, starting from the assumption that if the Buddha is right, then one’s own ordinary judgment is wrong in these matters. So, here the first three yokes:
(1) ‘Personality view’ or the belief in the stability of any of the components of experience (sakkāya diṭṭhi). Ordinarily, one interprets and acts in the world by appropriating contents of experience, objects, and claiming ownership on this or that aspect of their lives. The assumption behind this attitude is that things are actually suitable for being appropriated and owned (while they aren’t). Everybody has this belief, at all latitudes, in all cultures (despite variations and different declensions). If this is not apparent, then look more carefully. When it becomes apparent, then rank the domains of appropriation from the weaker to the stronger. Start undo the appropriation where it is weaker. This gives a sense of how appropriation can be relinquished. Once the mechanism becomes more apparent, engage with those areas that apparently more difficult.
(2) ‘Doubt in the Buddha’s teachings’ (vicikicchā). At some level, the Buddha’s teachings presented in the discourses are deeply counterintuitive and even repulsive from an ordinary perspective. Hence, it is normal that, to some extent, one will not be fully convinced, or will not understand various points. This applies even in cases in which one might otherwise have some strong faith in the Buddha (or more likely in a certain Buddhist community). But faith, by itself, is still a form of doubt, since one needs faith when true direct knowledge is not available. Hence, to begin with, rank again all the points that seem more obscure or in need of further clarification, from those least doubtful to the most doubtful. Then work through the list trying to clarify them.
Note: calling 'doubt' a yoke and seeing it as something to overcome should not be confused with an appeal to blind acceptance of beliefs and views. The doubt that counts as a yoke is not the sort of intellectual endeavour aimed at bringing clarity to a matter, but rather the idle spinning around of 'what if?' questions, the dismissive attitude that finds nothing 'good enough', and the cynic or sceptic attitudes of those who can find safety only in the attempt at demolishing anything else around them. It does take a good deal of questioning and reflecting to understand what the discourses of the Buddha are referring to. However, this questioning is for the sake of genuinely getting what they might be saying, assuming that this might be worth the effort, rather than simply aimed at some sort of semantic play of interpretations for their own sake.
Tip: at the bottom of the list you must put ‘uncertainty’ (anicca) and the ‘four noble truths’ (SN 56.11), regardless of how well you think you understand them. That’s a safe bet, since fully understanding these aspects entails a profound weakening of the first fetter and an irreversible realization that appropriation is impossible. Short of this certainty, work your way through the list, knowing that these are the most difficult and yet more rewording aspects you want to bring clarity to.
(3) ‘Wrong grasp of rituals and practices’ (sīlabbataparāmāsa). This might concern any sort of belief according to which the right performance of X will by itself bring about certain results. In a contemporary setting, a good example is provided by one’s relation with meditation practice. By diligently performing X, one expects to obtain Z. This belief is a fetter because it hides the fact that one does not actually know how to get Z or what the relation between X and Z is. The idea is not to get rid of practice, but to engage with it in a purely instrumental way: knowing where one wants to go, one will try to find the most suitable and workable tools to get there. Hence, practice begins by understanding how X is supposed to lead to Z, and assess whether this is actually the case, and why. Practice has no inherent value in itself. Good practice is the practice that leads to overcome the need of practicing at all.
Notice that the three yokes are somehow coordinated and support each other. The third helps hiding fundamental doubts, and doubts help sustaining the attitudes of appropriation. A good strategy is then to start watching carefully one’s attitude towards practice. Why do you do what you’re doing?