The Eightfold Path: Right View

Koun Franz on seeing what’s in front of you, even the things you’d rather not see.

Koun Franz
24 May 2023

The “right” in “right view” makes it sound—to me, at least—as if it involves a kind of seeing that’s special, with eyes that are somehow imbued with wisdom or colored by boundless compassion. But that’s a fantasy of something in the distance, out there. Right view is part of a path, and the path is always beneath our feet, right here. There’s nothing for us to do but to walk it with what we have. And what we have are ordinary eyes.

The practice of right view is to make a choice, moment by moment, not to focus our gaze on how we want things to be, not to ignore the parts we wish weren’t there, and not to close our eyes. It’s looking at what’s right in front of us.

Buddhism has always been about what is in front of us. The story of the Buddha really takes off when, as a young prince, Siddhartha not only sees sickness, old age, and death, but also grasps that these are the basic conditions of all beings. In one day, he goes from ignorance of reality, to knowledge, to a commitment to change his life in accord with what he now knows. Buddhism, simply put, is a religion founded on the acknowledgement of inconvenient truths.

If we want, our practice of right view can just start and stop with what Siddhartha saw that day. When you look at your spouse, your children, the people on the news, your face in the mirror, bring what you know to the front: you are of the nature to get sick, you are of the nature to grow old, you are of the nature to die. Pause with that. Take a breath. Feel the enormity of it, feel your responsibility to others, knowing what you know. That choice to stay with what’s hard—that’s right view.

There are other approaches, of course. We can understand right view through the three seals. Also called the three marks of existence, they are Buddhism’s fundamental description of how things are.

The next time you think, “If only—” or “It would be better if—,” instead of simply following that thought, make space to recall that this dissatisfaction, this dukkha, is the first seal. It’s what everyone you know feels all the time. Let yourself be knocked off balance by the realization that in this way, you are deeply connected to everyone you’ve ever met or ever not met, that on this level, their experience of the world is just like yours. You know them.

When you watch rain fall or feel a conversation end, when a scar fades or the sun moves in the sky, let impermanence (anicca, the second seal) wash over you. Don’t resist it; don’t blink. See that bird fly away, see the beauty of it, and know that you will be different tomorrow and that one day you will die. It’s the same for everyone, and it always has been.

The last seal is anatta, nonself. Feel how a sunny day lifts you up, or how an angry word brings you down. Observe how you are different with your kids than with your pet than with your boss, and recognize that nothing you do happens in isolation, that you’re touched by everything and everyone around you. Accept that they shape you, and as you do, allow for the fact that you are in turn shaping them, both in ways that are in your control and in ways you can never know.

To choose to look directly at any of the three seals, even for an instant, is right view. The truth of these seals is available to everyone, in every moment; we don’t need Buddhism to tell us that things arise or pass away, or that people want something else, or that things affect other things. What Buddhism does is to say, these things matter. They’re too big to be relegated to intellectual understanding, to a simple, “Mm-hmm, yup, I get that.” In the same way that breathing is what you do most, yet you almost never think about it at all, these difficult realities are the defining elements of our lives, yet we can go our whole lives without ever truly looking at them.

It’s hard to hold the truths that we all suffer in the same way, that we are all dying, and that none of us is separate from anything else. So, when we do hold them, we know that whatever happens next needs to reflect the magnitude of that reality. It has to include the suffering of all beings. It has to hold the loss of, well, everything. It has to be open to letting go of what we thought was ours, of what we thought we alone could control. It has to be honest.

But what we do after seeing the truth isn’t the point of right view; what we do next is taken up in other parts of the path. Right view is that moment of discovery, of staying where we are, of opening our eyes when everything in our body is saying to keep them shut. Right view, like so much of this practice, is a kind of allowing. It’s saying yes.

Do it now. Look around you. Look inside yourself. This is what the Buddha chose to do—not just because he was the Buddha but because reality is reality. Whatever this moment is showing you, it’s what every moment has shown. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful beyond measure, and it carries a responsibility that seems almost impossible to fathom. And now it’s your turn. It’s just how things are.

Koun Franz

Koun Franz

Koun Franz is a Soto Zen priest. He leads practice at Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia.