“I would rather be right than president,” declared William McKendree Springer, Democrat from Illinois, on the floor of the House.
“The gentleman needn’t worry,” replied Thomas Brackett Reed (1839-1902), Republican from Maine and Speaker of the House. “He will never be either.”
That famous exchange took place in the late nineteenth century, but the sentiment expressed by Congressman Springer may well be timeless in human affairs. Whether the venue be public or domestic, the context political or personal, many of us attach inordinate value to being right. We would rather be right than president–or fair, or peaceful, or humane.
In common parlance, “being right” often means having the right opinion. And because people tend to identify with their opinions and those of the groups to which they belong, opinions divide cultures, nations, and humanity generally, while reinforcing the sense of a separate self. “When you come rising strongly in me,” writes the poet Jane Hirshfield, in a poem addressed to a personified Opinion, “I feel myself grow separate / and more lonely.” * The need to be right, and to advance one’s opinion at any cost, can exact a heavy toll, not only on the body politic but also on marriages, families, and the solidest of friendships.
In English translations of classical Buddhist teachings, the word “right” also occupies a prominent place, but its context and meaning differ sharply from common Western usage. The Noble Eightfold Path, one of the cornerstones of Buddhist practice, consists of eight components: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. In its Buddhist context, however, the word right is best understood to mean “aligned with reality.” Right View does not mean doctrinal conformity. Rather, it means a view of life rooted in wisdom and compassion and aligned with things as they actually are. To embody Right View is to be acutely aware of the universality of suffering and deeply in touch with the impermanent, interdependent, and selfless nature of reality. In linear representations of the Noble Eightfold Path, Right View heads the list of components, but it supports and is supported by the other seven.
Right View will not be acquired solely through book learning, though study of the sutras is essential. Nor will it be acquired primarily through conceptual thought. Right View is fostered by the practices of mindfulness, concentration, and the remaining components of the Noble Eightfold Path. The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh explains the process in this way:
Our happiness and the happiness of those around us depend on our degree of Right View. Touching reality deeply–knowing what is going on inside and outside of ourselves–is the way to liberate ourselves from the suffering that is caused by wrong perceptions. Right View is not an ideology, a system, or even a path. It is the insight we have into the reality of life, a living insight that fills us with understanding, peace, and love.*
As this explanation makes clear, Right View is a quality of insight, which can be cultivated over time. Through the practice of being continuously present for the present moment–the practice of mindfulness–we develop one-pointed concentration, which allows us to look deeply into the causes of suffering within and around us. In this way we nurture our innate capacity for compassionate understanding.
Right View, it might be said, is the polar opposite of “being right.” To a degree rarely acknowledged by those who hold them, strong opinions often have little to do with reality. By their nature they are one-sided, and they are often colored, if not created, by such extraneous factors as political ideologies, party loyalties, religious affiliations, social prejudice, and the will to power. And as our recent national experience has shown, the conviction that one is in the right, however fortifying that conviction might be, can erect insuperable barriers and wreak havoc in one’s own and others’ lives.
By contrast, Right View is grounded in an intimate, moment-by-moment awareness of realities within and around us, and its fruit is a humane, intuitive wisdom. In Sean O’Faolain’s short story “The Human Thing,” an expatriate Irish priest departs from orthodox doctrine by granting Christian burial to an apostate, who had left his family and lived with another woman for five years. “Did I do right?” the priest asks the narrator. “You did the human thing, Father,” the narrator replies. Such is the nature of Right View, whether embodied in a Buddhist practitioner or in a conflicted Irish priest.
* Jane Hirshfield, “To Opinion,” After (HarperCollins, 2006), 41
* Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax, 1998), 51.