Two major events shocked global financial markets in 2016: Britons voted “Yes” to leaving the European Union in the “Brexit” referendum and American voters elected Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. Both came as “black swan” events that almost nobody had seriously expected to take place. We use the term “nobody” loosely because, in both cases, polls conducted before the votes were too tight to call, and even the actual results were won by very narrow margins of 52 per cent in the case of Brexit, and 47 per cent for Trump (versus 48 per cent for Hillary Clinton) in the popular vote of the U.S. election. Nonetheless, pundits and news media, earlier so confident in their predictions, were heavily criticized after the results. How could their views have been so wrong and so distant from reality?
Another surprise was how changeable our views can be. Initially, many experts had argued the impossibility of both Brexit and Trump’s victory. After the votes, these same experts offered another set of equally vigorous arguments to explain why they had been so wrong. The initial reactions of stock markets suggested that these results were disastrous: stock indexes plummeted in the first few hours of trading, then quickly recovered and went on to reach new highs—investors were apparently convinced that these disasters were not that disastrous after all! In fact, the markets became quite optimistic. These errors of view have proven to be financially and socially disruptive—not only as reflected in the severe market fluctuations, but also in the potential impact on economic growth and the political landscape over the next few decades. How could people change their views so quickly and easily?
Buddhist teachings have much to say on the subject of view. The One Thing Sutra (Pali: Ekadhammapali Sutta) explains that wrong view is like a bitter cucumber seed being planted in moist soil; all the nutrients from the soil and water will only contribute to the fruition of a bitter cucumber because that is the nature of the seed itself: (Bodhi 2012, 118)
For a person of wrong view, whatever bodily, verbal, or mental kamma he instigates and undertakes in accordance with that view, and whatever his volition, yearning, inclination, and volitional activities, all lead to to what is unwished for, undesired, and disagreeable, to harm and suffering. For what reason? Because the view is bad.
From the Buddhist perspective, wrong view is the root cause of human suffering. The Buddha taught on the one hand that wrong view explains why “unarisen unwholesome qualities arise and arisen unwholesome qualities increase and expand.” (Bodhi 2012, 116) On the other hand, it also mostly accounts for why our “unarisen wholesome qualities do not arise and arisen wholesome qualities decline.” (Bodhi 2012, 117) It also leads to our being “reborn in the plane of misery, in a bad destination, in the lower world, in hell.” (Bodhi 2012, 117)
How do we judge whether our view is right or wrong? In The Discourse on Right View Sutra (Pali: Sammaditthi Sutta), the Venerable Sariputta elaborates that Right View is considered in relation to wholesomeness, nutriment, the Four Noble Truths, and the Doctrine of Dependent Origination. (MN 9) In other words, right view is assessed with respect to how we perceive the nature of reality and morality. Karunadasa (2015, 79) argues that this is an important distinction in our Buddhist practice because “our perspectives on the nature of reality play a crucial role in how we conduct ourselves in our individual and social life, how we respond to the social environment.”
A well-known story in the Tittha Sutta (Ud 6.4) depicts how, in the search for reality, we think and act like a blind person trying to describe an elephant with access to only a small part of the whole. We tend to claim certainty when we only see the tip of the iceberg.
According to Buddhist teachings, intellect is one of the six sense bases (along with eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body), which operate in conditioned and interdependent ways. In The Ball of Honey Sutra (Pali: Madhupindika Sutta), the Buddha teaches in great detail the interaction between intellect, ideas, and intellect-consciousness, and how we are bound by our ideas: (MN 18)
Dependent on intellect and ideas, intellect-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is contact. With contact as requisite condition, there is feeling. What one feels, one perceives [labels in the mind]. What one perceives, one thinks about. What one thinks about, one objectifies. Based on what a person objectifies, the perceptions and categories of objectification assail him/her with regard to past, present, and future ideas cognizable via the intellect.
In other words, our ideas and views are conditioned by our feelings, perceptions, and so forth. Our views are not necessarily a direct reflection of objective truths or realities. As Karunadasa argues, “Dogmatic attachment to views and ideologies, whether they are true or false, is very much more detrimental and fraught with more danger than our inordinate attachment to material things.” A view, according to Buddhist teaching, “is only a means to an end, a guide for goal-oriented action . . . [and] has only relative value, relative to the realization of the goal.” (Karunadasa 2015, 166)
The Buddhist perspectives on errors of view: (1) wrong views and (2) attachment to views have significant implications for the decision-making process in the market and society. To enable us to perceive and understand the risks and uncertainties we encounter daily, we need to think with an open mind and an open heart, and appreciate all perspectives and scenarios. To ensure that our views are beneficial to others, the environment, and ourselves, we need to embrace a decision-making framework based on sustainable values. Instead of a rigid, all-knowing, or overconfident mindset, if we start with a mind full of possibility, curiosity, and humility—Zen’s “Don’t Know Mind”—we could alleviate clashes of ideas within ourselves (the past, present, or future), or conflicts between one another. These conflicts usually turn into battles of ego and identity, without contributing to the genuine progress of humanity.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu. 2012. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: a Translation of the Anguttara Nikaya. Translated by from Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.
Karunadasa, Yakupitiyage. 2015. Early Buddhist Teachings: The Middle Position in Theory and Practice. Hong Kong: Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong.
MN 9. “Sammaditthi Sutta: The Discourse on Right View”, translated from Pali by Ñanamoli Thera & Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.009.ntbb.html
MN 18. “Madhupindika Sutta: The Ball of Honey”, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.018.than.html
Ud 6.4. “Tittha Sutta: Sectarians (1)”, translated from the Pāli by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 3 September 2012. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.6.04.than.html