Right understanding (sammà ditthi) is the first step on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Middle Path. The English word understanding means, literally, ‘to stand under’, to be very close to something so as to get to know it well. The Pali word ditthi literally means ‘ vision.’
Therefore, Right Understanding is to cultivate those qualities of mind which will allow one to have a complete and realistic apprehension of things, or as the Buddha put it, ‘a knowledge and vision of things as they really are’ (S.III,59). Some of the attitudes that can a help the development of Right Understanding include; trying to get a direct experience of something rather than relying on the opinions of others, not having preconceived ideas, not jumping to conclusions, being open to different explanations, taking time to draw conclusions, being ready to change one’s opinion when presented with facts that contradict it, not mistaking a part for the whole, etc. All these attitudes are mentioned by the Buddha in one or another of his discourses. Sariputta mentioned that listening to others, paying careful attention, discussion, virtue and having a peaceful mind can all help develop Right Understanding (M.I,294). Very clearly, Right Understanding is a process rather than a fixed idea, belief or opinion. And the culmination and finality of this process will be enlightenment.
One begins with an understanding based on the logic of the teachings, then knowledge, then experience through meditation, and finally an Understanding through the wisdom of enlightenment experiences.
All parts of the Eightfold Middle Path are worked on simultaneously, but there is somewhat of a “beginning” and “ending” with Right Understanding. This is because a superficial understanding is at the start of the Path and a complete wisdom awakening understanding is at the end.
“Bhikkhus, this is the forerunner and precursor of the rising of the sun, that is, the dawn. So too, bhikkhus, for a bhikkhu this is the forerunner and precursor of the breakthrough to the Four Noble Truths as they really are, that is, Right Understanding.” Samyutta Nikaya 56.37