From Thought to Destiny: Thought

Uposatha Teaching: New Moon Day, August 10, 2010

All that we are is the result of thought,
Thought is its master, it is produced by thought.

If one speaks or acts,

With corrupted thought,

Then pain follows,
As the wheel follows the foot of the ox.

All that we are is the result of thought,
Thought is its master, it is produced by thought.

If one speaks or acts,

With pure thought,
Then happiness follows,
Like a shadow that never leaves.

— Dhammapada, the Buddha, first two verses.

Like most of us you probably have a lot of activity rattling and buzzing around between your ears, much of which is pretty useless, some of which delights and some of which gets you into trouble or keeps you endlessly confused, but some of which are the products of clarity, good will or creativity: “Hubba hubba.” “That jerk!” “Out of my way!” “It’s his own fault.” “Mmmm, chips.” “Aha!” “There there now, let me get you a paper towel.” “If I slide my sunglasses up my forehead I’ll look really cool!” All of these thoughts will seem to drive your behavior in one way and then in another. They also will seem to have to do with who you are, at least, you will seem to have a different mix of thoughts than most people you know. But how do you sort through this? How do you know what is a pure thought and what is a corrupted thought? And can you actually get rid of one and keep the other so happiness will follow instead of pain?

The Buddha wondered about these things too:

Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, it occurred to me, ‘Suppose that I divide my thoughts into two classes’. Then I set on one side thoughts of sensual desire, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of cruelty, and I set on the other side thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of non-ill will and thoughts of non-cruelty. MN 19

The first set he deemed wholesome or skillful (kusala) and the second unwholesome or unskillful (akusala). Most people will report that they in fact like some of the unwholesome thoughts, such as thoughts of revenge, and certainly they entertain many sensual desires with glee, and that they dislike some of the wholesome thoughts, like those of renunciation and not getting revenge. In fact, people must find the whole range of thoughts compelling at some level or else they would not spend so much time and energy on them. Nevertheless, when examined deeply, the Buddha noticed that what he was about to deem unwholesome had a set of properties missing in the wholesome. An unskillful thought

… leads to my own affliction, to others’ affliction and to the affliction of both; it obstructs wisdom, causes difficulties, and leads away from Nibbana. MN 19

This doen’t sound so great. He furthermore associated the unwholesome with three underlying unwholesome roots of Greed, Hatred and Delusion.

Greed, hatred and delusion, friend, make one blind, unseeing and ignorant; they destroy wisdom, are bound up with distress, and do not lead to Nibbana. AN 3.71

Greed (lobha) is the desire, longing, attachment or lust for sensual pleasures, for reputation or fame, for wealth, for power, for comfort, for security and so on. Greed is the cause of anxiety and restlessness, a feeling of unease that we call suffering. Initially this comes from not having what we desire. If we acquire what we desire it comes from knowing we will lose it, and from simply wanting more.

There is no satisfying lusts, even by a shower of gold pieces; he who knows that lusts have a short taste and cause pain, he is wise; Even in heavenly pleasures he finds no satisfaction, the disciple who is fully awakened delights only in the destruction of all desires. Dhammapada, 186-7.

If a man is tossed about by doubts, full of strong passions, and yearning only for what is delightful, his thirst will grow more and more, and he will indeed make his fetters strong. Dhammapada

Hatred (dosa) is the aversion, dislike, dread or fear of pain, of discomfort, of enemies and so on. It includes thoughts of anger, revenge, envy or jealousy (which also involve greed), resentment, guilt and self-hatred, disdain, judgmental attitudes. Hatred immediately manifests as anxiety and restlessness, in short, suffering, because the world is not as we want it. Often it arises when our desires are thwarted or threatened.

There is no fire like passion; there is no losing throw like hatred; there is no pain like this body; there is no happiness higher than rest. Dhammapada 202
From greed comes grief, from greed comes fear; he who is free from greed knows neither grief nor fear. Dhammapada 216
Let a man leave anger, let him forsake pride, let him overcome all bondage! No sufferings befall the man who is not attached to name and form, and who calls nothing his own. Dhammapada 221

“Greed” and “hatred” are perhaps too strong as words for many instances of lobha and dosa, but it is a rather standard translation, just as “suffering” is often a bit strong as a translation of “dukkha.”

Delusion is found in the erroneous opinions or justifications, misperceptions, ignorance and denial. It is an often pervasive distortion of reality, manifesting particularly in the sense that certain things are unchanging, fixed or reliable, that there is fun, happiness and beauty where in fact there is decay and suffering. The greatest delusion is that there is an abiding self, a “me,” that in some way remains fixed in spite of all the changes that happen all around it, as the owner and controller of this body and mind. For the Buddha, Delusion is the most dangerous of the Three Unwholesome Roots.

But there is a taint worse than all taints,–ignorance is the greatest taint. O mendicants! throw off that taint, and become taintless! Dhammapada 243

Greed is a lesser fault and fades away slowly, hatred is a great fault and fades away quickly, delusion is a great fault and fades away slowly. AN3.68

The root of delusion is also the basis of the other two roots, in fact the delusional sense of self is the source of it all. In the absence of the capacity to take them personally greed and hatred do not arise. But greed and hatred also distort reality as soon as they do arise.

For instance, if we can simply abide in the way things really are, before these things arise, we we find we are embedded in a network of cause and effect, in which all things are simply dependencies on other things, magnificent in its complexity, delicate in its balance and in the ongoing flux rippling through the network. Now, if we desire something, then that becomes bigger than life, specifically its desirable features, as a caricature, become bigger than life, while the undesirable is no longer even noticed. The paths of causal relations that connect the object of desire to the (now bigger than life) self come alive as plans are considered for the acquisition of the object of desire. Whatever lies along those paths grows, specifically caricatures of their instrumental aspects grow, while all else shrinks and disappears. Even people become instruments and nothing more, or else obstructions, which then become immediate objects of irritation then hate, so caricatured as to appear demonic.

We now reside in a sparse and anxious world fabricated from our own self-centered manipulations. This capacity of greed and hatred to distort reality is most easily observed in the case of hatred or anger, the great fault that fades away quickly. You all will certainly have had the experience of encountering someone for the first time as an impediment to some otherwise perfect plan, and thereby as a demon, only to encounter her at some later time under different circumstances and to your bewilderment as a rather nice person.

We’ve been considering unwholesome thoughts. What about the wholesome? These are rooted in non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion, that is, in renunciation, good-will and wisdom. It includes generosity, loving-kindness, compassion, patience, intelligence, mindfulness, concentration, equanimity and so on.

One of our tasks as Buddhist practitioners moving from thought to destiny, is to cultivate skillful thoughts and to remove the unskillful thoughts. This task is like that of a gardener: one pulls out the unskillful weeds and waters the skillful flowers, shrubs, vegetables and herbs and thereby gives the desired shape to the garden. There are some standard mental techniques involved in Right Effort, but you will probably discover some of your own, from substituting another thought for the one you are entertaining, to deconstructing your present thought, from changing your perspective or conceptualization of the situation, to bringing the thought into the focus of attention until it dissipates of itself.

One of the things you will notice in Buddhist practice is that the bar is always set very high, in fact to a height that only the Buddha and the occasional arahant can vault over. This should not dismay you, rather it means that for many years, maybe for many lives, you will always be able to go deeper into the practice. It is like reading an epic novel that you cannot put down, but never seems to come to an end. It is particularly important not to think of yourself as a “sinner” or a” bad person” because of your probably relentless unskillful thoughts. Buddhism is gentler than that. If you have been reading carefully you will have noticed that guilt is listed among the unskillful thoughts to eradicate. In fact, you are most likely not convinced that the Buddha’s classes, wholesome and unwholesome, are accurate; you probably still enjoy many kinds of lustful thoughts, for instance. That is OK too. But keep observing and studying. You don’t need to give up anything until you are convinced that it should be given up. But become an astute student of samsara, of the suffering that permeates life, even tainting what should be fun.

2 Responses to “From Thought to Destiny: Thought”

  1. Mike Says:

    Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu! Thank you Bhante! I’ve come to look forward to your uposatha day teaching. Sukhitaa hontu!


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Mike, I clicked through to your site, Cattari Brahmavihara. Very beautiful and inspiring. I like the way it is completely organized around a single, but hugely important, enumerated teaching of the Buddha.


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