Saturday, October 23, 2010

No Thoughts or No Added Thoughts

There is a sense in the spiritual community that spiritual practice is opposed to thought.  In fact, some believe that the purpose of meditation is to eliminate thought.

Both Zen and Tao, perhaps drawing from the same source, cast a certain suspicion on thoughts.  Zen literature is full of masters telling their students to cut off thinking.  Some take this to mean that one should sit in a mental blankness.

James Swartz has pointed out the problem with this.  There are spaces between thoughts, natural spaces that occur without any sort of practice.  If the split moment of no thought between thoughts doesn't bring enlightenment, then why would we think that hours or no thought will bring enlightenment?

There is another way to approach no thought.  The warning against thinking doesn't mean we should cultivate a mental blank, but that we should not add thoughts onto what is already arising.  For example, if I am drinking a cup of coffee, I might be thinking about something else, like what I have to do today.  I might be thinking about whether I like the cup of coffee or not.  I might be thinking about the meaning of coffee generally.  In a sense, I am suffering when I do this, because I am running away from the moment.  The feel and taste of coffee is a mystery.  Once we try to capture it with words and phrases, it loses the mystery.

As we know from the opening of the Tao Te Ching, the Tao that can be named is not the enduring Tao.

The world presents itself as it is, in all of its wonderful glory.  We take this world, and then we add a layer of thoughts, concepts, and representations to it.  This is the descent into the word of form, the world of limitation, the world of suffering.

Yet to say that thinking itself is bad is taking thinking and adding another thought to it.  I would say, in the language of Zen, you are adding a head on top of your head.  Thought, like everything else, is a present forming mystery.  

So perhaps the Zen master's admonition to "cut off thinking" is not to stop the thinking process, but to stop the adding process, which is adding thoughts to things as they are. 

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