Jul 25, 2019 - 6 minute read

Mastering Thinking: The Diamond Sutra, Pt 1

“World-Honored One, if sons and daughters of good families want to give rise to the highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind, what should they rely on and what should they do to master their thinking?”

Thus begins the dialogue between the spiritual aspirant Subhuti and his teacher Gautama Buddha, in the text popularly known as The Diamond Sutra0. In answering the question, Gautama proceeds to impress at length about the necessity of dropping the idea of the self, and dropping ideas altogether. We shall discuss these in turn, but let’s begin with considering the means towards spiritual accomplishment as presented here: to master thinking.

Buddhism is usually introduced as a philosophy and practice towards the end of suffering. The Four Noble Truths1—possibly the most well known teaching of the Buddha, and his first—begins with the statement that suffering2 is an unavoidable feature of the normal human condition, continues with the diagnosis of suffering as grasping3, and then offers as remedy the prescription of ethical behavior, meditation practice and philosophical understanding4. But here in The Diamond Sutra, the ask is not about how to be happy (a.k.a. the end of suffering); but how to master thinking.

The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin

Given the rest of the question, which asks for a high and fulfilling state of mind, we understand that the kind of thinking and mastery under discussion is not the left-brained, deterministic, objective and definitive kind. We are speaking of the right-brained, intuitive, subjective and imaginative kind5. The kind we use to make judgment: of good from bad, beautiful from ugly, right from wrong; judgments that in turn depend on abstract understandings we develop as we mature in adolescence and beyond, through being embedded and interfaced with society. The kind of thinking that is linked to our emotions and responsible for empathy, enabling our imagination of what-ifs, what-may-have-beens and what-it’s-likes. And there’s the link between thinking and suffering: for those of us who start a meditation practice notice fairly quickly that bad moods and negative emotions are accompanied or preceded by thinking of this second kind: imagining the potential for pain or pleasure, loss or gain, praise or blame, fame or disrepute6. We notice that when caught up in such thinking, we often feel agitated and find our decision-making variedly impaired. Further, we notice that when we are performing optimally, perhaps in a flow state while engaged in a challenging activity7, such dysfunction is absent. There is no worry or doubt, no covetousness or aversion, no laziness or restlessness8. Therefore, the question as phrased resonates: supposing that to make spiritual progress, we need to master thinking.

Some meditation/spiritual teachers approach thinking as something to be repudiated rather than mastered. They employ phrases such as as “the mind is a tyrant”, and “thoughts are mostly garbage”9. Spiritual wisdom is said to be not accessible by the mind. If anything, the mind is an obstacle to it, and all accumulated knowledge and social conditioning, which are in large part responsible for the mind, need be given up10. Even the more moderate and sophisticated spiritual philosopher Eckhart Tolle encourages a disregard for thinking by asking seekers to view thinking as a utilitarian tool, to be picked up only when faced with an immediate objective problem, saying that to evolve into enlightenment11, we must “rise above thinking”12. But in Subhuti’s formulation, the goal is not to transcend thinking, but to master thinking.

I think that is more correct. If we were to view thinking as a mere utilitarian ability, like a monkey’s tail as used to keep balance when swinging between branches, then there really isn’t a material difference between us and the rest of the animal kingdom. The difference is similar to that between species of monkeys with tails and species of monkeys without tails. But why then do we generally reserve the term enlightened—or the more prosaic term wise—for humans? I propose that thinking offers a certain leverage, that can be used functionally or dysfunctionally. Not the problem-solving, objective kind of thinking, which other animals possess to some degree as well; but the intuitive, imaginative, empathetic kind. For it’s this latter kind that lets us see the Good13; which we can then choose to work for (functionally) or against (dysfunctionally). Therefore, notwithstanding the trope in some spiritual circles that thinking is the enemy of spiritual attainment, I submit that thinking is intrinsically linked to enlightenment. And, as we shall see later, since there are no persons to attach enlightenment to, we can legitimately say enlightenment is mastered thinking.

***

Notes

0 As translated by Thich Naht Hanh, 2006:
https://plumvillage.org/sutra/the-diamond-that-cuts-through-illusion/

1 See the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, Setting the Wheel of Truth in Motion, as translated by Thanissaro Bikkhu, 1993:
https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html

2 Instead of suffering, sometimes translated (from the Pali word dukkha) as unsatisfactoriness, or stress. We are referring to emotional pain, or negative emotions, here.

3 Other words employed as a translation are craving, clinging, greed, wanting, attachment. Understood to include the opposites such as aversion and hate, in the form of craving for the opposite or lack of.

4 More elaborately stated as the Noble Eightfold Path. Has eight sections which are subdivided into these three (in Pali: sila, samadhi, and panna respectively). See:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_Eightfold_Path#Threefold_division

5 cf. The Master and His Emmissary, Iain McGilchrist, 2009.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Master_and_His_Emissary

6 cf. The eight worldly winds in Buddhism, from the Lokavipatti Sutta, The Failings of the World. Here is a translation by Thanissaro Bikkhu, 1997:
https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.006.than.html

7 cf. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 2008.
https://www.amazon.com/Flow-Psychology-Experience-Perennial-Classics/dp/0061339202

8 cf. The five hindrances in Buddhism. See commentary with references by Nyanaponika Thera, 1994:
https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel026.html

9 As heard at the New York Insight Meditation Center.
https://www.nyimc.org/

10 cf. Freedom from the Known, by Jiddu Krishnamurti, 1969.
https://www.amazon.com/Freedom-Known-Jiddu-Krishnamurti/dp/0060648082

11 I have refrained from using this term until now, for it does require some explanation to readers unacquainted with it. Classic Eastern spirituality sees this as the ultimate goal, the common inner purpose of all aspirants. Synonymous with: nirvana, liberation, self-realization, moksha. See my article that uses this as a launching point, Towards a Progressive Spirituality.
https://subburam.org/essays/blog/2018-12-24-towards-a-progressive-spirituality/

12 cf. A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, 2008.
https://www.amazon.com/New-Earth-Awakening-Purpose-Selection/dp/0452289963/

A relevant excerpt can be found here:
https://www.awaken.com/2016/07/eckhart-tolle-teaches-how-to-rise-above-thoughts/

13 Though by no means an original idea, I have not seen it in Buddhism (or Eastern spirituality more generally). We shall discuss this further in future installments of this series of articles. What might we claim as the ultimate value, the Good?