Right Thinking

When Right View is solid in us, we have Right Thinking (samyak samkalpa). We need Right View at the foundation of our thinking. And if we train ourselves in Right Thinking, our Right View will improve. Thinking is the speech of our mind. Right Thinking makes our speech clear and beneficial. Because thinking often leads to action, Right Thinking is needed to take us down the path of Right Action.

Right Thinking reflects the way things are. Wrong thinking causes us to see in an "upsidedown way" (viparyasa). But to practice Right Thinking is not easy. Our mind is often thinking about one thing while our body is doing another. Mind and body are not unified. Conscious breathing is an important link. When we concentrate on our breathing, we bring body and mind back together and become whole again. When Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am," he meant that we can prove our existence by the fact that our thinking exists. He concluded that because we are thinking, we are really there, existing. I would conclude the opposite: "I think, therefore I am not." As long as mind and body are not together, we get lost and we cannot really say that we are here. If we practice breathing mindfully and touching the healing and refreshing elements that are already within and around us, we will find peace and solidity. Mindful breathing helps us stop being preoccupied by sorrows of the past and anxieties about the future. It helps us be in touch with life in the present moment. Much of our thinking is unnecessary. Those thoughts are limited and do not carry much understanding in them. Sometimes we feel as though we have a cassette player in our head — always running, day and night — and we cannot turn it off. We worry and become tense and have nightmares. When we practice mindfulness, we begin to hear the cassette tape in our mind, and we can notice whether our thinking is useful or not.

Thinking has two parts — initial thought (vitarka) and developing thought (vichara). An initial thought is something like, "This afternoon I have to turn in an essay for literature class." The development of this thought might be to wonder whether we are doing the assignment correctly, whether we should read it one more time before turning it in, whether our teacher will notice if we hand it in late, and so on. Vitarka is the original thought. Vichara is the development of the original thought.

In the first stage of meditative concentration (dhyana), both kinds of thinking are present. In the second stage, neither is there. We are in deeper contact with reality, free of words and concepts. While walking in the woods with a group of children last year, I noticed one of the little girls thinking for a long time. Finally, she asked me, "Grandfather monk, what color is that tree's bark?" "It is the color that you see," I told her. I wanted her to enter the wonderful world that was right in front of her. I did not want to add another concept.

There are four practices related to Right Thinking:

(1) "Are You Sure?"— If there is a rope in your path and you perceive it as a snake, fear-based thinking will follow. The more erroneous your perception, the more incorrect your thinking will be. Please write the words "Are you sure?" on a large piece of paper and hang it where you will see it often. Ask yourself this question again and again. Wrong perceptions cause incorrect thinking and unnecessary suffering.

(2) "What Am I Doing?"— Sometimes I ask one of my students, "What are you doing?" to help him release his think about the past or the future and return to the present moment. I ask the question to help him be — right here, right now. To respond, he only needs to smile. That alone would demonstrate his true presence. Asking yourself, What am I doing? will help you overcome the habit of wanting to complete things quickly. Smile to yourself and say, Washing this dish is the most important job in my life. When you ask, What am I doing?, reflect deeply on the question. If your thoughts are carrying you away, you need mindfulness to intervene. When you are really there, washing the dishes can be a deep and enjoyable experience. But if you wash them while thinking about other things, you are wasting your time, and probably not washing the dishes well either. If you are not there, even if you wash 84,000 dishes, your work will be without merit.

Emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism in China, how much merit he had earned by building temples all over the country. Bodhidharma said, "None whatsoever." But if you wash one dish in mindfulness, if you build one small temple while dwelling deeply in the present moment — not wanting to be anywhere else, not caring about fame or recognition — the merit from that act will be boundless, and you will feel very happy. Ask yourself, What am I doing? often. When your thinking is not carrying you away and you do things in mindfulness, you will be happy and a resource for many others.

(3) "Hello, Habit Energy. " — We tend to stick to our habits, even the ones that cause us to suffer. Workaholism is one ex ample. In the past, our ancestors may have had to work nearly all the time to put food on the table. But today, our way of working is rather compulsive and prevents us from having real contact with life. We think about our work all the time and don't even have time to breathe. We need to find moments to contemplate the cherry blossoms and drink our tea in mindfulness. Our way of acting depends on our way of thinking, and our way of thinking depends on our habit energies. When we recognize this, we only need to say, "Hello, habit energy," and make good friends with our habitual patterns of thinking and acting. When we can accept these ingrained thoughts and not feel guilty about them, they will lose much of their power over us. Right Thinking leads to Right Action.

(4) Bodhichitta. — Our "mind of love" is the deep wish to cultivate understanding in ourselves in order to bring happiness to many beings. It is the motivating force for the practice of mindful living. With bodhichitta at the foundation of our thinking, everything we do or say will help others be liberated. Right Thinking also gives rise to Right Diligence.

The Buddha offered many ways to help us to transform troublesome thoughts. One way, he said, is to replace an unwholesome thought with a wholesome one by "changing the peg," just as a carpenter replaces a rotten peg by hammering in a new one. If we are constantly assailed by unwholesome patterns of thought, we need to learn
how to change the peg and replace those patterns with wholesome thoughts. The Buddha also likened unwholesome thinking to wearing a dead snake around your neck. The easiest way, he said, to keep unwholesome thoughts from arising is to live in a wholesome environment, a community that practices mindful living. With the help and presence of Dharma sisters and brothers, it is easy to sustain Right Thinking. Dwelling in a good environment is preventive medicine.

Right Thinking is thinking that is in accord with Right View. It is a map that can help us find our way. But when we arrive at our destination, we need to put down the map and enter the reality fully. "Think non-thinking" is a well-known statement in Zen. When you practice Right View and Right Thinking, you dwell deeply in the present moment, where you can touch seeds of joy, peace, and liberation, heal and transform your suffering, and be truly present for many others.

From "Heart of the Buddha's Teachings"
by Thich Nhat Hanh