Friday, January 30, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 17.45: Thoughts vs Thinking

kSHobhaM prakurvanti yath" ormayo hi
dhiira-prasann'-aambu-vahasya sindhoH
ek'-aagra-bhuutasya tath" ormi-bhuutaash
citt'-aambhasaH kSHobha-karaa vitarkaaH

For, just as waves induce rippling

Upon a river bearing calm, clear water,

So too do thought waves, upon unitary awareness.

It is thoughts that cause ripples
upon the water of the thinking mind.

Line 1 offers as a metaphor for SUFFERING the disturbance induced by waves.

In Line 2 a river of water is an ACCUMULATION OF MATTER/ENERGY, flowing in inexorable agreement with the prediction of the 2nd law of thermodynamics: that energy will spread out, unless prevented from doing so.

In Line 3 unitary awareness is INHIBITION and INHIBITION is awareness. It is a virtuous circle of stopping and becoming aware. In my final year of Alexander teacher-training, in 1997-98, I felt as if I was living inside this virtuous circle. That was the year in my Zazen life that bitter gourds became sweet melons. (And conversely, sweet melons turned into bitter gourds.) Alexander teachers like Ray Evans, Ron Colyer, Marjory Barlow and Nelly Ben-Or caused me to see for myself what had been demonstrated to them: that the flood of conscious awareness can only rise when we stop off at source our unconscious patterns of doing. And the more deeply and widely the flood of conscious awareness spreads, the deeper lies our own stillness and the less perturbed we are prone to be, by those habitual or reflex patterns. So it can be a viruous circle of stopping and becoming aware of what is to be stopped.

Line 4 highlights a vital distinction that I have been struggling for 15 years to clarify, for self and others. The distinction is between thoughts and what FM Alexander called 'thinking.' In discussing this distinction between thoughts and thinking, we run into a couple of serious problems. The first is that words express thoughts, but words cannot express thinking itself. The second problem is Alexander’s observation that “When you think you are thinking, you are actually feeling. And when you think you are feeling, you are doing." So I do not know what thinking is, cannot feel what thinking is, and cannot say what thinking is. But here, to give us at least a hint at what thinking is, Ashvaghosha uses the metaphor of water. Deeply ingrained in the brain and nervous system are patterns which are triggered by the tiniest thought and which generate suffering. As a MEANS for inhibiting those unconscious patterns, Ashvaghosha is telling us, thinking is like water.

kSHobham (accusative, singular): undulation, disturbance, trembling, rippling
prakurvanti (from pra + kRi): make, produce, effect; induce, move
yathaa: just as...
uurmayaH (nominative, plural): waves, billows
hi: for

dhiira: steady, constant, calm
prasanna: clear, tranquil, placid
ambu: water
vahasya = genitive of vaha: carrying, flowing, bearing along (said of rivers)
sindhaH = genitive of sindhu: river (esp. Indus), stream, flood, sea

eka: one
agra: foremost point or part, tip:
ekaagra: one-pointed, having one point, fixing one's attention upon one point or object, closely attentive, intent, absorbed in; undisturbed, unperplexed
bhuutsaya = genitive of bhuuta: (at the end of a compound) being or being like anything
ekaagra-bhuutsaya: lit. “towards/upon being one-pointed/undivided”
tathaa: so too...
uurmi: wave
uurmi-bhuutaaH (nominative, plural): [thoughts] that are like waves

citta: ‘noticed’; thinking, reflecting; mind; intention; the thinking mind
ambhasaH = genitive of ambhas: water
kSHobha: rippling
kara: making, doing, causing
vitarkaaH (nominative, plural): thoughts

EH Johnston:
For as waves disturb a stream running with calm clear water, so thoughts are the waves of the water of the mind and disturb it when it is in a state of concentration.

Linda Covill:
For just as waves make ripples in a river bearing calm, limpid water, waves of thought make ripples in the waters of the one-pointed mind.


Raymond said...


I experience that thought is much harder to grasp (inhibit, control,etc) when I am engaged in action. It seems like the only time I have release from habitual patterns is when completely still in zazen. In your view, how do we practice with the mind when engaged in movement? Does it take greater discipline?


Mike Cross said...

Hi Raymond,

"In your view" is a bit of a red flag, but any understaning I have got on the question you raise is expressed in the article I often refer to:

One thing I would add -- not to much a view as an oft-repeated bitter experience -- is that at times when I felt and said that I had attained complete release from habitual patterns, in retrospect, a grinning Mara still had me securely by the throat.

In a similar way, forgive my skepticism, but when you report complete stillness in zazen, that is what you might be feeling, but how reliable is your feeling?

Is it possible that your feeling will turn out, as mine so often has turned out, to be completely unreliable?

To paraphrase FM Alexander: "When we think we are practising with the mind, it may be that we are still just practising in some variation on the same old stupid, end-gaining theme, with the body, based on unreliable feeling."

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Raymond said...


I only meant that in zazen the body is completely still. The mind still moves but it seems easier to bring it back to this body or this breath then when we are moving about in daily life.

Tentatively, as I must hold all of my comments since my understanding of the dharma is continually unfolding, maybe the answer to my question above is to practice as we do in zazen. When we get carried away in thought, we bring ourselves back to how this body feels, how this breath feels.

In my experience, in movement, the body, habitually end-gaining, starts to move faster, to rush through boiling the water and scooping the sugar so that the tea can be made, so that the real buddhism of reading blogs can be pursued. The discipline of inhibiting that tendency, to remind myself that how I scoop the tea is just as much my life as reading the blog, might be realizing the means-whereby principle while moving, which is harder than when the body is still (don't we often experience that kinhin is more difficult than zazen) So, in discipling our movement, perhaps mindfulness in movement appears and we can experience some of the same profundity during our daily life as we do when sitting in zazen.

I am going to try, but I think it is going to take alot of work. I also don't want to be so conscious of my movement that I stifle the life force in cerebral-ness. The correct balance must take lifetimes to hone. Perhaps that is why we vow to practice forever.


Mike Cross said...

Hi Raymond,

You wrote:

"When we get carried away in thought, we bring ourselves back to how this body feels."

But whose teaching is that?

Raymond said...


I have been taught some version of this by my zen teachers. Kodo Sawaki says in doing zazen we concentrate on our posture. Dogen Zenji says that in zazen our mind should permeate our whole body.

What is your understanding of what we should do, or not do, with the mind during zazen? Does "we can never do an undoing" mean that we don't "try" to do anything? If the mind drifts away, do we let it? I would be very much interested in your response.


Mike Cross said...

Hi Raymond,

For one thing, Master Kodo did not speak English, and so what you think he said is not necessarily what he actually said.

Another thing to understand about Master Kodo, as also my old teacher Gudo, is that they had an extremely low opinion of Japanese Zen -- even if, if truth be told, they were part of the problem, as I also became part of the problem.

Hence, for example, Master Kodo looked upstream for the true kasaya, and Gudo is still looking upstream, even now, in Nagarjuna's writings, for the true fourfold philosphy.

As for the question you ask me, I have been endeavoring to answer it for years on these blogs, not by telling you my own view, but by endavoring to clarify Master Dogen's ultimate teaching:

Bodily to sit, mentally to sit, and body and mind dropping off, to sit.

Raymond said...


Thank you for your response. I may never get it. But I'll keep trying.

Take care.


Mike Cross said...

I would be grateful if some compassionate, wise, and patient person (that is certainly not me) would kindly explain to Raymond, the relation between:

(1) trying
(2) sitting with the mind

Thank you.