MCTB Right Thought and the Augean Stables

There is a lot of emphasis on “right thought” and suppressing the mental “defilements” in Buddhism, as well as training in morality, “right speech” and that sort of thing. As these are agendas for what happens in our ordinary reality, they are aspects of training in morality. This emphasis on controlling our thoughts can be helpful but it has its limits and often causes problems when misunderstood. When this becomes the predominant thrust of one’s practice and involves images of self-perfection that deny the basic realities of human existence and the inevitable dark sides of life, trouble is basically guaranteed.

The Buddha did go on and on about restraining thought, transforming thought, and that sort of thing. He was making a very important point, but he didn’t stop there. He also advocated that people go on to cultivate concentration and then insight, so as to temporarily quiet and then overcome forever the fundamental delusions that drive our noisy minds. This same point would apply to psychotherapy: it can be useful, but to find the end of suffering we must go much deeper.

Sutta 20 in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (great book, by the way) is called “The Removal of Distracting Thoughts.” In it, Buddha admonished his followers to deal with unskillful, evil, unwholesome or useless thoughts in the following ways. First, if the student is paying attention to something that is causing these unskillful thoughts, then they should pay attention to something wholesome that does not produce unskillful thoughts. If this fails, then they should reflect on the danger in those thoughts and thus try to condition themselves not to think such thoughts in this way. If this fails, then they should try to forget those thoughts and not give any attention to them. If this fails, then they should give attention to quieting the mind and to stilling these thoughts. If this fails, then the student should bear down with their full will and “crush mind with mind,” forcing the thoughts to stop with unremitting and unrestrained effort. He also recommended the formal concentration practices of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (see Lovingkindness, The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, by Sharon Salzberg, or Training the Mind, by Chogyam Trungpa).

Those familiar with cognitive restructuring will notice great similarities between this 2,500-year-old approach and more modern techniques. These can help develop morality and also suppress the hindrances that cause distraction and poor concentration, as well as begin to create better mental and personal habits. However, this can have its problems if not understood in a realistic and clear way.

A subtle but incorrect modification of these techniques can create a large amount of internal conflict, as can failing to understand the limitations of such techniques. The subtle modification that is definitely not recommended but all too common is the following: the student substitutes feelings of self-judgment or self-loathing for the thoughts they feel are unskillful. This results from only seeing the ignorance side and not the compassion side of intentions and thoughts. It can produce some extremely detrimental results, as well as highly neurotic and repressed individuals who are in basic denial of their actual humanity and heart. It can produce students who are quite bitter, tight, judgmental, Puritanical, and generally unpleasant to be around. This is one extreme.

The other extreme tends to come when people only focus on the compassion side of their emotions and not the confusion and suffering that can be mixed in with them. Aspects of the late sixties come to mind. This error can lead to extreme misunderstandings of Tantra, unhealthy Epicureanism, addictions, and general debauchery that are simply destructive. While this may seem fun and “liberating” for a while, the consequences tend to be as bad as would be expected. Thus, a sophisticated examination of our hearts, desires, aversions and confusions can help sort out what aspects of these are skillful and worth cultivating and what aspects are unhelpful and worth abandoning by the various methods available.

The last problem comes from not understanding that the only way to really bring some permanent relief from these persistent and somewhat uncontrollable thoughts is to get quite enlightened. Until this happens, even in the early stages of awakening, the “defilements” of the mind will continue to cause the creation of all kinds of unhelpful thoughts and mind noise that are easy to get caught in and fooled by. Thus, while training in thought restraint can be very helpful and is highly recommended, it should not be viewed as being more powerful than it is. Remember that training in morality and concentration does not produce awakening without training in insight. This point is mentioned again and again, but somehow continues to be overlooked.

A useful analogy is that of the Augean Stables. The story goes that one of Hercules’ tasks was to clean the Augean Stables. These housed a very large number of horses that continually produced great mounds of excrement. He tried again and again with superhuman strength to clean them, but there were too many horses producing too much excrement too fast for him. As soon as he had cleaned one area, the other areas were full of manure, and so he despaired. However, when he diverted a great river through the stables, this was able to wash the whole of the stables clean at once, and his task was accomplished. While the sensations that make up our reality are still misunderstood, we can feel a bit like Hercules before he diverted the river. This is par for the course and normal.

Enlightenment is a sudden thing, but the cultivation of that initial awakening is a gradual thing and proceeds in fairly predictable stages (detailed in Part III). For more information on this topic, I recommend the excellent works of Chi Nul, presented in Tracing Back the Radiance as translated by Robert Buswell. At each progressive stage, certain unhelpful patterns of identification with experience are forever eliminated or overcome, sort of like channeling a river through one part of the stables, but many more remain until final and complete awakening. Thus, the mind becomes progressively clearer, more spacious and quieter, and those unskillful thoughts regarding identification that do arise are more likely to be caught before they can do damage.

Thus, those who wish for the end of suffering should strive to be kind, stabilize the mind, and carefully and precisely understand the actual truth of their experience in each moment in a way that goes beyond content.

MCTB From Content to Insight