Do Buddhas Think
by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
From the sutric viewpoint, “thinking” is the mind that grasps its object through meaning or sound. For example, when we say “apple,” our thought grasps an image of an apple because we have associated meaning with that word and we grasp that in our mind. When we say, “I” or “me,” we may identify ourselves with a title, status, sex, religion, or even with pain — all of which involves the moving mind, or thought. If thought is not there, we are not able to grasp. Samsara, or the suffering of existence, is the result of grasping. By definition, a buddha — one who is free of the suffering of existence — does not have a grasping mind. Since a buddha does not grasp, a buddha does not have thoughts.
A buddha’s perception is pure awareness, or rigpa, which is not a product of the moving, thinking mind, but is direct perception. Thought can never experience the true nature of mind directly, so in Dzogchen, thought is not encouraged since it will not liberate us from suffering. And while conventionally we could agree that the thought to benefit another is preferable to the thought of jealousy, in order to achieve full realisation one needs even to be free of positive thoughts because of their involvement with the grasping mind.
The grasping mind is the source of suffering. Wherever there is grasping mind, there is pain and insecurity. But we are so familiar with this discomfort that the familiarity itself is comforting and we often do not see our thinking as an expression of pain. In fact, we are convinced that by improving our thinking, and thereby the results of our thoughts, we will experience a better life.
If we are willing to recognise that thoughts are an expression of suffering, should we then declare a war on thoughts and attempt to get rid of them? This is not what the dharma advises.
According to the teachings, to turn our pain into a path, we must use thoughts as the doorway to realise the thought-free. Basically thought is used to support one’s path not through smarter or better thinking but through direct observation, which does not involve thought. We look directly at the mind that thinks. Where does thought come from? Where does it go? Where is the mind? Who is thinking? Who is observing thinking? When you look directly at the mind itself, you cannot find anything, and in what you cannot find, you abide.
Thought is the moving mind and not the nature of mind. You can think anything. You can create anything. When we allow thoughts, we can create incredible stories that make us laugh and make us cry. The more we identify with our stories and the one creating the stories, the more we are trapped in our pain. And freeing oneself from pain is not a matter of finding a better story. Instead, we must find the storyteller. Yet when we search for this storyteller, we cannot find anything solid that is itself not just another story.
As we look directly, precisely, and nakedly at the thoughts, they cannot remain. As they dissolve, we may become aware of an observer of thoughts. So, we look directly and nakedly at this observer. Again, even the observer dissolves and what remains is open and clear. There we abide in open awareness. Looking directly at our thoughts without further elaboration, we find that thought is like a cloud that dissolves into the sky. We refer to this sky as the base of all, the source, or the great mother. With the absence of thought we see this space more clearly than with the presence of thought. But thought gives us a contrast experience, a doorway to discover the boundless space of being, which is not a product of the moving, thinking mind and is not experienced by this moving mind. The unbounded space of being is directly and nakedly perceived by awareness itself, rigpa. Because awareness and space are not separate, they are referred to as union. This union spontaneously gives birth to positive qualities, such as compassion.
So in meditation practice, don’t do anything. Allow thought; it will dissolve. If it is not dissolving, observe nakedly and see it dissolve. As we meditate, we become more and more familiar with the openness we experience as our grasping dissolves. In this way, we recognise our true nature as buddha and positive qualities are naturally and spontaneously available for the benefit of others.