The Eight Fold Path: Step Two, Right Thought

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Looking at the second step of the Eight Fold Path, Right Thought, can be a little confusing at first. How exactly is Right Thought, different from the first step, Right View?  Even many experts seem to feel that the difference is somewhat splitting hairs, but I will try to explain the arguments so you can make your own decision.  When we see, or view something with Right View, we have to stop our thoughts from placing value and interpretation on whatever we are seeing, so we can perceive it as it truly is, without out thought process muddying the lens we look through.  However, eventually our thoughts are going to kick in, and we will need to process the information that Right View provides us with.  This step usually happens in milliseconds, but it’s there nonetheless.  Once we’re done seeing, and we start thinking about things, we had better be sure we’re thinking clearly.  This leads us to Right Thought.

There’s a quote by the ninth century Zen monk, Huang Po, that is often mentioned when talking about Right Thought.  “Those who seek the truth by means of intellect and learning only get further and further away from it. Not till your thoughts cease all their branching there, and there, not till you abandon all thoughts of seeking for something, not till your mind in motionless as wood or stone, will you be on the right road to the gate.”

Traditional thoughts such as greed, ill-will, and fear are to be avoided.  A really easy way to tell if you’re experiencing Right Thought is to ask yourself what emotions are attached to your thoughts and what type of place are they coming from.  There’s a mathematician rule that applies to our thoughts as well as mathematical equations…garbage in, garbage out.  Conversely, a positive outlook multiplies the good things in life.  Happy in, happy out.  However, even if we find ourselves thinking from a place of fear or hatred, that’s ok.  We’re human, and it’s going to happen.  The important thing is not to act upon our thoughts (the third step is Right Action), when we’re coming from those negative places.  Like when we don’t ask the pretty girl out, because we’re afraid of rejection, or when we say something hostile with the intent of hurting someone, because we’re angry at them.  If we can pause in those moments, and realize we’re not thinking clearly, then we are more likely to take the Right Action, and have fewer messes to clean up.

There’s a concept in the martial arts called bridging, which basically states that simplicity is the shortest distance between two points.  A good maxim that illustrates this is, the highest form of self-defense, is to live your life in a way that conflict never occurs.  This is the reason why Right View and Right Thought are the first two steps of the path.  They are the foundation on which the entire theory is built upon, and if we get these first two steps right, the rest of the path becomes much easier.  There was this Far Side joke that reminds me of bridging…there is this guy sitting on the edge of his bed, first thing in the morning, staring at a giant sign by his bed that reads, ‘pants THEN shoes’.  When we do things in the right order, it goes so much easier.

Right Thought also means paying attention to what you’re doing in the moment.  When you’re chopping wood, chop wood.  When you’re fetching water, fetch water.  Unless we’re really doing each thing fully, we’re never really doing anything.  If we’re not giving our full attention to what we’re doing, then why are we even doing it?  I struggle with this probably more than anything else.  Is seems that no matter what I’m doing, my cell phone is going off with people messaging me, so I stop what I’m doing to respond, because I don’t want to be rude, but whatever I’m actually trying to do probably suffers because of it.  I need to turn it off more, or have the discipline not to let it run my life so much.

Bruce Lee was fond of saying, ‘it’s not a daily increase, but a daily decrease that reveals the truth’.  Like a sculptor who chips away at the inessentials, until the truth is revealed, so should we chip away at the useless chatter of our minds, until our true nature is revealed.  While enlightenment is the ultimate goal, we attain it by stripping away our conditionings and cravings, so enlightenment has the room and the freedom to happen of itself.  We can’t enlighten ourselves any more than we can surprise ourselves.  It’s like trying to see your own eye or chew your own teeth.  We just need to clear the path and give it a safe place to become what it needs to be.

Think about it, or maybe I should say, Right Think about it.


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