Does No-Thought Mean No Thought?

Working with thoughts is a central practice in Buddhism. But what does that mean exactly? Are we truing to stop thoughts or not? A Chan Buddhist view.

By Wing Shing Chan

Photo by Austin Ban.

In a famous Chan lineage story we hear that the Fifth Patriarch’s leading student, Shen Hsiu, composed a verse that equated practice with continually removing dust. When the illiterate Huineng heard a boy chanting the verse, he composed his own, which ended,

Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?

For this, he was recognized as the Sixth Patriarch. The void he experienced is wunien, a mind that cannot be defiled by any dust of thought. As a result Huineng (638-713), the illiterate wood-cutter, was probably the first master who taught wunien (thoughtlessness) as the central tenet of Chan Buddhism.

Wunien is reflected in the approach Chan practitioners take in even basic meditation methods, such as counting the breath. The meditator hopes that with continued practice discursive thoughts will subside and therefore regards a state of less discursive thought—or more thoughtlessness—as signifying improvement in meditation practice. Indeed, the word wunien itself would seem to indicate as much. In Chinese, wu means “no,” “without,” “nothing” or “empty of,” and nien refers to “thoughts” or “objects of the mind.” So, taken together, they could be rendered sensibly as “no-thought” or “thoughtlessness.”

If having a state of mind where all thoughts cease is the goal of practice, then what is the difference between an enlightened master and a rock, which also entertains no thoughts?

Is wunien, then, equivalent to a state of mind where all thoughts cease? If this is the goal of practice, then what is the difference between an enlightened master and a rock, which also entertains no thoughts? Simply stated, are there thoughts or no thoughts after enlightenment?

To find answers to these pivotal questions, we can first look at passages from Huineng’s Platform Sutra, the foremost text of the Chan tradition. Secondly, it will be valuable to explore the idea of “no-leaking” as presented in the teachings on silent illumination meditation by Master Hongzhi (1091-1157) of the Caodong sect, which is the precursor to Soto Zen. The no-leaking teaching helps us to distinguish between purified thoughts and discursive thoughts.

In one of the key passages of the Platform Sutra, the Sixth Patriarch says, “Learned Audience, it has been the tradition of our school to take idealessness as our object.” In the translation of the sutra quoted here, Wong Mou Lam chose to translate wunien variously as “idealessness,” “thoughtlessness,” or “free from idle thoughts.” Huineng went further to say:

Learned Audience, in this system of mine one prajna produces eighty-four thousand ways of wisdom, since there are that number of defilements for us to cope with; but when one is free from defilements, wisdom reveals itself, and will not be separated from the essence of mind. Those who understand this dharma will be free from idle thought. To be free from being infatuated by one particular thought, from clinging to desire, and from falsehood; to put one’s own essence of tathata into operation; to use prajna for contemplation, and to take an attitude of neither indifference nor attachment towards all things – this is what is meant by realizing one’s own essence of mind for the attainment of buddhahood.

Huineng is indicating that there is no need to chase after wisdom. Rather, when one is freed from eighty-four thousand defilements (meaning simply a very large number), eighty-four thousand wisdoms reveal themselves, all of which are manifestations of the essence of mind. When he says, “Those who understand this dharma will be free from idle thought,” he is referring to the state of wunien, wherein the mind is not carried away by objects and images of the past or the future. The mind does not fixate on any particular instance of thought or past experience in any way that suffocates the free functioning of the mind. There are no self-inflating thoughts or false views of any kind. In dealing with all things in the world, one does not hold a fixed predisposition. There is neither attachment nor detachment.

As noted above, reducing or eliminating the arising of discursive thoughts is often taken as the sign of achievement in meditation practice, and in Huineng’s time, some teachers advocated the cessation of all thoughts as the ultimate goal. But Huineng considered these views heretical, saying, “There is also a class of foolish people who sit quietly and try to keep their mind blank. They refrain from thinking of anything and call themselves ‘great.’ On account of their heretical view one can hardly talk to them.”

An enlightened mind, if it truly deserves to be called that, is clearly different from a blank, dysfunctional mind resulting from great efforts to quench all thoughts. Wunien is to be free of discursive thoughts of defilement. It is not the termination of the brain’s thinking function. Huineng elaborated further on the nature of enlightenment when he said,

Thoughtlessness is to see and to know all dharmas with a mind free from attachment. When in use it pervades everywhere, and yet it sticks nowhere. What we have to do is to purify our mind so that the six vijnanas [aspects of consciousness] in passing through the six gates will neither be defiled by nor attached to the six sense-objects. When our mind works freely without any hindrance, and is at liberty to come or to go, we attain samadhi of prajna, or liberation. Such a state is called the function of thoughtlessness. But to refrain from thinking of anything, so that all thoughts are suppressed, is to be dharma-ridden, and this is an erroneous view.

Far from a mind blank of all thoughts, the “thoughtless” mind is able to see and to know all dharmas free from attachment. It pervades everywhere, functioning freely and smoothly without any fixation, attachment or hindrance. The crucial difference between the wunien state and the ordinary person’s mind is that the thoughts in wunien no longer produce defilement nor attachment in the process of cognition. Huineng emphatically pointed out that suppressing all thoughts and refraining from thinking of anything is a misunderstanding of the dharma, and indeed one who did that was being tied up by the dharma, instead of being liberated by it.

There is a popular gongan (Japanese: koan) about an elderly woman who provided a hut and offerings to a monk to support his practice. Over the many years that passed, this woman tried to test the monk’s practice. One day she asked her young daughter to bring food to the monk’s hut. The girl then suddenly embraced the monk and asked, “How do you feel now?” The monk merely replied, “It’s like a rotted wood standing by a chilly cliff, finding no warm breeze all three winters.” The girl then returned to report to her mother. When the elderly woman heard what had happened, she drove the monk out with a broom and burnt down the hut.

Much later, the monk came back to the place where the elderly woman lived. Once again, the woman asked her daughter to go alone to offer food and embrace the monk. The monk whispered, “Let only heaven and earth, you and me, know about this. But don’t ever make this known to your mother.” When the monk was first tested, he was in a state of withdrawal from the external environment. Although not affected by external stimulus, he was not truly in the state of wunien. His consciousness was screened off from the environment but was not able to function freely without hindrance, so the old woman gave him a lesson. The second time he was tested, he was completely different. He perceived fully but there was no defilement due to desire.

Far from a mind blank of all thoughts, the “thoughtless” mind is able to see and to know all dharmas free from attachment. It pervades everywhere, functioning freely and smoothly without any fixation, attachment or hindrance.

Many meditation methods work by focusing the scattered mind and decreasing the activity of discursive thoughts. However, focusing the mind on the method of practice is itself a thought or a subtle attachment. If one continues to focus the mind, this subtle attachment to the practice method will prevent one from entering the wunien state, which is free from any fixation, hindrance or attachment. That is why Chan seldom uses samadhi practices that focus the mind on specific objects or images. These practices lead one to attain samadhi, but not the unobstructed free functioning of the mind of wunien. To really experience wunien, one needs to experience the state of no discursive thoughts without using any method.

For most beginning practitioners, giving up the method would mean losing the strength of concentration and falling back into the discursive-thought loophole. To realize wunien, however, at some point one has to employ a “no-thought” method—or “no-method” method—of practice, or work with a method that dissolves automatically near its final stage. More advanced methods such as silent illumination and shikantaza do not focus the mind on any specific object. Lucid awareness and tranquility of mind are coupled in the practice, which is by itself a “no-thought” practice, a direct expression of wunien. When this state is perfected and effortlessly sustainable in daily life, it is enlightenment itself. That is why the Soto Zen school asserts that “practice is itself enlightenment.”

Likewise, when a gongan is practiced diligently, one is immersed in the great mass of doubt until the gongan itself dissolves. At that time, such a method also becomes a no-thought method. When the time is ripe, the great doubt mass shatters with the trigger of a sound, sight, touch or the like, and one realizes wunien and sees one’s true nature. These no-thought methods become available to practitioners who have prepared themselves with sufficient basic meditation practice, but no-thought cannot be found by forever adhering to the basic methods.

Inexperienced practitioners often confuse a cloudy mind temporarily empty of obvious concrete thoughts with the free-flowing and undefiled mind of wunien. But a cloudy, blank mind is still changeable and dependent on circumstances; it is not able to respond freely to the environment. As Huineng said, “To keep our mind free from defilement under all circumstances is called ‘idealessness.’ Our mind should stand aloof from circumstances, and on no account should we allow them to influence the function of our mind.” In wunien, thoughts arise but do not attach to any external objects that would give rise to a chain of discursive thoughts.

Given that thought is not extinguished by enlightenment, Master Hongzhi — one of the foremost teachers of silent illumination — distinguished purified thought from discursive thoughts through the notion of leakage cessation, or no-leaking. Master Hongzhi said, “When there is no leaking with no discursiveness, a monk is said to have completed his business.” In explaining leaking and no-leaking to his disciples, Master Hongzhi used the following gongan:

“A monk inquired of Qingping, ‘What is having leaking?’ Pin replied, ‘A basket.’ ‘What is no-leaking?’ Pin said, ‘A wooden spoon.’”

This blunt answer avoids intellectualization. A basket cannot contain fluids and all fluids leak away, whereas a wooden spoon holds all the fluids it contains. When a person begins to practice meditation, he or she will notice the flow of discursive thoughts in the mind. These thoughts follow one after another and their momentum is very difficult to overcome. Through concentration during meditation, a more experienced meditator may be able to maintain a calm and clear mind with few discursive thoughts; however, when the person returns to daily life, their mind easily breaks into the confused state with discursive thoughts arising again and again. There is a clear distinction between the peaceful state of mind in meditation and the confused state of mind during daily life affairs. When the vigor of the discursive thoughts returns, aggravation and vexation reemerge. One aspires to maintain the peaceful state of mind found in meditation and this provides a strong motivating force for further practice. Eventually one will require a “no-method” method such as silent illumination to be able to stop the leaking of the mind both within meditation and in daily life.

“Leaking” refers to the motion of discursive thoughts and the accompanying vexation. It is as if there is a hole in the mind, just as in a leaky container. As long as the “hole” exists, one cannot stop either the flow of discursive thoughts or the resulting vexation. Consequently, the mind becomes gloomy, dull and unspontaneous. It flows all the time. We lack the power to fully control our mind and body; we are unable to prevent greed, hatred and ignorance from arising in response to external influences. The mind leaks.

The mind of no-leaking can become stronger and stronger with further practice, until one day it is no longer shakable by even the most acute of life’s disturbances.

The cessation of leaking is like fixing the hole in a broken container. The drops of liquid leak and drip slower and slower until the leaking ceases completely. This is how we understand the work of practice on the mind. The completion state is like that of the wooden spoon referred in the gongan about Master Qingping. In the state of no-leaking, discursive thought and its accompanying vexation have lost their power to self-generate and self-propagate. Confusion vanishes like random background noise dissipating. With the vexation removed, the mind becomes clear, bright and completely relieved, as if we have cast off a heavy load.

In the state of no-leaking, the mind switches from dualistic to non-dualistic perception, with no boundary and no opposition. One also appreciates the inconceivable, simultaneous existence of absolute independence and universal unification with all things. A person at this stage can use thoughts however they please, but discursive thoughts will not leak out and cause disturbance. Rather than removing thought, there is no leakage of thought.

The state of no-leaking is a clear-cut criterion regarding practice: the mind either leaks or has stopped leaking. If there is still a tiny “hole” in the mind, the leakage of discursive thoughts and vexations will continue, in the same way that water continues to drip and the container eventually loses its contents no matter how small the hole is. The state of complete relief and quiescence, and the termination of the self-generation and self-propagation of discursive thoughts and vexations, will not emerge. To understand cessation in terms of the cessation of leaking rather than the cessation of thoughts is far more accurate and reliable. When the “hole” has been mended, the mind can maintain its state of no-leaking, without regressing to the confusedstate. This is far better than the relief obtained through samadhi, where disturbances will return after the samadhi fades.

Initially, though, the state of no-leaking can collapse when the practitioner faces situations that arouse a strong sense of attachment. This is like a newly mended hole being tampered with through strong forces that cause the water to leak again. Therefore, the practitioner has to be very cautious in protecting the non-leaking mind when it is first formed. One can use precepts to protect against re-opening the hole in the mind. The mended container—the mind of no-leaking—can become stronger and stronger with further practice, until one day it is no longer shakable by even the most acute of life’s disturbances.

At this point, Master Hongzhi says, the practitioner can “accomplish his inheritance.” The mind “exists independently beyond all worldly matters, subtly with no dualistic oppositions. Totally impermeable without leaking, the mind is vast and meets no opposition.”

Wing Shing Chan

Wing Shing Chan has studied closely with Master Sheng Yen and is a freelance writer on Chan Buddhism. He lives in Hong Kong.