The Eightfold Path: Right Thought

We can’t control our thoughts, says Reverend Marvin Harada. But we can reflect on them—and doing that changes everything.

Rev. Marvin Harada
30 March 2023
Photo © Alba Vitta / Stocksy United.

On the eightfold path, right thought, right speech, and right action all go together and cannot be separated from each other. The most important is right thought, because—as Buddhism teaches—everything starts from thought. A passage in the Dhammapada phrases it this way: “With our minds, we make the world. Speak or act with kindness, and happiness will follow you as surely as a shadow follows the person who casts it.”

Thought is the starting point that leads to speech and conduct. An angry thought leads to angry words, which leads to angry actions. Haven’t we all witnessed road rage while driving to work or to the store? A driver with angry thoughts shouts angry words at another driver and in some cases goes on to do something crazy and aggressive with their car. In contrast, acts of kindness are the result of a person who has a heart and mind of kindness and who expresses their thoughts with kind words.

Remember when you were a kid and you misbehaved and did something that your parents didn’t approve of? Did you use the line, “Well, I didn’t mean to,” hoping that it might lead to a less severe scolding or reprimand? A Buddhist response might be, “No, you did mean to, because your conduct is rooted in your thought.”

To have the angry thought, “I was so mad, I could have killed that guy!” is—from a Buddhist viewpoint—a very serious matter. If you have that thought, then you have the potential to act on it. So, in order to speak and act wisely, you need to address your thoughts.

Most religions teach a sense of morality or ethics external to us that we should follow as rules or commandments: Don’t do this, don’t do that. But Buddhism addresses our mind, our thoughts—the source of how we speak and act.

The question then arises, how should we think? How can we control our thoughts, or eliminate the negative thoughts? First, we have to realize that we cannot control our thoughts. Imagine if you went on a diet and your weakness was chocolate cake. If you keep telling yourself, “Don’t think of chocolate cake! Don’t think of chocolate cake!” you will end up thinking about chocolate cake all the time!
The important thing is to see the true nature of our thoughts. Our thoughts come and go like a flowing river.

Good thoughts come and go; bad thoughts come and go. We cannot control and hold a good thought any more than we can remove or stop having a bad thought. But if we have been nurtured in the dharma, we begin to see thoughts as they flow through our mind. We can even begin to reflect on those thoughts as they come and go. For example, we might question, “Gee, why am I so angry about such and such? Why am I so upset?”

Such reflection will inevitably lead to seeing ourselves and our self-centered nature, and in time such reflection will enable us to see beyond our ego-centered self to that which transcends it—our true self. Seeing ourselves is only possible because there is a mirror that is reflecting who we are. That mirror is the teachings.

Deeper reflection leads to being less judgmental of not only our thoughts, but also our life experiences. What we thought was a negative experience can be transformed into a great positive. Seeing a negative or ego-centered side of ourselves leads to insight, awakening, even humility. Seeing or realizing our arrogance is at the same time the unfolding of humility. This is only possible because the light of the dharma—the light of the teachings—is illuminating our hearts and minds.

Rev. Marvin Harada

Rev. Marvin Harada

Rev. Marvin Harada serves as Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America at the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley.