Thought is Bad? Enlightenment Means Not Thinking?

[In this and subsequent postings, I’ll be writing about Buddhism, but such writings of mine always need to be qualified.  I’m not a Buddhist scholar, for example, nor am I at all “enlightened” and thus speaking from deep interior knowledge.  Yet I am a sincere student of this particular path of spiritual development (as well as other paths I’ve been involved with in the past), and I am a scientist, someone who tries to write as clearly and truthfully as I can.  I also know there is immense variation in Buddhism because of the many branches of it, so anything I say on the order of “Buddhists believe…” Or “Buddhists practice…” can undoubtedly be contradicted by the beliefs and practices of some branch of Buddhism.  So all my comments should be considered as my current understanding, subject to change as my understanding gets better.  Readers and students tell me that my reflections on these sorts of things often stimulate them to think about them more deeply, or understand them more deeply, so I offer them in the spirit of stimulation.  But don’t take them as any final, authoritative understanding, they’re just my best understanding at the time of writing.  I should probably repeat this qualification at the beginning of anything I write about Buddhism, but that would get pretty awkward, so I’ll just hyperlink to these qualifications in the future articles.]

While searching for information on just what is meant in Buddhism by the concept of coemergent ignorance, one of the first entries I came across was full of statements about something which has bothered and confused me for years.  It so activated my old concerns that I never did get far enough down in the article to find what it said about coemergent ignorance – that’s a task for later.

This thing that has disturbed and puzzled me for decades of trying to adequately understand – well enough to facilitate my practices – the Tibetan Buddhist worldview, is what I call a powerful anti-thought attitude.  It basically seems to say that any kind of thought is inherently bad and must inevitably lead to suffering.

To illustrate this, consider the following quotes, picked out from this article I was perusing on Mahamudra and Dzogchen.  It was originally published in the Shambhala Sun and is available on the web at (  It’s by Lama Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, one of the most authoritative Dzogchen teachers, one of the sons of one of the most profound teachers I’ve ever read, Lama Tulku Orgyen.  I’m picking just a few sentences here and there, but there are many saying the same thing I could pick from in the article.

“Thought is samsara. Being free of thought is liberation.”

(Samsara, for any  non-Buddhist readers, is the state of living in illusion, of being cut off from a clear perception of reality and consequently creating a lot of suffering that is not really necessary.)

” The bottom line is this: we need to know how to dissolve thoughts.”

” Whenever there is thought, it follows that there is clinging. The attitude of clinging follows the tracks of the three poisons — passion, aggression and ignorance. Since the formation of thought involves the three poisons, that means that thinking causes samsara, the endless suffering of cyclic existence.”

” We understand that thinking is delusion. However, to want to be free and at the same time to want to hang on to conceptual thinking is a contradiction in terms. It is something that will not happen. It is an impossible task.”

“If you want to attain liberation and omniscient enlightenment, you need to be free of conceptual thinking.”
(Chökyi Nyima’s italics to emphasize his point)

Now I find most things that Tibetan teachers say inspiring, and often I know from my own more direct experience that they are psychologically true.  I’ve heard Lama Chökyi Nyima teach, for example, and have very high regard for him.  I know from my personal observations that thought can spiral into obsessive thoughts about thoughts, which trigger emotions (often neurotic), which trigger more thoughts, which trigger more emotions, which trigger more thoughts, etc., etc., etc., which is indeed a primary mechanism of living in illusion, living in samsara.  But when I hear these kind of absolute statements about how thought is inherently bad, I have a difficult time understanding it or buying it.  What I often think is something like, “Would any of these Tibetan teachers like to fly here from Asia in an airplane that was designed by someone who did not have any thoughts?”  Sustained, disciplined conceptual thought is what has made progress in science possible.  I make my living from thinking, both creatively and with disciplined direction and refinement to shape ideas into forms useful for others.  I am also often entertained by my thoughts.  So I can see an enormous need to keep thought from spiraling out of control and/or trapping us in our neurotic and deluded stories, but I’ve never been able to see the value of this totally anti-thought attitude.

Countering this absolutely negative attitude toward thoughts, I have often heard Lama Sogyal Rinpoche teach that it’s not thoughts that create problems, it’s the pursuit of thoughts, the attachment or aversion to thoughts, the buildup of more and more attached thoughts or aversions and associated emotions that’s the problem.  Thoughts, per se, are not the problem.

Recently I listened to some dzogchen teachings by Lama Tsoknyi Rinpoche that struck me as making much more sense and being more complete than the common negative attitude toward thoughts.  He noted that the emergence, the rising of thoughts and emotions is an inherent part of being alive, but the “attitude” (the best, but not adequate way I can express this) with which we immediately greet/react to these rising thoughts and emotions determines whether (1) they create negative karma or (2) are part of the process of liberation.  His first emphasis was on whether they create negative karma, whether rising thoughts and emotions are appropriated immediately by the ego – I would say by the neurotic aspects of our self rather than “ego,” but that’s a different discussion for the future – and worked into reinforcing our delusions and negative habits and actions and consequent karma.  On the other hand, if you are resting in the nature of mind, in rigpa, these risings are immediately liberated into a kind of energy, what I have heard Sogyal Rinpoche term “the radiance of rigpa.”  I believe this immediate and automatic liberation is also considered an aspect of purification, the transformation of negative attitudes and habits into the radiance of rigpa.

I believe Tsoknyi Rinpoche also noted that this distinction about what “state” or “attitude” thoughts and emotions rise in is often not at all clear in various teachings and writings.  If you really understand (probably by having a perfect understanding of the subtleties of the Tibetan language), you can probably immediately grasp any distinction from the overall context, which effect of thoughts is being referred to.  But, if you are a beginner like me or most students, you may not know there even is a distinction to be made and be confused, as I have been for years, about why there so often is such absolute negativity toward thoughts.

I know from personal experience that it’s wonderful to be able to reduce or even turn off obsessive or negative thinking, even if only for a few seconds, to then rest in a calmer, clearer state, to be refreshed by calmness and clarity, and then to reenter active life, thinking from a calmer and clearer place and then usually having more reasonable and useful trains of thought.

I recently described ( and some relatively prolonged – 20 minutes or so – periods of essentially no thought that I experienced while on retreat.  I would be peacefully perceiving the world around me, a state that was “profoundly peaceful” and yet “no big deal,” just peaceful.  Occasionally a thought would arise, it might have two or three follow up thoughts, and then my mind was quiet again.  I am very please to know that such states can occur for me – but even during these states I knew that my ordinary state of constant thinking was necessary for the work I do and I wouldn’t want to lose that ability to have thoughts, to have them arise, to direct and shape them into useful forms.

So what’s all this thought is inherently bad stuff?

Perhaps the underlying belief is that when you reach full Buddhahood you don’t need to think and, indeed, ordinary thinking, by comparison, is an inefficient and misleading way of understanding compared to the immediate clairvoyant perception of the truth about everything?

Well I’ll leave that open as a possibility, but not hold my breath waiting for it to happen.  As I’ve discussed in my recent book, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together, scientific research has shown that sometimes human beings acquire knowledge by telepathy (mind to mind communication), clairvoyance (direct perception of the physical state of the world), and precognition (psychic knowledge of the future).  However these modes of knowing function only occasionally in ordinary people, and even the best psychics I know are wrong of good deal of the time.  So we could postulate as an endpoint of development that a Buddha would have complete and comprehensive psychic ability for gathering knowledge, but is that possibility of any use to us ordinary people working to make basic progress on the path of meditation and spiritual development?  Is it a good reason for being negative about thought?  I don’t think so, as it just makes me feel guilty when I think when I’m supposed to be meditating, and that attitude doesn’t help me get anywhere at all.

In occasional discussions with some other people studying and practicing Buddhism, I’ve heard it said that language in Buddhism simply is very context dependent, and so the meaning of a particular word or concept will change depending on the context it’s being taught in.  That’s probably true, but I don’t regard it as an advantage.  By contrast, consider various fields of science.  Enormous progress has been made in many fields over the past century or two.  Part of the reason for this progress is that you get very exacting, clear definitions for what is being talked about, whether that is a particular observation, an analytic technique, or an application.  “Water” always means a substance composed of two hydrogen atoms fused with one oxygen atom, H2O.  This is true whether you’re just beginning to study chemistry or a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry.

A question I sometimes like to ask you my friends who are spiritual teachers is “Has there been any progress in spirituality in the past century or two?”  That is, of those who want to get enlightened, are higher percentages getting enlightened, or are they getting there faster, or the like?  The reaction to this question is usually puzzled silence.  And yet various fields of science, various practical fields like medicine and engineering, have all made enormous progress over the last century.  Could this lack of clarity, this misleading nature of definition of something as fundamental as thought, be contributing to the “lack of progress” in Buddhism, the empirical fact that many people start on the Buddhist path but we seldom hear of anyone actually getting enlightened?

For those who take Buddhism as a revealed religion, who take Gautama Buddha as a kind of god who knew everything, this question will seem highly disrespectful, if not heretical.  But I am a modern person who has enormous respect for the Buddha, but doesn’t assume anyone knows or knew everything, and assumes that there’s progress to be made in just about all areas of life.

So, I wish this negative attitude to thoughts could be expunged from Buddhist teaching, or at least have qualifications put with it.  When I teach my classes on altered states of consciousness, for example, I sometimes tell students that the phenomenon or concept I’m going to teach them about next is something that’s very difficult to adequately put into words, or my own understanding of it is fuzzy, so they should just take my words as something to think about, not as any kind of final, authoritative pronouncement on the subject.  Indeed, sometimes I tell them that the best I can do is “lie” to them about something because words are so inadequate, but it’s the best I can do at this point in our knowledge.  I consider my teaching most successful when students think about what I teach rather than just accepting it.  Even better is when the think enough to see that it doesn’t fit their previous knowledge and they can discuss or “argue” with me about stuff!

Gautama Buddha valued reason and urged us to think about and test ideas and beliefs, as well as live a moral life and meditate.  Good advice!  Too often, though, I get the impression that it has twisted into an orthodoxy, into a “Think about something until you come to the same conclusion the Buddha or some approved past master came to, then you can stop thinking…” This is another aspect of an anti-thought attitude….

Enough going on about why I’ve been bugged by this anti-thought attitude….May your thoughts be useful to you and all sentient beings, and if there’s a better way or ways than useful thought, great, let’s add them in too!


  1. When I had my NDE, I didn’t really think the way I do here. It wasn’t that thinking was bad, it just wasn’t quite how things were done. Sometimes I still have experiences like that. I guess you might define such experiences as mystical or psychic, I’m not sure what to call them. They are what they are, and they just sort of happen to me sometimes.

    It’s hard to explain those experiences. It’s even harder to bring bits of them back with you and impossible to put them into words. The reason that psi information seems to be so mistaken at times is that so much gets lost in translation. You aren’t translating from one language to another. You are translating from one existence to another.

    When I have such experiences, I don’t think mostly because I don’t need to, not because it’s bad or unenlightened. It’s just a different way of being. I like being that way, but it doesn’t work all that well here the way it did when I was dead. The people around me here can’t understand me when I’m being that way. I have to come back to using thoughts and words like they do so that they can understand me. Quite honestly, if thoughts and words bring me closer to people here, then they are not such unenlightened things at all. I’d say they were pretty darn useful!

    1. Gee just the nature of ego to be dualistic i.e. to separate [I] from [It] maybe better at taking apart toys however in a living system having a weak ego has brought nothing but a disenchanted world wherein everyone is pretty much for themselves. The wisdom of Spirit and Soul has been replaced by the wisdom of a weak ego.

      It is always the ego that is problematic so I certainly agree to having some sort of practice that strengthens the ego is necessary. A strong ego is an ego that has learn to cooperate, does not interfere with the dialectical movements of thoughts and feelings.

      Thinking and feelings move in opposite direction from each other. Thinking is pretty much a male attribution (animus?)ideas and thought always moving upwards, in the sky. Psycospiritual, thinking is the energy of Spirirt. Feelings are pretty much a feminine attribution (anima?)always moving downward, earth bound, relational. Psycospiritual, feelings is the seat of Soul.

      To have a strong ego, one that has learn not to interfere, moves thoughts and feelings towards each other and into a better balance. Perhaps in alchemy this converging of thoughts with feelings is the sacred marriage? However, the converging of thought with feelings certainly evolves into a greater sense of an egolessness Compassion/Love. Psycospiritual, particles and waves all playing in a Unifying Field.

      30 plus years and still playing softly, John~

      1. >To have a strong ego, one that has learn not to interfere, moves thoughts and feelings towards each other and into a better balance.<

        That’s the heart of it. “Ego” means lots of things, some of which are vital to staying alive and succeeding in the material world. But knowing when to use it with discrimination and when to turn elsewhere is the trick! The Tibetans have some nice sayings about going for the Absolute, but always giving full respect to the Relative.

  2. Being a person who thinks a lot *consciously* and *intentionally*, I’ve wondered the same thing myself.

    I’m glad to notice there are other people who’ve thought about this and see some further use for the good old Occam’s razor in the concepts of “to think” (esp. in meditation literature, be that buddhist or of other variety).

    As for ‘progress’ in enlightment – as paradoxical as that concept sounds – there are two interesting books I can recommend myself:

    Jed McKenna – Spiritual Enlightenment – the damnest thing
    – McKenna (pen name) talks a lot about achieving enlightment, the path to it, progress and the meaning of it all. In a down-to-earth and accessible to a western mind type of way.

    Andrew Cohen – Evolutionary Enlightenment – New Path to Spiritual Awakening
    – Cohen’s thesis is that “that was then, this is now”. In order for us to become enlightened or spiritually deeply awaken to most profound truths, it could be that a wholly different type of approach is called for now than what was practiced, say 2000-3000 years ago. His argument as to why, I leave for the reader.

    Thank you for a wonderful blog!

  3. It certainly would be helpful to have some sort of distinction between ego-estem and self-esteem. …And a spiritual practice can be helpful but it to so often leaves one on the side of the road hugging tree’s or writing self help books. …”Going for the Absolute, but always giving full respect to the Relative,” sweet and understandable giving that the “Relative” is so “conditional” becomes the feedback in which the “Absolute” is experience as, conditional! …There no trick to ego but practice. It is the ultimate obstacle. …A dialectical consciousness with an ego that is not threaten but has learn to cooperate, will increase the feeling, feeling is the value of one’s thoughts/ideas/images. …A cooperating ego is a more gentle, creative and humanistic identification in which to experience the unconditional reality, “God,” “the Divine” or “Energy.” On planet earth, that would be one’s own sense of compassion/love and the best kind of love requires “egolessness” to realize . . . I am the other~

  4. Ah, gentlemen — if thinking is the problem, how can you possibly solve it by thinking about it?

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