Vitakkasanthana Sutta Relaxation of Thoughts

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Introduction

In the Vitakkasanthana Sutta — the sutta on the relaxation of thoughts — the Buddha teaches that the refined mindfulness developed through the Eightfold Path brings a relaxed and peaceful quality of mind.

For the forty-five years of his teaching career, every teaching the Buddha presented was presented in the context of The Four Noble Truths. The Fourth Noble Truth, the truth of the path leading to the cessation of confusion, delusion, and ongoing disappointment, the Eightfold Path, overcomes the common human problem of conditioned thinking rooted in ignorance of these four truths.

The Buddha “awakened” to the understanding that from ignorance all manner of confusion and disappointment arises. This is a very specific ignorance: ignorance of Four Noble Truths. This is known as Dependent Origination: from ignorance, through 12 causative links, suffering arises.

Dependent Origination or Dependent Co-Arising is a very specific and often misunderstood and misapplied teaching. Dependent Origination does not promote a doctrine of interdependence or inter-being. Dependent Origination simply explains the cause of suffering.

The Buddha’s first teaching of this understanding was the teaching of The Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths describe the suffering that results from ignorance, the common response to ignorance, craving and clinging, and the path of liberation from confusion and suffering through the development of wisdom. The wisdom of an awakened human being is grounded in Right View or seeing reality clearly, free of ignorance.

It is a characteristic of ignorance to cling to beliefs that continue ignorance and ignore anything that would threaten continued ignorance.

The first two factors of the Eightfold Path, are known as the wisdom factors of the path. As the entry point into a path developing a life of lasting peace and happiness, it is an expression of wisdom to engage in the Eightfold Path. The simple recognition that life is, at times, disappointing, unsatisfactory, and confusing can generate the initial wisdom to develop understanding. As the path is developed wisdom deepens.

Developing the Right View of accepting The Four Noble Truths provides a way of refining thinking and refining mindfulness and overcoming ignorance. By refining thoughts, the entire life experience changes. Right Resolve, or Right Intention, is being mindful to recognize and abandon craving and clinging to objects, views, and ideas, and to develop the Eightfold Path.

Clinging and craving are always thoughts rooted in ignorance and directed to the past or future. Putting aside clinging develops mindfulness of life as it occurs.

The entire teaching of the Buddha is to refine thinking and develop a mind (and life experience) free of clinging. If thoughts (and subsequent actions) are well-grounded in the framework of the Eightfold Path, a life free of stress and unhappiness occurs. Eventually, a mind of equanimity, an awakened mind free of clinging and craving, free of disturbance, arises.

Clinging arising from ignorance develops conditioned thinking. Conditioned thinking can only lead to more conditioned thinking. Unless a new way of thinking is developed, free of clinging, craving and aversion, no lasting peace and happiness can be realized.

The Vitakkasanthana Sutta

Majjhima Nikaya 20

The Buddha was at Savatthi, in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. He addressed those assembled: “When one is intent on developing heightened mindfulness, there are five qualities of mind they should attend to:

  1. When one’s thoughts are unskillful and arising from craving and delusion they should be mindful of their unskillful thoughts in order to abandon unskillful thoughts. Once unskillful thoughts have been abandoned they can now cultivate skillful thoughts guided by the Eightfold Path. With unskillful thoughts abandoned one’s mind calms and concentration increases.
  2. If unskillful thoughts driven by craving and delusion arise again one should be mindful of the suffering brought by these thoughts recognizing ‘these thoughts are unskillful and will lead to more confusion, delusion, and stress.’ Being mindful of the drawbacks of unskillful thoughts these thoughts can now be abandoned. With unskillful thoughts abandoned one’s mind calms and concentration increases.
  3. If unskillful thoughts driven by craving and delusion continue to arise while being mindful of the drawbacks of these thoughts one should pay no attention to these thoughts. By mindfully withdrawing attention to unskillful thoughts these thoughts are abandoned and will subside. With unskillful thoughts abandoned one’s mind calms and concentration increases.
  4. If unskillful thoughts driven by craving and delusion continue to arise while being mindful of the drawbacks of these thoughts one should focus on relaxing the mental fabrications with regard to unskillful thoughts. With the intentional relaxation of mental fabrications one’s mind calms and concentration increases.
  5. If unskillful thoughts driven by craving and delusion continue to arise while being mindful of relaxing the mental fabrications with regard to unskillful thoughts one should develop Right Intention in order to abandon unskillful thoughts with continued refined mindfulness. With the intentional abandonment of unskillful thoughts one’s mind calms and concentration increases.“Now when a practitioner recognizes unskillful thoughts, understands unskillful thoughts… paying no mind to unskillful thoughts… attending to the relaxing of mental fabrications with regard to those thoughts  …and using Right Mindfulness and Right Intention to steady their mind, settle their mind, unifies their mind and concentrates their mind right within… this is a person with mastery of thought sequences. This person thinks what they want whenever they want and does not think what is unskillful. This practitioner has severed craving and has brought an end to suffering and stress.”

End of Sutta

This sutta describes the simple process of first recognizing through refined mindfulness that unskillful thoughts are present. It should be noted here that those in attendance have already been introduced to the Four Noble Truths and are developing the Eightfold Path as their framework for Dhamma practice.

If one is unable, at first, to simply recognize and abandon unskillful thoughts then acknowledging unskillful thoughts can lead to the abandonment of these thoughts. If unskillful thoughts persist, one should mindfully and with intention to avoid the distraction of analyzing these thoughts and withdraw attention from unskillful thoughts.

If unskillful thoughts arise after mindfully withdrawing attention from these thoughts one should now intentionally relax the mental fabrications that have formed in regard to unskilful thoughts. Mental fabrications, or thought constructs, are self-referential conceptual views that have been given significance due to ignorance of The Four Noble Truths.

The Buddha is teaching here to not continue to struggle with these fabrications but to intentionally cease reinforcing fabrications and accept that this is what is occurring. At this point, the Buddha brings the Eightfold Path directly into this process. By generating Right Intention, the intention to recognize and abandon craving and clinging, one can finally abandon unskillful mental qualities and gain control of thoughts and mental fabrications.

Developing dispassionate mindfulness of what is occurring is the underlying teaching of the Dhamma. To be settled with non-distracted awareness of each moment is to be free of clinging.

Reaction to what is occurring due to conditioned clinging mind will only create more of the same experience. It is vitally important to develop the strong resolve to let go of all thoughts arising from conditioned mind. Right Intention is maintaining mindfulness of abandoning all thoughts influenced by past experience.

The Third Noble Truth states that cessation of stress and unhappiness is possible. The Eightfold path is a framework for developing mindfulness free of past influences and free of thoughts attached to patterns of behavior and worldly assumptions. Holding in mind thoughts that are free of clinging, craving, fear, and aversion will lead to a life free of clinging, craving, fear, and aversion. Holding in mind that which develops awakening will lead to awakening and a continual relaxation of thoughts.

My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings  (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland and Maurice Walsh, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.

Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.

I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.

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