“No-thought” is a concept rooted in emptiness philosophy. It is often misunderstood, not to mention misused. As a result, a misapprehension some detractors of Buddhism have is that it implies or endorses anti-intellectualism, which to me indicates a rather shallow understanding of Buddha-dharma.
Commonly associated with Ch’an/Zen, “no thought” (Ch. wu-nien; Jp. mumen) is a term that appears in Chinese translations of at least two Indian works, the Tathagatajnanamudrasamadhi and the Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra*, so its origins seem to predate Chinese Buddhism. It is rendered in Sanskrit as a-manana, “not-thinking,”
Heinrich Dumoulin** points out that no-thought or non-thinking “denotes the non-clinging of the mind. The mind that does not adhere to anything is free and pure.” As usual, we need to be remember that this is said in the context of the ultimate truth. Conventionally speaking, it is impossible to find a mind that does not seize and cling to something.
So rather than a mind that is literally empty, one that excludes all thinking and conceptualization, “no-thought” or “no-mind” (Ch. wu-hsin) actually refers to an open mind, a mind not fixed or locked, unreceptive to new ideas, lacking flexibility. Alan Watts described it as “a state of wholeness in which the mind functions freely and easily, without the sensation of a second mind or ego standing over it with a club.”
A natural mind, or the mind’s original nature. After all, we do not start out in life locked into specific ideas. We begin life not knowing anything, and really, open to all possibilities. “No-thought” represents a return to the purity of the child-like mind.
We also use this term or variations of it when we talk about meditation. We often describe mindfulness as no thinking, stopping of all thought. But that’s not quite correct. We can’t stop thought. We can, however, narrow its focus, and that’s all we are trying to accomplish with mindfulness. Simply narrow the scope of our thinking to our breath and the present moment for a relatively short period of time in order to calm the mind.
Recent studies have indicated that this sort of “no-thinking” in meditation is actually good for thinking. For instance, earlier this year researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara studied 48 undergraduates who were required to take either a course in nutrition or in meditation. At the end of a two week period, the students were given a GRE (Graduate Record Examination; standardized tests for graduate school application). The researchers found that the scores of the meditation-trained group improved, while the scores of the nutrition-trained group did not, suggesting that meditation aids in improving cognitive functioning.
To sum up, Buddhism values the mind, and thinking. There is no hostility toward intelligent thought. The fact of the matter is that thinking is absolutely crucial, and practical, as the Dalai Lama explained during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland in 1997, when he talked about the
three qualifications that are recommended on the part of the student in Santideva’s ‘Four-hundred Verses on the Middle Way’, where he defines three principle characteristics that are necessary on the part of the student listening to the teachings.
One is open-mindedness. The second is intelligence, in the sense that one is able to employ his or her critical faculties. The third is that a person should have a good degree of enthusiasm and commitment.
If you lack the first qualification of objectivity, then you will be swayed by your prejudices and certain preconceptions that you may have and this would then color your judgment and you won’t be able to really appreciate what is being taught. Also, you won’t be able to engage in discourse.
The second qualification of intelligence is vitally important . . . one should be able to apply a critical faculty to be able to judge what are the definite true meaning of the texts and what are conditional, to what degree what is said explicitly in this text is contextual, relative to a particular context and cannot be applied universally across the board, or to what extent there is a deeper underlying subject matter that is being taught . . .
Without a critical faculty, one may not be able to judge the validity of what is being taught to you, especially when one comes across a teacher who either out of ignorance or pride or certain prejudices gives a teaching that is not in the true spirit of the Buddhist teachings. Then if you lack this critical ability to determine the validity of the teachings, there is a real danger of being led astray.”
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* Yün-Hua jan, Patterns of Chinese Assimilation of Buddhist Thought: A Comparative Study of No-Thought (Wu-Nien) in Indian and Chinese Texts, Journal of Oriental Studies, v.24 n.1 (1986)
** Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: a History: India and China, World Wisdom, Inc, 2005