Where do your thoughts come from?
All thoughts, all of my thoughts, anyway, are specific to my culture. I think like a white boy from Oklahoma because I am a white boy from Oklahoma. Okay, I am definitely not the modal Okie, so one could find a lot of white boys from Oklahoma who do not think the way I do, but the point remains that the content of any person’s thoughts must reflect the culture they grew up in.
But that is separate from the question about how thoughts get into your head at all. Have you ever thought about it? In some sense, this is the question for Buddhists.
This question is similar to the famous story about Bodhidharma, an early Zen master, who had a man importune him repeatedly to teach him the dharma. According to the story, this would be student cut his arm off and offered it to Bodhidharma to prove his sincerity and zeal.
Finally, Bodhidharma asked what this new student wanted. He replied that he wanted to pacify his mind. Bodhidharma told the student to bring his mind and Bodhidharma would pacify it. So the student went away and came back after some time, explaining that he had looked everywhere and could not find his mind.
“There, I have pacified your mind for you,” Bodhidharma replied. The student was enlightened.
I can’t expect to spend nine years meditating in a cave, and I do not expect to enlighten anyone by asking where your thoughts come from. This is hard for us good materialists to think about, since we want something tangible, some thing, to grab and look at. Grabbing and looking at thoughts is not possible, although grasping them is the problem. Notice your thoughts and let the vast majority of them slide on by, which they will if you let them.
You cannot think your way to awakening, but you can stop on the path and think a bit about where you have been.
Where your thoughts come from is similar to the point about the primacy of consciousness. I don’t know where my thoughts come from, but the only option I can think of is consciousness, which again, seems to be the origin of everything that I can tell.
The Buddha said that the constitutive problem of human existence is ignorance. Maybe what we are ignorant of is this point, that all originates in consciousness. The Buddha did not have the philosophical term, “materialist,” to describe this basic intellectual commitment. We tend to associate materialism with 19th century European philosophy, especially Marx, but under a different description, we might say that all monotheism is materialist in the operative sense because it is an attempt to characterize consciousness in more material terms.
Keep meditating until you can turn your thoughts off entirely and abide in pure consciousness.
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