20 Vitakkasanthana Sutta

The Removal of Distracting Thoughts

  1. Thus have I heard.238 On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Savatthi in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s Park. There he addressed the bhikkhus thus: «Bhikkhus.» — «Venerable sir,» [119] they replied. The Blessed One said this:
  2. «Bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu is pursuing the higher mind, from time to time he should give attention to five signs.239 What are the five?
  3. (i) «Here, bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu is giving attention to some sign, and owing to that sign there arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion, then he should give attention to some other sign connected with what is wholesome.240 When he gives attention to some other sign connected with what is wholesome, then any evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion are abandoned in him and subside. With the aban­doning of them his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated. Just as a skilled carpen­ter or his apprentice might knock out, remove, and extract a coarse peg by means of a fine one, so too…when a bhikkhu gives attention to some other sign connected with what is wholesome…his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.
  4. (ii) «If, while he is giving attention to some other sign con­nected with what is wholesome, there still arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion, then he should examine the danger in those thoughts thus: ‘These thoughts are unwholesome, they are rep­rehensible, they result in suffering.’241 When he examines the danger in those thoughts, then any evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion are aban­doned in him and subside. With the abandoning of them his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated. Just as a man or a woman, young, youthful, and fond of ornaments, would be horrified, humiliated, and dis­gusted if the carcass of a snake or a dog or a human being [120] were hung around his or her neck, so too…when a bhikkhu examines the danger in those thoughts.. .his mind becomes stead­ied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.
  5. (iii) «If, while he is examining the danger in those thoughts, there still arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion, then he should try to forget those thoughts and should not give attention to them. When he tries to forget those thoughts and does not give atten­tion to them, then any evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion are abandoned in him and subside. With the abandoning of them his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concen­trated. Just as a man with good eyes who did not want to see forms that had come within range of sight would either shut his eyes or look away, so too…when a bhikkhu tries to forget those thoughts and does not give attention to them…his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.
  6. (iv) «If, while he is trying to forget those thoughts and is not giving attention to them, there still arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion, then he should give attention to stilling the thought-formation of those thoughts.242 When he gives attention to stilling the thought- formation of those thoughts, then any evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion are abandoned in him and subside. With the abandoning of them his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to sin­gleness, and concentrated. Just as a man walking fast might con­sider: ‘Why am I walking fast? What if I walk slowly?’ and he would walk slowly; then he might consider: ‘Why am I walking slowly? What if I stand?’ and he would stand; then he might consider: ‘Why am I standing? What if I sit?’ and he would sit; then he might consider: ‘Why am I sitting? What if I lie down?’ and he would lie down. By doing so he would substitute for each grosser posture one that was subtler. So too…when a bhikkhu gives attention to stilling the thought-formation of those thoughts…his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.
  7. (v) «If, while he is giving attention to stilling the thought- formation of those thoughts, there still arise in him evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion, then, with his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth, he should beat down, constrain, and crush mind with mind.243 [121] When, with his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth, he beats down, constrains, and crushes mind with mind, then any evil unwholesome thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delusion are abandoned in him and subside. With the abandoning of them his mind becomes steadied inter­nally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated. Just as a strong man might seize a weaker man by the head or shoulders and beat him down, constrain him, and crush him, so too…when, with his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth, a bhikkhu beats down, constrains, and crushes mind with mind.. .his mind becomes steadied inter­nally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.
  8. «Bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu is giving attention to some sign, and owing to that sign there arise in him evil unwhole­some thoughts connected with desire, with hate, and with delu­sion, then when he gives attention to some other sign connected with what is wholesome, any such evil unwholesome thoughts are abandoned in him and subside, and with the abandoning of them his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated. When he examines the danger in those thoughts…When he tries to forget those thoughts and does not give attention to them…When he gives attention to stilling the thought-formation of those thoughts…When, with his teeth clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth, he beats down, constrains, and crushes mind with mind, any such evil unwholesome thoughts are abandoned in him…and his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, [122] brought to singleness, and concentrated. This bhikkhu is then called a master of the courses of thought. He will think what­ever thought he wishes to think and he will not think any thought that he does not wish to think. He has severed craving, flung off the fetters, and with the complete penetration of con­ceit he has made an end of suffering.»244

That is what the Blessed One said. The bhikkhus were satisfied and delighted in the Blessed One’s words.


NOTES

238 This sutta together with its commentary is available in a translation by Soma Thera, The Removal of Distracting Thoughts.

239 MA: The higher mind (adhicitta) is the mind of the eight meditative attainments used as a basis for insight; it is called «higher mind» because it is higher than the ordi­nary (wholesome) mind of the ten wholesome courses of action. The five «signs» (nimitta) may be understood as practical methods of removing the distracting thoughts. They should be resorted to only when the distractions become persistent or obtrusive; at other times the medita­tor should remain with his primary subject of meditation.

240 MA: When thoughts of sensual desire arise directed towards living beings, the «other sign» is the meditation on foulness (see MN 10.10); when the thoughts are direct­ed to inanimate things, the «other sign» is attention to impermanence. When thoughts of hate arise directed towards living beings, the «other sign» is the meditation on loving-kindness; when they are directed to inanimate things, the «other sign» is attention to the elements (see MN 10.12). The remedy for thoughts connected with delusion is living under a teacher, studying the Dhamma, inquiring into its meaning, listening to the Dhamma, and inquiring into causes.

241 This method can be illustrated by the reflections of the Bodhisatta in MN 19.3-5. Calling to mind the unworthi­ness of the evil thoughts produces a sense of shame (hiri); calling to mind their dangerous consequences produces fear of wrongdoing (ottappa).

242 Vitakka-sankhara-santhanam. MA understands sankhara here as condition, cause, or root, and takes the com­pound to mean «stopping the cause of the thought.» This is accomplished by inquiring, when an unwholesome thought has arisen: «What is its cause? What is the cause of its cause?» etc. Such an inquiry, according to MA, brings about a slackening, and eventually the cessation, of the flow of unwholesome thought.

243 MA: He should crush the unwholesome state of mind with a wholesome state of mind.

244 This shows the attainment of arahantship. See n.50.