Full Moon Day, Magha Puja: Raging Bulls

February 21, 2008


We interrupt this series of posts to bring an important teaching!

(I thought I’d temporarily suspend the posts on meditation and write on something that’s been in my mind. So you’ll have to wait for the nail biting end of the last post to be resolved!)




Raging Bulls


.“Whatever you frequently think about, that

  will become the inclination of your mind”


In the Majjhima Nikaya of the Pali Canon is found a small sutta called ‘The Removal of Distracting Thoughts’ (MN, 20). In it the Buddha gives us five ways with which we can become a ‘master of the paths of thought’.


Thoughts have an immensely powerful influence on our lives. Unfortunately most people don’t understand this, let alone the fact that we can actually take control. I was talking about this last night with the group of Banbury meditators, and we commented that most people do not realise that they don’t have to be ruled by their thoughts, and that they can, in fact, become the ruler of their thoughts. Two factors are essential to the development of thought mastery.


  1. Awareness must be developed. By being mindful and by developing concentration we nourish and strengthen ‘Buddho’ – ‘the one who knows’ – that which is simply aware. When this element of mind becomes strong we have much more control over our minds and thoughts.

  2. You can do it! We must know that something can be done before we can do it. If we don’t know then we don’t know! But now we do know that we can become masters of our minds, as the Buddha has taught us how to.

Be Careful

We must treat these minds with great care and respect. ‘Whatever (you) frequently think about, that will become the inclination of (your) mind” (MN, 19). The other day I read a piece where the words of the character Yoda of the Star Wars films were analysed for their Buddhist tones. Some of the words spoken by the familiar little green sage are quite apt to quote here. In these films you hear of the ‘Force’ and of the ‘Dark Side’, positive and negative respectively. At one point Yoda says of the Dark Side: “how easily does it flow”, and that if you allow it: “forever it will dominate your destiny”. The ‘Force’ can be likened to the virtuous and wise tendencies that are working in our minds. The ‘Dark Side’, then, typifies those thoughts, states and inclinations within, which are destructive and which lead to the harm of ourselves and of others. Which will we allow to dominate? We have a choice.

So many problems that people have, especially mild and stronger forms of mental difficulties, are born because thoughts have been allowed to run wild like a herd of raging bulls. What happens when those powerful and uncontrollable creatures are set loose? – they cause damage and destruction. So our destructive thoughts, if they are not monitored and carefully managed, can run wild – being very difficult to control once let loose – and rapidly dominate our destiny.

Mind Management

The Buddha taught us to be masters of our minds. In the sutta which is the inspiration behind this post he speaks of five methods with which one becomes ‘master of the paths of thought’. Of the five, here is the first:

1. The skilled carpenter

The first method shows how we can replace a harmful and negative thought with a helpful and positive one. Once we begin to master this technique it is simply a case of popping in a good thought to counter a bad one. So you might see someone and the thought: “He is such an idiot!” flashes into your mind. As soon as you are aware of this unskillful thought, pop in a good one: “He is a suffering human being”. It can be that simple. You can choose how you think. You will be surprised how it transforms you.

The Buddha said that just as a skilled carpenter might knock out and remove a course peg by means of a fine one, so if a negative and harmful thought arises we knock it out with a positive and helpful thought. Our thoughts are often ranting away, and if they are negative they can really effect us, both physically and mentally. We need to get a grip.

Three kinds of thought

In the sutta prior to the one I’m commenting on the Buddha describes three kinds of unskillful thought. These are thoughts based on sensual pleasure, on ill-will, and on cruelty.


Some of the most damaging are those thoughts of ill-will connected with self-hate and unnecessary self-criticism. We can do something about these thoughts. Now we have to be careful here because we don’t want to strengthen the old ego – that’s strong enough! The thoughts aren’t me or you, and neither is the mind; they are all just empty processes. But they are processes that can be manipulated. We simply want to put in place of negative thoughts, positive and encouraging thoughts. Simple. So, for instance, the other night I was going to Banbury for a talk. Sometimes when I go thoughts like: “I’m not going to give a very good talk, I’m going to be really boring.” come up beforehand, and I start to feel negative. And so I knock out those ‘coarse pegs’ – those negative thoughts, with some positive and helpful ones. I deliberately say in my mind: “You’ll be fine, what are you worrying about. You’ll give a good talk”. I gently say this and my mood brightens.


A word of warning: I obviously could have gone too far and really have psyched myself up: “YOU’RE THE BEST SPEAKER IN THE WORLD!!!!!!! THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT’S GONNA HIT EM!!!!! GO MANAPO, GO MANAPO, GO MANAPO, GO!!!!!!!!” Then I’d have charged into that meditation room like Mike Tyson charging into a boxing ring, pumping my fists in the air and trying to give everyone high five and shouting “COME ONNNN!!! COME ONNN!!! …WOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”. Clearly I’d have been unwise there.

So I didn’t do that. I gently inserted a few positive thoughts and kept repeating them and they began to shape my mind.

And with ill-will towards others too. Change “She is such so stupid” to “She is so kind”. Change “He’s taken the last piece of cake!!!” to “I’m so happy he’s having that nice piece of cake!”. Change “I hate myself!” to “I love myself!” This might seem mechanical, but it will change you.

Sensual desire

One of the types of thought that the Buddha warned us against are thoughts of sensuality. Now of course we all like to eat well and hear nice sounds but we must be careful to keep the pleasures of the senses in moderation. After all, the bliss of renunciation and letting go, and the refined states of concentration, and ultimately Nibbana, are infinitely more sublime and satisfying. There is no comparison. So if thoughts of sensual pleasure are charging like raging bulls, and you know it’s too much, you insert a few wise thoughts, thoughts of letting go and on the disadvantages of overindulgence. So here we can put to use our thoroughly comprehensive experience of the drawbacks of sense pleasures and create thoughts like: “This happiness of letting go and freedom from desire is far superior”, or “You know what it feels like after you’ve eaten too much!”. By doing that the low and ignoble thoughts of uncontrolled sensuality subside.

The Day of the Scone

In the early days of monastic training meal times at the monastery assume a similar function to that of a lighthouse. One’s sole objective is to make it to that meal! Now when you only eat one meal a day that light is pretty damn bright. Naturally I used to make the most of it.

One time I was very pleased to see some scones,. I love scones. All that butter and clotted cream and ruby red strawberry jam lightly pressed between two buttery scones. Hungry? Well here they were and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity. So I duly loaded up the ingredients on to the scone and placed it in my bowl. My mind was awash with sensual thoughts connected with this delicious scone.

NOW, how do you feel when your mind is buzzing with thoughts of sensuality? It affects your whole being. You become restless, you become irritable, your mind starts to resemble that of a hungry pig! You may even sweat and mumble incoherently. The list goes on. This is why these thoughts are to be dealt with. It is no exaggeration to say that we become slaves to thoughts of sensuality.

Back to the scone. I lifted it up to my mouth and began to bite into it. Unfortunately the two slices of scone surrounding the little lump of calories was a touch on the hard side. It wasn’t stale, it was just slightly hard. Now you may guess what happened next. And this is where the drawbacks of sensuality become as obvious as a million flashing red lights in the night sky. I bit in and, sploooj. The two sides of the scone squeezed the contents out!!! It was ruined!!! After all that.

It was a good lesson on the drawbacks of sensuality. I actually told Luangpor about this after the meal and he made this same point.

So now, if there’s a scone, I might bring in the troops, the thoughts of wisdom, and knock out the thoughts of shameless desire, and I cultivate peace and letting go: “You know what happened before! These things are unfailingly unsatisfactory. They let you down.” And I help to establish serenity, which is far more tasty than a scone!

Ultimately, we will ‘think whatever thought we want to think, and we will not think any thought we don’t want to think’ (MN, 20). Take control and be positive.

The next teaching will be on:

The Half Moon Day, Friday, 29th February

Photos from our recent Thai trip are now in my PHOTO ALBUM.

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