Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cittavagga: The Mind

I don’t know if members of the industrial metal band Ministry have ever read anything by the Buddha, but the title of their fourth album – “The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste” – goes to the heart of Buddhist doctrine. Virtually everything the Buddha taught, from his lessons to Rahula to the descriptions of Jhana, revolves around taming the mind, bringing focus to one’s mind so that discernment develops. Without discernment – the ability to tell the difference between what is skillful and unskillful, what brings good results and what brings negative results – I continue to create kamma that keeps me bound to the endless cycle of my mundane existence. I continue to feel restless and dissatisfied; I continue to experience dukha.

The third chapter of the Dhammapada quickly gets to the point with the opening verse to the Citttavaga.

“Quivering, wavering,
hard to guard,
to hold in check:
the mind.”

I particularly like the visual associated with this verse:

“Like a fish
pulled from its home in the water
& thrown on land:
this mind flips & flaps about
to escape Mara’s sway.”

Our experiences with meditation provide plenty of evidence of how difficult it is to keep our mind focused on something as simple as breathing. We’ve come up with plenty of ways to describe the mind, often using various animals to portray it: the monkey mind is a common metaphor in the Tipitika, and meditation is frequently compared with taming an elephant. Elephants and monkeys aren’t ubiquitous here in North America, which is why the notion of the “squirrel mind” is more meaningful, a moniker that Kyle uses along with photos of squirrels at Zen River.

However, there is a reason why taming an elephant was the dominant metaphor in the Buddha’s teaching on how to control the mind. While the antics of a monkey or a squirrel are excellent at portraying how fickle the mind can be, how it jumps about from one thing to another, the metaphor of taming an elephant gets to the heart of what the mind is, or rather, what it is not.

First, let’s look at verse 37 in the Cittavaga:

“Wandering far,
going alone,
lying in a cave:
the mind.
Those who restrain it:
from Mara’s bonds
they’ll be freed.”

The commentary explains that the cave is the body. The verse is describing the mind as being bodiless, yet it dwells within a cave. Just as the Buddha has instructed that I am not my body, I am also not my mind. Rather, I can use the mind like a tool to attain freedom.

This is why I prefer using the simile of a wild bronco to describe the mind, as it is more meaningful to my American way of thinking, and the wild bronco has the essential characteristics embodied in the elephant. When taming an elephant, the animal is often tied to a tree. Similarly, when a wild horse is to be “broken,” it is frequently tied to a post within a corral. Meditation is how we restrain the mind; like the wild horse tied to the post, we “tie” our mind to breath. But the horse rebels against this restraint, pulling violently at the rope in an effort to escape.

Eventually, the horse ceases its struggling and becomes calm. But it’s not over yet. The horse isn’t broken yet. Because the next step is to saddle and get on the horse to ride it. And if you’ve ever seen a Western movie, you know what happens then; the horse rebels against the saddle and rebels against having a rider on it. But if the rider is persistent, he or she eventually tames the horse and is then able to use the horse for many purposes; the horse gives in and allows itself to be directed by the rider.

And if you’ve seen as many Western movies as I have, you know something else about the horse/rider relationship. That the rider develops a strong personal relationship with the horse, and the horse develops devotion to the rider; each becomes mutually dependent on the other.

Having this type of relationship with one’s mind is essential, as revealed in the last verses:

“Whatever an enemy might do
to an enemy,
or a foe to a foe,
the ill-directed mind
can do to you
even worse.

Whatever a mother, father
or other kinsman
might do for you,
the well-directed mind
can do for you
even better.”

The above are beautiful verses; almost as sublime as the opening verses to The Pairs.


  1. Thanks for the nod! I like the comparison of rider and horse from the old Westerns, I think that is very fitting.

    Love The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. :-)

    Good Post.

  2. Thanks Kyle, I appreciate it! A great movie that has an outstanding sequence of Gregory Peck attempting to break a horse is "The Big Country."

    BTW, how do you get your squirrels to pose for you? ;-)