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In the Theravadin Pali Canon, the Vitakka-saṇṭhāna Sutta is the twentieth discourse in the Majjhima Nikaya (MN) and is thus often designated by "MN 20"; in the Pali Text Society (PTS) edition of the Canon, this text begins on the 118th page of the first volume of its three-volume Majjhima Nikaya (M), and is thus alternately represented as "M i 118".
Title and content
English translations have employed several different titles for the Vitakka-saṇṭhāna Sutta, including The Removal of Distracting Thoughts, The Discursively Thinking Mind, and The Relaxation of Thoughts.
The Vitakka-saṇṭhāna Sutta describes five approaches for overcoming negative thoughts. Translators into English have used different terms to designate the purpose, nature, and components of these approaches. One translation begins by stating that
Other translators or commentators refer to five "things," "signs,":211 or "strategies".:128 The purpose of these five approaches is variously described as attaining "higher consciousness," "higher mind,":211 "developing the mind", "heightened mind", or "freedom".:128 To implement these approaches, one is enjoined to "reflect on", "give attention to",:211 "attend to", or "employ":128 each approach.
In describing the first of the five approaches, the sutta uses the analogy of a carpenter's peg. In the language of one translation, when the mind has become filled with hatred or illusion by dwelling on a bad ("adventitious") object, the aspirant (bhikku) should replace the bad thought with a good ("skilled") thought (Pali: tato nimittato aññam nimittam):
Like an experienced carpenter or carpenter's apprentice, striking hard at, pushing out, and getting rid of a coarse peg with a fine one, should the bhikkhu in order to get rid of the adventitious object, reflect on a different object which is connected with skill.
If thoughts still arise that are "negative":128 or "evil":211 and "unskilled", "unwholesome",:211 or "demeritorious," the second recommended approach is as follows: The aspirant should "reflect on the consequences",:133 "ponder on the disadvantages" "examine the danger[s]",:211 or "scrutinize the drawbacks" of such thoughts (Pali: manasikatabbam).
If negative thoughts still continue to arise, the third approach is "withdrawing attention":135 — that is, the aspirant should "not attend", "not give attention",:212 "be without attention and reflection", "pay no mind and pay no attention", or even "forget":212 such thoughts.
If the third approach fails to eliminate negative thoughts, the fourth approach involves going "to the root":138 (Pali: vitakka mula bheda pabbam) by "stilling the thought-formation",:212 "removal of the (thought) source of those unskillful thoughts", "appeasing the whole intentional thought process", or engaging in "the relaxing of thought-fabrication". The sutta compares this to stages of removing the source of physical movement:
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.:212
The fifth approach (Pali: abhinigganhitabbam; Sanskrit: abhinigrahā),:143 to be pursued when the fourth and all previous approaches together fail to eliminate negative thoughts, is to clench the teeth and "subdue and beat down the (evil) mind by the (good) mind", just as one man may do physical violence to another man.
Commentaries and translations
Several English translations have been done of the Vitakka-saṇṭhāna Sutta, including:
- "The Removal of Distracting Thoughts" (Soma Thera, 1960/1981),
- "The Removal of Distracting Thoughts" (Nanamoli Bhikkhu & Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2005) (as part of a translation of the entire Majjhima Nikaya)
- "The Discursively Thinking Mind" (Sister Uppalavanna) (as part of a translation of the entire Majjhima Nikaya)
- "The Relaxation of Thoughts" (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1997)
- A version of the Pali original of the Majjhima Nikaya, including the Vitakkasanthana Sutta (pp. 103-105), is available in Gotama, Buddha (2012). Majjhima Nikaya: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 978-1478369622. ISBN 1478369620
- "The Removal of Distracting Thoughts" (Soma Thera, 1960/1981), OCLC 40612150 (accessed 4 January 2013)
- Ñāṇamoli, Bhikku; Bhikkhu Bodhi (2005). The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (3rd ed.). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. pp. 211–214. ISBN 086171072X. (original publication 1995) Also online HERE (accessed 4 January 2013)
- "The Discursively Thinking Mind" (Sister Uppalavanna) (accessed 4 January 2013)
- "The Relaxation of Thoughts" (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1997) (accessed 4 January 2013)
- Easwaran, Eknath (2010). Conquest of mind: take charge of your thoughts & reshape your life through meditation (3rd, revised ed.). Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press. ISBN 9781586380472. ISBN 1586380478, OCLC 500801448 Original publication: Easwaran, Eknath (1988). Conquest of mind (1st ed.). Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press. ISBN 0915132508. ISBN 0915132516, OCLC 18520298
- Pali text (transliterated) (beginning at 1.2.10)