How does thought arise?

This question, “How does thought arise?” is a classic koan. It comes in many forms, and I’ve met it in various ways, as I expect many of you have.

In the book I describe two encounters with this question. The first is on a Mahamudra retreat at John Crook’s farmhouse in Wales. Here the question was embedded in a longer series of similar questions concerning the difference between the mind moving in thought and the mind resting in tranquillity. I struggle painfully with the question, trying to find an answer, thinking I have found one, realising I haven’t and so on. I describe the interviews I had with John and other events on the retreat.

The second is many years later when I returned to the question sitting on my own in my garden shed at home. The question seems rather different all those years later.

Before you read the chapter you might like to have a go at this question yourself. Where do thoughts come from? So often in meditation we find ourselves in the midst of a great long chain of thoughts. Where did it start?

Maybe you’ve worked with this question before and can share your experiences with the rest of us.

You can Listen to my ramblings on this question.

Then you’ll find most of Chapter 5 on my TenZen site.

9 Responses to “How does thought arise?”

  1. peeked Says:

    I’ve tried watching my thoughts for years. I compare what happens to lucid dreaming. When I have a lucid dream, I become very alert and aware of my dream surroundings and to the fact that I am dreaming. A minute before I became aware, my dream simply proceeded along without any conscious awareness, no matter how absurd. Once I become aware, the dream no longer just carries me along. I have an active role, and can change the course of my dream. But the unconscious flow of the dream stops, and the only way I can get back into that flow is to forget that I am dreaming again and get carried away by the dream.

    The same thing happens when I try to watch thoughts. The flow of my thoughts stops. I can resume thinking consciously, but my thoughts go slower and more deliberately, awkward, as if I am talking out loud to myself. They don’t branch off on random tangents and go willy nilly.

    How does thought arise? I got a chance to watch for a couple hours, and I started feeling frustrated. Every time I caught myself thinking, my thoughts got interrupted by my attention. I go back to watching my breathing. When I watch my breathing, at least I can maintain my focus of attention. But that focus still alters and slows down the flow of my thoughts. I can watch them, but I feel my interference and participation in them. Like having a sock puppet on my hand and pretending to have “stream of consciousness”. The stream does not flow until the “I” that watches goes unconsciously into the flow, like going into a dream.

    I tried something different. I started thinking gibberish. Just nonsense sounds- la gu mez ba jem ablu av mung mel ag ra….like that except less specific, more mumbley . In this way I can watch my thoughts without controlling them. I can watch them flow without getting carried away by the content. When I do this I see that thoughts arise from my body, not from my brain. My thinking in words rides on top of the energy impulses from my body.

    Not that I consider this an answer to the question: that some molecules in my body hit some receptors and my brain spins the resulting impulses into a thought. But what can I say? I got nothin’. 😉

  2. jacques79 Says:

    Does the mind come from brain or does the mind come from Mind? Forget about “hard problem” – different substances cannot give rise to each other. When you look in your mind you can see that one thought produces another. But what’s below, what’s the substance of mind? Gosh, it’s hard to find! 🙂

  3. jacques79 Says:

    I’ve just read an interesting interview with Sue on “Buddhist Geeks” where they talk about opposition of mind and matter. I just want to add my own opinion about that. I think that we do have two different (altought to some extent pararell) domains like we do have two ways of investigating nature of the Universe (mysticism and science). So, is my view on the “hard problem” dualistical? No, it isn’t!

    What I’d say is that: there is no matter itself as opposition to the mind. It’s just two ways of looking at the same thing. There is not two things but one, only views are different. “Substance” of mind and “substance” of matter is the same thing, but it’s neither mind nor matter. They just don’t posses any sort of intrinsic existence – only relative. Perhaps that’s all what you can say about that and nobody knows how the whole thing happens. But one thing we can be (almost) sure. As great Parmenides said: the substance of the world can be only one. And – as he succesfully proved – this is tautological statement and therefore impossible to refutate.

    In my opinion whole problem with dualism is mainly by-product of Western philosophy mainstream considering atoms and matter as possesing some sort of absolute existence.

  4. jacques79 Says:

    Look at the chair. Is it mind or is it matter?

    The question is what on Earth is the chair itself!

  5. littlebigtoe Says:

    thought is just a word invented to describe something that is felt yet is unfathomable in language. remember, as it has been expressed before, not a single word comes from that place where thoughts arise; no, not even the words of a Buddha.

  6. siriuspeter Says:

    The Zen wind blows my mind away


    Zen story

    Moving Mind
    Two men were arguing about a flag flapping in the wind. “It’s the wind that is really moving,” stated the first one. “No, it is the flag that is
    moving,” contended the second.

    A Zen master, who happened to be walking by, overheard the debate and interrupted them. “Neither the flag nor the wind is moving,” he said, “It is MIND that moves.”

    From the movie: The Matrix … Bending of the spoon at Oracle’s house

    If you remember the incident when Keanu Reeves (Neo) is in Oracle’s house & sees the kid (who looks like a Buddhist) bending the spoon.


    Neo enters and finally understands the attention given to
    his age. The Potentials are all little children.

    The room feels at once like a Buddhist temple and a
    kindergarten class. The children’s heads are either
    shaved or thick with dreadlocks. Some are playing,
    others meditating or practicing their gift.

    Neo watches a little girl levitate wooden alphabet
    blocks. A skinny BOY holds a SPOON which sways like a
    blade of grass as he bends it with his mind.

    Neo crosses to him, sits.

    The Boy smiles as Neo picks up a spoon and tries to
    imitate him. Despite his best efforts, Neo cannot make
    it bend.


    Do not try to bend the spoon that’s impossible,
    instead only try to realize the truth.

    Neo watches as it curls into a knot.


    What truth ?


    There is no spoon !


    There is no spoon ?


    Then you will see that is not the spoon that bends,
    only yourself.

    Neo nods, again holding up his spoon.

    He concentrates. The spoon begins to bend just as the
    Priestess touches his shoulder.

    The Oracle will see you now.

    Spoon Boy smiles.


    There is no reality
    only shadows
    in my mind…..
    of real spoons

    The Zen wind blows my mind away

    (sirius peter)

  7. jacques79 Says:

    So is there a spoon?
    If you confirm you miss the point.
    If you negate you miss the point.
    A spoon!

  8. luisnunesalberto Says:


    It’s dificult to try to find how thouts arise because it’s not one separate event , you need to consider all your body, your brain and the mind and do it in the eternal now without trying to catch the moment, to catch the moment is to freeze it, it’s to destroy it.
    To understand how the mind works you need to know how the body works, how the brain work in and with the body and why.
    It’s impossible to situate the mind, we can’t even be sure that it is in our body.

    Luis Nunes Alberto

  9. juanitezpaz Says:

    Thank you wonderful people for all your stories, explanations and teachings! Wonderful times are these where we learn to live our true nature again!

    After all contemplation after all this study – oh mind why do you go on thinking shamelessly? All thoughts simply have one root. This root is the first thought in everyone – the thought I. The transcendence of the thought into the experience of the pure I is putting an end to all the subsequent thoughts. In fact mind is a myth that we firmly believe in as we have been told so from early chidhood on. The mind is in itself split therefore it cannot be healed by mere investigation into it. Only clear understanding can dissolve all doubts as doubt is the original matter of all worries and fears. So how does thought arise? It arises out of ignorance it arises out of the split. Our very nature is bliss and out of this bliss all creation, the whole universe evolves. To go to the root, to dwell constantly on the pure feeling of bliss regardless of any distraction is to dive deeper and deeper into the mystery of existence. As we become firm and steady in our experience of our true essence the feeling of seperation melts into the ocean of pure awareness. In fact there is only one truth that appears in all manifestations and it is even proven by quantum physics today. Everything is in fact emptiness and therefore there are no borders between all the objects that float in space. Its all a play of the elements, their essence remains the same. To go outside is to use the mind. Mind appears as the world is perceived as apart from one´s own essence. To see me as empty is to know, as to see that I Am everything is love. (Just a compilation of teachings and words – mind teaching mind about its factual non-existence 🙂

    So the way is of course ZEN: life is a paradox, the mind is a mirror it only reflects what is brought in front of it with no affection to it whatsoever. The enlightened mind is infinitely brighter and radiantly aware so that all thoughts simply dissolve in its light – no matter how much they come up.

    Stay steady and KNOW then mind will bow down to your true essence. It´s you who will help the mind not the other way round.

    Again the world is there but you give meaning to it – a thought has only meaning to you when you believe in it. It is your investment in thoughts as a realitiy that create mind. So it is all a big joke – nothing really happens, everything floats in the space of your/our/my awareness.

    May all beings reach the ultimate awareness in the blink of an eye and remain there for the benefit of the universe!

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