Nov 5, 2023
Jenny Hall

Verses from The Dhammapada 91

The Buddha once said “He presses on with his thoughts controlled never looking back to his home, like a swan who has left its pool.” Jenny Hall investigates.



“He presses on with his thoughts controlled never looking back to his home, like a swan who has left its pool.”

This verse concerns Right Thought, a component of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold path.

"He presses on…”

"He" points to the spaciousness of the Buddha nature, the ground of our being. Its abundant energy continually "presses on". In the book, Ceasing of Notions, the monk Emmon describes its function.

“Something emerges and is named, a matter arises and is responded to. The empty heart neither calculates nor compares and so there is no occasion to plan ahead”.

We have to learn to trust it. Usually, we are very anxious not to lose our grip on things. We feel that if we don’t make plans, everything will go awry.

“… with his thoughts controlled…”

When we reflect on the natural world, we see that everything comes to be and ceases to be without any planning at all. That is why we smile at the cartoon depicting two hippos. One says to the other "I keep thinking it is Tuesday!”

We keep thinking about all sorts of unnecessary things. Most are totally unrelated to what is occurring and actually obscure it. These thoughts are often repetitive. The same thoughts go round and around in circles, as symbolised by the Wheel of Change. When we are trapped on it, we experience anguish and anxiety.

In Virginia Woolf's story of Mrs Dalloway, there is a character called Septimus Warren Smith. He is suffering from shell-shock after World War I. He is plagued by inner voices and fantasies. He constantly talks to himself. His wife seeks psychiatric help for him but he eventually takes his own life. The main character in the book, Clarissa Dalloway, like us, spends a great deal of time daydreaming. Her head is full of reveries but she doesn't articulate them. Whatever the state of our mental health we are all in thrall to these inner monologues.

Studies reveal that most of our fantasies are concerned with pleasure. We fantasise about obtaining our desires and escaping what we dislike. This reinforces what the Buddha taught. He said our thoughts are driven by desire and anger known as the fires.

However, ‘I’ cannot control what comes up in the mind. Desire and hate that drive thought and intentional action are the result of previous conditioning. As the Buddha expressed it, "this arises, that becomes". This is how karma is created. Conditioned views make up "me"; they cause endless suffering. They obscure the Buddha nature.

In the following story, the hostility experienced by the ugly duckling is the result of the conditioned views of the mother duck, the other ducklings, the animals and the farmer’s wife.

One day a brood of ducklings hatched.

All were golden yellow except for one large grey one. He looked so unusual that the mother duck took an instant dislike to him. She told him he was ugly and neglected him. He felt very miserable. It wasn't long before the ducklings were swimming gracefully around in the river. The ugly duckling however looked very ungainly. The other ducklings laughed at him and when they all walked down to the farmyard all the animals joined in the abuse. The ugly duckling ran away and hid in some reeds. A kindly farmer spotted him. He took the ugly duckling home where he lived in the farmhouse. The ugly duckling continued to grow bigger and bigger. He was always bumping into things. One day he knocked over a pan of milk. The farmer's wife decided he was too clumsy to keep. She chased him out of the farmyard. The end of the story points to the possibility of release from ‘me’ and all my suffering.

“… never looking back to his home like a swan who has left the pool."

The ugly duckling wandered down to a nearby pool. There were three snowy white swans gliding on the water. They called to him to join them. He lowered his head to enter the water. Looking back was a stately swan. The ugly duckling had vanished. In delight he cried "I am a swan". He swam majestically to his family. With a loud beating of wings, they rose into the air and flew away.

When we bow our heads, like the ugly duckling lowering his head to the water, thoughts empty out. The empty heart reflects clearly what is occurring in the same way as the swan’s true image is reflected in the water. When we become intimate with the fires and invite them to burn me away, the energy is transmuted into choiceless awareness. It is no longer wasted in thought streams. In this awareness, empty of ‘I’, as the swan is united with his family, there is communion with all.

Right Thinking is seeing when the heart is once again filling up with my thinking. All that is needful is to be aware. We bow towards everything that arises. We give ourselves wholeheartedly into it. As we fill up again with thoughts so we give ourselves over and over again with the same energy that the swans displayed as they left the pool. This is the heart of Zen practice.

In the flowing of the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha nature, the daily vow to benefit all sentient beings is fulfilled.

Dharma Centre

We have just launched our online Dharma Centre. All are welcome...

Join our Community!


The virtue of generosity, charity or giving. Your donations are welcomed.

Learn more