Do I choose my thoughts?
This can be a very interesting question to explore, as it goes right to the core of our assumptions and beliefs in relation to issues such as identity and free will. So let’s have a look! I’ll be leaning quite heavily, in the course of the exploration, on the framework of the Three Natures Of Existence -- so if you haven’t already, I’d suggest reading at least the overview page of that essay first.
The general structure for exploring this question -- “Do I choose my thoughts?” -- will be to make explicit three possible meanings of “I” and two possible meanings of “thoughts.” We’ll also notice two distinct connotations of “choice.”
The three possible meanings of “I” in relation to this question are:
(1) “I” as a separate being -- an inherently existent, independent, self-contained, unchanging “me.” This is the “I” of the Imaginary Nature.
(2) “I” as my True Self, the Light of Tao, Pure Awareness, Dharmakaya. This is the “I” of the Completely-Existent Nature (a la a Shentong view).
(3) “I” as the Five Skandhas of a “human bodymind.” This is the “I” of the Dependent Nature.
The two possible meanings of “thoughts” in relation to this question are:
(1) Thoughts perceived to be inherently existent, separate and unchanging in the same way as the “I” of the Imaginary Nature is conceived to be inherently-existent, separate and unchanging.
(2) Thoughts as “events” corresponding to patterns of thinking/perception, whose specific appearances are governed by probability distributions.
The two distinct connotations of “choice” we’ll explore are: choice in the sense of “deciding among options”; and choice in the sense of "unconditional acceptance" or "nondual embrace."
Do I As A Separate Being Choose My Thoughts?
Since the separate being -- an inherently independent, unchanging “me” -- has no existence other than as a mistaken concept, such a being -- being wholly imaginary -- has no causal agency. In other words: it simply cannot and therefore does not “do” anything, including (as a special case) “choosing thoughts.”
The situation here is similar to considering the question: “Does Santa Claus choose his thoughts?” Santa Claus does not choose his thoughts for the simple, and somewhat trivial, reason that Santa Claus “himself” has no real existence. I may have within my mind a concept/idea/thought of Santa Claus -- but that concept has no actually-existent referent. If I believe it to have an actually-existent referent, I’m simply mistaken; and if -- building upon this mistaken belief -- I also believe the wholly-fictional Santa Claus to possess various powers and capacities, e.g. to “choose his thoughts,” I am, once again, simply mistaken.
The “me” believed to be an inherently-existent, separate and unchanging entity is identical, in terms of its ontological status, to Santa Claus (and unicorns, and neon-purple elephants etc.).
So no -- I do not, as a separate “me,” choose my thoughts -- because such a “me” belongs exclusively to the Imaginary Nature, and so has no capacity, as such, to “do” anything.
Do I As My True Self Choose My Thoughts?
While the question of the previous section turned out to be equivalent to asking “Does Santa Claus choose his thoughts” -- the question here turns out to be equivalent to asking “Does God choose his/her thoughts?” And the answer, by definition if you will, is of course, yes! Being all-powerful and all-knowing, there is nothing (including “choosing of thoughts”) that God cannot do.
The meaning of “choice” is however quite different from that of the previous section. While in the previous section, choice was understood dualistically (a separate “me” as subject choosing specific “thoughts” as objects), here it is understood in terms of the nondual relationship between Tao and the ten-thousand-things, between Pure Awareness and appearances. Instead of saying “God chooses his/her thoughts” it might be more apt to put it something like: “In the mood of unconditional nondual acceptance, God births, in continuous delight, his/her children.” In other words: all appearances -- including, as a special case, “thoughts” -- arise within and inseparable from Pure Awareness, our True Self.
So yes -- I do indeed, as my True Self, choose my thoughts -- in the sense of saying “yes!” to, and welcoming fully, any and all appearances. In this scenario, both “I” and “my thoughts” belong to the Completely-Existent Nature (via the Shentong interpretation as Clear-Light Nature). Not for a moment are thoughts believed to be anything other than the Pure Awareness (the “I”!) out of which they arise -- and so are self-liberated to arise and be perceived directly as deities, as emanations of the Divine. (This is what in Tibetan Buddhism is referred to as the “unity of primordial purity and spontaneous presence.”)
So far, then, we’ve explored the case of “me” as an inherently-existent, separate entity -- and discovered that as such an apparent entity, I do not choose my thoughts -- for the somewhat trivial (though deeply transformational, when seen) reason that such an “I” has no real existence. So the “me” of the Imaginary Nature -- in being Santa-Claus-like -- does not choose her thoughts.
Then we explored the case of “me” as my True Self -- and discovered that such a “me” does indeed choose his/her thoughts, for the (bordering-on-tautological) reason that -- both by definition and in our deepest experience -- God accomplishes or “does” (in a nondual way) everything, so why would “choosing thoughts” be excluded? So the “me” of the Completely-Existent Nature does choose his/her thoughts.
Do I As The Five Skandhas Choose My Thoughts?
In Buddhism the appearance of a self as a functioning human bodymind is understood in relation to what are known as the Five Skandhas: form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. Together, these ever-shifting patterns of thoughts, feelings and perceptions, along with the physical elements constituting the body, make up what we generally refer to as “me.”
So, do I as my Five Skandhas choose my thoughts? Well, what’s interesting here is that “thoughts” belong to the “mental formations” category of the Five Skandhas, so the question then becomes something like: does one part of me choose another part of me? In the more detailed descriptions (scroll down a bit for the list) of the Five Skandhas, we learn that there are 51 sub-categories within the “mental formation” skandha. Feeling (which in this context simply refers to our experience of something being "pleasant" or "unpleasant") and Perception are two of these 51 -- but because of their importance are also given their own category. The remaining 49 include various “flavors” of thinking -- some wholesome, and others unwholesome (i.e. harmful or unskillful).
So we could, for our purposes here, simplify the Five Skandhas into three: (1) the physical body (Form), (2) Mental Formations (51 total, including Feelings and Perceptions), and (3) Consciousness (what allows us to be aware of any of the other skandhas). To simplify even further, we could notice that our subjective experience of the physical body is actually contained entirely within the Mental Formations category -- since it is only as thoughts, sensations and perceptions that we “know” our body directly.
So what would it mean for “me” as the Five Skandhas to choose my thoughts? What it would mean, basically, is that one Mental Formation (among the 51 possible sub-categories) “chooses” another Mental Formation, i.e. that one thought chooses another thought. Or that Consciousness (which in this context simply means the capacity to “be aware of” a specific perception or thought) chooses a thought. But do thoughts, in and of themselves, have the “power to choose”? Or does the capacity to “be aware of” a specific mental object imply the “power to choose” -- in the sense of deciding among options -- that mental object? It would be difficult to make a case for either of these scenarios.