The Second Arrow: Thoughts that Kill

"LOTUS" Photo Credit: allenwutheking via Compfight cc

“LOTUS” Photo Credit: allenwutheking via Compfight cc

Siddhartha Gautama, or simply the Buddha as he would later be known, lived in eastern India somewhere around 400 BCE. The Buddha, meaning, “awakened one,” spoke of a Middle Way, or halfway point, between hedonism and asceticism, permanence and nihilism, existence and nonexistence. The Buddha’s teachings would later inspire the nontheistic religion of Buddhism. (Warder, 2000)

After the Buddha’s death, his followers preserved his teachings in a strictly oral tradition. However, disagreement soon developed regarding the exact interpretation of Buddhist doctrine. Between 200 and 300 years after the Buddha’s death, Buddhism split into two branches. These two branches would give rise to many different schools of Buddhism, but the two major surviving schools today are the Theravada, “School of Elders,” tradition and the Mahayana, “Great Vehicle,” tradition. Theravada Buddhism is practiced mostly in South Asia while Mahayana Buddhism is found throughout East Asia. (Bronkhorst, 1993)

Around 500 CE Mahayana Buddhism was interpreted through the Chinese Taoist eye, giving birth to Chan, the precursor to Zen Buddhism. Chan traveled eastward, eventually flourishing in Japan as Zen Buddhism around 1100 CE.

The Buddha’s teachings were first recorded in writing more than 400 years after his death. One of the first and most complete written accounts of the Buddha’s teachings is known as the Pali Canon and is many thousands of pages long. The original Pali Canon was written in 29 BCE at the Fourth Buddhist Council in Sri Lanka and became the central scripture for the Theravada Buddhist tradition. (Wynne, 2003)

The Pali Canon is known as the Tipitaka, or “three baskets,” in Pali. The “three baskets” refers to the three divisions of the Pali Canon and the respective traditional containers, or baskets, in which the separate scrolls were stored. (Gombrich, 2006)

The Sutra Pitaka, “Sayings Basket,” contains the teachings of the Buddha and his closest disciples. The Vinaya Pitaka, or “Discipline Basket,” deals primarily with the rules of monastic life. The Abhidharma Pitaka consists of the scholarly reinterpretation of the material contained in the Sutra Pitaka. (Gombrich, 2006)

Today we will examine a sutra contained within the Samyutta Nikayaor Connected Discourses,” section of the Sutra Pitaka. Because of the similarities between the Samyutta Nikaya and another text known as the Samyukta Agama generated by separate early Buddhist schools, the Samyutta Nikaya is believed to represent the only collection of sutras to be finalized before Buddhist philosophy diverged over the interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings. Thus, the Samyutta Nikaya is believed to be one of the most authentic versions of what the Buddha and his closest disciples actually taught. (Bodhi, 2003)

It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition.” ~ Henry James

Today’s article will focus on just one sutra of among the nearly 3000 sutras contained within the Samyutta Nikaya.

BUDDHA Photo Credit: raichovak via Compfight cc

BUDDHA Photo Credit: raichovak via Compfight cc

In the Sallatha Sutra, the Buddha, speaking to a group of monks, explains:

“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.” (Bhikkhu, 1997)

By “uninstructed run-of-the-mill person,” the Buddha is referring to the individual attached to his or her ego and his or her thoughts. This translated description may sound disparaging, but the original Pali conveys a spirit of compassion directed towards such Ego-identified people.

Let’s look at an example to help clarify my understanding of the rest of the Buddha’s message.

LAUNDRY BASKET Photo Credit: Marcelo Nava via Compfight cc

LAUNDRY BASKET Photo Credit: Marcelo Nava via Compfight cc

Imagine that your partner left the laundry basket in the middle of the hallway over night. You wake up in the middle of the night, walk down the darkened hallway towards your bathroom, and then, Wham! Pain shoots through your foot and up your leg as your toe smashes into the heavy laundry basket.

The initial unadulterated pain, courtesy of your heavy laundry basket, is the first arrow that the Buddha refers to. This pain is the natural realization of Newton’s third law: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. You kicked the laundry basket with some force and so the laundry basket returned the favor with the same force aimed in the opposite direction (unfortunately for you, towards your foot).

Following the initial impact, your A delta peripheral nerve fibers fire off their “fast” pain signal from your foot to your spinal cord, traveling along the neospinothalamic track to the somatosensory cortex in your brain. Within a tenth of a second, about a third of the time it takes you to blink, you become aware of the sharp pain emanating from your foot (Burr, 2005).

This sharp pain is a harbinger of the deep, dull pain just moments away. This delayed pain is conveyed by your C-type peripheral nerve fibers, which relay the impact at a sluggish pace along the paleospinothalamic tract. The pain arrives at your somatosensory cortex in about the time it would take you blink 2-3 times (Purves et al., 2001). The pain, courtesy of your paleospinothalamic tract, is burning, diffuse, and dull. Unfortunately, this pain is also more intense and of a longer duration than the “fast” pain associated with your A delta fibers.

Now you are experiencing the first arrow of pain in all of its glory. If you did not engage in your thoughts, you would simply ride the waves of pain as they gradually subsided, limp to the bathroom, and then return to bed.

Unfortunately, unless you are a very enlightened individual, the injury does not end at the first arrow.

NEURONS Photo Credit: Birth Into Being via Compfight cc

NEURONS Photo Credit: Birth Into Being via Compfight cc

Very shortly after your A delta and C fibers have begun to play their concerto of agony on your somatosensory cortex your prefrontal cortex enters the fray. Your prefrontal cortex, as you may remember from previous articles, is responsible for decision-making, formal cognition, and emotional processing.

Your prefrontal cortex quickly shakes off the fog of sleep as the scalpel’s edge of pain slices through your consciousness. The prefrontal cortex’s engine begins revving up as it assesses the damage to your foot, the object that caused said damage, and the potential dangers concealed within your darkened hallway.

Very quickly your prefrontal cortex reaches back into a memory encoded by your hippocampus of your partner leaving the offending object in the middle of the hallway. This memory prompts your prefrontal cortex to assign a cause and effect explanation to the situation: partner’s ineptitude + carelessly placed laundry basket = I HURT!

Once this cause and effect equation has entered your consciousness your prefrontal cortex begins casting line after line, fishing into the depths of your mind for an explanation of why your partner left the laundry basket in the middle of the hallway.

Pain tends to bring out the indignity in most of us, so it is likely that you either take your partner’s motives too personally or are too harsh in judging his or her incompetence and lack of foresight.

You come up with various theories to explain why your partner left the laundry basket for you to run into. Your theories range from a carefully hatched revenge laundering as a response to your absence at a social function the prior week to a simple case of irreversible stupidity. These wild theories are fueled by the amygdala, or as I have referred to it in previous articles, the Emoter.

The amygdala/Emoter first got involved as soon as the pain made its entry into your brain. The amygdala/Emoter immediately triggered your fight-or-flight response in the unlikely event that the laundry basket got up and pursued you after you extricated your stubbed toe from its flank. The fight-or-flight response was made possible by the generous support of your sympathetic nervous system and its favorite chemical, adrenaline.

CLOUD Photo Credit: hichako via Compfight cc

CLOUD Photo Credit: hichako via Compfight cc

Now, as anyone who has experienced the clouding effects of adrenaline can tell you, we tend not to make the most logical cognitive appraisals while our bodies are infused with this noxious chemical. With this in mind, you may be able to forgive yourself for your judgmental conclusions regarding your partner’s motives.

Perhaps we should conclude this hypothetical scenario before it gets any more out of hand. That second arrow can be a real doozy!

Now let’s turn the clock back to the first arrow. Your foot hurt and you were slightly more awake than before your unfortunate confrontation with the impetuous laundry basket, but your mind was no worse for wear. However, because you mentally resisted the first arrow and tried to argue with reality, you loosed a second arrow directed squarely at yourself.

Why do we let fly a second arrow?

The human brain evolved to find cause and effect. The mammoth that caused the hoof print could be tracked with this causal relationship in mind. Thus, the cause and effect engine earned our trust by keeping our bellies full and our heads on our shoulders for many thousands of years. However, like all great tools, there is a limit to the use of the cause and effect relationship.

When we try to apply cause and effect reasoning to events larger than our current interpretative capacity, we are sure to draw inaccurate conclusions.

For example, in Medieval Europe, physicians believed that disease was caused by an imbalance in the four humours (fluids): black bile, yellow bile, phlegm (mucous), and blood.

Physicians observed the relationship between phlegm and lung disease and concluded that excess phlegm caused lung disease. The association was correct, but the cause and effect directionality was reversed because of the relative immaturity of medical knowledge at the time.

There are innumerable historical examples of such errors in causation, and science continues to overturn hypothesized causative relationships daily. Of course, these errors are not isolated to the field of science.

We occupy a world of staggering complexity. All but the most basic of daily events are impervious to our causative investigation.

Despite the futility of assigning causation, we are driven as a species to explain every aspect of our daily life. The human mind equates explanation with mastery. And mastery provides a sense of comfort and safety. Thus, the second arrow is generated out of a mistaken belief that an understanding of a given situation would somehow relieve the first arrow.

The Buddha taught his disciples that there is no relief from the first arrow. Pain is pain. The reason for the pain is only important if it immediately releases the subject from danger. In our example with a benign laundry basket, an explanation is meaningless. So too, is arguing with an event in the Past, a time forever displaced by the Present.

Alright, I get what you’re saying, but how does this help me now that I’ve stubbed my toe and revved up my prefrontal cortex?

The answer is as simple and as complex as letting go.

Don’t add a third arrow by punishing yourself for the second. Just allow your prefrontal cortex to try to explain. Let go of any notion of controlling your reactive mind and just continue past the laundry basket to the bathroom.

Imagine two selves: a small self and a Big Self.

The small self believes in the unassailable reality of its thoughts and emotions. The small self believes that when your brain creates a feeling of sadness, the world is filled only with Sad. The small self experiences fear when it feels Happy because it anticipates the loss of this joy. The small self believes that the world disappears when it sleeps and reappears when it wakes. The small self is trapped in the delusion of separateness and other, confined within the walls of the body.

MIRROR Photo Credit: "Mauricio" ~Vindur í...~ via Compfight cc

MIRROR Photo Credit: “Mauricio” ~Vindur í…~ via Compfight cc

The Big Self is a mirror. The Big Self is behind and beyond these thoughts and emotions. The Big Self reflects Happy when the mind is happy and Sad when the mind is sad. The Big Self is not attached to these reflections, but is not remote from them either.

The Big Self is an infinite expanse of reflectivity that is completely open to any and all experiences. The Big Self smiles and laughs with all emotions, humored by the intimate knowledge of their transiency.

So when you stub your toe and your mind begins to put forth explanation after indignation after rationalization, just embrace the Big Self. You stubbed your toe; that moment has passed; the pain is Now. Allow the Big Self to nonjudgmentally reflect the pain and your rationalizing thoughts, move the laundry basket, and continue your journey to the bathroom.

Before closing our discussion of the second arrow I’d like to add one more layer to the analogy.

The second arrow is not a projectile exclusive to physical pain. In fact, we pierce ourselves with a second arrow over hypothetical suffering and even pleasure.

Let’s look at the hypothetical suffering first.

You buy a new puppy and name him Spot. You teach Spot to sit, lie down, and shake. Spot tries to teach you how to love unconditionally and live only in the Now (I say “try” because qualities so natural to animals are unbelievably hard for humans to embody fully).

FRENCH BULLDOG Photo Credit: via Compfight cc

FRENCH BULLDOG Photo Credit: via Compfight cc

A few years go by and you and Spot grow closer and closer. At some point on this journey, however, the thought, “I don’t want Spot to die,” creeps into your mind. The more joy Spot gives you, the stronger your anxiety over his mortality becomes. This anxiety is another form of the second arrow.

In the interest of time I will be blunt. Spot is going to die. You are going to die. I am going to die. These are the contracts with which we entered into upon being born. Death, in an ultimate sense, is neither good nor bad. Death is nothing more than a seasonal change on a larger scale.

Despite these inevitable eventualities, there is no need to die twice, let alone many times. Each time you worry about Spot’s death you are missing a few seconds or minutes of his life. You kill Spot over and over again in your mind, experiencing the anguish and sadness inherent to the act. In reality, Spot will die and you will experience this anguish and sadness — but only once.

The mourning over the passing of a loved one is a natural expression on the continuum of joy. If we turn joy inside out we find a joy-full mourning; a mourning filled with the joy of the loved one’s life and time spent with us.

This mourning is extremely painful but beautiful in that it stands as a monument to the depth of our love for the lost individual.

But the obsessive mourning of imagined future losses does not possess this same quality of joy. A brief acknowledgement of mortality reminds us to appreciate the Now more fully. But an obsessional wallowing steals the Now and replaces it with hollow sadness and fear.

Spot will die. But right now, he is alive. And your love for him is best expressed in a joyful presence, not in future imagined anguish.

Now let’s examine how the second arrow manifests itself in our experience of pleasure.

You are getting married next week. All of your friends and family will be flying in to attend and you are very excited. You have dreamt of this day for years; and you are hopelessly in love with your partner.

But then a storm cloud thought obscures your sunny reminiscing: “My wedding day will come and go, all my friends and family will leave, and then the day I’ve been looking forward to for so long will be gone forever.”

The more you hold on to the joy of the coming day, the more sad and regretful you become over your anticipated loss.

SUNSET Photo Credit: petalouda62 via Compfight cc

SUNSET Photo Credit: petalouda62 via Compfight cc

Again, we can look at this situation bluntly. Your wedding day will pass. As all days do, forever merging with the Past. But the Now is eternal.

When you obsess about your future loss of your wedding day you are dead to the Present, to the Now. This obsession is a second arrow. The day will come and go and you will naturally mourn its passing. But only once. There is no need to suffer the loss many times over before the actual passing of this anticipated day.

So you see, there is no need for second arrows. Whether it is physical or mental pain, the pain is enough in its raw form. You will naturally grieve and absorb the pain as it comes and goes. It is up to you to determine whether or not you choose to loose secondary thought arrows and keep the wounds fresh.


Bhikkhu, T. (1997, January 1). Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow. Retrieved January 16, 2015, from

Bodhi, B. (2003). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha.

Bronkhorst, J. (1993). The two traditions of meditation in ancient India. Motilal Banarsidass Publ..

Burr, D. (2005). Vision: in the blink of an eye. Current biology15(14), R554-R556.

Gombrich, R. F. (2006). Theravada Buddhism: A social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo. Routledge.

Purves, D., Augustine, G. J., Fitzpatrick, D., Hall, W. C., LaMantia, A. S., McNamara, J. O., & White, L. E. (2001). Neuroscience. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates3.

Warder, A. K. (2000). Indian Buddhism (Vol. 6). Motilal Banarsidass Publ..

Wynne, A. (2003). How Old is the Sutta-Piṭaka? The relative value of textual and epigraphical sources for the study of early Indian Buddhism. St John’s College, Oxford.

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2 Responses

  1. TheWanderingMind says:

    Loved it. Very eloquently written. I struggle with the third arrow more than the second one but this article has made a lot of things clear. Hope I can apply this knowledge in real life which, I guess is the trickiest bit.

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