Someone asked me about this rather Zen-ish saying yesterday, which has been ascribed to the Buddha in several books going back to the 1980s, as well as more recently in the usual social media channels.
— Zen Proverbs (@ZenProverbs) April 21, 2015
This seems to be an adaptation of something written by Aldous Huxley, and found in his “Complete Essays: 1939-1956,” page 206.
In Zen the virgin consciousness was called Wu-nien or Wuh-sin—nomind or no-thought. “Taking hold of the not-thought which lies in thought,” says Hakuin in his Song of Meditation, “they (the men of insight) hear in every act they perform the voice of truth.” No-thought not-thinks about the world in terms of no-things. “Seeing into no-thingness,” says Shen-hui, “this is true seeing and eternal seeing.” Words and notions are convenient, are indeed indispensable; for our humanity depends upon their use. The virgin not-thinker makes use of words and notions; but he is careful not to take them too seriously, he never permits them to re-create the world of immediate experience in their drearily human image, he is on his guard…
As you can see, the words are not presented as a quotation, let alone attributed to the Buddha. Huxley’s version is rather simpler: “No-thought not-thinks about the world in terms of no-things.” It seems that somewhere along the line someone thought that this wasn’t obscure enough, and converted the expression to “The no-mind not-thinks no-thoughts about no-things.”
This kind of statement is very Zen. In fact in the Platform Sutra, we read something that may have been the prototype of Huxley’s statement:
Good friends, in this teaching of mine, from ancient times up to the present, all have set up no-thought [munen] as the main doctrine, non-form [musō] as the substance, and non-abiding [mujū] as the basis. Non-form is to be separated from form even when associated with form. No-thought is not to think even when involved in thought. Non-abiding is the original nature of man.
Despite being called a “sutra,” The Platform Sutra doesn’t claim to be the word of the Buddha, but is the work of Hui Neng, the Sixth Zen Patriarch.