It is Your Mind that Moves
Flap, flap, flapping like a flag
The wind is flapping a temple flag, and two monks started an argument. One said the flag moved, the other said, the wind moved; they argued back and forth but could not reach a conclusion. The Sixth Ancestor walked by and overheard the monks' argument. He said, "It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves." The two monks were awe-struck.—Case 29, The Gateless Gate
When I first read this koan about 15 years ago, it was in a small book that offered a glimpse into the world of Zen through haiku, koans, adages, and art. There were no explanations of the koans, so I had no inkling what “your mind moves” meant. I gave the book to a friend and didn’t think about it until years later when I somehow found myself residing at a Zen monastery. Life is a mystery.
The Sixth Ancestor, a.k.a. Hui-neng (J., Daikan Eno) lived during the T'ang Dynasty (619-906) in China. He is considered the founder of the Southern Ch’an School which taught that enlightenment could be attained “suddenly.” This distinguished it from the Northern School’s teaching that enlightenment happens gradually. Hui-neng (638-713), an illiterate woodcutter, had a sudden, profound awakening as a boy after hearing the verse below from The Diamond Sutra.
“All bodhisattvas should develop a pure lucid mind that doesn't depend upon sight, sound, touch, flavor, smell, or any thought that arises in it. A bodhisattva should develop a mind that functions freely, without depending on anything or any place.”1
The key phrase “without depending” can also be translated as “not dwelling” or “unsupported.” The Sanskrit word for this is apratishitta. The Buddhist scholar (yes, I know, he’s a controversial figure) Edward Conze translates apratishitta in numerous ways:
As applied to relations between two objects:
Not relying on anything
Not carried away by anything
Not clinging to anything
As applied to emotional experience:
Not settling down anywhere
Not making oneself at home anywhere
Not seeking a secure base anywhere
As applied to social relationships:
Not expecting any help from anything
Not believing blindly in anything
Not trusting in anything except perfect wisdom2
As is clear from the above list and the quoted verse, that the main teachings of the The Diamond Sutra is non-attachment and that the essence of mind does not fluctuate. The extraordinary Buddhist scholar Mu Soeng explains that the passage Hui-neng woke up to is a rephrasing of the teaching of emptiness: that Buddha-mind has no characteristics, and in the Mahayana Prajnaparamita sutras, Buddha-mind IS shunyata or emptiness. This verse is also a clear reminder that as Zen practitioners we vow to train the mind to not be duped by the transient, impersonal nature of conditioned phenomena—the six sense organs and their respective objects.
“It is a statement about the culmination of the path of the bodhisattva: although the bodhisattva chooses to stay in samsara, she or he is not seduced by the things of samsara and thus dwells in nirvana, free from any kind of clinging,” Mu Soeng states. “It echoes the Buddha’s injunction that the practitioner abide in complete mindfulness ‘not clinging to anything in the world.’ ” 3
“Wind, flag, mind move—all the same fallacy; only knowing how to open their mouths; not knowing they had fallen into chatter.”—Mumon’s verse on Case 29, The Gateless Gate
According to legend, the “mind moves” koan was Hui-neng’s first teaching after he left the forest where he had been hiding for a decade. The Sixth Ancestor lived with bandits and/or nomadic hunters to escape persecution and possible death by a posse of monks. These monks were disciples of the Fifth Ancestor Hongren and were jealous that an uneducated commoner from the south could have such profound insight and become their teacher’s Dharma heir.
To sum up the Sixth Ancestor’s teaching in two words? Stop clinging! Drop views! Investigate mind! Okay, that’s six words, but each two-word imperative means pretty much the same thing. My understanding of Hui-neng’s admonition is: “If your mind wasn't discursive, if your mind wasn't moving, you wouldn't get caught in arguing about forms and linguistic concepts. And, are these empty, ephemeral objects important enough to get all riled up about?”
Hui-neng startles these monks out of their minds, so to speak, and illuminates how identification with delusive thinking causes agitation, and in this case, a heated debate over points of view. These monks are so blinded by their perspectives that they fail to notice that they are relating to the flag and wind as if these objects are substantial and independent of their own sensory apparatus. By reifying these sensory objects, the monks also reify themselves and their ideas and identities. They fail to take the backward step and investigate the body-mind that's perceiving.
They either do not know or are forgetting that both the mind that perceives and the objects of perception are in constant flux. Because the monks are not working with Buddha mind in every moment, they are duped by delusion and stuck in suffering. Hui-Neng uses words as a skillful means to slice through the monks' attachment to sensory experience. He employs words to go beyond words.
Small mind flaps like the flag, buffeted by the breeze of karmic conditioning: when we get so caught up in our perceptions as being right we miss the totality of interdependence, the constancy of change, and the impersonal nature of suffering.
How can we feel the wind or see the flag flap without being duped by small mind's associative proliferations? How can the flag flapping and the wind moving just be allowed to arise, persist and perish without our clinging, dwelling, or contriving.
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Mu Soeng. The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World. Boston, Wisdom Publications, 2000. p. 103
Ibid., pp. 87-88.
Ibid., p. 110.