Saturday, June 2, 2012

Blowing in the Mind

I feel a little thrill whenever I see flags flapping in the wind. I usually gaze and listen for a while and then come back to earth, noticing that my feet are plodding along the pavement as usual and that some litter has blown up against a fence.

This is the 29th koan of the Mumonkan:

Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said, "The flag is moving."
The other said, "The wind is moving."
The Sixth Patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them, "Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving."

Their habitual way of thinking about flags in the wind was stripped away, leaving – something else.

About two hundred years later, some monks were debating the koan. Zen master Miaoxin overheard them and said,

It's not the wind moving, it's not the flag moving, it's not the mind moving.

Something else was stripped away, leaving – what?

This progression reminds me of the first few times I attended our Zen centre. The first time I went, the abbot gave a dharma talk during the second sit, which I thought was pretty profound. The same thing happened the second time I was there. The third time I went, he just sat in silence. I remember thinking to myself, what could be more profound than that? Well, the next time I went, he wasn’t there at all…

I suspect “mind” is one of the most difficult words to define. There is mind meaning thought; there is the subconscious mind; there is no-mind and there is mindfulness; there is little mind and there is big Mind; there is original mind and everyday mind and there is beginner’s mind and there is don’t know mind.

Then there are the Three Minds (sanshin):

Magnanimous Mind (daishin) is like an ocean or a mountain: calm and steady, yet accepting and nourishing countless beings and situations without differentiation. The ocean is serene because it accepts the many rivers without resisting.

Nurturing Mind (roshin), literally "old mind", is akin to the attitude of a kindly grandmother or parent who delights in caring for others. It is the spirit of the bodhisattva, the fully mature person.

Joyful Mind (kishin) is the joy that comes from deep in our hearts even in the midst of difficulty. It arises from the insight of zazen, that we live together with all beings and are not separate.

(These originated with Dogen Zenji and were propounded by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (Opening the Hand of Thought) and subsequently by his successor, Shohaku Okumura Roshi (Realizing Genjokoan), founder of the Sanshin Zen Community, from where the above quote was taken.)

Rational thought insists on trying to compartmentalize and categorize mind in order to comprehend it, as it does with the rest of the world. Except it can't. The best it can do is ask interminable questions.

If it would only shut up and pay attention, it might notice something important.

I don't know much, but I know enough not to vex my brain or anyone else's by trying to think up - or worse, suggest - answers to these questions.

What is it that flaps in the wind? What is it that watches the flag through my eyes? What thinks about the flag with my brain? What is asking this question? What wants to know the answer? What opens and unfolds, withers and dies all at the same time? What suffers and at the same time seeks out and relieves suffering? What is both nowhere and everywhere? What is neither one nor more than one? Neither nothing nor something? What is writing these words? What is reading them? Wouldn't a cup of tea be nice?

It occurs to me that I may have overstepped my bounds. I don't want my aimless musings / infantile burblings to be mistaken for teachings. As an unordained layman with no qualifications, verification, rank, transmission or lineage, I'm not really anything. If I must be something, perhaps the litter blown against the fence.


  1. i like these questions. I think the art of asking questions can be a good thing.

    1. The only one I know the answer to is the last one about the tea :)

  2. David, I love your offering here! Not "aimless", not "infantile" - at least from my perspective - but helpful in how you open up the different ways of seeing Truth... I actually didn't realize there were all these definitions of "mind." And I often forget that in Buddhism, "THE Mind" (big Mind) is what I call "The Heart." At least that's what I've been able to figure out so far in my mind :) (which I think is partly what you are pointing to as well)... It's easy to get trapped in the conundrums of the mind and not see life as it is - just living life without creating confusion.

    I love your questions that inquire into the Heart of Existence and can only be answered by The Heart (not the mind). Although I get your point. Or maybe I've missed the point altogether... Who are we really? in many traditions is the ultimate question pointing to the moon...(and beyond:). And yet, in another sense, as you point out, it doesn't matter. It's all smoke ~ ~ ~

    1. Thanks, Christine - and thank you for such a thoughtful comment! How easy to get tangled up in words when what you are trying to communicate might be conveyed more clearly with a hug or a gift or a song. And the smoke is real too. Which reminded me to go back and re-read your great post over at Mystic Meandering!

  3. These questions give me monkey mind! I grew agitated during dharma talks & felt much overstimulated. I have to be in a very specific state of mind to even think about it. I joyfully leave it to the enthusiasts.

    Deep bows David.

    1. My monkey mind doesn't have an "off" switch - just an "ignore" switch that doesn't seem to want to stay flipped :) More practice required.

      Bows back, Tara.

  4. Thank you for sharing. I often find myself asking similar questions. If I'm not the one watching, nor the one being watched, nor the act itself of watching, what am I?

  5. Thanks for visiting. I'm going to resist the urge to blurt something clever and stick with "don't know." Best wishes.

  6. Tea does sound good! Well done piece, btw.

    1. Thanks, Geum - please stop by for tea any time!

  7. As another layperson I hear you both on the questions and on the being blown against the fence. Thank you also for the recommendation of Realizing Genjokoan, which looks fascinating.

    1. Thanks, StoneCutter. I am enjoying discovering your blog over at Buddhafyer.


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