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A Zen Koan and Commentary

Updated: May 7, 2020

Originally written September 18, 2017

Re-edited on May 6, 2020

Part 1. The set-up

There is a wonderful koan in the Mumonkan (Gateless Gate by Zen Master Mumon).

The wind was flapping a temple flag. Two monks were arguing about it. One said the flag was moving; the other said the wind was moving. Arguing back and forth they could come to no agreement. The Sixth Patriarch said, “It is neither the wind nor the flag that is moving. It is your mind that is moving.”

I like this koan.

When we engage in some type of mindfulness or inquiry practice, such as zazen (sitting meditation), or focusing attention on attention, or the sense of being, or finding the source of the “I thought”, it becomes clear that thoughts arise constantly; sometimes slowly; sometimes quickly. But, for the most part, incessantly. That’s what thoughts do.

But thoughts by themselves don’t create separation. They are just thoughts happening. It is only when we identify with or otherwise attach to those thoughts that separation occurs. This is what the Sixth Patriarch was pointing to by saying that neither the flag nor the wind are moving; it is the mind that moves.

That is, when we think of thoughts as “my thoughts” or when we believe the thoughts that arise, it is like the two monks arguing over whether it was the wind or the flag that was moving. We miss what is really going on.

But that is only half of it. As Mumon goes on to write, “It is neither the wind nor the flag nor the mind that is moving. Where do you see the heart of the Patriarch?

These statements appear to contract the Sixth Patriarch. But they do not. Do you see? Is there anything that is really moving? Can the mind really move? If so, where does it come from? Where does it go? The real question of this koan is this: “What is the heart of the Patriarch?” Who or what are you? Do you move? If you understand this, you will see the truth of Mumon’s comment: “it is neither the wind nor the flag nor the mind that is moving”.

Part 2. The “I” thought

“It is neither the wind nor the flag nor the mind that is moving.” Really seeing into this can be difficult because the most tenacious of all thoughts; the one that truly represents the “mind moving” is the “I thought”. This is the thought that seems to arise almost simultaneously with all other arisings, including all other thoughts. It is the “I thought” that creates separation into “me” and “you;” into the self and other; into observer and observed. And it is the “I thought” that is the root of all suffering.

The “I thought” is insidious; but it is even more insidious than you might think. I say this (from personal experience) and because in non-dual teachings, it is common for people to be directed toward inquiring about who they are not (neti-neti). They are asked to see for themselves that they are not their thoughts; they are not their stories; they are not their beliefs. People are often guided toward seeing that they are that which observes their thoughts; the witnessing awareness, if you will. Who they are is really prior to the mind moving! Prior to thoughts.

Even when we notice that we are not our thoughts; even when we are able to abide as the sense of being, we often accept our status as that which observes those thoughts or what we sense. “I am the witness;” I am the observer;” I am awareness.” “I am pure consciousness.” I am Awakeness.” “I am that which notices the sense of being.”

But notice too: if we accept that we are the awareness that is observing our thoughts, then we are still perceiving what is going on from a dualistic perspective. There is still an observer observing an object of perception (in this case, thoughts or the sense of being [remember, the sense of being is still a perception]).

But, is there really a witness? Is there really an observer? Is there really awareness? Is there [fill in the blank]?

The answer is no. We should not think of ourselves as an object, no matter how subtle. We are a verb, not a noun. We are beingness itself. What we are is experiencing itself. What we are is witnessing itself.

This is the truth of “It is neither the wind nor the flag nor the mind that is moving.”

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