Not The Wind; Not The Flag Part 3
As part of my efforts to elucidate the Zen conception of mind, this post will discuss the waves of Indian Buddhist philosophy that influenced Zen and the koan tradition. Our discussion of the role of metaphor in Part 2 was a down payment of sorts on this topic, because it suggested that Zen has its own covert philosophy of language. There are even deeper levels to explore along these lines.
To clarify the Zen concept of “mind”, let’s review the wording in order to call out something that may have escaped your notice. “The Sixth Patriarch said, ‘It is neither the wind that is moving nor the flag that is moving. It is your mind that is moving’.”
Here, you may have thought Huineng was saying “it is each of your minds that is moving”. If we think that he was referring to their individual minds, his admonition is reduced to a scolding of the form “You are both chasing your tails. Stop wasting your time!” While this is a useful “practice point”, it is not the “fundamental point” of this koan .
That fundamental point becomes a bit clearer if we note that Huineng does not use the plural form “it is your minds that are moving”. Use of the singular, “it is your mind”, suggests that “your” here refers to a mind that both monks share. In his comments on this koan, my root teacher Aitken Roshi interprets this phrase as: “Your mental function is neither mine nor yours...”
On the other hand, if we interpret Huineng as saying that there is only one universal “Mind”, we face a whole new sea of troubles. We are then likely to treat Mind as a “thing”, “object,” or “entity”, and assume that, like other “things”, we will be able to determine its category, its parts, and its essential properties.
For Zen, mind is not a thing. In Part 2, I have said before that for Zen, mind is synonymous with experience and is thus synonymous with life itself. As previously explained, it is synonymous with all possible human experience past, present, and future, and therefore is synonymous with the universe to the extent we can ever experience it.
In order to make sure we don’t make the error of thinking that the mind is a “thing”, Mumon, the editor of The Gateless Barrier, comments on this koan: “It is neither the wind nor the flag, nor the mind that is moving.” Mumon then adds a poem in which he criticizes Huineng’s admonition, saying: “Though he knew how to open his mouth/He does not see he was caught by words.”
In his own commentary on this koan, Shibayama Roshi says that the monks were undoubtedly already familiar with common Zen adages, such as “Every phenomenon is only due to mind”, or, “Nothing exists outside mind”.
These adages mark the influence of the Yogacara school of Buddhist philosophy, the final wave of Indian thought to influence Zen during the first five hundred-plus years of our first millennium A.D. It is often referred to as the “Mind-Only” school, though I prefer to call it the “Imagination-Only” school.
Here it will help to review why the Yogacara philosophy was viewed as a needed supplement to the preceding wave of Indian Buddhist philosophy known as the Madhyamaka.
The meanings of the Prajnaparamita literature, of which the Diamond and Heart Sutras are part, were further articulated during the first two centuries A.D in the Madhyamaka philosophy of Nagarjuna, an Indian philosopher regarded as an honorary ancestor of the Zen tradition.
Nagarjuna’s method was to show how making any affirmative statement about ultimate reality using conventional concepts would result in contradiction. Thus, the only strategy for conveying reality was to reject any positive claims in conventional language about the true nature of life. In this way, we would at least not delude ourselves and would instead remain open to a sudden awakening to our true nature.
This stance resulted in the Two Truths doctrine of Madhyamaka philosophy, in which conventional, common-sense thinking was “true” or “adequate” for collective social purposes, and a second, higher truth was needed for achieving enlightenment, such as realizing our original or intrinsic freedom.
In Western terms, this “higher” (or, equivalently, “deeper”) truth is a form of monism, or holism, to which none of the predicates we use to assert conventional truth will serve because they apply only to parts, not to wholes. I will discuss this matter further in future essays. 
Our inability to find any foundational predicates with which to describe our true nature led the use of the word “emptiness” in Prajnaparamita literature to gesture deictically toward that nature.
Many modern commentators prefer to use the adjectives “openness” or “boundlessness” rather than “emptiness” because of the latter’s nihilistic connotations in Western thought. Buddhist emptiness is not nihilism because Buddhist realization finally places compassion on a firm foundation. Indeed, realization and compassion are one and the same. After all, realizing our unity with all beings logically should engender compassion toward those we formerly regarded as “others”.
Be that as it may, the term “emptiness” (Skt. Sunyata) is used because our true nature is devoid of (or, equivalently, “beyond”) even the predicates of existence and non-existence. We must go beyond this binary distinction in order to accommodate the “mental reality” of fictions including dreams, novels, movies, unicorns, and mermaids.
In keeping with this notion of emptiness, a pivotal phrase of Huineng’s Platform Sutra, summed up his insight into our true nature as, “From the first, not a thing is.” This statement reflects the position of the Prajnaparamita sutras as further articulated by Nagarjuna.
D.T. Suzuki devoted a book, The Zen Doctrine of No Mind, to describing how Huineng’s Platform Sutra left an imprint on Zen that continues to this day. Part of that imprint is the persistent use of negation to call out the true nature of “things” that we ordinarily overlook in our conventional use of language. As he explains:
So long as the seeing [has] something to see, it is not the real one; only when seeing is no-seeing – that is, when the seeing is not a specific act of seeing into a definitely circumscribed state of consciousness – is it ‘seeing into one’s self-nature’. Paradoxically stated, when seeing is no-seeing there is real seeing… This is the intuition of the Prajnaparamita. When thus the seeing of self-nature has no reference to a specific state of consciousness which can be logically or relatively defined as a something, the Zen masters designate it in negative terms and call it ‘no-thought’ or ‘no-mind’.
Suzuki’s definition of true seeing as no-seeing, though labored, accords perfectly with many passages in earlier posts to the effect that our commonsense thinking is restricted by our preconscious, reflexive application of concepts to the “objects” we encounter. Concepts immediately bind us to a limited perspective on those objects that prevents us from seeing the whole range of possible perspectives on what we are perceiving. This circumscribing of experience by narrow conceptualizations is what Suzuki refers to as, “a circumscribed state of consciousness that can be…defined as a something.”
Only when we are open to all perspectives do we truly see. Being open to all perspectives is possible only for a mind that makes no conceptual presuppositions about what we are seeing. Such presuppositions generally reflect ideas of how an object can benefit or harm us.
How does one learn to see in Suzuki’s “no-seeing” sense ? It is, as he says, a kind of intuition rather than rational thought about a “something”. We learn how to see with “no-mind” through prolonged practice of meditation and experiences of deep samadhi followed by a breakthrough insight from koan work with a teacher acting as midwife.
The Madhyamaka wave of Indian Buddhist philosophy was succeeded (but not supplanted) by Indian Yogacara philosophy within just a couple of centuries. Chinese Zen tolerated and melded both waves tacitly, while Tibetan Buddhism was more selective in adopting aspects of Yogacara to their own well-established Madhyamaka-based philosophical tradition.
Why was Yogacara regarded by its creators as a needed supplement to Madhyamaka philosophy? This brings us to the topic of Buddhist hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the Western philosophical term for the daunting task of interpreting writings from an earlier time or from a different culture. How can we, with our modern knowledge, be sure we are understanding ancient texts in the way their authors intended, and not substituting our own favored cultural concepts for theirs?
This challenge arises in Zen precisely because Madhyamaka philosophy holds that we cannot make any statement about reality that will not result in an invalidating contradiction. And yet, ancient and modern Zen masters have been prolific authors of texts that purport to speak directly about the underlying reality or true nature of our lives.
Among these texts are the “turning words” uttered by ancient masters in koans. In many koans, turning words result in the awakening of the hearers to their true nature. In others, the master’s words simply astonished them, as in our present koan. How can these turning words accomplish this, given Madhyamaka’s prohibition on positive assertions about true nature?
The Yogacarins attempted to resolve this apparent conflict by claiming that enlightened masters are able to use a special form of speech that can unexpectedly trip a properly prepared student into a glimpse of their true nature.
Yogacara has been taken by many Western scholars to be an Asian version of Western philosophical idealism. Yet, to the extent that the latter is interpreted to mean that our experiences are not “real” in some ultimate sense, this is a mistaken view of Yogacara.
Instead, Yogacara was an Asian attempt to answer a question that continues to plague Western philosophy. That question is, “In determining what ‘reality’ is, how much ‘truth’ can we attribute to sense data (read “phenomena) from the “outside world”, and how much is “constructed” by the way our minds are “hard-wired”?
Kant addressed this question for the West by giving our mental faculties the “initial edit” of our sense data. As a result, our ability to get a grasp of the reality of “things” or phenomena “in themselves” (i.e. without the categories imposed by our mental apparatus) is prohibited.
Yogacara philosophy is consistent with Kantian “transcendental idealism” insofar as it relies on the self-evident fact that all that we think we “know” was processed by mind and sorted by category and properties. This is the meaning of the Zen adages given above.
As I said above, the Yogacarins set out to explain why enlightened teachers have the freedom of speech to make positive assertions about our true nature in violation of the Madhyamaka doctrine apparently prohibiting such assertions. For this purpose, they could rely on the notion of upaya (short for upaya-kausalya), or “skillful means”.
Upaya means “method” or “means”, while it is noteworthy that kausalya can also be translated as “expedient” or “provisional”.
Under sutras such as the Lotus Sutra of the Mahayana reformation of early Buddhism in our first millennium A.D., upaya is one of the virtues that mark a bodhisattva, an enlightened being whose primary characteristic is compassion with a vow to help those suffering from greed, hatred, and ignorance. In that capacity, they are empowered to use “provisional” language that can be freely adapted for pedagogical purposes to fit the abilities of the individual or group being addressed (i.e. to use “expedient” or “provisional” language to entice them onto the path to enlightenment).
This Mahayana emphasis on upaya was not controversial because the Buddha was known for using metaphors and parables suited to the audience he was addressing. Even the Buddha, in a sutra from early Buddhism, likened his teachings to a raft that could carry followers from the shore of suffering to the shore of Nirvana, at which point it could be cast adrift. 
Returning to our present koan, we can say that in telling the monks “it is mind that is moving”, Huineng was motivated by compassion for the monks to use a metaphor in describing the true nature of mind; that metaphor essentially says that mind is a moving target that has no static “essence” that can be identified. This is in accord with my early post on “Bring Me Your Mind” where the First Patriarch of Chinese Zen made that demand of his successor, who reported that try as he might, he could not grasp any permanent essence of his own mind. When Bodhidharma in effect replied that this conclusion was the only means Huike would ever find for pacifying his own mental suffering, Huike was suddenly enlightened.
In our current koan, the two monks did not become enlightened. Instead, we are told the monks were struck with “awe”. As I can testify from my own experience, there were many times when my teacher said something that sounded a deep chord within me that I couldn’t fully grasp at the time.
I will add that even though the monks had no “breakthrough insight” or kensho, they were shaken by their recognition that something had been said that they needed to understand. They were thereby bound to redouble their efforts in pursuit of wisdom. This redoubling of effort is an advance because it is an absolutely necessary precondition for reaching the nearest shore of enlightenment.
 Once again, this post relies heavily on the translation and commentary of the late Zenkei Shibayama Roshi, in his indispensable The Gateless Barrier: Zen Comments on the Mumonkan (Shambala, 2000). The “practice point” of a koan is a statement in conventional language that sums up a rule about how we practice Zen. In this case, the rule might be “Don’t exert yourself to explain the ultimate nature of mind, such an explanation is not possible”. In contrast, the “fundamental point” is what the student must show to demonstrate to the teacher that they have understood their own true nature by bodily re-enacting a key element of the koan.
 See Aitken’s comments on this koan in his book, The Gateless Barrier (North Point Press, 1990). There he points out that Chinese texts generally omit personal pronouns such as “your”, requiring the reader to infer the person meant from the context. Accordingly, I think the more faithful translation of the original Chinese phrase would be, “it is mind that is moving”, or simply “mind moves”.
 In the ironic rhetoric of Zen, Mumon is saying that Huineng disgraces himself (i.e. he is “caught out”) in the eyes of other Zen masters by using an expression that could be mistaken for a static and final “literal truth”. Of course, Mumon realizes that Huineng was trying to provide the monks a metaphorical toehold on their true nature out of compassion. This is traditionally criticized as showing too much “grandmotherly kindness”. This reproach is meant ironically, because as I have said previously, all Zen masters will try to give a student who is “stuck” a helping hand by trying various of “turning words” to jar the student out of their intellectual perplexity.
 Nagarjuna’s arguments are set out in his Root Verses on the Madhyamaka System of which many English translations are available, such as the one by Jay Garfield. For those with some background in philosophical logic, I can’t resist observing that Nagarjuna’s Buddhist logical approach bears some prescient family resemblance to Gödel’s conclusions that you cannot have a complete account that doesn’t include a logical inconsistency and that any consistent account is necessarily incomplete.
 In future writings I will argue that Russell’s Theory of Types forbidding deriving predicates from a whole has a mirror image in the “impredicability” of the whole in terms of predicates derived from the properties of the parts.
 The Buddha’s use of the raft simile will also remind those with some philosophical background of the early Wittgenstein’s comment that once his reader has relied on his assorted arguments as steps to his ultimate conclusions, “He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it”.
“A Course on Koans” is the delusion-riddled work of Chris Kufu (“Wind in the Void”) Wilson, who began practicing Zen in 1967. He regards Taizan Maezumi, Robert Aitken, and David Weinstein as his root teachers. Each of them pecked at his shell until he “completed” the never-ending koan curriculum of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
Get posts as they are published:
What We Read