Mind is moving.

August 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

BC Flag 0063

In, “The Gateless Gate,” by Ekai, koan # 29 has two monks 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 and heard their argument. He told them: “Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.”

This koan touches upon our everyday experience of assigning a reality to thought and imagination that they do not properly possess.  Take the photograph at the top of this post as an example.  Is it a flag?  Is it a flag reflected in a window?  Or is it a flag, at all?

In his painting, The Treachery of Image, shown below, the Belgian surrealist René Magritte’s raised these same questions.


The painting is of a pipe and passport under which Magritte painted the words, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”).  When asked about this he reportedly replied that it was not a pipe, as you could not fill it with tobacco.  Yet to the masses looking at this painting it is a pipe.  As an example of how our mind works, this shows that our ideas, or constructs, are often given greater reality than our actual perceptions.

Marcel Duchamp takes this a step further in his Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2; by showing the mind also animates its environment.  In his 1912 oil on canvas, the conical and cylindrical elements are reconstructed by the mind into an image of someone walking down a flight of stairs.  But is there, in fact, anything moving here at all but mind?

Nude descending staircase

In its positive mode the mind’s ability to animate and impose substance where there is none, can give life meaning and give the impetus to turn dreams into reality.  In its negative aspect it can cause great psychological suffering when invidious mental images and beliefs take hold to arouse fear and anxiety.  An obvious example of this is where post-traumatic stress disorder creates a false conceptual world that is imposed over that actually perceived through the senses.  When this happens, an individual reacts to threats long since passed as if they were still a current reality, making their life miserable.

Now one could think that a truly sane person realizes the unreality of his imaginings and deals only with what is actually perceived through the senses.  That, however, would miss the vital point that without the mind’s ability to give life meaning, our world would be a hollow and despairing place.  It is the mind’s ability to animate the world that makes us emotionally and psychologically fit.  Sanity comes into question when the mind is left on automatic to assign reality to everything it imagines or thinks no matter how preposterous.  The mark of a truly adjusted individual is one who has the ability to see the unreality in life while simultaneously appreciating its beauty.

From the Buddhist perspective Shikyo Eryo expresses these same ideas while attempting to explain Hakuin’s work.  He writes,

“While the fundamental essence of Buddha wisdom is formless, each and every thing that exists in the actual world, in whatever shape or form, is reflected in it; it is as such phenomena that all things exist.  Although they are originally devoid of shape or form, inasmuch as they appear as phenomena, they cannot be said to be non-existent; and although they appear as phenomena, inasmuch as they are essentially devoid of shape or form, neither can they be said to exist.  Such is the mode of being that Buddha wisdom assumes.  It represents the Dharma universe in its true suchness or ultimate reality, in which all existences are embraced within the one universal Buddha-mind.”


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