Not the wind, not the flag

Case 29 Hui-neng: “Not the Wind; Not the Flag”

The Case

Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, “The flag moves.” The other said, “The wind moves.” 1They argued back and forth but could not agree

The Sixth Ancestor said, “Gentlemen! It is not the wind that moves; it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves.” The two monks were struck with awe.

Wu-men’s Comment

It is not the wind that moves. It is not the flag that moves. It is not the mind that moves. How do you see the Ancestral Teacher here? If you can view this matter intimately, you will find the the two monks received gold when they were buying iron. The Ancestral Teacher could not repress his compassion and overspent himself.

Wu-men’s Verse

Wind, flag, mind move -- all the same fallacy; only knowing how to open their mouths; not knowing they had fallen into chatter.

Commentary

Arguments. We like to win them. There is no end of sides to take. So much of our time and attention is taken up with conflict. We are bombarded with things seeking our attention and pushing us to take a side, the subject framed according to conflicting and irreconcilable views.

Like the two monks who argued back and and forth but could not agree, these discussions continue in our society as one side or another seeks to influence, persuade, cajole, or where it’s determined to be necessary and possible, extort power to enforce one view. For us, as for the monks, we are stuck in the “either this or that” mode2. The conflict is unresolvable. They could not agree, but each felt the argument was worth pursuing until the other agreed.

According to the story, the Sixth Ancestor, Hui-neng happens along and sees the monks arguing. He, along with the two monks, arrived at the temple where this flag was flying to advertise that the master was giving a public talk that day. This is the position we find ourselves in incessantly today. We’re going along pursuing our ends and our attention is demanded by disagreements3. At the time of this story, Hui-neng was not known and would not have been recognized. He had completed his training under a teacher who saw his gifts, but following his teacher’s advice he had then gone to sharpen his understanding away from the temples and sectarian conflicts that were troubling Buddhism in China at the time. Here Hui-neng appears 15 years later, a nobody, and the first thing he runs into is a couple of his brothers bickering over what they must have considered an important point of understanding.

Many of us, when we come upon this kind of scene, don’t want to get involved. We might think to ourselves how pointless the arguing going on is, and that we know better, but it’s not our argument to get into. Hui-neng, at the time, could have done the same thing. He was still anonymous, no one recognized him as the future Sixth Patriarch.

Everyday we have the opportunity to get involved in disagreements in our communities. We can take one side or another, we can turn aside and not say anything. But if we choose to speak up, what should our response be?

The danger in getting involved is that we are prodded to take a side by people who seek to gain power and influence by defining, sustaining, and declaring themselves as the winning side of the argument. Consider the following story about power, conflict, and setting up arguments to enforce a particular view.

Luke 20 (See also Matt 22:15-21; Mark 12:13-17)

20 So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. 21 So the asked him, “Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach that way of God in accordance with truth. 22 Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They said, “The emperor’s. “ 25 He said to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”

Like Hui-neng, Jesus did not avoid the question, but like Hui-neng, neither did he respond in a way that favored one side over the other. It is this response to conflict that we should cultivate.


  1. The heart of this koan — taking a side and sticking stubbornly to it and being too willing to argue it. 

  2. Like the two monks, having chosen opposite sides, not willing or able to jump outside their premises 

  3. Disagreements which we may not even have a stake in until someone insists we ‘take a side’