Way out past the surf in the early morning, gently rocked by big round swells sweeping across the ocean, I’m reminded of a famous Zen koan. Two students are arguing about the movement of a flag. One says, “It’s the wind that moves.” The other says, “No, it’s really the flag moving.” Their teacher, Hakuin, overhearing them, says, “No. It’s neither the wind nor the flag that’s moving. It’s your minds that move!”
Near me, a pelican rides on the sky-colored water; we both rise and fall gently with the powerful waves of energy rolling through the sea. Is it the wave moving? Is it the water moving? There’s no debate. Neither the water, the pelican, nor I move with the waves towards the shore. We stay still.
Water doesn’t travel with the waves; it just rises and falls, as the flow of wave energy undulates through. Yet, unless there’s a still point to watch, like a seabird calmly floating on the surface, it seems as though the water is moving as the wave rolls in to shore. In reality, the force of waves can’t push the water horizontally, no matter how it appears. We have to look carefully to see how things really are.
What about the flag and the wind? What did Hakuin mean? Our minds are moving constantly, like the waves. We take positions — judging, defending, opposing, the wind of argument flapping and whipping us back and forth, like a flag waving in the air. Things seem so solid, and we’re so certain! We’ll fight to defend our point of view. Can mindful awareness be like Hakuin, just observing, seeing a truer, more inclusive reality?
Diving under a wave of emotion, of thought, with mindfulness, we feel the whirling vortex of energy surge through us. In the deep still water of loving awareness, we can observe this happening with care and understanding, and know the not-moving mind, the quiet heart.
Image Credit: T. Goodman