Not the Wind, Not the Flag

220801-Lucerne Harbor sunsetDo not concern yourself with anything;
Fix the mind nowhere.
Fixing the mind nowhere,
Limitless brightness shows itself.

(from “Song of the Mind” 6th century C.E., by Niutou Farong, “Xin ming”, tr. Master Sheng Yen)


What does it mean, to “fix the mind nowhere”?

Koun Franz, Zen teacher and editor for “Lions Roar”, spoke about an instruction frequently given to beginners in Zen meditation:  “place the mind here”.  That instruction, he said, can have two meanings—either to set up a focus of attention on a particular location in space, or alternatively, to allow the base of consciousness to shift to a particular location in space.  According to Franz, “mind” as the base of consciousness can indeed shift to a particular location in space, but the shift cannot be made to happen; it’s an exercise in letting go, he said.

I’d say that the line “fix the mind nowhere” is advice to allow the movement of mind that koun Franz described.

I’ve written about how the mind can move just before falling asleep, and how the best time to observe the phenomena is in the middle of the night.  Several people have reported to me that as they returned to sleep, they experienced their self-awareness at a certain place in their body, and as the place shifted from one location to another, they fell asleep. One person reported a similar experience of dropping into the location of self-awareness in the daytime, and he said it gave him a feeling of peace.

Gautama the Buddha referred to “one-pointedness of mind” in his sermons, and I would contend that what he meant was precisely the experience of self-awareness at a particular location in space, a location that may shift but that remains singular.

“One-pointedness of mind” was apparently a commonly understood phrase in Gautama’s day. Such phrases can be difficult to translate, according to I. B. Horner, the Pali Text Society translator of the Middle-Length Sayings:

This is an example of the allusiveness of the Pali texts.  It does not detract from their precision, but only shows it is we who must find the key to what at one time was probably obvious and well understood.

(“Translator’s Introduction”, Pali Text Society MN III p xxi)

Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, said that “body and mind dropped off is the beginning of our effort” (Eihei Koroku #501, Leighton and Okumura*).  Dogen explained what he meant by “body and mind dropped off”:

An ancient master said, “At the top of a hundred-foot pole, advance one step further.”

This means you should have the attitude of someone who, at the top of a hundred foot pole, lets go of both hands and feet; in other words, you must cast aside body and mind.

(Shobogenzo-zuimonki, 5-20, tr. Shohaku Okumura, 2004 Shotoshu Shumucho p 191)

Dogen does not say to let go of the pole, but rather to let go of both hands and feet.  To let go of the hands and feet is to cease any willful activity with the hands and feet.  To “cast aside body and mind” implies similarly abandoning any willful activity with the body and mind.

Dogen intimates by his imagery that gravity enters into the picture (“body and mind dropped off”, “someone who, at the top of a hundred-foot pole, lets go…”). Likewise koun Franz, in his explanation of the second meaning of “place the mind here”, pointed to the center of gravity as a place that the base of consciousness, or “mind”, might relocate.

“Body and mind dropped off is the beginning of our effort”, said Dogen. “Making self-surrender the object of thought, one lays hold of concentration, one lays hold of one-pointedness of mind”, said Gautama.  Both men pointed to the relinquishment of volitive activity as the prerequisite of concentration.

Dogen emphasized the practice of zazen, literally “seated Zen”. Wikipedia describes the derivation of the word “Zen” as follows:

The term Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Middle Chinese word chán, an abbreviation of chánnà, which is a Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word dhyāna (“meditation”).

Yogapedia provides a definition of “dhyana” based on the Sanskrit roots of the word:

Dhyana is a Sanskrit word meaning “meditation.” It is derived from the root words, dhi, meaning “receptacle” or “the mind”; and yana, meaning “moving” or “going.”

(dhyana, dec. 9 2017, “Yogapedia”, authorship not ascribed;

Dhyana could therefore be said to translate literally as “mind moving”.

The sixth patriarch of Zen in China pointed directly to the mind moving, in a case from the “Gateless Gate” collection:

Not the Wind, Not the Flag

Two monks were 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. He told them: “Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.”

Mumon’s comment: The sixth patriarch said: “The wind is not moving, the flag is not moving. Mind is moving.” What did he mean? If you understand this intimately, you will see the two monks there trying to buy iron and gaining gold. The sixth patriarch could not bear to see those two dull heads, so he made such a bargain.

Wind, flag, mind moves,
The same understanding.
When the mouth opens
All are wrong.

(The Gateless Gate, by Ekai (called Mu-mon), tr. Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps [1934], at

I used to think the sixth patriarch was talking about the relationship of “mind” to the weather, something like the ability of shamans the world over to affect the weather in their vicinity.  Black Elk stood on a butte in the Bad Lands and told his companions that they might see a sign in the weather, and sure enough a storm came up out of nowhere.  A healer of the California Kashima tribe predicted lightning upon her own demise, and members of the tribe testified to the occurrence of red, rolling lightning outside the tribal round house when she passed.

Ekai claims that the sixth patriarch said:  “the flag is not moving, the wind is not moving”.  He’s putting words in the mouth of the Sixth Patriarch, there.  To me, what the sixth patriarch said was, pay attention to the singularity of self-awareness that moves, not to the flag or the wind.

Ekai says, “if you understand this intimately”.  To understand intimately is to experience movement in the location of self-awareness, of mind, for oneself.  To understand in words without experience falls short (“when the mouth opens, all are wrong”).

For me, it’s a lot like falling asleep.  I have to let myself breathe–relax, calm down, let go of thoughts, and realize some presence of mind.  As the senses locate the presence of mind, particularly the senses concerned with balance, the location of mind may move.













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