Once when the wind was whipping the banner of the temple, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen (Hui-neng) witnessed two monks debating about it. One said the banner was moving, one said the wind was moving.
They argued back and forth without attaining the principle, so the Patriarch said, “This is not the movement of the wind, nor the movement of the banner; it is the movement of your minds.”
It is not the wind moving, not the banner moving, not the mind moving: where do
you see the Zen patriarch? If you can see intimately here, then you will realize
that the monks were buying iron but got gold, while the Zen patriarch, unable to
conceal his enlightenment, divulged it on this occassion.
Wind, banner, minds moving-
Their crimes are listed in one indictment.
If you only know how to open your mouth,
You won’t realize when you’re trapped in words.
Zen Master Baling said:
The Zen master said it is not the wind moving, and not the banner moving. If it
is not the wind or the banner, where is it evident?
If there is anyone who can play the host for the Zen master, come forth and meet
The essential point of the story is to illustrate how we think about our
thoughts and imagine we have thereby explained things. Judging by our conceptual
constructions rather than by direct perceptions, we wind up being entrapped in
our own points of view. We may think we are talking about realities when all we
are doing is talking about what we think. As the koan says, this can be a
In his prose comment, Wumen adds that it is not the mind moving either. Here he
is not contradicting the Zen patriarch; he is making a pragmatic distinction
between the essence of mind (which does not fluctuate) and the functions of mind
(which do fluctuate). When Wumen asks, “Where do you see the Zen patriarch?” he
refers to the essence of mind as it is in itself, not as it is refracted in
fragmentary mental functions. This is what the Zen master Baling means by
calling for “anyone who can play the host for the Zen master,” referring to the
universal mind that is at the very root of all consciousness.
Wumen goes on to say that if you realize this universal mind, you see how the
monks were buying iron but got gold: First, they were haggling over mental
constructions but instead received witness of mind itself; and second, they were
expecting to find an answer in the form of a metaphysical principle, but instead
got their reply in the form of a direct insight.
Wumen’s verse begins by describing the relativity of the perceived world and the
perceiving mind. It ends by reminding us that if we only use our conceptualizing
minds we will only get theoretical answers, if we want actual experience of
understanding, we need understanding through actual experience. Zen master
Baling’s verse echoes the call to that in us which understands through direct
experience. It is through inwardly asking ourselves the question he poses that
the living meaning of Zen becomes the normal condition of consciousness.
– Case 29 of the Wumenguan as translated by Thomas Cleary in No Barrier.