Hui Neng’s Flag: Koan 29 from the Mumonkan


The wind was flapping the temple flag and two monks started an argument. One said the flag moved, the other said the wind moved. They argued back and forth but could not reach a conclusion. The Sixth Patriarch said, “It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves, it is your honourable minds that move.” The monks were awe-struck.

Mumon’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 Patriarch? If you come to understand these matters deeply you will see that these two monks got gold when buying iron. The Patriarch could not withhold his compassion and courted disgrace.


Wind, flag, mind moving,
All equally to blame.
Only knowing how to open his mouth,
Unaware of his fault in talking.

The Platform sutra, the purported autobiography of Hui Neng, tells of Hui Neng’s awakening and subsequent appointment as the 6th patriarch. He was a poor woodcutter and supported himself and his widowed mother by selling firewood. On one occasion he happened to hear a monk reciting the Diamond Sutra. When the monk came to the line

“Arouse the mind without resting it on anything,” Hui Neng came to deep awakening. He asked the monk for the location of the monastery from which the monk had come, and, on being told, he went there.

The abbott of the monastery was the 5th Patriarch. Later the Patriarch decided that he should appoint a successor, and called upon the monks to write a gatha or short poem to show the degree of their awakening. The monks were all quite sure that the Head Monk would be the successor, and so he alone wrote a poem. He wrote,

The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror,
At all times we must strive to polish it
And let no dust alight.

Many of us think like this; if only I could keep the mind pure and serene everything would be O.K. The dust that the head monk speaks of is the dust of thought and opinion, concept and idea, all of the rambling confusion that passes through our minds throughout the day. He is saying, moreover, that ‘being,’ a substratum, underlies all that we do. We must do our utmost to keep it clean, free of dusts. It would then be like a mirror reflecting all without distinction.

When Hui-Neng read the verse he realized that the Head Monk had not yet seen into the complete truth, and so he also wrote a verse:

Bodhi originally has no tree,
The mirror also has no stand.
From the beginning not a thing is
Where is there room for dust?

These two poems––the Head Monk’s and Hui Neng’s––sum up the difference between two kind’s of religion. The poem of the head monk tells of the religion that asserts that a basic, permanent and unchanging beingness––Brahman, Atman, God, or Self––underlies and supports all. This is the view of most religions, and the head monk’s ‘clean mirror’ is samadhi. Samadhi, under various names and guises, was the aim of Patanjali’s Yoga, the

Tao Te King, the Christianity of the Desert Fathers, of St. John of the Cross, and of the Hinayana Buddhists, among others.

Buddha’s revolutionary teaching was ‘no substratum.’ As we have seen, the Diamond sutra has the famous line: “arouse the mind without resting it on anything.’ The Prajnaparamita Hridaya says, “and so the Bodhisattva holding to nothing whatever.” Holding on to nothing whatever is the meaning of Hui Neng’s poem. For those who, to use St Paul’s expression, see this absence of substratum ‘through a glass darkly,’ it is a terrifying experience. Brahman, Atman and God, and the philosophical ‘being’ have been created to fill the apparent void.

The Fifth Patriarch realized that indeed Hui Neng was the one. He also recognized that there would be some considerable jealousy and dismay among the flock when they heard that the bowl and robe, symbols of the Patriarchate, had been passed on to an illiterate layman. Hui Neng, at the time, knew next to nothing about Buddhism. As a consequence, they would see no merit in his receiving the robe and bowl. Therefore the Fifth Patriarch called Hui Neng in at night and read through the Diamond Sutra with him. When the Fifth patriarch came to, “Arouse the mind without resting it on anything,” Hui Neng had a further awakening. Then the Fifth Patriarch advised him to go off, virtually into hiding for a number of years, before coming back to declare his succession. He advised this because of his fear that the monks in the monastery would do some harm to Hui Neng.

Indeed, after Hui Neng had left, somehow what had happened became known by the monks. Among them was a general, who had given up his sword to become a monk. He was so incensed at the idea that this young illiterate should be the Sixth Patriarch that he pursued him with the intention of grabbing the robe and bowl and restoring them to the monastery and to the head monk. A koan tells that when the general eventually caught up with Hui Neng he simply turned around and put the robe and bowl on a rock, saying to the general, “There, take them. They should not be fought over.” According to the story, the general tried to take the robe and bowl but found that, however hard he struggled, he was quite unable to lift either the robe or the bowl from the rock. At that moment he fell trembling to his knees, and said that he did not want the robe and bowl; what he wanted was the teaching. Hui Neng said, “Beyond good and bad, what is there?” Instantly the General came to awakening.

Hui Neng joined a wandering troop of hunters. Eventually, after fifteen years, he went back to the monastery, and his first encounter was with these two monks arguing about the flag and the wind.

It is an interesting story. Some considerable doubt exists in academic circles about its veracity; there is even some doubt whether Hui Neng ever lived. But whether or not Hui Neng as a man lived, Hui Neng as a spirit most certainly lived. The teaching that came out at that time, whether from one man or as a result of a change in the understanding of society, sowed the seed of this remarkable flower called Zen Buddhism. The roots of our practice at this Centre are all firmly embedded in the soil of Hui Neng’s teachings. His purported autobiography, The Platform Sutra, is among the most accessible of the sutras, and the easiest to understand. It is, moreover, remarkable as it is one of only two sutras that did not come directly from the Buddha’s teaching, the other being the Vimalakirti Sutra.

Hui Neng taught, “All the ancients have set up ‘no thought’ as the main doctrine, ‘no form’ as the substance, and ‘no abiding’ as the basis.” No thought, no form, no abiding. Then he tells us, “No form is to be separated from form even when associated with form.” ‘ Separating, or perhaps we should say, discerning, ‘no form from form even when no form is together with form’ is the way to work with the koan Mu as well as with the koan “Who am I?”. When working on Mu, what do you mean when you say the world is? When you are working on “Who am I?” what do you mean by “I am.”

Most of us have the conviction that the world indeed is, and if you were to suggest to any of your colleagues or friends who know nothing about Zen teaching that “from the beginning not a thing is,” they would look upon you and wonder whether they should phone someone to come and take you away. That the world is real having its own intrinsic beingness,, is taken so utterly for granted. The world is there; who is going to doubt it? If you are working on Mu, then you investigate that ‘taking-for-granted.’

We must distinguish between ‘that the world is,’ and ‘what the world is.’ ‘What the world is’ is the world of form: of colour, shape, size and its many other qualities. ‘That the world is’ is the world of no form: it is the emptiness that is form. These are obviously not two different worlds, any more than the inside and outside of a cup are two different cups. Even so, Hui Neng is saying that we must not confuse the two; that we must discern that the world is from what the world is, we must discern emptiness from form.

I can’t impress on you enough that you must start with your own certainty, with your own feeling about the world and yourself. You must not pretend that you can say that the world is empty, or that you are not really ‘something.’ You have to see into the truth of this for yourself. This is paramount. Without your own understanding. you have no leverage whatsoever. If you say, “I know I am not something,” or, “I know the ego is an illusion,” all that you are then working with is a set of beliefs and ideas that have no roots, no foundation, no substance, and so therefore no value. There is no point in learning what Buddhism has to say, or what Nisargadatta. or the masters have to say. There is enough to see into without wasting your time learning about Buddhism. Once you are affronted by, “From the beginning not a thing is,” “You are not a thing, so what are you?” You can investigate why you are so certain that the world is real, you can also ask what this truth has to do with, ‘Separating no form from form even when no form is together with form.’

When you are working on Mu, you are questioning. Although eventually the question loses all its conceptual structure, nevertheless a hunger, a searching, or a basic need drives one on. When working on Mu you are asking, “What is fundamentally the case? What is the truth? What is real?” This must drive you, but necessarily you must start by acknowledging, “The world is real.” You will necessarily start with this as long as you have not confused yourself with a lot of Zenny ideas that you’ve picked up along the way.

It is exactly the same when you are questioning, “Who am I?” You must question the belief that you are ‘something.’ You question it, you doubt it, you ask about it, you want to know. But, again, you must start with the belief, ‘I am something!’ If you pretend that you do not have this belief, if you say, “Well I’m not something, but let’s nevertheless ask the question,” you will have no leverage, no grip. You have already bought an illusion. You have already settled for a conceptual, “Well, I know I’m not something.” But this is not good enough! A menu cannot satisfy hunger. You must demand the truth. You must doubt everything that Nisargadatta, Buddha, Hui Neng and everyone else says. Without starting from what you believe, and discarding everything else that others have told you, there is no point in the practice whatsoever.

When Hui Neng says, “You must separate no form from form,” it doesn’t mean that you must make a physical separation, but that you use discernment; you question isness, the isness of anything, the isness of the world; you say the room is, the sky is, the car is, the house is. What is “is?’ What does it mean, is?

When you are at home, not necessarily on the mat, then you could put the question “what do I mean when I say the world is real?”in your own words. You could think about it, meditate on it, turn the whole idea ‘is’ around, looking at it from different angles. In that way you are tilling the ground, hoeing the ground, so that when you plant the seed Mu or Who, the mind, the ground, is ready for it and the seed can grow. This is why it is worthwhile to read people like Nisargadatta because he will raise these questions and throw into doubt what you take for granted. Meditative work is very important, and reading can help you as long as you do not read for information or entertainment. As long as you are not reading in order to know more about Zen. What you read should be a challenge, and should help arouse the questioning; it should throw your certainties into doubts, and make you look at things from a different angle.

Hui Neng says, “No thought is not to think, even in the midst of thought.” This is a description of shikantaza. The mind is constantly arising, is constantly surging, is constantly moving around. In the midst of all the worrying and anxiety, if you look carefully, you will find there is no movement, no thought. No thought in the midst of thought is Mu. At some stage, there is a coming together, you might say, of shikantaza, of questioning “Who am I?” and of questioning “What is Mu?” They are no longer separate questions. You cannot discern or separate them out.

As you work, you will have intimations, flashes of insight, moments of difference. Maybe you will not recognize them consciously as being flashes and moments, but the mind eases because of one or other of them. Every now and again, you will awaken to no self, or no thing. You will discern, intuit, be deeply open to no form, no thought, no self, no thing. The trouble is that you try to grab this moment, you try to make something of it, or you see it as an experience, a ‘spiritual’ experience, and that nullifies the value of what happened.

Hui Neng goes on to say that non-abiding is the original nature of the human being. What is there to abide? The whole world is my body. Our troubles come because we try to pin ourselves down to a fixed, unmovable, “I am this.” As Dogen said, Buddha Nature is impermanence. The metaphor of a fountain springs to mind. See the essence of a fountain, the gushing up, the constant coming out of, coming out into. See the world as the outcome of the fountain. The world is knowing coming out of knowing, coming into knowing, it is knowing constantly gushing up; the world does not exist for a moment: it is knowing that is its own being.

Hui Neng was very critical of dead void sitting. Zen had affinities with Taoism and Confucianism as well as Buddhism, and the Taoists were inclined to practice dead void sitting. The head monk was undoubtedly highly influenced by the Taoist teachings and his gatha was the gatha of dead void sitting. Although the Taoist teachings, for example those by by Lao Tsu and Chuang-tsu, are interesting and fun to read, nevertheless there is a deadness about them. An old master criticized the Confucianists and the Taoists for maintaining a substratum of consciousness and serenity. He said that many sages wander astray by holding on to serene tranquility. “In my opinion,” this old master went on to say, “it is by maintaining tranquility that the Confucianists of the Sung dynasty became attached to the state of mind which did not allow any feeling of joy, anger, sadness or pleasure to arise. It is just by maintaining tranquility that Lao Tsu insists that one finally arrives at nothing and so comes to tranquility and serenity. The concentrated state at which the Arhats and Hinayanists arrive, as well as the fruit of their illumination, are also simply due to keeping to a state of tranquillity, and to that alone.”

Even during the spiritual famine that existed in England during the 1940’s and 1950’s I could not turn to Taoism as a serious way of assuaging the terrible thirst that I had. This teaching has a dullness, a deadness; you feel that you are in a kind of cobweb of spirituality.

Hui Neng said that a Zen teacher, Jen Shu, used to teach his disciples to concentrate their minds on quietness, to sit doing zazen for a long time and, as far as possible, not to lie down. One of them went to Hui Neng and asked him about this practice. Hui Neng said, “To concentrate the mind on quietness is a disease of the mind. This is not Zen. What an idea, restricting the body to sitting all the time; that is useless.” I went to Korea for a very short while, and was told there that a monk had just died who was famous because during his life as a monk he had not laid down to sleep. This is just asceticism; it is the most wasteful use of a human life. It simply builds up the sense of self, the sense of being in control. The suffering that we must work with is the suffering that comes naturally out of an everyday life. This is the spiritual way to work. It is not only pointless to inflict unnecessary suffering on oneself, it also hides real suffering from us.

Concentrating the mind on quietness is very seductive, and we must be constantly on guard because of the seduction. To work with quietness and peace is like looking into the mirror of the mind with the mind. It is awareness of awareness, and it is seductive because it gives a pseudo peace; it is pseudo because it makes the task of facing the trials and tribulations of life that much more painful. Undoubtedly, most of the recent teachings about meditation in the West are teaching dead void sitting, including some Vispassana and Zen teaching. This is why questioning is so very important, and why following the breath is so critical. The practice must have that living flame, that bubbling brook, that living water of life. Practice has to be original. It must be a new creation. True questioning is the yeast in the practice, the sense of aliveness. When I talk about longing, yearning, a deep need, I am talking about when one falls in love for the first time; how alive one is. It is making contact with this living aspect of oneself. This is what our practice is about. It is not having a quiet mind, a peaceful mind, a mind free of thoughts. This is not it.

Let me read some more of what Hui Neng says: “If you know how to bore into wood in order to get a spark of fire, your life will be like a red lotus flower.” This is a description of zazen, the spark of fire, the spark of living light. Sometimes when we practice it is like we are boring into hara. In one of the awakening accounts in the Three Pillars of Zen, the person described their practice as a kind of drill. Other people have described it as a kind of acetylene torch, the torch that cuts through metal. These analogies are not bad, as long as the practice is happening and not something that we are doing with our conscious mind. One can get a sense of bearing down, of penetrating through, of going into in a deep way, and if it is accompanied by genuine questioning, then the practice can really become deep. Keep the spark of fire going.

He says, “Your life will be like a red lotus flower growing unsullied from mire and mud.” Vimalakirti says something very similar: “Noble sir, flowers like the lotus, the water lily and the moon lily, do not grow on the dry ground in the desert, they grow in the swamps in mud. In the same way, the Buddha qualities do not grow in living beings who are already awakened, but in those living beings who are like swamps and mud of negative emotions.”

Nisargadatta says, “Look inside and be sorry.” Anyone who has taken an honest look inside and is not sorry, has not looked very carefully. Inside it is muddy, confused, contradictory, and conflicting. There may be hatred, anger, bitterness, disappointment, regret, sorrow, remorse; the whole lot is a stew of mud. And when we see it like this we are overwhelmed by anguish, and feel, “What can grow out of this mud and confusion?” But Zen masters, as we have seen, insist that it is in the midst of the everyday mind, the mind that is so confused, that the truth shines through. He goes on to say, “Know that all effective medicines taste bitter in the mouth.” He is referring to the desert, the scorching dryness of nothing happening. Practice can sometimes be extremely bitter, but as he says, effective medicine tastes bitter in the mouth.

He says, “Remember, what is unpleasant to the ear must come from the mouth of a loyal friend.” You should not resent being criticized, or, if you do resent it, then work with the resentment. It is no good blaming the other person. On sesshin, for example, even if you are told to do something that seems rather foolish, do it. It doesn’t matter, as long as you are not told to burn the house down. Do it. Why not? What does it matter? But being told to do something goes against the grain, the grain of our own inclinations. Sometimes, even if somebody just tells us, “Look, don’t stand there, stand here,” we get very angry, furious. “How dare they push me around?” But Hui Neng tells us to look into the fury, be one with it. See the ‘I’ that is buried in that fury. See the spurious need to be inviolate, unique, above, superior to that kind of treatment. See it. Burn it out. Our resentment doesn’t cause pain to anyone other than ourselves. Sometimes, another person just doesn’t like you and turns away from you. It hurts, it tortures you, but stay with the feeling. If you work like this, you may feel that you are drinking poison or stabbing yourself. By facing the insult you may feel that you are poisoning your life. Facing suffering like this is not some moral obligation. It does not come from the idea that we have to be perfect. It is selfish activity to get rid of selfishness.

Hui Neng says, “Repentance and amendment are sure to give birth to knowledge and wisdom.” Real repentance is to recognize honestly that we have acted badly. We should not use bluster, protest or complaint to cover up the shame that arises with this recognition. To sit in the middle of the shame, to allow that acid of repentance to erode that obdurate sense of “me first” is true Zen practice.

Hui Neng goes on to say, “To defend your shortcomings reveals only the lack of goodness in your heart. In your daily life make it a point to always do what is beneficial to others.” Some monasteries practice what is called ‘hidden virtue.’ You do something to help another without that person realizing who has done so. Someone put my sandals under the radiator to dry them out because they were covered in snow. This is an example of hidden virtue; it lifts one’s heart to receive hidden virtue… but it also lifts one’s heart to be able to give, to perform hidden virtue in that way. Another kind of virtue, another kind of giving that you can give that is beneficial to others, is to give a smile. I know talking about smiling is hackneyed. I know it seems to be California New Age twaddle. How sad it is something so beautiful as a smile has been so terribly abused. Smile. It is a gift. Again, it is not a gift simply to the other. When you smile you give yourself a moment of freedom, of oneness, of wholeness.

He says, “The attainment of the Tao does not depend on the mere giving of money.” I once received an e-mail telling me about some Tulku or Rinpoche who was coming to Montreal, exhorting me to give money, a donation to help pay for his trip, so that I would earn perpetual merit. I kept the money. Bodhi is to be found only as your mind, and only you can find it. That no one can do this work for me is the great liberating realization. It means I am the slave of no one, no thing. Once there is a Rimpoche, a roshi, a guru, a teacher, a saviour, someone on whom I must depend in one way or another for my salvation, I am enslaved by that person or their ideas. Hui Neng goes on to say, “Why waste your effort in seeking inner truth outside? If you will conduct yourself according to this gatha, you will see the Pure Land right before your eyes.” Hui Neng is a beautiful man and it is worth reading The Platform Sutra to get those gems of sheer generosity, compassion and ordinariness.

The wind is flapping on the temple grounds and two monks are arguing. This koan is addressing the dualism with its conflicts and contradictions that pervade our lives. The wind flapping and the flag flapping, these are just ways by which our attention is directed towards the problem of suffering, which arises from separation and dualism. But the koan presents the problem in a concrete form. Is it the wind that moves or is it the flag that moves? Although the monks are caught up in this conflict that seems so petty, nevertheless we also get caught up in all kinds of conflicts and get carried away them. We have the feeling that these conflicts can be resolved, that a right and a wrong way exists if only we can find it, that there are always true and a false statements: its either the flag that moves or the wind that moves

This kind of discussion has no end because our conflicts are invariably not between good and bad, or right and wrong. If it were so, there would be no argument: everybody would be going for the good. We are naturally inclined to do so. Most often the argument is good against good, or bad against bad. This is true for wars; in the 1939-45 war the Allies were fighting for what they saw as good and the Axis were fighting for what they saw was good. It was good against good. We demonize the other side. President Reagan talked of the Axis of Evil and this simply makes the conflict intractable. We cannot resolve any conflict unless we recognize that the conflict is most often good versus good. Hui Neng says, “It is not the wind that is moving, it is not the flag that is moving, it is the mind that is moving.” And this is true of most disputes and difficulties. They have their origin in the agitation of mind.

In the commentary it is said, “It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves, it is not the mind that moves.” This comes from a story about monks, who were visiting a convent, and were commenting on Hui Neng’s statement that it was the mind that moves. A nun overheard them and said, “It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves, it is not the mind that moves.” So what is it that moves if it is not the mind that moves? Is she contradicting Hui Neng? Is she saying Hui Neng is wrong, that it is not the mind that moves, or is she saying the same as Hui Neng? If she is, how can one say it is not the flag that moves, it is not the wind that moves, it is not the mind that moves, and then say it is the mind that moves? How can we say that without contradiction? If the nun is contradicting Hui Neng, then she is simply joining in on another kind of argument. Instead of the flag or wind moving, it is the mind or not the mind that moves.

We are used to the saying, ‘true self is no-self” and and we no longer see this as a mystery. But there is no self, there is no Mu, there is no knowing, there is no Zen. One must cut away constantly as long as one abides. As long as one settles, then one has gone back into the habitual ways of fixing, of freezing, of having, of grasping, of either the flag or the wind that moves. Hui Neng, when he said it is the mind that moves, cut away the flag and the wind. The nun cut away the mind that had now become something for these monks. When we’re working, we have to constantly refresh our minds.

Mumon asks, “How do you see the patriarch?” What does he mean by that question, “How do you see the patriarch?” Hui Neng has been dead for over 1500 years. Is Mumon asking you to imagine a picture? No, I do not think so. You see the patriarch in the same way that you see yourself. How do you see yourself? You must go beyond, go beyond, go beyond. When you say not a thing is, cut that away, and then what is there? Bodhi, Svaha!

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10 Responses to Hui Neng’s Flag: Koan 29 from the Mumonkan

  1. Ermanno Baldi says:

    Thanks and happy new year

    Inviato dal mio HTC

  2. Marie Lloyd says:

    “I kept the money”- I laughed.
    “How do you see the Patriarch?”- I wept.

  3. Jane Fawcett says:

    I am always glad, glad to see one of these posts, so clear and supportive. Many thanks and best wishes…

  4. annie manseau says:

    Merci pour ce texte, il m’encourage à continuer. Bonne et heureuse année 2015 avec amour, bonheur et santé.

  5. Hi Albert,
    Again, very much appreciated. FWIW, on my WordPress blog site (integral, I have written a reflection on a recent experience of being in a sacred space. I hope it doesn’t stink too much!

  6. Macleod says:

    Cheers for the words on ordinariness. It is a good good reminder.

    I am wrestling with the German vs. Allies example. How to reconcile the truth of the two sides equal belief that they were doing good (and shared non dual/originally good nature), with what seems like a clear case of moral evil on the one side?

  7. Ben Howard says:

    Thanks for your incisive commentary. I address Case 29 in my own essay “Immovable Awareness” at If you have the time, I’d be grateful for your comments.

  8. Albert Low says:

    I am not suggesting that you see what the Germans did as good, anymore than I would ask the Germans to see what the allies did as good. If we can forget for the moment “allies” and “Germans” we are then left with human beings fighting humans beings, both sides believing that they are right in their struggle.

  9. Pingback: Stitching Sutras: Junco Sato Pollack at Swan Coach House Gallery - Burnaway

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