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Flag moving or mind moving

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a TED video about Zen kōans.

It tells two fascinating tales. The first is easier to understand.

Two monks, Tanzan and Ekido, are traveling together down a muddy road. Ahead they see an attractive traveler, unable to cross the muddy path.

Tanzan politely offers his help, carrying the traveler on his back across the street, and placing her down without a word.

Ekido was shocked. According to monastic law, monks were not supposed to go near women, let alone touch a beautiful stranger.

After miles of walking, Ekido could no longer restrain himself. “How could you carry that woman?”

Tanzan smiled, “I left the traveler there. Are you still carrying her?”

One way to interpret it is to let go of our attachments to what has happened. If you find yourself being bothered by your past, you’re still carrying it.

The second one is more intriguing.

Three monks are debating a temple flag rippling in the wind.

The first monk refers to the flag as a moving banner, while the second monk insists that they are not seeing the flag move, but rather the wind blowing.

They argue back and forth, until finally, a third monk intervenes, “It’s not the flag moving, nor the wind blowing, but rather the movement of your minds.”

The flag is moving in reality. How does it have anything to do with your mind?


I think one of the key points is this — the third monk is not saying the flag, as a separate identity, is moved by your mind. But the perception or experience of the movement is caused by your mind.

In a TED talk by Anil Seth, he called our conscious experiences “controlled hallucinations.” We’re experiencing the world as much, if not more, from the inside out as from the outside in.

He says our brain is not passively perceiving reality, but actively making predictions of what is happening. Like happiness is not the goal of evolution, seeing the reality is not either, unless doing so helps us to survive and reproduce.

This is not surprising if you’ve read how our brain tricks us, such as optical illusions or false sense of self.

You don’t have to know the scientific experiments to experience it. Close your eyes in the sunshine (or strong warm light) for a while. When you open your eyes back, you’ll realize your vision needs to adjust itself from a cooler tone to a normal level.

But what is a “normal” level? It is simply the default setting of our brain. It could have been set differently. And our experience of the world would be immensely different.

Now back to the flag.

You may argue the flag is moving no matter how you perceive it. This is not true either.

Before Galileo, nobody believes an object in stillness and moving at a constant velocity are the same thing. Imagine if we somehow move the same way as the flag, it wouldn’t be moving to our eyes at all.

And at that moment, the flag moving will feel like the movement of our minds. It’s the knowledge that empowers us to believe that way.


What’s the point of talking about all these?

I think this could be a profound discovery. A few ideas to start:

  1. Our mind generates our experience of reality all the time. Biases and lenses are no exception, but the norm.
  2. Meditation gives us a path to getting closer to the truth by examining our experiences. The monks don’t need to learn the science to see this truth.
  3. Knowledge gives us the power to perceive the world from different perspectives.
  4. And to dive deeper, we didn’t create the movement. The minds did it on their own. Where are our “selves”? Where is our freedom of will?

Thanks for the Waking Up app created by Sam Harris. The lessons are priceless.

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