July 25, 2011

Mind And Matter Enter-Act ~Algernon D’Ammassa.

Photo: H. Koppdelaney

Not mind over matter, not matter over mind. So what is it?

In a famous Zen story, two monks look at a flag flapping in the wind. One of them asks, “Is the flag moving or is it the wind moving?” They joust over this for a while. The matter is settled when Hui-neng, an iconic figure in Zen history, tells them, “It isn’t the flag or the wind that is moving. It is your mind that is moving.”

At this point, we imagine someone striking a gong and the camera fading on two monks who are suddenly getting enlightenment by the master’s wisdom. On the other hand, this might not be the bulls eye it appears to be. The great Hui-neng points at something important, but the matter is not yet complete. What is missing?

One day, when I lived at Providence Zen Center years ago, I was sitting and relaxing with one of the monks. I mentioned that I was coming down with a cold. He touched my arm and emphatically said, “You can decide not to have a cold.”

Oh, that again. Separating mind from matter and then making mind the master. This idea sells a lot of books: the power of positive thinking, and the capacity to make the universe the way you want it to be. It sounds great, but it puts desire in charge, and desire tends to be a confusing influence on our decisions. It certainly does not emancipate the spirit.

A few years later, that same monk suffered a bout of sciatica that made sitting meditation very painful. Why didn’t he decide not to have sciatica?

Our experience of the world is shaped by our thinking. The Buddha gave extensive teachings on that point, but you don’t have to take his word for it. Pay close attention to the process and you’ll see just how much thinking creates the world you inhabit. We can lift ourselves up or pull ourselves down, and we can adjust that attitude just as we would adjust our bodies so that we can breathe more fully and act in the world with greater ease. Silent retreats are fantastic opportunities to watch this process over a period of time.

Yet this is not the same thing as deciding we can tailor our world, as in lucid dreaming. That’s a fantasy.

This is because mind interacts with matter. They are not two. Just as light is either a particle or a wave depending upon how you look at it.

Not mind over matter, not matter over mind. So what is it?

Not the flag. Not the wind. Not your cluttered old mind, either.

Then what?


Algernon D’Ammassa is an actor, playwright, and teacher. He is a Bodhisattva Dharma Teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen and founder of the Deming Zen Center in New Mexico. He lives in Deming, New Mexico, with his wife and two young children. For more about the center, visit www.demingzen.org.

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