Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind.
One said to the other, “The flag is moving.”
The other replied, “The wind is moving.”
Overhearing this exchange, Hui-neng said, “Neither flag nor wind is moving; mind is moving.”
(Case 29, The Gateless Gate)
Hui-neng is wrong here.
Imagine you are looking at a tree on a windy day. You feel the gusts against your cheeks. You see the leaves shaking and flashing as they twist and turn. You see the branches swaying back and forth. You hear the leaves rustling and the tree creaking. And you are so clear and open that there is no movement, not inside, not outside, not anywhere. Nothing moves.
Now imagine that you could experience your thoughts and feelings the same way. They come and they go, but for you there is no movement, none at all. It doesn’t matter what arises—love, anger, need, pride, grief, joy—you experience it, you experience it all, you know it, and yet nothing moves, nothing whatsoever.
It is possible to experience life this way, and when you do, words are utterly useless. This way of experiencing is indivisibly immediate, unfathomably profound, unthinkably simple, and unimaginably ennobling. It must be true!
And thus is born the notion of ultimate truth.
Stay with that experience for a few moments. Inside you are as quiet as a pond that lies in the center of a deep forest, a pond that, protected by the trees around it, has been undisturbed by even the slightest breeze for a thousand years. Feel the stillness, the infinitely deep stillness, within you.
Because of that stillness, you hear everything. You hear the cry of a baby when it first comes into the world. You hear a young man’s gasp of disbelief and despair when his girlfriend breaks things off. You hear the sobs of fear of a woman stricken by breast cancer. And you hear the rasping breath of those whose time in the world has come to an end. You hear the sufferings and struggles of those brought low by misfortune, bad luck, or their own folly. You hear the cries of pain and hurt of those who are oppressed, exploited, or abused. You hear the pain in the voices of those who have to oppress, exploit, or abuse others. You hear the suffering of the world.
You see and hear others struggle—locked in beliefs, flooded by emotions, or burned to ashes by their worries, their concerns, their obsessions. And it’s all so unnecessary. They don’t know that there is another way. You see that and know that. It must be true!
And thus is born the notion of relative truth.
Profound, transformative, and liberating experiences are frequently recast as higher or deeper truths. As human beings, we struggle with life, and when we find a way of experiencing life that ends all struggle and suffering, we grasp, we hold, we cling. Nothing is more important. We know that something else is possible. We are different because of it. At least we feel different, so it must be true. We want others to know it, too. But how do you tell them?
You put your experience into words, whatever words you can. You come up with ways to explain why this is possible, how it comes about, why it is so important. But these words, these explanations, are, in the end, as relevant as proofs of the existence of God. You can debate and argue all you want—and people have done so for centuries—but these explanations, these systematic conceptualizations, are beside the point. If they don’t help to bring out something of that experience in others, they are at best a waste of time and, at worst a rope with which people tie themselves into knots.
There is no ultimate truth. There is no relative truth. These are just notions, ideas. You have not touched cosmic consciousness, the one true reality, the ultimate, the infinite, the totality pure. Those words don’t refer to anything. They are poetry, but people forget that. You’ve experienced something, something profound, and it has changed you. Great. But for goodness’ sake, don’t make a religion out of it. Just live it.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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