Tag Archives: Dogen

Minding–and Not Minding– the Mind. #I–Caring

Have you ever noticed how closely related are the words “thinking” and “thanking?” The mind is one of Nature’s loveliest creations. I remember reading somewhere that just as a meadow gives birth to wild flowers, so the mind generates thoughts and ideas. This is its nature, and it does so beautifully and without effort. It is a delight to walk along a beach, thinking, musing, imagining–all functions of the mind. I love Wordsworth’s allusion to “the inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude.”  It has become fashionable, however, in some “spiritual” circles to denigrate the mind. The “left brain” is often seen as the source of all of our problems, and if we could just turn the darned thing off, life would flow more smoothly.  Perhaps, however, there are perspectives in which sometimes minding our minds, and at other times not minding our minds, could make life immeasurably richer.

We use “to mind” in many ways, but in this series of essays, I would like to think about four of them: Tonight, I am going to mind the kids. Mind the gap.  Mind your Mother!!  I mind it when the guy at the next table is smoking.

These meanings suggest that we put the mind to work when we care about something, ranging from nurturing love to dependent attachment; when we sense danger, ranging from reasonable attention to paralyzing terror; when we are in the sway of authority, ranging from suggestions to  harsh commands; and when something irritates us–ranging from mild discomfort to severe aversion. The mind itself is often the object of each of these senses of “minding:” It, too, can be irritating, or needing care, or issuing orders, or warning of danger. As I “think” about it, it seems to me that in most of the gentler meanings of “to mind” there are ways to mind the mind that are positive and helpful.  As we get to the other end of the spectrum, however, the mind can become a tyrant that inhibits the creation of an artful life.  During the next few days, I am going to write a series of essays on these various meanings of minding the mind.

1.  Minding the kids: caring for the mind.  I can think of two ways in which it is important to care for the mind.  The first is obvious: use it or lose it.  In my mid-seventies, I am still devoting significant time to learning languages.  I just love this.  Speaking a person’s language is a key to opening the hearts of oneself and others. It  keeps my mind agile and attentive, and my heart filled with joy. This connection between the heart and the mind, between mental exercise and joyful engagement, is the key to caring for the mind.  We all learned in school that force-feeding the mind is counter productive, to put it mildly.  Plato, in fact, was against compulsory education of any kind and at any stage of life.  “For the free spirit” he said, “there should be no element of slavery in learning, for forced learning takes no hold in the mind.”   I will write more about healing the gap between mind and heart in the next essay in this series.

There are other ways to care for the mind.  It helps to turn off the TV and read a decent book once in a while.  Even planning a trip (how to get from Madrid to Seville to Malaga to Nerja) is invigorating mental exercise, with a great pay-off.  For many people,  meditation in one form or another has become a powerful gentling of the mind’s anxieties.   And of course, writing a blog, and reading the inspiring thoughts of fellow bloggers, nurtures the mind’s vitality.

The second way we care for the mind is suggested by Thich Nhat Hahn.  “Be careful,” he says, “about what you invite into the living room of your minds.”  Just as with my children, I need to have a “parental filter” on my own mind.  What do I read, what do I watch, what fantasies do i entertain, and what is the quality of my conversations?  Am I feeding my prejudices,or opening my mind to more ample vistas?   Am I paralyzing my mind with fear, or learning to create positive frames for this challenging world in which I find myself?   Our minds, like our children, call for tender nurturing and healthy nutrition, and perhaps some discipline, in order to grow toward their richest possibilities.

On the negative side, we can become obsessed with the mind, and live entirely within its narrow confines.  G. K. Chesterton once observed that modern people have huge heads and tiny chests, like the Grinch, whose heart was two sizes too small. Just as a parent can become overly protective of his children, so we can attempt to insulate the mind from ideas that upset our cherished opinions.  It is tempting to protect the mind by building a wall around it, turning it into Plato’s cave. As Robert Frost advised, however, before I build a wall, I want to know what I am walling out and what I am walling in.

Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen, was fond of urging his students to “great faith and great doubt.”  I think the trick is to honor the truth that you have crafted over a lifetime of learning, whether through reading, thinking, discussing, or even cultural conditioning–and at the same time to realize that the entire content of the mind is partial and tentative.  What I think I know is always open to question and further  refinement, often expansion, and sometimes outright rejection. This is what Socrates meant when he said he knew nothing true and beautiful, and that this  not-knowing is the essence of wisdom.  My ideas, no matter how beautiful and considered they may be, must always be open to doubt.  The mind’s greatest enemies can be its cherished answers that close off further thought.  It’s greatest friends are its questions.   Thus,  a mind lovingly cared for is one filled with wonder.


Monkey Reaching for the Moon #1: The Monkey

猴子捞月   Monkey Reaching for the Moon (Hasegawa Tōhaku (長谷川 等伯, 1539 – March 19, 1610)


I have a copy of this painting here in my study as a daily reminder of my chattering monkey mind.  This version is a fusuma (sliding door) painting by Hasegawa Tohaku  that he painted during the 16th Century (Muromachi Period) in Japan.  It can be seen today at the Konchi-in Temple in Kyoto.  This is a sub-temple of the famous Zen Temple of Nanzen-ji.  While most people pass by this smaller temple to see the main attraction, they miss a beautiful example of a dry landscape garden (karesansui), lovely borrowed landscape (shakkei),  and this wonderfully whimsical picture of the grasping soul of humanity.  You might have to look very closely  at the bottom left/center of the painting to see the pale moon for which the monkey is reaching.

I would like to share three Buddhist commentaries on this theme.  The first is by the great Zen revivalist of the Edo period Hakuin Ekaku (白隠 慧鶴, January 19, 1686 – January 18, 1768)

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and
Disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.

The second is by the Soto Zen Master Dōgen Zenji (道元; 19 January 1200 – 22 September 1253):

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.
Although its light is wide and great,
The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.

And the third is a line from Nagarjuna (c. 150 CE):

Those who grasp at the notion, “I will be free from grasping and Nirvana will be mine,” have a great grasp on grasping.”

I hesitate to add my two cent’s worth to Hakuin, Dogen, and Nagarjuna, but this image holds a couple of captivating meanings for me.

My first impression is that the moon symbolizes all the elusive and illusive things I think I need in this ephemeral world.  If, however, the monkey did manage to grab hold of the moon, he would be disappointed, since it would instantly disappear in the water disturbed by his grasping hand. So, too, the attractiveness of things seems to evaporate once we have them.  We wait and wait for Christmas morning (or its adult equivalent),  but there is usually a terrific let-down in the afternoon.  We are on to the next better thing: a better job, a better place to live, a better wife or husband.  The monkey will never be satisfied as long as it continues to reach for illusory substitutes for the real thing.

And what is the real thing?  I’ll let Lao Tzu give it a try:

Something mysteriously formed,

Born before heaven and earth.

In the silence and the void,

Standing alone and unchanging,

Ever present and in motion.

Perhaps it is the mother of ten thousand things.

I do not know its name.

Call it Tao. (Verse 25 of the Tao Te Ching)

Or St. Augustine: inquietum est cor nostrum donec requisecat in te–our hearts are restless until they find repose in the Divine (or in the Tao, or in the Heart of Life).  Until then, I am a monkey reaching for an empty image of the moon.

I find the second level of meaning more subtle–but also more exciting.  The three Buddhist teachers quoted above all suggest that not only should we cease to reach for illusory things, we should stop reaching for anything at all–even for enlightenment!  The moon symbolizes Enlightenment itself, but that straining to reach enlightenment is itself “having a great grasp on grasping.” The desire to be enlightened puts the whole thing on hold, waiting for a thunderbolt in the future to crack open the shell of ego.  Hakuin, however, urges us to give up the striving, and simply to sink into the still, clear pool of NOW.  This is not only where Enlightenment is, it IS enlightenment.  Dogen, too, says that the moon of enlightenment is here in this dewdrop on the blade of grass.  If we can see that, we see all there is to see with dazzling purity.

Contemporary writers such as Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie are fervent in their invitation to love what is here and now, as they echo the ancient voices of Epictetus. Marcus Aurelius, and Heraclitus.

The Third Chinese Zen Patriarch, Seng-Ts’an, begins his Hsin Hsin Ming (Heart/Mind Sutra) with the words “The Great Way (Tao) is easy for one who has no preferences,” i.e. no desires for a better me, a better life, a better tomorrow.  As Hakuin says, the monkey in me will keep hanging from that branch for all the days of my life, always reaching, never giving up, and never getting anywhere.  Maybe it’s time to let go.  If not now, when?