I was recently having a conversation with someone about their meditation practice who related an experience in which chronic troubling thoughts had been less troubling due to her ability to let go of them. However, she was disappointed that the troubling thoughts hadn’t disappeared, had not flown away. This koan about Mazu and Baizhang came to mind.

My response to someone reporting their disappointment about troubling thoughts not going away is often to ask, “Where are they going to go to?” I might as easily asked, “Where do they come from?” The answer to either question is the same, “nowhere”. We are in the habit of treating our thoughts like things. Something solid, something real. We treat the thought of our self the same way, as something solid, something real. Where does that thought come from? Where does that thought go when I forget myself?

During a trek in Nepal I met and spent a couple of days traveling with a Peace Corps worker. Their job was to walk from village to village educating the locals about the dangers of overgrazing and to teach good farming and livestock practices. A slideshow was part of his presentation. After gathering everybody together in a room that had been darkened, he would turn on his battery operated slide projector, which cast a bright white square of light onto the wall. Then the first slide, which was of a sheep, was projected on the wall.

At that point, there was always a pause as everyone in the room rushed to the wall to touch the sheep that had magically appeared there. After a period of time standing at the wall trying to touch the elusive image of the sheep, folks  sat down and my companion was able to continue with his presentation. No one ever asked where the sheep went when the next slide appeared. It wasn’t there in the first place.

Our thoughts are like that.In this story about Mazu and Baizhang, Mazu is asking Baizhang where has the image of the wild geese gone? The image that was projected onto the wall of his mind. When Baizhang said that they had flown away, the pain of having his nose tweaked by Mazu told him otherwise.

David Weinstein

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