Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Architecture of the Mind


The students in my Spirituality class today responded favorably to my image of the bazaar mind. Bazaar is a marketplace where you go from place to place shopping for what you need. You have no obligation to stay long and no commitment to buy.

Clayton Shirly uses the metaphor of the “bazaar” to describe our networked society. The bazaar mind is constantly connected: surfing on the web, tweeting, chatting on Facebook, while doing homework and/or listening to music at the same time.

A colleague of mine has a blog with hundreds of visitors a day. The sitemeter in her blog shows that her visitors spend on average about one minute on her site.

The bazaar mind is constantly on the go. It is contrary to the cathedral mind, a mind full of knowledge and wisdom. I came across the metaphor of the cathedral mind in Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid.”


The cathedral mind requires years of learning and training. Like a cathedral, the mind is complex, multilayered, and voluminous, with immense depth. Thomas Aquinas is often associated with having such a brilliant mind.

It is very difficult, and totally counter-cultural, in our age to produce people with a cathedral mind. Thomas lived in the Middle Age with much fewer attractions.

What kind of spirituality is suitable for people with a bazaar mind? Should we call these people “the shallows,” as the title of Carr’s book?

As I was thinking about this, I was reminded that the Buddhists have very different images of the mind. The mind that is not trained and wanders around is called the monkey mind. The aim of meditation is to tame the monkey mind, and to become conscious of one’s thoughts. After much practice, the mind can become empty and no longer attached to things.

The most famous story about the empty mind is about Hui Neng, the sixth patriarch of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. The fifth patriarch wanted to select his successor and asked his followers to express their wisdom in a poem. The learned head monk wrote this poem:
The body is the wisdom-tree,
The mind is a bright mirror in a stand;
Take care to wipe it all the time,
And allow no dust to cling.
Hui Neng’s poem was like this:
Fundamentally no wisdom-tree exists,
Nor the stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is empty from the beginning,
Where can the dust alight
Hui Neng received the insignia and became an important master of Chan Buddhism.

I have noticed that many young people in the West are attracted to Zen-like meditation or practices of mindfulness. I once attended a dharma talk by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the Boston Convention Center. Almost 3,000 were present and many were young people. When Thich asked us to meditate, all were quiet.

Perhaps the bazaar mind needs the empty mind for a change.