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[ Dhamma Talk ]

The Mirror Image

I have come across an insight into the Mirror Image which was very helpful. I did so while "site-seeing" and it was not until a couple of days later that persistant recollection of the idea caused me to pay enough attention to it to see it's value.[1] The simile of the mirror is found several times in the suttas. One in particular speaks about examining one's self thoroughly for faults before bringing the faults of others to their attention. I have always considered the idea of the Mirror in terms of the reflective properties of the mirror (as above, so below; the outer environment that is subjectively perceived being a reflection of the inner state of mind; etc.) but this teacher saw in the image the impassivity of the mirror as the important factor: the mirror reflects without interaction. Everything looks the same but there is no "subjective dimension."

My experience when dealing with the Teachings of the Buddha is that every possibility needs to be kept in mind; that at least very often if not always, multiple possibilities were intended.

Here we can see the case where using the combined image could be very useful in rooting out subjective reactions based on notions of self.

For example, take the situation where there is a person there that is habitually lying, stealing and harming living beings, where one is continuously thinking: "Why is this person doing this? This person is injuring me, but that is not important, what is important is that they are injuring both self and others. This person needs to stop doing this," and further, when instructed as to their own good, they do not listen, remember and alter their patterns of behavior, and one gets angry and upset.

So then in this case, using the simile of the mirror in both ways, we would see: This person's behavior can injure "me" and "others" and "themselves" only in-so-far as these individualities are holding on to the idea of self; otherwise what is happening there is simply alterations in the perception of the material of the world (the mirror as the impassive reflection). What is happening here that is upsetting to "me" is based on my identification with a "self" which concept requires the existance of "others" and this person's behavior is threatening to shatter that delusion and I am reacting to my own disadvantage in that this is a delusion that has beneficial results when shattered (using the mirror as a reflective device).

Thus...um...reflecting in this way he sees: "In reacting in this way I am in effect perpetuating my own self-deception (lying), depriving myself of benefits (stealing), and injuring myself! This behavior in this "other" that I am reacting to is just a reflection of my own behavior! My concerns just concerns for myself! This concern is misdirected when directed outwardly and should be directed at correcting this unskillful posture and behavior in myself! And, additionally, this misdirected concern is an embarassment, shameful, unworthy of an aristocrat, something to be got rid of by me.

 

§

 

Two other takes on the Mirror.[2]

"An interesting story is told of the sixth patriarch, Hui Neng — how he came to succeed Hung Jen in his religious authority. The fifth patriarch wished to select his spiritual heir among his many disciples, and one day made the announcement that anyone who could prove his thorough comprehension of the religion would be given the patriarchal robe, and proclaimed as his legitimate successor. According to this, one of his disciples, who was very learned and thoroughly versed in the lore of his religion, and who was therefore considered by his brethren in faith to be in possession of an unqualified right to the honour, composed a stanza expressing his view, and posted it on the outside wall of the meditation hall, which read:

This body is the Bodhi-tree;
The soul is like a mirror bright:
Take heed to keep it always clean,
And let not dust collect on it.

"All those who read these lines were greatly impressed, and secretly cherished the idea that the author of the gatha would surely be awarded the prize. But when they awoke next morning, they were surprised to see another written alongside of it, which ran as follows:

The Bodhi is not like the tree;
The mirror bright is nowhere shining:
As there is nothing from the first,
Where can the dust itself collect?

"The writer of these lines was an insignificant monk, who spent most of his time in pounding rice for the brotherhood. He had such an unassuming air that nobody ever thought much of him, and therefore the entire monastery was now set astir to see this bold challenge made upon its recognized authority. But the fifth patriarch saw in this unpretentious monk a future leader of mankind, and decided to transfer to him the mantle of his office.

This event is stated to have occurred in 675 AD. The author of the first stanza is not named. His error is in identfying the self as the mirror. Hui Neng's response contains the error of denial of the self. Both are the error of taking a stand on a point of view, 'ditthi.' The two stanzas ... um ... reflect each other in another ...er... reflection of the idea of the mirror: reflecting opposites. This is my response (a few hundred years late, I admit, but still, I think I have a legitimate claim to the title of sixth patriarch).

Awakening is not Like,
    or any Thing of Us.
The Body, the Bodhi Tree,
It's ripe fruit, the mirror free of Dust,
Consumed such fruit no longer do We see.

 


[1]See: The Fundamentsls of Meditation Practice, by Ting Chen, translated by Dharma Master Lok To (another of my teachers). I have put it on the Downloads Page. The Reference is on page 12.
I think it is important to mention that while there are certainly things in the various schools of Buddhism with which one can strongly disagree (such as the practice of taking the Bhodisatva vows, or the idea of renouncing Nibbana), the fact is that there are teachers in these various systems who have developed or discovered or remembered or have had passed along to them some extremely valuable and effective techniques and insights. We should be like the bee: let the flower go and retain the pollen.

[2] Journal of the Pali Text Society, Volume V, 1906-1907, p.8, The Zen Sect of Buddhism, by Daisetz T. Suzuki.


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