Fun With Mirrors: Images Of Awakened Mind

Mirror Metaphors & The Mind Of Tao

Bruce Lee in the "house of mirrors" scene of the movie "Enter The Dragon".

Zhuanzi & The Fun-House

Water becomes clear and transparent when in a quiescent stage. How much the more wonderful will be the mind of a sage when poised in quiescence! It is the mirror of heaven and earth, reflecting the ten thousand things.

-- Zhuangzi, chapter 13 (369-286 BCE)

As a child, I remember greatly enjoying the “fun-house” at our yearly county fair: an enclosed maze of mirrors, each reflecting a distorted version of “me.” The mirrors reflected back, in turn, a young girl’s body that was strangely tall and skinny; or wildly short and pudgy; or twisted, squished and stretched in an unimaginably contorted combination of ways; or shining with a neon-translucent color; or appearing suddenly with angel-wings ....

It was indeed fun to experience playful variations on the theme of “me,” knowing all along that what I was seeing, though it clearly bore a resemblance to me, wasn’t actually (of course!) the real me. And then the relief, upon emerging from the darkness of the fun-house, to once again be able to see directly my real, my true body, exactly as it was, standing beneath warm summer sun, on the dusty fairground.

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Those fun-house experiences came decades before I would, as a young adult, first hear the name of the Taoist sage Zhuangzi, who -- in the passage quoted above -- uses the metaphor of a still-water-mirror to describe a (fluid) mind resting in meditative equipoise, within which emerges undistorted perception of “heaven and earth,” the ten thousand things.

Zhuangzi, Shenxiu & Huineng

Zhuangzi lived from 369-286 BCE, and -- because his work was pivotal in defining the Taoist tradition in China -- I can’t help but wonder if portions of the Zhuangzi might not have found their way into the visual field and mind of Shenxiu (Shen Hsiu), the Ch’an Buddhist practitioner who, some nine centuries later, penned the following poem (English translation here by Eloise Hart):

Our body is the Bodhi Tree,
And our mind is a bright mirror.
At all times diligently wipe them,
So that they will be free from dust.

This poem was written with the intention of expressing Shenxiu’s level of meditative realization, and has since become associated with a “gradual enlightenment” approach to Buddhist meditation practice, in which one traverses through various stages, making conscious effort to purify oneself along the way, until one reaches the goal of Enlightenment.

In response to Shenxiu’s poem, another Ch’an practitioner -- Huineng, who lived in the same temple -- composed, as an alternative, the following (translation, once again, by Eloise Hart):

The Tree of Perfect Wisdom is originally no tree.
Nor has the bright mirror any frame.
Buddha-nature is forever clear and pure.
Where is there any dust?

As the story goes, the teacher of both Shenxiu and Huineng recognized this second poem (Huineng’s) -- which has come to represent a “sudden Enlightenment” approach, in which ones awakening has little or nothing to do with paths and stages, but rather emerges spontaneously within the truth of what is already here -- as being superior, as expressing a deeper understanding than the one written by Shenxiu. As a result, Huineng was named as his successor.

Space/Time Practice & The Mind Of Tao

Though the historical issue of successor-ship was in that now-legendary moment decided, the “sudden” vs. “gradual” Enlightenment debate has persisted; and is still today an oft-recurring topic of discussion. The question might also be stated: does Enlightenment “happen” within or outside of historical time/space?

To me, the answer would seem to be: The direct experience of Enlightened Mind (accessed via meditative equipoise) is nondual and, necessarily, independent of time/space; but the post-meditation period, for pretty much everyone, includes appearances projected within, and interpreted in terms of, Newtonian time/space.

This is why, generally speaking, any contemplative tradition will specify two distinct realms of practice, often referred to as the “meditation” and the “post-meditation” periods; with the latter including relating to the arising and dissolving of forms, and the use of (necessarily dualistic) spoken/written language.

Because of this seemingly unavoidable dual nature of meditation practice, when we’re talking to each other or writing about practice, it’s beneficial to be clear about which realm of experience we’re referencing; otherwise, confusion is likely to abound.

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Enter The Dragon

If you’re a martial arts practitioner, you’ve almost certainly seen or at least heard of the movie “Enter The Dragon” -- starring Bruce Lee -- whose final scene features a “fun-house”-like hall of mirrors. At one point during this scene, we hear Bruce Lee’s character recalling what presumably was advise relayed to him by one of his teachers:

“Remember, the enemy has only images and illusions behind which he hides his true motives; destroy the image and you will break the enemy.”

In the context of the movie, there obviously is an external enemy that is being (quite masterfully!) battled; yet what the deeper practice of the martial arts -- and all forms of Taoist meditation -- tell us, is that the true, and ultimately the only, “enemy” is an internal rather than an external one.

So what is this internal enemy? What are the “images and illusions” behind which this enemy hides? And could we perhaps understand this scene from “Enter The Dragon” as a visual metaphor for confronting this internal obstacle?

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'Tis thus that all things are

From the perspective of a nondual tradition like Taoism (along with Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta) the “enemy” (our greatest obstacle to freedom and lasting happiness) is ignorance of our True Nature. It is out of this primordial ignorance that our perception of a subject/object duality emerges: a “me” and a “world” separate from this “me.” The “images and illusions” behind which this enemy hides are our own projections, born of conceptual elaboration (the naming/labeling of “things”). To “smash the mirrors” of these projections -- as Bruce Lee does in that final scene of “Enter The Dragon” -- is to destroy their web of illusion by rendering the process of their manifestation transparent (re-membering our projections as our own) -- at which point we can become artists of our own creation instead of unconscious victims of the projections.

Once the images and illusions born of unconscious projection are dissolved (or, if you prefer, “smashed”), what remains is a kind of “naked perception” of the things of the world: a clear seeing which re-cognizes the ten-thousand things as being none other than reflections in the water-mirror of our mind. From the Samadhiraja-sutra of 2nd century CE (important to Buddhist Madyamaka philosophy):

For when at night the moon, reflected on the stream,
Shines brightly and within the spotless water seems to be,
The water-moon is empty, substanceless; there is no thing to grasp.
Now understand: ‘Tis thus that all things are.

Or, from the Persian poet Rumi (1207-1273):

“Let the waters settle, and you will see stars and the moon mirrored in your own being.”

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If -- as we hear from the first verse of the Daode Jing -- “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” does this mean that we should never speak of the Mind of Tao?

If the water-mirror represents mind, and its reflections the ten-thousand things, then what is being pointed to in the Zhuangzi, Huineng, Samadhi-raja Sutra and Rumi verses is what in Buddhism is known as the union of the Two Truths; and what in Taoism is represented visually in the Yin-Yang Symbol. From the beginning, the ultimate (the realm of Tao, Dharmakaya) and the relative (the ten-thousand things, appearances) are not-two. In the Heart Sutra this is expressed as “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” Important thing to grok here is that the ten-thousand things, in this perspective, are no-thing other than reflections in the mirror, i.e. they are not things with an existence wholly independent of the mirror, which then reflect themselves in the mirror. (The latter was Shenxiu’s perception of the situation.)

Fingers Pointing At The Moon: Some Good Reasons To Talk

This union of the Two Truths is, however, realized directly only within meditative equipoise -- within a nonconceptual “space” beyond all language. That understood, it still may be the case that there are good reasons, in the post-meditation phase of practice, to use language to talk or write about the Mind of Tao. For instance: (1) as a means for yogis and yoginis to share with one another their meditative experiences which, being wholly subjective, can be shared, by most practitioners, only by talking about them; and (2) to form a conceptual bridge, a kind of “base-camp” for those not able or willing to take the leap, make the ascent directly into nonconceptual meditative experience of the Mind of Tao. This is the proverbial “finger pointing to the moon” approach.

One finds this latter strategy articulated quite elegantly by Svatantrika Madhyamaka practitioners, in their distinction between the “approximate Ultimate” and “actual Ultimate” realms -- with the former being used provisionally, as a skillful means, in juxtaposition to rigid, fixated notions of the actual “existence” of the “things” within the realm of Relative Truth. In the end, this conceptual polarity of Relative-Truth / approximate-Ultimate-Truth dissolves into the nondual experience of the actual Ultimate, in which the two truths are realized as, from the beginning, not-two. This is the proverbial “using a thorn to remove a thorn, then throwing them both out” approach.

Read more: The Tao That Can Be Spoken: Shantarakshita & The Ten-Thousand-Things

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Try This At Home

So .... It can be a fun thought-experiment to play with simply assuming that every thing that you hear, see, feel, taste and touch (i.e. the “external world”) is a reflection in the mirror of your mind -- and notice what effect this has on your experience of your self/world.