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Fun With Mirrors: Images Of Awakened Mind

Mirror Metaphors & The Mind Of Tao


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.

~ * ~

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.

~ * ~

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?

~ * ~

continued on page two

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