In Chinese Buddhism, the idea of the mind as a mirror became a much used metaphor. There are a number of interesting features of mirroring that can help us to understand spiritual practice and investigate the nature of mindfulness.

Firstly, a mirror is not in control. The mirror reflects whatever comes before it. It is impartial. It does not pick and choose. It reflects exactly what is there. This accords with the first line of the Hsin Hsin Ming: “The perfect way is without difficulty except that it avoids picking and choosing.” Many people undertake a spiritual practice with a view to having greater control of what appears in their life and in their mind. Our Western religion, especially, is much concerned with trying to eliminate one's sinful nature and although many people have abandoned the religion, society is still very strongly dominated by ideas of blame which must be avoided at all cost - hence the emphasis upon control.

The mirror does not have originally sinful nor originally virtuous nature – it just responds cleanly to whatever is there. It is deep, but objective.


The mirror accepts the other just as they are. It does not pass judgement. Really, as we shall examine more in the final part of this series, this is a fundamental characteristic of love. In this respect, therefore, the mirror represents the Buddha mind, or, we could say, the Buddha heart.

Fourthly, and very interestingly, a mirror is bright on one side, yet dark on the other. Actually the mirror consists of transparency on the outside and darkness behind. Zen Master Dogen uses the example of the dewdrop. In the night, when the dewdrop is dark, the bright moon is reflected in it. This image of 'the moon in the dewdrop' encapsulates the whole of Dogen's religion. The moon is huge and the dewdrop is tiny, but the whole moon is reflected inside the dewdrop. The dewdrop is tiny and the moon is high in the sky, yet the depth of the reflection is as great as the height of the moon. Not only the moon, all the stars – the whole firmament – everything is reflected in the tiny dewdrop. How is this happening? It is only happening because of the mirror effect created by the dewdrop being dark. It does not matter that the dewdrop is tiny, it still reflects the whole glory of the universe.

If it were not for the darkness, there would be no mirror, just as a glass mirror only works because one side is dark. The suggestion is that it is not so much by revealing our own brightness, but, on the contrary, by our becoming dark, that we become mirrors for the 'moon'. The moon, in Far Eastern Buddhism, represents the Dharma, the wisdom and compassion of the Buddhas and, especially, the bodhisattvas. We reflect the wisdom and compassion when our own light no longer gets in the way; when we have allowed ourselves to become dark.

In this metaphor, we become mindful when the mind is fully dark, which is to say, non-self-assertive. This idea, however, runs so acutely contrary to the dogmas of contemporary materialism, consumerist culture and self-assertive pop psychology, that it is difficult to imagine us being able to fully understand it. The way suggested has nothing to do with self-entitlement nor self-esteem (neither the self-praise kind, nor the playing the victim kind), but rather is to do with letting go of self and becoming willing, becoming naturally responsive. Our lives are as fragile and transient as dewdrops, yet each tiny drop can reflect the vast, mysterious beauty of cosmic truth and love, even though one cannot master it oneself.

What is the first principle of the Dharma? Vast emptiness. Can you master it? No. Can you manifest it? Yes. Can you not manifest it? Actually, no. All our attempts to be the moon ourselves are vain. We cannot help reflecting the truth, but our attempts to shine independently makes us blind to what is happening.

So this is another approach to mindfulness, the mind full of reflected glory, claiming no merit yet receiving endless grace, and, in doing so, deeply accepting of others just as they are.

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Replies to This Discussion

The mirror aspect is fascinating me: the reflection of reality in my mind in the moment itself. So when I have an argument with a friend, or when I see despair in the eyes of my clients, my mirror is reflecting this? So I have to study myself, examine my self to 'solve' or understand what is happening in that particular moment? I have the sense that in a great variety of moments it is better not to act in the outside world, but to examine my innerworld. When I can change my thought and emotion about a situation, something new is possible in the outside world. Does this make sense?

Yes, though I would not put so much emphasis upon trying to change oneself. Noticing what is happening inside can give one deeper insight into what is happening in the other because it is probably a reflection. Allowing that deeper understanding to do its natural work, the right thing will arise. So the only change that is necessary is to let go of 'taking it personally'. Remembering that one is a mirror, one can realise 'this is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself'.

So the mirror reflection gives insight about myself and the other... In other words the mirror is helping to make the connection, to develop compassion, to vanish the concept of self and other....?

In a sense, yes, to both points, but it is a slightly different way of thinking. The mirror reflection gives insight about the other, certainly. That is an important part of compassion. One's concept of the other will necessarily evolve as one has more insight. For instance:

I might be with another person and I notice that I am frightened. If I take this information personally, I may conclude that the other is a frightening and, perhaps arrogant or ruthless person. However, if I take it as a reflection, I may realise that the other person is frightened. This shift may change the way we relate to each other radically.

ah, I notice the difference, the nuance. Let me 'chew' on it a bit. I will respond in a while...

I have come across this phrase often in Buddhist writings: 'This is not I'. One version emphasised that it should be written 'This is not-I' and I thought it made the point very clearly by defining 'This' (whatever it may be) as a 'Not-I'. Whereas the usual rendition has the 'I' as a separate thing from the 'This' and implies that both exist, writing it as 'Not-I' was, I thought, very neat.

David Brazier said:

Yes, though I would not put so much emphasis upon trying to change oneself. Noticing what is happening inside can give one deeper insight into what is happening in the other because it is probably a reflection. Allowing that deeper understanding to do its natural work, the right thing will arise. So the only change that is necessary is to let go of 'taking it personally'. Remembering that one is a mirror, one can realise 'this is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself'.



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