Mind as Mirror

While visiting my good friend in Portland, Oregon recently, we had a good theological discussion while my daughter slept in the next room. One of the things I mentioned was the Buddhist notion, not exclusive to Zen, of the mind as a mirror. This is based in ancient Yogacara-Buddhist teachings and can be hard to grasp. It’s also hard to find a good, simple explanation, even in Buddhist sources.

Then, recently, while reading the book about the Japanese monk Tetsugen (鉄眼, 1630-1682), I found this passage, which he wrote in his famous “Dharma Lesson in Japanese” or tetsugen zenji kana hōgo (鉄眼禅師仮名法語), section 4:

When you see images reflected in a bright mirror all day long, it reflects the sky, the land, flowers, willow trees, people, animals and birds. All the colors change and the types of things [reflected] change without a moment’s rest, but the true form of the mirror is not the birds and animals, or the people, or the willows, flowers, the land, or the sky. It is just the shining and unclouded mirror itself. Our original minds reflect and illuminate the ten thousand dharmas, but have no connection to their distinctions.

If we can see the mirror, we can then see how everything is a reflection of one’s own mind. They are not permanent, and will quickly change and fade. As the book’s author, Professor Helen J. Baroni, writes:

The mind, like the mirror, is independent of the images it reflects and remains unchanged by them. Therefore, there is no need to purify it of them. While it is possible to quiet the flow of psychic constructions in meditation, there remains a dualism inherent in the practice. For the enlightened mind, the mirror should be visible “even if images of blossoms and willows are reflected.”

Pretty deep stuff.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

3 thoughts on “Mind as Mirror”

  1. Thank you, Doug. May I suggest another way to contemplate this? If we understand clearly that phenomena and all apparent reality (which Buddha always taught comes from mind) represent a kind of continuous, voluble flow in which any object separate and on its own is un-findable, ultimately, except through that which perceives, and that which perceives is also un-findable in this vast unending flow, it then becomes possible to recognize, in a way transcendent of ordinary perception ( i.e. sense and thought compounds or aggregates, “skandhas”) that which is unmoving, unchanging, and always findable is itself the Mind. I don’t find it useful to get too carried away with metaphors, but this mind has been likened to the back of the mirror. I like to think of it as solid ground. The shurangama sutra provides instruction in how to overcome the basic inversions of dualism which prevent recognition of the mirror mind.


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