The mind as a mirror in Zazen

An ancient and cherished image of the mind in zazen is a clear, limitless mirror extending everywhere. This mirror contains and displays everything that comes, accepting everything without preference or rejection: both the beautiful and the ugly, the welcome and the unwelcome, the scenes of war and peace, friends and enemies, moments of life and death, the whole world embraced and enveloped by the mirror without resistance or judgment, in a deep peace and equanimity. The mirror does not prefer sweet to sour, sun to rain, here rather than there. Even our stormy emotions are shown in the mirror as mere passing images: moments of fear and sadness, loss and longing.

Some may think that the mirror shines only when all that distress and despair is removed from it, when the mirror is thoroughly cleansed. But the mirror never anguishes or despairs. It does not attract what is pleasant, nor repels what is unpleasant. Its light and clarity contain and reflect the shapes of all that comes, both light and dark, which are somehow – all – the very illumination of the mirror. Mysteriously, by this very acceptance, even darkness somehow contains a light. Mysteriously, all broken pieces of life are known to be whole.

In other words, the mirror doesn’t need to be made free from the ugly, free from the hard to see, our troubles and worries, the broken hearted moments, tears and terrors that we can feel. On the contrary, even these can sometimes appear in the mirror, and they will be welcomed and embraced as passing scenes. This peace and equanimity is so powerful that the glass embraces all the smooth and broken things in life. The scenes of lightness are the light of the mirror, but the scenes of storms and darkness are also the light of the mirror.

Not only when we sit in zazen, but also when we return to the world, our eyes can be mirrors, for we see all the struggle and chaos of the world. We will sometimes be blind to the fact, but the endless separate things and scenes of this world are all, always, the mirror.

Of course, we should try to make this world a better place, turning the ugly into the beautiful as best we can, cleaning up rivers and seas, planting flowers, trying to end wars, seeking remedies for illnesses, comforting the lonely and frightened. We must not ignore Suffering, tolerating the filth of the earth, stirring or wallowing in the mud of our own mind. We should put aside our own greed, anger, jealousy, etc. As best as we can, we should try to bring beautiful images to the mirror, removing dirt and dust. We should not be complacent. Master Dogen said that the very act of polishing is itself the mirror…Buddha polishing buddha, clarification polished illumination.

But the mirror reflects all that; our act of polishing and dust are met with serenity and welcome. Although we remove dirt and dust, even dirt and dust is the light of the mirror, and the light is dirt and dust.

In “On the Ancient Mirror” by Eihei Dogen Shobogenzomasterpiece of the Zen master in the 13th century, Dogen reflects on this old story:

A monk asks: “What does the old mirror look like before it is polished?” The master says: “The old mirror. The monk said, “How does it feel after being polished?” The master says: “The old mirror.

Remember that the old mirror in question now has a polishing time, a time before being polished and a time after being polished, but it is entirely the old mirror. However, when we polish, we polish the antique mirror as a whole. Our polish adds nothing. Our polishing is not self-polishing or self-polishing. Before being polished, the antique mirror is not dull. Even if someone calls it stained, it can never be dull: it’s the antique mirror in its vivid state.

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