The Tile/Mirror Paradox

Here’s another unexpectedly delightful swim through deep waters in a set of Morning Pages. I added the last paragraph to pull out that one missing piece (due to the page-length restriction of the original writing), but it’s otherwise just a free flow of thoughts (with one quote I really wanted). Enjoy!

No expectations. Can you let go of them? This moment is rife with possibility, with intricacy, with intensity. Can you experience it without mental filters of what it should be?

Sounds easy enough: right? It isn’t. We are always already running with “should”, concepts, and fantasies. They are the norm so much that we do not even realize their constant operation and that there is an alternative to it.

Yet we are also always already living right in the middle of enlightenment. It’s all around us. We’re part of it–no separation, but we have to stop and see it.

“When Baso told his teacher that he sat in zazen because he wanted to become a buddha, his teacher immediately picked up a tile and began to polish it.
–“How can your polishing make that tile a mirror?” asked Baso.
–“How can your zazen make you a buddha?” asked his teacher.””
–Dainin Katagiri, from You Have to Say Something

This zen parable lights the way. The point is not that zazen is pointless. Rather, zazen is the only point. It is the actualization of the fundamental point. It is enlightenment itself–yet it does not make us buddhas. How so?

What is the difference between the tile and a mirror? What is the difference between a person and a buddha? This much is clear: one does not become the other–as though some alchemical transformation of lead to gold, two fundamentally different elements. If zazen does not make one into a buddha, what does it do?

Is it “doing” anything–this practice of just this, just sitting? –What does a buddha “do” for that matter? Is he some great transcendental subject that obtains the knowledge of the ultimate Object–the Universe, Life, Death, Suffering, Happiness? If we think of it this way, we will labor on, polishing, polishing, polishing, not realizing that we can never make that tile into a mirror.

Yet this zen paradox is more subtle and more elaborate than that. We see the need to polish the tile, deluded into thinking it will become a mirror. What we don’t recognize is that we are already a mirror. The action, the not-doing, the wu wei is seeing this and reflecting the light as one process–no separation, just enlightenment, contained as it might be with the rim of confusion and delusion (as Dogen would tell us–enlightened ones still live in delusion). The point is that we need to see that we are dusty, unreflecting mirrors already. Then the question is no longer–how do I become a mirror as a tile (an impossible task), rather what is shining enlightenment? It is prajna; it is compassion. It is right here, right now–everywhere, always. Then, the path is just sitting with this. It is precisely: not polishing.


May this elucidate practice as not doing.
May All be happy.
May All be healthy.
May All be at peace.
May All live with ease.


Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada–Chapter 23: The Elephant

Note: I’m going to move forward in the book to this late chapter and then skip back to a couple earlier sections. Also, the passage below, although long, is not the complete chapter, rather about 2/3 of it. I chose this particular selection from it to emphasize one point of content, honing the Manjushri sword of wisdom.

Patiently I shall bear harsh words as the elephant bears arrows on the battlefield. People are often inconsiderate.

Only a trained elephant goes to the battlefield; only a trained elephant carries the king. Best among men are those who have trained the mind to endure harsh words patiently.

Mules are good animals when trained; even better are well-trained Sind horses and great elephants. Best among men is one with a well-trained mind.

No animal can take you to nirvana; only a well-trained mind can lead you to this untrodden land.

The elephant Dhanapalaka in heat will not eat at all when he is bound; he pines for his mate in the elephant grove.

Eating too much, sleeping too much, like an overfed hog, those too lazy to exert effort are born again and again.

Long ago my mind used to wander as it liked and do what it wanted. Now I can rule my mind as the mahout controls the elephant with his hooked staff.

Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts. Pull yourself out of bad ways as an elephant raises itself out of the mud. — Trans. Easwaran

455 (75)

The well-trained mind will take you along the path like the well-trained elephant carries the rider.

Something about the metaphor in this chapter struck me profoundly. The image of the well-trained elephant is very clear, and yet again, we have a comparison that distinguishes the path to nirvana from the other. In this first passage, the Buddha makes clear that the best quality to cultivate is a well-trained mind. This echoes the main message in the other sections we’ve discussed so far. He emphasizes here, however, that the only thing that will allow you passage to nirvana is a well-trained mind. The previous sections didn’t emphasize this destination.

Perhaps, we should take a moment here and question what exactly nirvana is. Otherwise, we run the risk of falling into undefined terms and elaborate concepts without understanding the intention of this message, rather falling prey to our own fancies and preconceptions. This task of considering nirvana may sound easy, but it isn’t and could be written about at much greater length. The word “nirvana” has a certain exotic and fantastical feel to it, at least from my perspective. I remember using it as a child to indicate having reached some ideal and unassailable state–a perfection of sorts that once attained never falls away. Such an understanding reiterates familiar metaphysical dichotomies of being fallen and transcending our state of lack to a completion in the ideal. The two phrases I just used indicate two familiar examples of this–Christianity (transcending fallen state–the lacking nature of sin–through the perfect grace of the ideal: God and Christ) and Western philosophy’s metaphysical systems in general from Plato onward (contrast of the lacking living world with the ideal one which is the Truth, the Real world behind the shadow one that we are in–appearance vs. essence). While there may be arguments for such an understanding of nirvana from passages in the Pali canon, it does not fit well with this section from the Dhammapada.

This passage makes clear that the path to nirvana is the path of the well-trained mind. The examples here show that the well-trained mind is not swayed away from the good, selfless presence in the world (as discussed in my first selection from the Dhammapada) by lust, laziness, etc. We’re shown through the metaphor of the trained elephant that the mind can be trained so that it does not wander about, and this, just this, is the path to nirvana. It’s not acquiring some special state (which wouldn’t fit with the Buddha’s emphasis on impermanence anyway) or going somewhere else outside the “ordinary” world (Where would such a place be anyway???). Rather, it’s being fully immersed in the world with our mind as it is underneath all the constant layers of distractions and compulsions.

We often think of nirvana as the result of enlightenment, highlighting the profound wisdom in this path/practice (to be enlightened is to have seen the Truth), but we could also cast it as liberation; that is another, if not equally emphasized, “attainment” (there’s really nothing to attain, more like something to lose) of Buddhist practice, and with that re-thinking, we can see that the path of the trained elephant is simply that–liberation from the myriad sufferings of a confused mind. This regal animal can bear us to the core of our own happiness, revealing our own basic goodness beneath the desire, aversion, and ignorance of our untrained mind.


Walking the path step by step…

In case we conclude that a capitalized Mind is something other than our usual one, Huang Po deflates all delusions about its transcendence.:

“Q: From all you have just said, Mind is the Buddha; but it is not clear was to what sort of mind is meant by this “Mind which is the Buddha.”
Huang Po: How many minds have you got?
Q: But is the Buddha the ordinary mind or the Enlightened mind?
Huang Po: Where on earth do you keep your “ordinary mind” and your “Enlightened mind”?”

A familiar implication is the Chan/Zen insistence that enlightenment is nothing more than realizing the true nature of the ordinary activities of one’s everyday mind. When Hui Hai was asked about his own practice, he replied: “When I’m hungry I eat; when tired I sleep.”

The Pali texts of early Buddhism do not emphasize “everyday mind” in the same way, for they often contrast the consciousness of an ordinary person (puthujjana) with the liberated mind of an awakened arahant. Yet there is the same focus on not-clinging, a notable example being in the “Book of the Six Sense Bases” in the Samyutta Nikaya. There the Buddha repeatedly teaches “The Dhamma for abandoning all.” He emphasizes that practitioners should develop dispassion toward the six senses and their objects (including the mind and mental phenomena) and abandon them, for that is the only way to end one’s suffering.

“Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: “It’s liberated.” He understands: “Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.””

Listening to this discourse, “the minds of the thousand bhikkus were liberated from the taints by nonclinging.” The absence of grasping is what liberates.

“Truly, is anything missing now?
Nirvana is right here, before our eyes.
This very place is the Lotus Land, this very body, the Buddha.”–Hakuin

Passage taken from David R. Loy’s A New Buddhist Path, pp. 50-51.

May this inspire you to train your mind and release the mind that grasps so that you too may achieve liberation–the well-trained mind will bear you on the path to nirvana.


Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 11: Just Live

The following is a long quote from Dainin Katagiri’s You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight. When I read this for the first time a couple of months ago, it took my breath away. It’s been a guiding principle for practice and daily life, by that I mean practicing through the moments of daily life, ever since. If there’s something that has gotten me through the difficulties apparent in my last two Heartbreak Wisdom Journal entries, it’s wise teachings like this. If you don’t find a way to handle each day well and with equanimity, you’ll yearn for escape, and when going through negative emotional terrain, this yearning for escape can be most dire and dark. I hope that you too will be inspired by this and use it as a compass in your daily life as well.

As I mentioned, it is easy to become fed up with daily routine. You do the same thing, day after day, until finally you don’t know what the purpose of human life is. Human life just based on daily routine seems like a huge trap. We don’t want to look at this, so we don’t pay attention to daily routine. We get up in the morning and have breakfast, but we don’t pay attention to breakfast. Quickly and carelessly, we drink coffee and go to work.

But if you don’t pay attention, you will eat breakfast recklessly, you will go to work recklessly, you will drive recklessly, and you will go to sleep recklessly. Finally, you will be fed up with your daily routine. This is human suffering, and it fills everyday life.

The important point is that we can neither escape everyday life nor ignore it. We have to live by means of realizing the original nature of the self right in the middle of daily routine, without destroying daily routine, and without attaching to it. When it is time to get up, just get up. Even though you don’t like it, just get up. Getting up will free you from the fact that you have to get up.

Even though you don’t like your life, just live. Even though death will come sooner or later, just live. The truth of life is just to live. This is no attachment. Zen practice is to be fully alive in each moment. Only by this living activity can you take care of your everyday life.

-Dainin Katagiri, You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight, pp. xv-xvi.


Being fully alive in every moment–even in that of washing the dishes

“Zen practice is to be fully alive in each moment.” This does not mean indulgence, chasing your desires, or trying to set up a string of moments you want. On the contrary, this means to fully be with whatever is at hand: for instance, fully present to washing the dishes, even if you don’t like it. Instead of an endless array of likes and wants–Katagiri says in this book that desires are endless: not the goal of a practice of nonattachment–just live in this moment, whatever arises. Being fully alive in this moment doesn’t mean yearning for something else and attaching to that yearning. Not that yearning is bad; if it comes up, let it be, but don’t invest in it. Don’t spin it. Don’t attach to it. That’s wishing for this moment to end, to be dead. That’s being dead in this moment.

May this inspire you to find the strength to just be in your life, to just live. May your practice allow you to live fully in each moment, without attachment, without mistaking presence in every moment with only showing up to the moments you want to have happen/trying to acquire as many of those moments as possible. May this help you smile at every moment, liked or disliked, without escapism.


Previous Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry– Entry 10: Echoes/Grief
Next Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry–  Entry 12: Heartmind’s Abundance

Nothing to Do…

If, if, if…
A set of checkboxes
Mark them all, and…
Get happiness?
Even a spiritual path–
A pursuit of spiritual materialism
An accumulation of ego
The doing of an “I”
“My attainment”
A misperception
Of Truth
“I” am not solid–an illusion
The word, a placeholder,
A Transcendental Unity of Apperception
My “Higher Self”?
Not like anything conventionally conceived:
The ebb and flow of everything
Not separate from it-
A divine chaos–unfolding
The beautiful, empty, mysterious Tao
Emerging-abiding sway of all difference
The path: There’s nothing to “do”
Nowhere to “go”
Enlightenment is here: in this moment
Nirvana in samsara
Just live: realize this one step.


Inspired by a wonderful meditation this morning and all the wise things I regularly read: in this case, I’ve been particularly moved by Dainin Katagiri’s You Have to Say Something. This passage clarifies some of the final lines:

So, how can we practice zazen as an end in itself? All you have to do is take a step. Just one step. Strictly speaking, there is just one thing we have to face, and nothing else. If you believe there is something else besides this one thing, this is not pure practice. Just take one step in this moment with wholeheartedness. Intellectually, we think about the past and the future, but if we take one step, this shore and the other shore are now. Taking one step already includes all other steps. It includes this shore and the other shore. This one step is zazen.

I’ve also been amazed by a recent find of Loy Ching-Yuen’s The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao. I would put it up alongside the Tao Te Ching and the Dhammapada; it’s a beautiful intertwining of Taoism and Buddhism written by a true master from about a century ago. I plan on writing about several passages in the future. For now, enjoy these selections from the sections On Tao:

3. Life is a dream,
the years pass by like flowing waters.
Glamour and glory are transient as autumn and smoke;
what tragedy–for with the sun set deeply in the west,
still there are those
lost among paths of disillusionment.

Our heart should be clear as ice.
Forget all the worldly nonsense.
Sit calmly, breathe quietly, heart bright and spotless as an empty mirror.
This is the path to the Buddha’s table.

5. What labor we expend sorting out our mundane chores year after year.
But doing them without regret or tears,
without resistance,
that’s the real secret of wu wei
like the mountain stream that flows unceasingly:
Elsewise, all we do goes for nought.

We can hold back neither the coming of the flowers
nor the downward rush of the stream;
sooner or later, everything comes to its fruition.
The rhythms are called by the Great Mother,
the Heavenly Father.
All the rest is but a dream;
We need not disturb our sleeping.

To see his brilliant fusion of Buddhism and Taosim better, compare this quote with my analysis of wu wei here and my analysis of the famous lines about flowers falling in Dōgen’s Genjōkōan here.
Finally, my words here make subtle references to Chögyam Trungpa, Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, and Gilles Deleuze, and this meditation and wordplay would never have come to be if I hadn’t recently read the Dalai Lama’s How to See Yourself as You Really Are, all of which (these myriad sources!) I highly recommend to anyone willing to begin a spiritual path with heart.

May this inspire your own investigations and journeys along the path, fellow wanderers. May you find ideas to play with and solace in the beautiful words of all these masters who have brought these insights into my life.


Study the Self! By Maezumi Roshi

Beautiful! I’ve wanted to post on this particular Dogen zenji quote. At some point, I will, but for the meantime, I will share this beautiful and succinct piece.

Buddhism now

Sekizanzen-in's (赤山禅院) Juroku-rakan (十六羅漢 the '16 Arhats')In the Soto school we also appreciate gradual practice and sudden realization. But Soto Zen emphasizes that, because this life is all together one thing, is the Buddha Way itself, you should not expect kensho. As soon as you chase after something, right there you cre­ate separation, so how can you have realization? Many people misunderstand, saying that the Soto school is not concerned with the enlightenment experi­ence — that’s nonsense. Awak­ening is the very core of the Buddha’s teaching, but if we are thinking about awakening we are separating ourselves from it.

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