Mirror of the mind

by Supriya Rai, DNA India, December 12, 2005

New Delhi, India -- The mirror has been used as a metaphor for the mind and its ability to reflect external objects within itself as images led thinkers through the ages to ask questions about the true nature of existence. One particular incident in Chinese Buddhist history has become a legend.

<< Hui Neng

The fifth patriarch of the Buddhist Ch'an school, which later became famous as the Zen school in Japan, had to appoint a successor. Fellow disciples encouraged Shen-hsiu, the foremost among them, to compose a poem and stake his claim.

He pinned the following to a tree: The body is the tree of awakening/The mind is like a clear mirror/Be unceasingly diligent in wiping and polishing it/So that it will be without dust. Shen-hsui used the mirror metaphor to affirm the original purity of the mind. Dust, in the form of klesa, or defilement, distorted the tathata or suchness of the mind. Daily vigilance was thus required to preserve the Buddha-nature.
At the same school was a novice monk named Hui-neng, who used to pound rice. In the middle of the night, he composed a rejoinder and pinned it next to Shen-hsiu's poem. Hui-neng wrote: Awakening entails no tree at all/Nor does the clear mirror entail any material frame/The Buddha-nature is essentially pure/Where could there be any dust?
The fifth Patriarch recognised the genius of the rice-pounder. Hui-neng had negated the assumption of the 'self' in bodhi or awakening. If indeed Buddha-nature is clear and bright, should the person not see through the duality of ignorance and enlightenment, defilement and purity?

In a spirit of simplicity Hui-neng had echoed the celebrated Taoist master, Chuang-tzu, who had similarly asked, "If the mirror is indeed bright, dust cannot adhere on it. If dust can adhere to it, can it be said to be bright?" Hui-neng went on to receive the symbolic transmission of the robe and preached the doctrine of sudden enlightenment or instantaneous awakening, as reality is indivisible and has to be comprehended all at once, or not at all.