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.


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.


Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada – Chapter 1: “Twin Verses”

This opening chapter shows the way by pointing out the enlightened path and comparing it to the deluded path. The amazing thing about this opening passage is its balance between solid ethical philosophy/cognitive-behavioral psychology and more austerely poetic spiritual maxims. It’s pretty long, so I’ll only cover part of it, and I’ll go through that part in pieces.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfish thoughts cause misery when they speak or act. Sorrows roll over them as the wheels of a cart roll over the tracks of the bullock that draws it.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfless thoughts give joy whenever they speak or act. Joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves them. — Trans. Easwaran

This initial chapter is called “Twin Verses”, and the reason is clear here. We have the deluded and enlightened paths–samsara and nirvana–side by side, twinned in the same structure and style of explication.


The first sentence is the same in both, and it reveals the importance of karma in a way that resonates with Western philosophy and cognitive psychology. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics couches virtuous (that is excellent) action in an ongoing awareness of oneself within a social landscape. This requires an ongoing examination of how I have been molded by my background–upbringing and origin–and how I am molding myself further with each thought and action. Another familiar parallel is cognitive-behavioral psychology, which is more or less the successor of a Stoic understanding of the mind. Our thoughts mold our perception of ourselves and the world. In that sense, all that we are and all that the world is are the thoughts that mold us/it. Therapy, then, becomes an engagement to change the thoughts that harm us and the related behaviors to those thoughts. With these comparisons, the relevance of the Buddha’s position for us from the West is made clear.

Our two paths are displayed before us, and this is where the Buddha goes dramatically beyond these familiar points of comparison. The deluded path of ongoing suffering is the path of selfish thoughts. This includes all the plans oriented on my own aggrandizement. Out of the just listed Western parallels, the Stoics would be the only ones to make this dramatic leap (I’m reminded here of Marcus Aurelius speaking of being a citizen of the Universe). Selfish thoughts, even those oriented toward my success, my story, and my truth, even when they don’t harm others, will lead ultimately to dukkha, i.e. suffering, discontent, and continual yearning.

Why? This is a path that continually tries to get beyond the inevitability of impermanence. It’s an ongoing attempt to rig the game just right to get me that happiness of success that will never dissipate, never change, never fade. If I try hard enough… If I plan thoroughly enough… If I get the conditions just right…

Notice how all these thoughts are turned inward. If the world gives to me just right, I will be happy. That is the crux: external conditions have to be right, whether following the path of avoiding pain or pursuing pleasure. The energy of this system goes from outside to inside, from the world to me, thus the inward nature of these thoughts. “I” become the focus and goal of thoughts set up toward making my life just perfect. Even if that perfection includes others, it’s still about my perfect life.

In comparison, the enlightened path is one of selfless thought (and action). Such people (at least attempt to) give joy to all in all their speech and action (that which follows from thought), and hence, they are regularly cultivating joy in situations. It follows them everywhere. This invites a larger discussion of Buddhist psychology and karma, but let’s put this simply: the first path keeps the selfish person in an ongoing chain of cause and effect. His or her actions bring consequences that maintain an enduring cycle of felt dissatisfaction and of fighting to be free of this dissatisfaction with subsequent action … which is ultimately not fully satisfying. Selfish thought leads to selfish action which leads to the karmic consequence of this never-ending cycle: samsara. The other path invites us to at least see the difference. Then, perhaps, we have a gap after selfish thoughts arise–before we speak or act on them. Realizing that they lead only to sorrow, we instead change our thoughts, speech, and actions to more selfless ones. With time, this practiced self-reflection becomes a new mold for our thoughts, and selfless thoughts come on their own. With such a shift, we attempt to give joy to all, attempting to help them find peace, happiness, and health (by inspiring them to step beyond sorrow-laden paths as well). With this, we first begin cultivating more positive chains of consequences (as if that’s a necessary motivation), and ultimately, we step beyond the cycle of ongoing dukkha–that karmic chain is broken.

Notice that this second passage focuses on the selfless person giving joy, not getting it. Here, we have the contrast that this path is not inward-oriented like the first, in the sense of seeing the world’s purpose as to give to me or for me to take from it. Instead, this is outward-oriented. My thoughts are aimed out from myself toward the joy of all. The energy of this system now moves from me outward, rather than the inward grasp of appropriation for self. Through such a step beyond concern about my own joy, beyond “I”, me, and mine, I paradoxically realize that very joy in myself.

Let these discussions open one other passage for consideration:

“He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me”: those caught in resentful thoughts never find peace.

“He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me”: those who give up resentful thoughts surely find peace.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law. — Trans. Easwaran

Again, I’m reminded of Western philosophy in that one of Nietzsche’s greatest concerns is man’s propensity for “ressentiment”–more or less, resentment. The problem is precisely how inwardly driven this is–it’s literally a feeling again and again, a “re-sentir” (to feel again). This keeps us trapped and tortured, perpetually reactive, rather than vibrant, active, and creative. We get again and again, but we only get the pain of a stung mind, an envenomed heart. As in the passage of Thus Spake Zarathustra (II, 29–The Tarantulas), we feel the toxic bite of the tarantula, again and again, stagnant and rotting with emotional poison, and with Nietzsche, according to Deleuze, the problem is that this reactivity, this “feeling again”, lies throughout our entire human psychology. So the question becomes how do we step beyond this into that active state, rather than feeling reactivity everywhere?

To exemplify this problem, we can take another verse from chapter 18 of the Dhammapada:

There is no fire like lust, no jailer like hate, no snare like infatuation, no torrent like greed.

Notice that all of these are reactive evaluations–wanting to have what one does not have or jealousy of what someone else has (which is really another version of the same). In each, we become trapped in or tortured by reactivity. Hate, the jailer, is an instance of not wanting, and as such, it is wanting. It is not wanting a situation or person to be as he/she/it is, so it is wanting to have the world be completely different for me. (See my comments on love and hate in Love, Rebounds, and Relationships: Part 3 – Love and Metaphysics and also my comments on hope and fear in Reiki-The Five Precepts: 2nd Precept-Faith)

In comparison, the Buddha offers the selfless, enlightened path, one that is not stung by holding on to the continual, reactive poison of internalized wrong done to self:

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law.

To let go of the resentful thoughts, the bars of the prison of hate, we cannot negate that person or thing out there which has wronged me. This is the most basic impulse in us, but as Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye makes the world go blind.” Selfish action to escape pain, begets another and another, and moreover, it begets this same resentful and retaliatory (as with hatred) reactivity in others. The only way to get beyond this is to selflessly give–to love–rather than to selfishly take–to hate (remember that hate wants the world to be utterly different in a way more suitable to me; it is a wanting, and it can lead to the subsequent action of taking, through negation). This means even giving up the self-righteous thoughts of being wronged. You instead give yourself to the world, finding connection with it, finding the suffering in those who have “wronged” us, finding the compassion of an awakened heart.


In conclusion, let’s offer this passage of Red Pine’s translation of Verse 63 of the Tao Te Ching which I discussed in a recent post. These guiding words for the Sage go hand in hand with the Buddha’s words for the arhat who walks the selfless path of love, peace, and joy:

Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small[,] many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
– Trans. Red Pine

May this inspire you to read the rest of this beautiful chapter and the whole book. May it show you the first steps on the selfless path, and may you begin to walk it towards joy, peace, and love.


Compassion in Action

Pets and loving words
–to the mewling cat
Water, care, and joy
–to the potted plant
Stopping to help
–a lost stranger
Truly seeing and engaging
–all those you meet

Our days
With others
With opportunities
To realize:
Despite the millions
Of heartbeats & breaths,
My life
–Within a magnificent
So grand, vast,
And full of happenings
Each passing & flowing

The realization:
It’s not all about me

The opportunity:
To wake up
To take care of others
To awaken the heart

The enlightened path:
Lit by the lantern
Of this awakened compassion
–The lantern of bodhicitta
Yet still with the darkness,
Your own human limitation of vision,
All around
This is a journey
Not a destination

The deluded path:
Shuffling through blackness,
Never looking past
Your own toes,
Holding this vision
As the greatest Truth

A difficulty of understanding:
Compassion helps lovingly
It tears down
The masks of ego
And games of self-involvement
Helping others,
Awaken too