In the Eihei Koroku there is a dharma hall discourse ‘Polishing a Mirror’
The discourse goes as follows:
- Polishing a tile to make a mirror is our reward for accumulating merit and virtue;
- Polishing a mirror to make a tile certainly depends on the nourishment from wisdom;
- Polishing a mirror to make a mirror brings a laugh.
How are my hands and a Buddha’s hands similar?
Practicing Zazen to make a Buddha is taking our weeds and sitting at the side of awakening.
Why is it like this?”
(After a pause) Dogen said, “When one cart is hit, many carts go quickly. One night a flower blooms and the world is fragrant.”
There’s a number of things going on in this discourse.
The reference is to the famous koan story between Nangaku and Baso. In that story, Baso is sitting in Zazen and Nangaku goes to him and says,”What are you aiming for sitting in Zazen?”
Basu says something like, “I’m aiming to make a Buddha.”
Nangaku then picks up a tile and starts rubbing it against a stone.
Baso says, “What are you doing?”
Then Nangaku says, “I’m polishing a tile to make a mirror.”
Baso says, ”How can you make a mirror out of a tile by polishing” or words to that effect.
Nangaku says, “ Likewise how can sitting make you a Buddha?”
In Dogen’s interpretation of that story (which isn’t the mainstream interpretation) it’s the act of polishing which makes a Buddha a Buddha. So, the act of polishing—Zazen—makes the mirror. It doesn’t make the tile into a mirror, but it makes a mirror. It doesn’t make you into Buddha, but somehow, within your Zazen, both you and the Buddha are sitting.
The reference to the mirror is one that would be very familiar to Chinese and Japanese people of the time. It’s referring to alaya (storehouse) consciousness in Yogacara theory. According to Yogacara, there’s a point where the storehouse consciousness abruptly changes from simply bringing into our life our karmic seeds to being mirror consciousness; where we see everything dispassionately and clearly, all of one piece, as a mirror is all of one piece; even though the images in it appear to be separate.
Dogen is playing between this idea of ourselves as like the tile of the individual karmic practitioner, and this more universal quality of mirror consciousness, which, from the Lankavatara Sutra onwards, was identified quite closely with Buddha nature within Chinese Buddhism.
There’s various ways of putting this, and Dogen does. Another analogy might be, if the given one is not clear, that the activity of Zazen—polishing—is the creation of the mirror. You might imagine yourself, the individual practitioner, as being a thousand miles away from the Buddha. But Zazen is like the ground under your feet; the same ground as under Buddha’s feet; the same ground lifting up all beings. So even though this grimy, partial, karmic self isn’t transformed into something else, everything is manifested in Zazen.
To invent another analogy: as if we’re looking at a stage and there’s a narrow spotlight. That spotlight is on you, but you in your karmic ways, your incomplete thoughts, your repetitive thoughts, all the partiality and pain which makes up you as a karmic person. And what you want is for that partial person, that passion and pain, to be transformed into something else.
That’s the mistake.
Because what we require to attend to is not the karmic person but the quality of light. If the light, rather than simply being focused obsessively on you, is gradually broadened—then the light illuminates all beings.
Then everything changes.