407. The Frame of The Mirror

We’re often drawn back to the same stories. One of mine is the “Polishing a tile” story, where Nangaku asks Baso what his intention is in practising zazen.  Baso replies, “My intention is to make a Buddha.”  

Nangaku  picks up a tile and starts polishing it with a stone.   

Baso says, “What are you doing?”

Nangaku says “I’m polishing a tile to make a mirror.”

Baso says, “How can you do that?”

( The story goes on. A full version is in the Zazenshin chapter of the Shobogenzo)

It’s a very rich story. A dominant contemporary way of looking at it is that we should be satisfied with our life. Our life with all its imperfections, with all our limitations and Imperfections,  we should accept it completely. We should not want our ‘tile’ to transform into a ‘mirror’, because we’re not wanting to be something else. We’re not wanting to become an enlightened being, because that’s just a more subtle form of craving. 

That’s a very legitimate way of looking at the story. Barry Majid, a very good American  teacher, takes that position.

But it seems to me that there’s another way of looking at this story. Obviously you can’t make a tile into a mirror. And likewise, you can’t make a limited karmic being into a Buddha. 

Nonetheless, a mirror is manifested—a Buddha is manifested. Our initial, and correct, understanding is that practice means that we can’t  change one thing, a tile, into another—a mirror. Alongside the mirror the tile remains. Alongside the Buddha space which is actualized in zazen our karmic self is still there. 

Yet it changes: it’s still there, but it changes. How does it change? 

The practitioner isn’t the mirror. The practitioner is the framework of the mirror. Something is manifested when we sit but we can’t see it, because our seeing is from our limited karmic perspective.  Likewise we can’t understand it. That’s why the Dharma is called wondrous.  But just like the frame of a mirror, although we can’t see the mirror, we can be intimate with it— that’s practice.