Master Sozan asked Master Toku, “The Buddha’s true body is just like space. Manifesting its form according to circumstances, it is like the moon in water. How do you understand it?”
Toku said, “It’s like a donkey looking down a well (seeing his own reflection).”
Sozan said, “You aren’t quite there.”
Toku said, “Well, how do you understand it?”
Sozan said, “It’s like the well looking up at the donkey.”
To have any understanding of these stories, two things are essential. First, we need to take the image seriously, not see it as code, or immediately try to convert it into something else. The image is the whole picture. Second, we need to be keenly aware of our own tendency towards dualism. So, in this first image, we might think there are three things: the moon, the moonlight and the water. But there’s only two, our mind wants to insert a moon when none is there. Likewise, in all the images concerning mirrors – a way of talking about differentiation within wholeness- we want to insert the owner of the reflection.
The image of the moon in water is a very old one. It’s originally a way of describing the relationship between the mind and awareness/insight. When the mind is still, we can see things as they are. But it keeps being creatively reinterpreted, so here Sozan is using it as a way to describe the complete inter penetration of wholeness/Buddha and differentiation/myriad things.
Toku takes an image which is very traditional and beautiful, and brings it down to earth. The donkey – this practitioner – is looking down the well of all things, right to the bottom, and sees that he is not separate from anything.
But there is a risk: if we just think from this perspective, our minds can insinuate the self back into the picture, and then people can make absurd statements like “I am all existence”, when really, the whole Universe is expressing itself through this donkey.