Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 1, Case 8 (abbreviated and adapted)

Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 1, Case 8.

The Case (abbreviated and adapted):

One day Master Nangaku saw Master Baso practicing zazen and asked him, “What is your intention doing zazen?”

Baso said, “My intention is to become a Buddha”

Nangaku picked up a tile and started to polish it on a rock. Baso, astonished, asked what he was doing.

Nangaku said, ” I am polishing the tile to make a mirror”

Baso said ” How can polishing a tile make it a mirror?”

Nangaku said, ” How can sitting make you a Buddha?”


This is a very significant story, covering a mass of issues: intention, original enlightenment, time, cause and effect, and many others, but I would like to comment simply on Nangaku’s action.

A mirror is often used in Chinese Buddhism as a symbol of dependent origination. Just as when we look in the mirror and see lots of apparently distinct and separate things, when really it’s all the wholeness of the mirror, so it is with reality.

Nangaku doesn’t say he’s making the tile into a mirror, he says that he is making a mirror. The wholehearted act of polishing, or sitting, makes the mirror. Is the mirror. The static nature of the symbol is made dynamic. The tile stays a tile, yet the mirror is actualised, even although the tile can’t see it.

The tile can never see it. Other than with the mute eyes of the heart.