In my book Nothing Holy About It, I discuss three attitudes from our tradition that inform our practice. In the next two or three posts I want to briefly review what I said there and elaborate on points I have thought about since the book was published six years ago.
The first two are poems come out of a fictionalized story from 8th century China. It takes place in Hung Jen’s monastery. This early Zen teacher is ready to appoint his eventual successor and calls on his monks to write poems to express their understanding.
The head monk, Shen Hsui, wrote a poem anonymously on the wall because he was afraid to fall short of his teacher’s expectations. This poem was received by his teacher somewhat positively. One translation reads: “The body is the bodhi tree; The mind the mirror bright; Be careful to wipe it clean; and let no dust alight.”
This poem harkens back more than a thousand years to the Theravada or “teaching of the elders.” We also find these instructions in the earliest Yoga scriptures and in European deep thinkers like William Blake with his famous statement, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
This is based on the belief that our natural state of mind is mirror-like and reflects everything within it. In our meditation practice, we patiently and persistently polish this mirror so that it reflects everything accurately. As a result, its luminosity penetrates everything. Sometimes the practice of mirror wiping, (which includes a commitment both to daily meditation as well a longperiods of sitting in retreats), can be both arduous and tedious, but if we have a goal and a clear direction, we keep at it.
Its roots are in Indian yogacara practice. Yoga means, “to yoke.” As we empty out all the gunk we carry around in our heads, we yoke ourselves to a spacious timelessness which includes all life.
Dust is always accumulating: our concepts, ideas, worries, and anxieties are always arising and darkening our vision. This past year has been like no other in most of our lives in the amount of dust it has stirred up. What’s been happening in our country has created a dust storm which has discolored all of our mirrors.
It’s been a year when many have needed a routine of focused meditation more than ever. There are so many “dust wiping” techniques you can use; whether it is watching or counting your breathing, scanning your body for places of stress of tension, repeating a phrase or mantra over and over as you sit, doing a loving-kindness meditation or even listening to a guided meditation app.
Often, I compare this “dust wiping” practice to learning to play a musical instrument. If you practice every day regardless of your level of success, sooner or later you will learn to wipe the dust away even after sitting for a short time. You may wonder how the poem which promotes this practice was the losing one. I will talk about this in my next post.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher