The Three Mirrors
To know oneself is actually very difficult. You might be thinking, “No, that’s not true. I know myself well.” However, despite our intention to follow the ancient admonition, “Know thyself,” we don’t have a clue who we really are. Why is it that we know ourselves so little? It is because we are too close to ourselves.
Our eyes point outward, so we can see things outside of ourselves quite well. For instance, if we’re listing someone else’s faults, we can list three or four of them at the drop of a hat. “That guy has a really quick temper, and he’s selfish, and he’s scatterbrained, and… (etcetera, etcetera)”
However, if we’re told to list our own faults, we just umm and ahh with a clueless look on our faces. We think, “Well, I’m just normal. Of course I’m not perfect, but I don’t think I have any proper faults.” Just like it is said that a person who says they have no habits actually has seven, there is no-one who has no faults at all. Even so, we cannot see our own selves.
Long ago in China, there was a minister who was famous for his long, splendid beard, which he was very proud of. One day, the Emperor enquired, “Minister, I am curious to know how you sleep at night with your beard. What do you do with it? Do you tuck your beard inside the covers, or do you let it lie on top of them?”
The minister found himself unable to give an immediate response, and he realised he may need time to be able to answer. He asked to have one night’s grace so that he could respond to the question properly, not wanting to give a half-hearted answer to the Emperor. That night, when he tucked his beard into the covers, he found he could hardly breathe, and having his beard on top of the covers didn’t feel right either. He tossed and turned, unable to get comfortable no matter where he placed his beard, though he moved it about many times. In the end, he still couldn’t answer the Emperor’s question. The Emperor conceded that to know oneself is incredibly difficult. “The eye cannot see itself, nor the sword cut itself.”
No matter how good a person’s eyesight is, they cannot look at their own eyes. A sword renowned for being extraordinarily sharp also cannot cut its own self. This is because these things are too close to themselves. When we can’t see something because we’re too close to it, we use a mirror. What kind of mirror do you think would allow us to ‘know ourselves’?
Probably the first mirror that comes to mind is the ‘mirror of others’. The image reflected in other people’s eyes is a version of ourselves as evaluated by the other person. We place huge importance on and trust in this mirror, which is why we are taught from childhood not to show ourselves up in public or do anything to earn a bad reputation. In other words, we are taught to earn a good reflection in the mirror of others.
However, the mirror of others is fickle, and the image reflected in it changes according to the other person’s convenience.
The human tongue gives praise today
Tomorrow it finds fault
Laugh away or weep away
It is all a tissue of lies
Even if people are showering you with praise today, tomorrow they will speak ill of you: this is the nature of the human tongue (the mirror of others). Therefore, other people’s evaluations of you are not to be trusted. Whether you feel euphoric from being praised or you weep because people are bad-mouthing you, it is nothing but falsehood. Just because a person is praised doesn’t mean that they are a good person, and just because someone is bad-mouthed doesn’t mean that they are a bad person. With his poem, Ikkyu exposed how people’s evaluations of us change from one minute to the next.
Our minds change fickly, like eggs rolling around on a board. The image of ourselves that comes from the evaluations of the fickly-changing minds of others cannot be our true image.
Of course, this is not to say that there is no need to care about how we are thought of by others. All this means is that the mirror of others does not reflect our true image.
Next is the ‘mirror of the self’. This is the image of the self that we see when we reflect upon ourselves based on our own sense of morals. Can this mirror really reflect our true image? We are all in love with ourselves, and so we are completely unable to part with the tinted glasses of vanity that always make us see ourselves in a good light. This vanity makes us give in to a tendency to be overly fond parents to our children.
While the desire to protect our children is indeed important, being overly fond leads us to be unable to believe our children could do anything bad even if they’re arrested by the police.
Since we are like this towards our children, we are like this all the more towards ourselves. Let’s say we’ve been getting more grey hairs lately. We’ll say, “Yeah, but look at my neighbour! They’re younger than me and they’ve got more grey hairs than me!” If we can’t point out someone like this, we won’t be able to calm down. If our next-door neighbour won’t suffice as someone to compare ourselves to, we’ll point out the person three doors down from us. In the end we’ll even point out someone from the next town along in order to feel at ease. Because of our conceit, we are completely unable to see ourselves in a bad light.
There is no way the mirror of the self can reflect our true image either, so blindsided by vanity as it is. So is there a mirror that does reflect our true image? The teachings that Sakyamuni Buddha taught from the time he attained enlightenment at the age of 35 until his death at the age of 80 are called ‘Buddhism’. The maxim that expresses these teachings in a nutshell is this: “Buddhism is the mirror of Dharma.”
‘Dharma’ is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘truth’, and the mirror of Dharma is the mirror that reflects our true image. This means that when you listen to Buddhism, you are hearing about your true self. Just as you cannot say you’ve looked in the mirror if all you’ve done is sat in front of it with your eyes closed, you cannot say you’ve been listening to Buddhism if you haven’t been made aware of who you are, even if you’ve been listening for decades. So what did the Buddha teach about the true self? What is this true self like according to his teachings? Let us learn about this in more detail from the book, You Were Born For A Reason.
Source: The Buddhist Village Times #45 | 2014, Even a Capable Minister Is Embarrased for Not Being Aware of His Own Behavior
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