The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Mirror of Truth

It was when I was living in London, the UK, that I was reintroduced to reading books as a pastime. I was in my early twenties and I had been living there for over one year. I was a reader when I was growing up, but had lost the desire to read for pleasure during high school. But when my new roommate proudly showed me his large collection of literature, from Dostoyevsky, Orwell, Zola, Henry Miller and so on, I became inspired again to pick up a book and start to reeducated myself. One of the first novels that I came across was The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. He wrote it in 1890 but its message is still valid even today I feel. In case you don’t know the story this is the outline:

“The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian’s beauty and becomes infatuated with him, believing his beauty is responsible for a new mode in his art. Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil’s, and becomes enthralled by Lord Henry’s world view. Espousing a new hedonism, Lord Henry suggests the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfillment of the senses. Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian (whimsically) expresses a desire to sell his soul to ensure the portrait Basil has painted would age rather than he. Dorian’s wish is fulfilled, and when he subsequently pursues a life of debauchery, the portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin displayed as a disfigurement of his form, or through a sign of ageing”(Wikipedia)

The sins of Dorian Gray are transferred to the painting. He is free to indulge himself in pleasures, safe in the knowledge that he will never grow old or disfigured no matter how immoral a life he leads. His concern is about his outer image, rather than his soul.

Time goes by and Dorian spends more and more of his time indulging in desire. The more he indulges, the more he wants, and the more brazen his actions become. The artist who painted the portrait becomes suspicious that the painting which once upon a time was displayed in a place of prominence in Dorian’s home has not been seen for a long time. And this coupled with Dorian’s ever-youthful looks makes him force the issue. Out of a desire to protect his eternal youth he murders the artist. Dorian leaves the country where he indulges to his heart’s delight. On his return many years later the people he associated with before are now old and grey, while he is still the young man they have always known. Dorian returns to his home and looks at the painting which is in the attic under lock and key. Its image is now a portrait of an old, vile and sneering withered man, an unrecognizable image of the youthful man standing in front of it. Dorian is mortified to see what he has truly become. In essence the painting is a mirror of his true self.

In the end his secret is found out and the painting destroyed by his one time friend Lord Henry. As soon as it is destroyed, both the painting and Dorian revert back to their true images: Dorian becomes what the painting was, a hideous human being and dies, while the painting becomes the youthful image that it originally was.

Buddhism teaches about the three mirrors, one of them being the mirror of truth. Each person has a true self that contains all our karma, from this life and from countless lives past. What does this accumulation of deeds look like? To know this we need to look at the mirror of truth. Amida Buddha and the countless buddha’s of the universe have seen into our true self. Because of what they saw, the heaviness of our sins, the countless buddhas abandoned us.

To understand what this revelation is, we need to turn to Shinran’s words: “My spirit is one of nothing but indolence, and inside I am nothing but empty, deceitful, and fawning at all times.”“My evil nature knows no end.”“The sentient beings are filled with blind passion. By nature they lack a mind of truth or purity, their thoughts being entirely evil and wicked.”

Master Shinran has nothing good to say about his true nature, the true nature of all people. That is because he has seen nothing good in his true nature. In You Were Born For A Reason it says, if our thoughts were laid bare, people would call us monsters and flee our company. If people had seen the painting of Dorian Gray after his lifetime of seeking pleasures, they too would have run for their lives.

But our true nature cannot be shown. What is inside is only known to each individual. But even the truth of that is mostly hidden until the time it is revealed to us by Amida’s light.

On the outside we wash, dress up, and put on a nice fragrance. We are making ourselves look like the young Dorian Gray.If the nature that Master Shinran speaks of were transparent we would all be locked up like Dorian painting’s was. Dorian could not display the painting in public view because of the shame of what he truly is. Can we express to someone every single thought that we have in our mind?

Buddhism focuses on the urgent matter of the afterlife. When this human form falls away, our true form will go naked into the afterlife, where it is taught, we come face to face with the true self Master Shinran described. The difference between Oscar Wilde’s book and our afterlife is that our afterlife will be no work of fiction, but the real thing.

Frank Costelloe, USA

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #35 | 2014, The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Mirror of Truth

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