The mirror is an object we irresistibly invoke when wishing to describe self-awareness. Zen Buddhism suggests this misleads us into a dualistic conception of reality because of a dialogue set up within the self through contemplation of the reflection. Ophelia’s description of Hamlet as the glass of fashion, though admiring, hints at his introspective and narcissistic self-consciousness. The verse of Huineng, who became the Sixth Patriarch in the seventh century, CE, is a description of the enlightenment which comes from the experiencing of the oneness of every thing.
Enlightenment is not a tree The bright mirror has no stand Originally there is not one thing What place could there be for dust?
(The tree is the bodhi tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment. The reference to dust is a challenge to the description of meditation as a procedure in which the mind is polished). Can we, more modestly, distinguish between awareness and self-awareness? Yes, in a way analgous to distinguishing a painting from the canvas on which it is painted. But awareness and self-awareness are co-dependent, that is reciprocal and arise together. This is beautifully expressed by William James: ” Here within the minimal pulse of experience which, taken as object is change of feeling, and taken as content is feeling of change, is realised that absolute and essential transcendency which we swept away as an illusion when we sought it between a content taken as a whole and a supposed objective thing outside.”
Leaving aside enlightenment with a capital E, there are several small awakenings in nearly all our lives. One of my favourite of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, II,3 is about mirrors and how looking at her reflection might occasion the first stirring of sexuality in a young girl. It is written with the precision of a mathematical proof and I will post my translation with a commentary on the next blog.