Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: Empty Mirror

June 16, 2015

An empty mirror; the giver of all; no mirror; a fire without fuel: the Dharma. 


It’s like we have stitched and threaded such a thick web around and through our minds that it’s hard for reality to break in. But it keeps trying. And sooner or later a strand snaps, and a glimmer of light breaks in, and another, and another, and gradually the cat’s cradle of wires and threads starts to lose its integrity and strength, and one day perhaps it will all come apart.


Is it really possible that Zen has no agenda? Bring x and it will meet x; bring y and it will meet y. As Joshu once said, “This marvelous wish-fulfiling mirror: when a foreigner comes it reveals a foreigner; when a Chinese person comes it reveals a Chinese person.” When asked about depth, he also said: “Do you mean the three of three or the eight of eight, the nine of nine?”

How does Zen meet things? It sees them as they are, for what they are. In doing so, it frees them.

But what is this kind of talk about “Zen”? Zen does this, Zen does that. Is that even possible to say? I don’t know. But Obaku did once say: “Don’t you know that in the great empire of Tang there is no Zen teacher?” A monk responded: “But what about the many people leading monasteries all over the land?” Obaku replied, “I don’t say there is no Zen, only that there is no Zen master.”

An empty mirror; the giver of all; no mirror; a fire without fuel: the Dharma.


I recently read an excellent essay written by Guy Zimmerman, Field Mapping in Times Quotidian, All systems have three properties: they move toward what supports them, away from what threatens them, and ignore what is indifferent to them. But they do it without agency, without a “self” directing them. These are properties inherent to systems.

We are the same. In Zen we say the three “fires” that burn in us are: 1. greed, desire, attachment – seeking to get what we want; 2. hatred, anger, fear – seeking to get rid of what we don’t want; and 3. ignorance, which in our terms means that we believe there is a concrete solid fixed self where in fact there is none.

Some forms of meditation practice attend carefully to the first two, seeking ways of palliatively reducing them. Zen primarily seems to tackle the third, which is in a sense at the root of the other two. We set up breath or the koan Mu as the object of meditation, and attempt to get at the basic assumption of subject and object, that there is a self “in here” and all else “out there.”

This is the basic delusion: that the self-sustaining system has a self making it all happen. But it doesn’t. And there is intrinsic joy and freedom at realizing that, being freed of that basic misconception. But more than just joy: to be free of it is to come closer to reality. Isn’t there some basic law that drives us, if we let it, toward reality? That the closer we come to how things actually are, the better?

Image Credit: Liberation of Consciousness, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0. from
Featured Image Credit: Between Red and White, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0. from

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