The Mirror: “I Am Not Your Friend”

The great Korean Master So Sahn (1520-1604) wrote an instructional seed-text for Zen practitioners which has had a profound influence on the work of the history of Zen meditation in Korea, and it was the direct textual and thematic ancestor of my own Teacher’s “The Compass of Zen.” So Sahn Dae Sah’s text is called “The Mirror of Zen.” When Zen Master Seung Sahn first came to the West, it was this text which he tried to have translated and published in English first, before any of his own teachings. It has a very special significance for my own practice and teaching.

(Full disclosure: I translated “The Mirror of Zen” and compiled and edited “The Compass of Zen” and published both through Shambhala Publications, so it has been hard not to feel an abiding connection to this thematic stream, descending down from the mountains of now-North Korea — where “The Mirror” was originally written — through Hwa Gye Sah temple outside Seoul — where I worked hard on “The Compass” for four years — to now. As a result of becoming so deeply immersed for so many years in bringing these two texts to physical form in English, the trope of the Mirror of Zen has become deeply embedded in my teaching. I practiced several 90-day Kyol Che’s at Songgwang Sah temple in Sun-cheon, South Korea, from 2002 until 2016. The central Dharma Room (“Soen bang,” or Zendo) features only a large mirror hanging over the main altar in the main meditation hall.

The main altar in the Dharma Room — the “soen-bang,” or Zendo (Jap.) — at Songgwang Sah temple, on Chogye Sahn Mountain, Sun-cheon, South Korea, where I did six 90-day retreats from 2002-2016. This altar deeply inspired the construction of the altar in Zen Center Regensburg, and this altar was itself inspired by the text “The Mirror of Zen”, by So Sahn Dae Sah, which text is the explicit ancestor — in theme and arrangement — of, and inspiration for Zen Master Seung Sahn’s “The Compass of Zen” (1997). An interlocking relationship, it gave birth to the name of this very blog.

So, when we established the Zen Center Regensburg several years ago, it seemed only fitting to design and have constructed a large mirror for the altar. (Living directly across a narrow alleyway-like lane from Father Ratzinger, brother of the former Pope Benedict, also influenced the decision not to install a full-on Buddha on the main altar of this baby-new Zen Center in the heart of conservative Catholic Bavaria. But that is another story.)

But there you have it: far from just mere imagery, the Mirror of Zen represents the radical inner-seeing of don’t-know meditation. It is your psychology’s full-frontal to itself. Everything is exposed and raw, unfiltered by liturgy or colorful ritual or cultural sweetening, in the practice: the Mirror of Zen is full-seeing, stripped of everything. We don’t call it “the Friend of Zen,” not “Bestie of Zen,” or “BFF…”, whatever. This entire practice is the Mirror of Zen because mirrors reflect our unseen “self” back to us.

“The sacred radiance of our original nature never darkens.
It has shined forth since beginningless time.
Do you wish to enter the gate that leads to this?
Simply do not give rise to conceptual thinking.”

Zen is not about using meditation to fix up our damaged goods for a better resale value on the crazy market of social posing. Practicing Zen with others is holding yourself before a mirror. And mirrors can reflect back some harsh shit sometimes — the crap stuck between your teeth, some smeggy hairs growing out of the corner of your ear where they never grew before (my own recent discovery!), your empty eye-sockets after a night of drinking and too many puffs. Mirrors point out crap you yourself don’t see so well, but carry around as some accustomed badge, a laughable identity.

Zen Master Seung Sahn was fond of giving us very direct, piercing reflections on our karma. Sometimes he was gentle about it, and sometimes it felt like a kapow to the midsection. (When I first presented to him the hot-off-the-press copies of what would, within days, become a bestselling telling of my path to his teaching, he screamed at me so loudly the spit flying from his mouth was all I could see gathering on the glass surface of his desk between us.)

Sometimes, it was too much to take, but if he gave it to you strongly, it is because he trusted you and loved you. Because we were practicing very hard, those of us who could receive it and digest it somehow made ourselves stronger. “No pain, no gain.” 

Anyway, he was just doing his job. He didn’t care about your reaction to what he said, only that you practiced and digested it and became a greater, stronger person.

Once, a student who had received a particularly strong set of teachings complained to him. “Sir, that teaching was too much. Maybe that’s more than I can take. How can you say that to me so strongly?”

Dae Soen Sa Nim’s answer is something you never hear coming from the mouth of 99% of the so-called spiritual teachers out there: Lowering his head a bit and peering over the rim of his glasses, he smiled and said, “Because I. am not. your ‘friend.’”

This was the courage of a true spiritual Teacher. Especially in this age of Facebook “friending,“ and the cheapening of the whole concept of what “friend” means, he knew what he was doing, even though it often left you feeling too severely challenged, even hurt. You just practiced harder and got stronger and loved his teaching — and him — even more, as a result.

“I am NOT your ‘friend.’” The best Friend you can ever have must sometimes live by these words. That is the “living” mirror of Zen.

(Photos, here and following, by Sven Mahr // https://www.capture-the-silence.de/)

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