Yesterday, I wrote that the incident concerning a roof tile has been generally understood as Zen Master Nangaku teaching his monk Baso that practicing zazen with the aim or goal of becoming a Buddha is as futile as trying to polish a roof tile to make it into a mirror. Real zazen is not sitting with any aim or goal, but just sitting with no intention or aim at all, and simply allowing to arise whatever arises.
But if a roof tile cannot become a mirror, how then can an ordinary person become a Buddha? There must be a way, we think. Another story, this one about Zen Master Kinkazan Kōtō, points towards an answer to this second question and a deeper understanding of the roof-tile koan.
Master Kinkazan was once asked by one of his monks, “What is the Eternal Mirror before it has been polished?”The Master answered, “The Eternal Mirror.”The monk then asked, “What is it after it has been polished?”The Master answered, “The Eternal Mirror.”
Commenting on this story, Zen Master Dogen said, "You need to recognize that even though there is a time when the Eternal Mirror, as now spoken of, is being polished, a time when it has not yet been polished, and a time after it has been polished, it is one and the same Eternal Mirror. Before being polished, the Eternal Mirror is not dull. Even though some may describe it as being black, it will never be dull, for it is always the Eternal Mirror in its vivid state."
The Eternal Mirror, being eternal, has always been a mirror, even before it was polished to appear like a mirror. And long after it has stopped being polished and its copper surface is tarnished black, it will still be the Eternal Mirror. If it were otherwise, it would not be the Eternal Mirror. Of course, there is no actual, physical Mirror that has been around for all eternity. It is a figure of speech, a metaphor as we shall see, a thought experiment proposed for the sake of instruction.
Whatever its state, whether unpolished or tarnished, the Eternal Mirror needs only the practice of polishing to manifest its true mirror nature. "Thus it was," Dogen wrote, "that the Eternal Mirror was made from a roof tile. On that occasion, the virtue of making a mirror was made manifest. The tile was not something that was dirty; it was polished simply because it was a tile. Even though the mirror was being polished, it was already without blemish in its unpolished state. Who can surmise that in this act of polishing, there is the making of a Buddha and there is the making of a mirror?"
This act of polishing is the practice of the Buddhas and patriarchs. It is nothing other than real zazen, shikan-taza. In plain language, ordinary people do not "become" buddhas, simply because they have never been anything but the Eternal Buddha. It may not appear this way, but it is in the real practice of zazen - shikan-taza - that our Buddha nature is manifested. However, our state of being, our breathing in and breathing out, when we are engaged in this practice is beyond our comprehension. It is not something that we can gauge at other times.
The Eternal Mirror, which is in fact our buddha-nature, is not only eternal but also all-pervasive. Dogen teaches that the Eternal Mirror is not polished by adding quicksilver or anything else that is not already the Eternal Mirror. What he means is that we do not manifest our buddha-nature by adding anything that is not already imbued with buddha-nature. Thus, when we are polishing it, the Eternal Mirror is polishing the whole of the Eternal Mirror. When we are in shikan-taza, our buddha-nature is manifesting all of buddha-nature, that is, the entire universe. There is no separation, complete intimacy, between the one and the many.
"This is neither ourselves polishing ourselves nor the self doing the polishing," Dogen says, "but our polishing the Eternal Mirror. Generally speaking, we polish a mirror to make it into a mirror; we polish a roof tile to make it into a mirror; we polish a roof tile to make it into a roof tile; and we polish a mirror to make it into a roof tile." That is, mirrors and roof tiles are all part of everything, part of buddha-nature, and it is in our practice of real zazen that we can transcend our ignorant delusion and directly experience this (although that experience is beyond our comprehension).
If we belittle tiles as being mere lumps of clay, we also belittle people as being lumps of clay. If people have a heart, then tiles too must have a heart. If people have mind, tiles too must also have mind.
"We should truly comprehend." Dogen says, "That when the polished tile became a mirror, Baso became Buddha. And when Baso became Buddha, Baso immediately became the real Baso. And when Baso became the real Baso, his sitting in meditation immediately became real zazen."