The mind is like a mirror

Jul 20, 2023

So, what’s the definition of mind? Well, there are two parts of a definition and the first part tells you its conventional characteristics: it’s that which is clear, or clarity, meaning it’s not physical. Big surprise!

The second part of the definition is crucial: it tells us its job, its function, its meaning. What is the meaning of mind? It’s that which knows; it’s that which cognizes; it’s that which is aware. These three verbs are synonymous.

And how does it function? One way of describing it, as Lama Yeshe does in Mahamudra, is that it functions as a mirror: it reflects. There is mind here – subject – and then there’s objects – the world out there.

In other words, our mind reflects whatever exists. Everything is reflected back to us through the mirror of our mind; everything appears to us according to the mirror of our mind.

So, as Lama says, if the mirror’s dirty, the reflection will appear distorted. If our mind is polluted by anger and attachment and fears and anxiety and all the dramas, then whatever’s out there will appear distorted to us.

Think of a body of water: when it’s calm the tree on the bank is reflected accurately. But when the water’s turbulent, the tree appears crooked, doesn’t it?

The point here is that we only cognize the reflection of things, not the thing itself; at the grosser level of conceptuality that we function we don’t have a direct cognition of things. This is hard to hear because we don’t have an alternative way of cognizing in the modern world to use as a reference point; there’s no view of a subtler level of mind that’s non-conceptual, which Buddhism asserts and which we only access once we get single-pointed concentration.

So, what we’re saying here is in reference to that subtler level, which is a mystery to us, so the best we can do is listen to it and think about it.

As Lama Zopa Rinpoche puts it, the various delusions such as attachment, anger, arrogance, low self-esteem and the rest, “decorate on top of what is there layers upon layers of characteristics that are not there.”

When the mirror of the mind is muddied by attachment, the cake will appear to you, as Lama Zopa says, in the aspect of whatever is in the mind: the attachment, which exaggerates its deliciousness and its ability to give you pleasure. It’s in this way, Buddha says, we are literally never in touch with reality, even conventional.

I mean, it is a cake; at least that we get right, but the rest of it’s still made up. Attachment makes it look more delicious than it is, and, after five pieces, aversion makes it look more ugly than it is, so everything out there is always appearing back to us in the aspect of whatever’s in our mind.

Another way that shows how conceptuality makes things up is when we understand the way sensory consciousness works. My eye consciousness, when it lands on the chocolate cake, is capable of only cognizing shape and color; “delicious chocolate cake” is literally an interpretation that my mental consciousness, my conceptuality, has made up and believed in. In fact, that’s how things exist conventionally: we give it a name, it functions, and we all buy into it.

The final mistake conceptuality makes, of course is made by the root delusion, the root ignorance, that causes that delicious cake out there on the plate to exist intrisically, out there, on the plate, from its own side, having nothing to do with my mind.

So, bringing our minds into sync with reality is the job to be done: that’s when we’re liberated from samsara.

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