Nanyue Polishes a Tile.

June 19, 2016 § 1 Comment

Monk polishing a tile


Nanyue went to Mazu to ask, “ Great monastic, what do you intend by doing zazen?”  Mazu said, “I am intending to be a Buddha.”  Nanyue picked up a brick and started polishing it.

Mazu said, “What are you doing?”  Nanyue said, “I am trying to make a mirror.”

Mazu said, “How can you make a mirror by polishing a brick?”  Nanyue said, “How can you become a Buddha by doing zazen?”


This is part of a famous koan that is included in Dogen’s Shobogenzo. It emphasizes that practice is done in the here and now, where looking to the past or future can only be seen as a distraction.

Like Mazu intending to be a Buddha, we, too, look to some future “Aha!” moment that signals our practice is complete. We are like those with a chronic illness who recall healthier days, while hoping the future will bring better times.

We may draw a parallel between practice and our mental state when ill. When ill, we use distraction and denial to avoid pain. In practice, we look outside the present moment for answers, never thinking that it is only by embracing the present moment that they may be found. We tell ourselves.”It can’t be that simple!” That’s when Nanyue comes along, polishing a brick to make it a mirror, asking, “How can you become a Buddha by doing zazen?”

Nanyue is telling us not to pile up ideas about the past and future, or good health and Buddhahood. When we do, we cover over what is originally here; our original health and original face. That is why we must kill the Buddha. Not the actual Buddha, of course, but the ideas we hold about Buddhahood that obscure the true nature of the universe and ourselves.

Because we have clothed the “I” we are today in images and thought, we find it difficult to believe it is the same “I” of the Buddha. Having made this discrimination we conclude that we must change self to achieve Buddhahood. We then set out on a long journey to try out new ideas that will polish our brick into a mirror. True practice, however, is never a matter of adding things but dropping them. In this way our original nature unfolds naturally and our original health is revealed.

In practice this means staying with our immediate surrounding. We place our attention in a specific space like the tip of the nose where the breath comes in and out, the Hara that is just below the navel or by focusing on the floor a few feet in front of us. The aim is to stay connected to our physical surroundings, returning to it each time we are pulled into thinking.

Uncovering original face and finding original health does not mean all is resolved and good health restored. To expect this is merely to place another covering over our true nature. Our practice is just to let the present moment unfold without labeling it good or bad, or running to or from it.

When a brick, then be a brick. When the brick is a mirror, then you are a Buddha. And when you are a Buddha, then you are you. Each is not transformed into the other but is, in fact, originally the other. Like subatomic particles that change into other particles but are always energy, the process is the goal itself. There is nothing extra.

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