Update: the follow article is outdated. The updated one can be found at https://tranquilitysecret.com/awareness-is-unlike-a-mirror-1dfab1569ad5
by James M. Corrigan
Taken from Awareness Is Unlike A Mirror
Filed under Prose
The allegory of a mirror is often used to help individuals understand what awareness truly is like. It is said that, like a mirror, awareness reflects all manner of things and yet is never affected by what appears.
Unfortunately, there is a grave problem with this allegory that instills a very false understanding of awareness in those that take this allegory to heart. A mirror reflects what is before it, but it also reverses that image. Perhaps we should focus more on the reversal aspect than we do on the reflectivity in that allegory because describing awareness as being like a mirror conveys a completely opposite understanding of awareness from what is necessarily true.
Awareness is not reflective. That would imply a dualism. Instead of its reflectivity, it is its “unaffectedness” that is being focused on in this allegory; but that is contrary to our actual experience and leads to a proliferation of reified “minds” used as explanatory devices to get around the initial error of holding that awareness is unaffected by what appears “in the mirror.” This whole concept of “mind” is a fundamental error.
Awareness is essentially cognizance, not reflectivity. “Essentially” means that this cognizance is the characteristic of awareness that makes it awareness.
Unlike awareness, a mirror is not cognizant of what is appearing in it. The opposite of “cognizant” would be “ignorant,” “oblivious,” and even “unaffected by” and that latter antonym is exactly what this allegory wants to convey, and is touted for conveying—thus this allegory illustrates the very opposite of awareness’s essential character and confuses all that hear it and try to make sense of what is being said!
Awareness is affected by what it cognizes; unlike a mirror that is “unaffected by” its reflections because it is not cognizant of them, awareness is cognizance in essence.
We are told that awareness is unaffected by what appears in it in a misleading effort to convey an important point about what is more properly called “pure presence” and this leads me to the first proof that awareness is affected by what appears:
Pure presence is directly known once cognizance of the now—the now of pure presence—is recognized. This is called “Breakthrough” and the knowledge it brings is called Rigpa. In Dzogchen—the highest teaching in Buddhism—it is pointed out that once we become aware of the now as nothing other than pure presence we are liberated. What is liberated? The cognizant aspect of our nature—awareness—is liberated from absorption in the appearances. Which appearances? Primarily the self we have an emotional (egoic) attachment to (our thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, perceptions).
This shows that awareness is affected by what appears. How is awareness affected? Three ways: by remaining attentive in approval; by turning away in disapproval; and not paying attention either way when neither approval or disapproval arises. These three affective responses guide what can appear next as the natural display.
The second proof that it is affected is more subtle, relying on a clarification of exactly how awareness arises.
Awareness is not something other than the “presencing” (i.e. naturing) of appearances. It is not a thing. It is not part of a thing. It is not an “aspect” of a process.
Fortunately, the very word itself, with its “-ness” suffix, signals that it is a conceptual abstraction of some characteristic of something, and that is completely wrong in structure—a dead-giveaway that confusion reigns. First, there is no entity to have an aspect, and second, because abstracting awareness away, making it a thing-in-itself (which is the linguistic meaning of “-ness”) completely obfuscates that it is not only the essential character of a process, it is the only character of the process, thus it is the process—not some aspect of it. This is why when awareness is said to be the “ground” of all that arises a subtle erroneous understanding arises because it is confusing “knowing” for the unknowable.
Effectively, abstracting awareness removes the natural process (from itself), confusing us into thinking that something substantive has been uncovered.
In regard to pure presence, awareness is the wakeful activity of presencing, which is pointed out to us—our first pointing out instruction—as the “knowing” of appearances. This very subtle dualism starts the confusion, which snowballs as we go forward.
Pure presence is not something to be known in a positive sense, and is only recognized via this naturing or presencing of appearances now—the evidence of the reality of presence. Why? Because the essence of pure presence is emptiness—which does not entail awareness in the sense that is meant when used in conjunction with the appearances—what after all would there be cognizance of? Thus the “purity” that is pointed to is the “unknowable” ground state, since nothing positive can be said (or known) about it. But which we may suddenly recognize is the now of all appearances. Appearances are ephemeral and are void of any entity; however, they are evidential—evidence that we can recognize when we suddenly notice the “clearing” of the now (of pure presence) that is the venue of appearing.
“Now” is never affected by what appears. Awareness is always affected by what is appearing because this is the very essence of cognizance, and thus the very essence of the process of naturing (or more literally, awareness is the cognizing of appearances now, limiting and guiding the possibility of what can arise “next,” and this is the sum total of the process).
To conflate awareness with pure presence is a mental crutch, conflating ideas with the unknowable. Expressing “facts” about that to which no facts apply. When recognized, the now is known to be pure presence. But pure presence is not a thing—there is no nature entity—so what could be stained by what appears as cognized?
Thus, the problem is that in making awareness some thing, subtly separating it from the naturing of all appearances, we find the need to prove that it is unaffected by what it cognizes. Yet we know that the essence of this naturing is cognizance; cognizance is not the “nature of the naturing of appearances.” Such a construction is mentation gone wild.
In reality there is no entity; nor are there any entities in the appearances that arise, and these—appearances and reality—are not two things, so why do we make awareness into something that must be kept clean? Perhaps it is only a lack of direct recognition that creates the confusion.