“Dogen is saying that the act is polishing the tile, doing zazen, polishing the mirror. It's a particular use of of the idea of polishing, and he says "We don't polish it because there is dust on the mirror." This is our usual way of thinking about what we do in practice. Again, it's almost unavoidable that we create a contrast between clarity and confusion in our sitting. We want at some basic level our mind to settle down, to quiet down, retreat, with thoughts as noise and emotion as dust, as if they’re clouding the mirror with a contaminant that practice is going to wipe away, so that once and for all there will be clarity, silence, emptiness, whatever you say to yourself. Yet the basic work of practice is not eliminating dust, but eliminating the dichotomy between dust and clarity. To see the dust as empty, to see the content of our mind as empty is to eliminate the very notion the very idea of dust as something that can soil, contaminate our mind.
For Dogen, polishing the tile or polishing the mirror in doing zazen is an act of expression, not an act of transformation. In a certain sense, he's saying we polish the tile the way we polish the old silver. We polish the tile the way we might polish that old 1957 Corvette we wish we had in the driveway. We would just keep it clean and polished and in perfect shape all the time, not because we were going to turn it into something else by all that care or polish, but the activity of cleaning it will reveal it for what it is, will allow us, even as polish it, to enjoy, appreciate and know it's nature.
I think it's probably very basic in Japanese Zen that when they talk about appreciating something for its own sake, they usually manifest that by cleaning it. I mean the basic activity of work practice in a zendo is cleaning something. It's wiping down the floors and the walls in the kitchen and the bathroom, just endless, endless cleaning. And it's not really the kind of cleaning that is to be contrasted with things being dirty, because very often when they wipe down the floor in the zendo, it's already as shiny and clean as you can imagine, and yet we clean it one more time. The cleaning is an act of appreciation and attention that means we're getting down there on our hands and knees and touching and feeling, stroking, caressing the floor in our cleaning. We're really appreciating the feel, the texture, the substance of the floor. We're appreciating it's floor-ness, we're not just getting rid of the dirt.
Zazen is analogous to that. It's an act of appreciation. It's a kind of polishing the car, because we have enormous love and respect for the craftsmanship and the style of this old piece of machinery, and all we want to do is show it reverence in the intention we give it. This is something like the notion of polishing in zazen. It's an expression of appreciation for who and what we are, who and what this moment is, dissolving of any kind of dichotomy between our ordinary mind and Buddha nature and enlightenment. In that very act of sitting and appreciating and being, practice and enlightenment become one thing. In the action itself of polishing, the realization of Buddha and the actualization of the mirror, these become what they are through our participation and engagement.
So Baso, when he hears Nangaku say, "How can you become Buddha by practicing zazen? How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?" he achieves great enlightenment, and then what does he do? He sits down again in zazen, continues to polish the tile, and continues to polish the mirror.”
Zen teacher Barry Magid
We think so often of a kind of verticality, of a mask on the outside, a false self on the outside, a true self deep inside, but as Merton is saying here, it wants to go back against all this fantasy of oh, I've got this precious true self deep inside. True self is moment after moment after moment. Instead of cultivating the fantasy that your true self is identified with some special state we cultivate in zazen, maybe your true self is the way you treated your partner this morning. Maybe your true self is how you were to the person next to you on the subway. We don't really want that to be our true self. That's our basic dilemma and in a certain sense, it's why we create a lot of metaphysical and transcendental stuff to believe in. We want to create this curative fantasy of purity and perfection and we treat our practice as if it is a purification project but it's not that at all. If anything, it's the opposite: it's allowing us to really stay with all the things we came here to avoid. To want to find your true self, your original face, you don't have to go farther than the bathroom mirror.
Zen teacher Barry Magid