The Precious Mirror

The Precious Mirror Samadhi

By Tung-shan Liang-jie  (China, 807 – 869)

Translation: © Hakuun Barnhard


The dharma of this – as it is,

Passed on in person by Buddha’s and Ancestors,

Is now yours;

Guard it well.


A silver bowl full of snow and

A heron hidden in the moonlight –

When you compare them they are not the same,

Brought together they find their place.


The meaning that does not lie in words

Accommodates motions arising;

Move towards – and you become ensnared,

Miss it – and you fall into dilatory hesitation.


Turning away, going towards, both are inept,

Just as when you relate to a giant fireball.

Express it in fancy words

And you colour it at once.


In the middle of the night it is clear and bright

But in the daylight it cannot be seen.

It acts as a compass for all beings,

And when used, liberates from suffering.


Although not a doing

It is not without expression.

Just as when you look into a reflecting jewel,

Form and mirror-image behold each other:

You are not it, it is truly this that you are.


Just as a baby born to this world

Has all five aspects complete, and

Neither comes nor goes, neither arises nor stays,

It babbles, speaking without words –

So we end up comprehending nothing,

As its words have not yet meaning.


It’s just like the six lines of the hexagram ‘Fire’,

Wherein phenomena and real intermingle.

Stacked up, there are three pairs of combinations,

The whole transformation is completed with the fifth.


It is like the schizandra plant, which has five flavours,

Or like the diamond sceptre, which has five prongs.

The real is held within the subtle,

Drum and song arise together.


We penetrate the source walking the pathways,

We unify with the land covering the roads.

When these get mixed up, that is auspicious,

Do not oppose it.



Originally real and subtle,

Neither a realm of illusion nor of enlightenment,

It serenely illuminates

Times of cause and of effect.


It is so fine that it fits where there is no space

And so broad that it transcends all dimension.

One hair’s breadth off –

And you are not in harmony with it.


So now we have ‘sudden’ and ‘gradual’

And we clarify school’s meanings and tones.

Once meanings and tones have been defined

They become a measure of practice.

Meaning and tone gone beyond,

Timeless truth flows forever.


The old masters had compassion for those

Who are quiet of body but restless of mind,

Like a tethered horse or a trapped rat,

And offered them Dharma.


In their topsy-turvy state

These people take black for white,

But when confused thinking comes to an end,

The still accepting mind is naturally present.

If you wish to join the ancients,

Contemplate the ways of old.


Close to realizing the Buddha’s Way,

One sat for ten eons gazing at a tree –

Like a lame tiger

Or a hobbled horse.


Because there is inadequacy

We reach for precious furniture and rich clothes.

Because of our fear or wonder

We see black shadows* or white oxen.


The archer Yi used his skill

To hit a target at a hundred paces.

But when two arrows meet head on

Does this depend on skill obtained?


As the wooden man begins to sing

A stone woman gets up to dance.

This cannot be reached by feeling, thought,

So why try to work it out!


A minister serves their lord,

A child obeys their parent;

Without obedience there is no filial piety,

Without service there is no advice.


Doing this inner work unseen

You may seem dull and foolish,

But when you are able to persist in it

You will be called master of masters.


  • “Black shadows” literally means: 1. a slave of dark colour 2. a wild cat. The wild cat is rather popular in Zen – the untrained mind. As opposite to “white ox”, which symbolizes the Buddha Mind. Both translations would do. Here I think the author points at the admired and the despised. To avoid making this passage obscure I translated it as black shadows.