Developing Mirror-Like Buddha Wisdom

We have been discussing the five types of deep awareness in relationship with the five skandhas or aggregate factors that make up our experience and the five types of disturbing emotions. There are many other systems with which we can correlate this structure of the five types of deep awareness, but those are topics to explore in the future. In our study of the Dharma, we often obtain various pieces of the puzzle and these pieces fit together in many different ways, not just in one way. As we continue our studies, we can connect various things, fit more pieces together and go deeper and deeper.

Let’s examine further the basis level of our five types of deep awareness to recognize their limitations and what we need to work on in order to get them up to the point of a Buddha.

What Mirror-Like Deep Awareness Can Reveal

With mirror-like deep awareness, all the information is coming in. However, we don’t pay attention to a great deal of it; in fact, we don’t even notice what’s right in front of us. However, this mirror-like deep awareness can be developed further and further, especially when we combine it with the reality deep awareness.

For instance, when we see a person, there’s a tremendous amount of information available to help us equalize, individualize and relate to this person. When we first see the person, information is there in terms of what they actually look like. Do they look tired, happy or bored? With the deep awareness of reality, we can identify the types of gross emotion someone is experiencing by the expression on their face. We can further recognize if a person’s muscles are tight or relaxed by observing the areas in their forehead and around the mouth and eyes.

Body language is very important as well. For instance, are their shoulders up at attention or are they relaxed? Are their hands in a tight fist or are they open? All of these factors say quite a lot, actually. Are they sitting still or are they constantly fidgeting? There are people that can’t sit still at a table, for example; they’re constantly tapping the table with their fingers. I have one friend who whenever she speaks and makes a point, she bangs the table with each point. It might be very annoying, but it also says a lot about her. Her actions work like punctuation in her sentence.

Further, we can tell a lot about a woman, for example, if she wears a lot of makeup or none at all. Does she pay special attention to her hair, always having her hair done at a salon, or is she a little bit more relaxed about that? Does she color her hair or not? Does she wear a lot of jewelry or not? Also, how a person dresses tells a lot about them. Are they clean or not so clean? With men, do they shave every day or not? All of these factors say a lot about the person, don’t they?

With mirror-like deep awareness, we take in all of that information. We can observe a person when in a group. Do they just sit by themselves or are they with other people, talking? All the information is right there. The mirror-like awareness takes it all in.

It’s interesting that there are some types of body positions that are mentioned explicitly by Shantideva, the great Indian master who wrote Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. He pointed out that when one listens to the Dharma, it’s improper to sit with our arms folded and crossed in front of our body because that indicates a sort of judgmental or closed state of mind, as if protecting ourselves from what we’re listening to. Our arms need to be relaxed at the sides so that they reflect an open state of mind.

Let’s examine this further: If we’re speaking with somebody and they have their arms crossed in front of them, we don’t feel very comfortable, do we? It doesn’t appear as though they are really open. We can see if their shields are up or down simply by observing their body language.

Likewise, when we listen to someone speak, we can tell a great deal about them, if we really listen. Does the person speak very loudly or very softly so that we can hardly hear what they say? Do they speak very quickly or very slowly? Do they speak with correct language or do they speak with incorrect language and grammar? Are they speaking in a way that makes it easy to understand or are they just showing off by using big words? Obviously, we can also tell a lot about the emotional state of the person by the way that they’re speaking. From the tone of their voice, we can tell if the person is very depressed and sad, or excited and happy. All of these aspects can be found in just the sound of someone’s voice.

In the West, we would say that what needs to be developed is more sensitivity. We want to be more sensitive to what we see and hear, particularly when we’re interacting with someone. This sensitivity also applies in terms of interacting with the environment and seeing what’s going on around us.

Although we have the mirror-like deep awareness that is the basic mechanism to be aware of all this, the problem is that it’s limited now, so we’re unable to use it to its fullest capacity. Take a moment to reflect on that.


Limiting Factors

All information comes in, with mirror-like deep awareness, on all the sensory channels. The limiting factors are the mental factors of attention and interest. We are limited by how much attention we pay to the information coming in. In order to pay attention, we need interest, don’t we? Without interest, we don’t care and don’t pay attention. How do we work on improving this? We do so by identifying what prevents us from taking interest and paying attention.

One restrictive and limiting issue is our mental wandering. We’re often thinking about something else. Perhaps, we are also commenting in our heads, being very judgmental: “You look so terrible today,” “That was a stupid thing you just said,” and so on. We’re bringing up old history: “There you go again; you’re getting angry.” We’re lost in wishful thoughts such as wishing the person would pay more attention to us, like us, or be nicer to us, and so on. We may even be running mental movies in our head, imagining what this person would look like undressed. All of this interferes with really being interested and paying attention. Further, we are often thinking about ourselves or thinking about something totally unrelated to the interaction. We’re not really interested. Instead, we’re more interested in what’s going on in our own thoughts than with the other person.

We’ve all experienced some kind of mental wandering. For instance, when we’re speaking with someone and they’re speaking very quickly, we’re often thinking about what we want to say in return to this person. We’re just waiting for them to take a breath so that we can interrupt and say what we want to say. We’re not really paying attention at all to what they’re saying. We’re just thinking, “Why don’t you shut up already, and then I can say what I want to say.” Surely, we’ve all experienced these situations. It’s very difficult, isn’t it? Nonetheless, we need to work on paying attention. We need to calm the mind down and just pay attention with a quiet mind, not thinking anything extraneous.

The Caring Attitude

Along with attention and interest, we need what is called a caring attitude. This is a difficult term to translate, but it means to consider the other person as important and relevant. We need to feel that this is a human being that has feelings just as we do. In other words, we take the other person seriously. We notice what type of mood a person is in, and so on. This ability is important in order to be able to interact with others. The manner in which we speak and interact with them is also something that we take seriously, as the way we interact affects other people.

A caring attitude is the mental factor that allows us to not act destructively, to exercise discipline in order to act in a constructive way. It helps us to refrain from thinking about something else or just saying anything stupid that comes to our heads. Basically, developing a caring attitude allows us to interact in the most beneficial and appropriate way as possible. Without caring, it wouldn’t matter to us what was going on with another person, as we would just say and do whatever we wanted, regardless of the effect.

We can identify the absence or presence of this mental factor when we speak with somebody on the telephone. For example, we have all probably experienced speaking on the phone with someone who only speaks about themselves and never asks us how we’re doing. We feel they don’t care enough to ask. Similarly, when we speak to others, are we only talking about ourselves? Do we care at all about the person? Does it matter whether the other person we called is busy or not? Does it matter how their day went? Is it just that we want to tell them what we want to say about ourselves?

An aspect of this mental factor of a caring attitude is what we call in the West consideration of the other person. This includes consideration of our own behavior. How are we interacting with this person? Are we making fools of ourselves? Are we acting like a wild person, or like a human being? With this caring attitude, we recognize that the other person is a human being and has feelings, just like us. Sometimes they are busy, just as we are busy; sometimes they’ve had a good or bad day, just as we have. Then, based on that equalizing deep awareness that equalizes them and us, we care about them and take interest and pay attention to what’s going on with them through the information coming in with mirror-like deep awareness.

I think it’s very important to really be considerate of others, particularly in our current age of the cell phone. What is our attitude toward the cell phone? Is it so that we can call or text whomever we want and interrupt them at any time whatsoever and expect an instant answer, because we think that what we have to say is really much more important than anything they’re doing? This is a type of attitude that needs to change.

Let’s take a moment to observe our own attitude. Do we really care whether the other person is busy or not, or do we just interrupt them? This syndrome is an excellent example of the inflation of the self, of thinking that we’re the center of the universe, the most important one. When we think this way, we feel that we can interrupt anybody at any time with our cell phone and message, because what we have to say or what we want at the exact moment is the most important thing in the world, far more important than anything else that the other person might be doing or wanting to do. This, of course, isn’t true; after all, we’re just another penguin in that huge flock of a hundred thousand penguins. There’s nothing so special about any one of us.

Another important point to remember when calling someone is if there’s not enough information, ask. When we call somebody, ask, “Is this a good time? Do you have a moment?” If the person is busy, be flexible and change. We can ask, “When would be a good time to call you?” Also, use equalizing awareness in order to remind ourselves that, at this hour, this person is usually eating dinner or putting the baby to sleep, so it’s not a good time to call or text.

To sum up, in order to further the mirror-like deep awareness taking in all the information, we need to quiet the mind and develop this caring attitude. Doing so, we will pay attention and have interest in the information that’s coming in. However, to quiet down like this requires quite a bit of practice, of course.

The Quiet Mind

When we take in information and use the reality deep awareness to know what it is, do we actually have to verbalize it in our heads? If we see somebody, our friend, and they look terrible or tired, do we have to say in our heads, “You look terrible,” or do we just know that? Think about this. We don’t have to verbalize it, do we?

There are two situations in which we can observe somebody while having a quiet mind. One is with a quiet mind that doesn’t understand anything; we’re sort of spaced out, just looking at somebody. The other is with a quiet mind that understands what we’re seeing. For example, our car isn’t working properly, so we open up the hood. There’s a big difference between us looking at it and not understanding anything of what we see, or an auto mechanic looking at it and being able to understand immediately what’s wrong. The mechanic certainly is not giving a whole discourse in his head of what’s wrong. In both cases, the mind is quiet.

A quiet mind that has understanding is what we are aiming for with mirror-like and reality deep awareness. Of course, understanding requires equalizing awareness and individualizing awareness too, and the flexibility to be able to adjust, if at any point we interpret what we see incorrectly. To do this we need interest to check the validity of our interpretation. For example, when we see a certain expression on someone’s face does it indicate that they are emotionally upset or is it because they have an upset stomach?

Take a moment and then we will try an exercise.


Physical Limitations

As we have discussed, our mirror-like deep awareness is very limited because of lack of attention, lack of interest, and even because of a lack in the hardware of our body. For example, because our bodies get tired, we might feel very exhausted and it becomes difficult to really take in all the information. Further, we can’t hear sounds that are above or below a certain frequency, although a dog can. We can’t see too far away. We can’t see in all directions at the same time, unfortunately.

I read something very interesting on the internet about a new technology being developed based on the eye of an insect. Its eye is made up of many tiny little prisms, which allows an insect to see much more than humans can see. An insect can see multi-directionally. The technology being developed involves tiny cameras that are swallowed and enable someone to see what is going on inside their intestines. It will be able to take a picture simultaneously in all directions based on the physiology of an insect eye. Interesting, isn’t it?

Our own hardware – this machine, this body – is rather limited, and so it also affects the scope of our mirror-like deep awareness. However, if we were a Buddha and didn’t have this type of limited body and mind, then the resultant stage of this mirror-like deep awareness would be able to take in all the information of everything, with equal attention, care and interest.

I’ve seen examples of this. My own teacher, the old Serkong Rinpoche, used to sit next to His Holiness the Dalai Lama during teachings that His Holiness was giving, and he was always looking down respectfully. Occasionally, he’d look up at the audience for a brief moment. Afterwards, he would be able to mention, as he did with me, that this one was asleep, that one wasn’t paying attention, and so on. Just in a very short moment, he would take in all that information and process it.

I remember when traveling with him in the West, once we went up to the top of the Eiffel tower in Paris. Our hosts wanted to take us up there. We got up to the top of the tower and Rinpoche looked out for approximately one or two seconds, and that was it. Then he asked, “Why are you just standing there with your mouth open looking at the scenery? You’ve seen it already.” He also asked, “What was the point of coming up to the top of this tower? You just have to go back down again.” There’s nothing special about looking out from the top of a tower. It’s no big deal.

That’s the kind of ability we are aiming for, to have this mirror-like deep awareness. We want to be able to take in all the information and not just stare with our mouths open but to instantly understand what we observe and respond accordingly. We are able to do that when we drive our cars in fast-moving traffic, so we should aim to be able to do that all the time.

When I first went to India, I lived with a Tibetan monk. The house was on the side of a mountain that had a spectacular view of the sunset, and I would always go outside and watch the sunset. My monk friend could not understand at all why I was sitting outside and just staring at a sunset. In his eyes, it was nothing special.


Another point that is very interesting to explore is enjoyment. What does it mean to enjoy something? To really enjoy it, does it have to last a long time? Do we have to see something beautiful for just a moment, or for ten minutes? Is it only when we see something for a longer time that we can really enjoy it? A much more graphic example is if we have just one taste of a delicious dish and we enjoy it. In order to really enjoy it, is it really necessary to eat so much of it so that we make ourselves sick? If we only have a taste, did we really enjoy it? Think about this.

I think from this example we can identify the mental factor of clinging. It is this clinging that activates karmic potentials. When we enjoy something, we are clinging not to be parted from that happiness; then, when we are unhappy, we cling to be parted from that unhappiness. We feel that enjoying something for just one minute is not enough. We don’t want to be parted from it; we feel we have to enjoy it for an hour in order to really enjoy it. For example, when we’re with a good friend, we can enjoy being with them for fifteen minutes. But if they need to leave immediately after that, we cling: “Don’t go yet. I want you to stay longer.”

Shantideva said very nicely, that whether you dream for an hour or you dream for a hundred years, when you wake up, the dream is finished. Whether we’ve enjoyed something for one minute or we’ve enjoyed it for an hour, when it’s finished, it’s finished. It’s the same thing. Although clinging is not specifically our topic here, it affects us greatly and is an important point connected to what we pay attention to and enjoy – or not enjoy, for that matter.

An Exercise on Mirror-Like Deep Awareness

We want to be able to develop and enhance our mirror-like deep awareness. We can practice doing this on the pathway level and can experience it with a short exercise now. This is a type of practice that we can do anywhere when we are with anyone. In other words, when we see somebody and we listen to them, as the information comes in, we can try to do so with a quiet mind, without making mental comments, without thinking about something else. We can try just to pay attention with interest and care. We care about the other person, because we are interested in how they are and in what they have to say. It’s not that we’re detached and just curiously interested in the mating habits of some birds in the trees that we’re watching through binoculars; but this person is a human being who has feelings. We want to relate to them in a meaningful, caring way.

Let’s try an exercise that we do in the sensitivity training that I developed and have written about. You can learn more about this training in my book, Developing Balanced Sensitivity, or on my website where it is reproduced. To do this exercise, we need to look at each other. Please rearrange the way you’re sitting, so that you are in a few circles with whatever number of people is convenient. Have the chairs facing each other so that you see a number of other people.

To begin, basically, we first try to have a quiet mind. If there’s a lot of verbal thoughts going on in our heads, we do our best to release them as we breathe out. The way to do this is to not take any interest in the verbal thoughts that are going on. Consider that they’re really boring. We only hang on to them because we’re interested in them. That’s an important guideline to remember when we’re trying to go to sleep and that voice in our heads is just going on and on. Try to recognize that voice as boring – this garbage going on in my head – and just quiet it down.

Also, we don’t want to stare at each other like exhibits in the zoo. If our eyes meet each other, just pass by; don’t get stuck staring into another person’s eyes. When people start to look at each other in this exercise, sometimes they might start to laugh. That’s just a nervous reaction to being unfamiliar with this activity. If one person in the circle starts to laugh, let’s try not to be like a pack of dogs: when one dog barks then all the rest of them bark. Try to focus on the breath, as it can help us to calm down from laughing.

Let go of all the verbal garbage and movies that might be going on in our heads. Recognize that all these people that we see around us are human beings and have feelings, just like us. We’re not just looking at people on a television screen. These are real people. Be like a camera and simply look around without staring and take in the information without commenting. For example, take in all the information of how someone holds their body, how they take care of themselves, all these various features. Do they look stressed, tired, or energetic? Okay, let us try to do the exercise now.

  • First, we start by looking down at the floor, and we just breathe normally through the nose to quiet down. If all sorts of extraneous thoughts are going through our heads, just let go of them. They’re not very interesting. As we breathe out, we imagine that they leave us.
  • Then, maintaining that quiet mind, we look up and see the people around us. The way that we pay attention to them is with the consideration that each person is a human being with feelings just like us.
  • Then, when we have established that we’re paying attention to others with a quiet mind and a caring attitude, just be the camera. Look around at each person and just take in the information without commenting and without being judgmental. Try not to be like the person who knows nothing about car engines looking inside the car hood. When the mind starts to make up some sort of story about someone, just let it go and breathe it out.
  • Then, to end the exercise we again look down and focus on the breath, and just let the experience settle.

This is the first mirror-like deep awareness exercise. Quite interesting, isn’t it? Before our next session, please digest this discussion and exercise further.