Mirrors have for long fascinated humans. Our ancestors had to make do with looking into puddles, polished obsidian, and eventually polished metal. It was not until the thirteenth century that industrial mirror-making was begun, in Venice. Writers have used of the mirror in a metaphorical sense to indicate self-reflection.
In the fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, every day the Wicked Queen would ask “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” The mirror would answer “Oh My Queen it seems to me, there is none fairer in the land than thee!” As long as the mirror said that she was the most beautiful of all women, all was well in her world. The dreaded day finally arrived when the mirror replied that a young beauty named Snow White, with skin as white as snow, lips as red as the red, red rose and hair as black as ebony had surpassed the Queen’s beauty. We all know what kind of a frenzy she sent herself into and tried to kill Snow White.
Time for a Zen Koan!
Koan’s are succinct paradoxical dialogue, statement or question which is used in Zen practice to provoke the “great doubt” and to practice or test a novice’s progress in Zen. The effort to “solve” a koan is intended to exhaust the analytic intellect and the egoistic will, readying the mind to entertain an appropriate response on the intuitive level.
The Zen Master asks the student, “What did your face look like before your parents were born? Show me your Original Face.”
As we contemplate on this Koan, a short story by Haruki Murakami, comes to mind.
Murakami, a Japanese writer who turns 70 this year is an eternal Nobel Prize candidate. He has been praised as “among the world’s greatest living novelists” for his works and achievements. In 2015, Haruki Murakami was named one of the TIME 100’s most influential people. His surreal stories have a cult like following among his readers from across the globe.
Born in 1949 in Kyoto, during the postwar American occupation of Japan, Murakami disappointed his parents by spurning a corporate career in favor of opening a jazz club in Tokyo. Murakami had never written or created anything till he was 29, when in 1978 he had an epiphany. While in the bleachers of Jingu Stadium watching a baseball game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp, Dave Hilton, an American, came to bat. According to an oft-repeated story, in the instant that he hit a double, Murakami suddenly realized that he could write a novel. He went home and began writing that night. Till then, Murakami says, he was just one of those ordinary people running a jazz club.
Murakami’s sense of himself as a writer is a sort of pipeline – a conduit between his subconscious and that of his readers. He says “…I’m not a storyteller. I’m a story watcher.” His relationship to those stories is that of the dreamer to a dream, which may explain why he claims almost never to dream at night. A Murakami protagonist doesn’t necessarily end the novel having learned that much, still less in a state of perfect happiness; but he has usually been delivered from his off-kilter dream world to a place of equanimity and calm. Life may be abidingly strange, Murakami’s books seem to say, but nightmares do end.
In The Mirror, Murakami is hosting a party and his guests, one by one, are telling their own scary story. When it is his turn, he says that he has never seen a ghost or had a premonition.
“…But one time, just one time, I think I felt fear in the depths of my soul. It was more than ten years ago now, but I’ve never told anyone about it. Even talking about it scared me. I had this feeling like, if I talked about it, the same kind of thing might happen again. So I have kept silent all these years. But tonight, listening to everybody tell their scary stories one by one, as the host, I can’t very well close up the place without saying anything at the end.
So I’ve decided to talk… this is my story.
I left high school at the end of the sixties, during the period of civil turmoil when it seemed like whole system was breaking down. For my part, I was swept up in that wave as well, refusing to go on to college, and spending several years wandering around Japan doing manual labor. I thought that was the right way to lead a life. Yeah, I sure did a lot of different stuff. And some of it was dangerous. I was young and foolish. But when I think about it now, it was a fun lifestyle. If I had my life to live over again, I’d probably do the same thing. I’m that kind of person.
In the fall of my second year of wandering, I spent about two months as a night watchman at a middle school. This middle school in a small town in Niigata Prefecture. I had spent the summer doing really tough work, so I wanted to relax a little bit. And being a night watchman sounded kind of fun. I could sleep all day in the janitor’s room, and at night I only had to walk around and check all of the buildings twice. Apart from that, I could listen to records in the music room or read books in the library or shoot baskets alone in the gym or whatever. Being all alone at night in a middle school wasn’t too bad. No, it wasn’t bad at all. When you’re 18 or 19, you don’t know anything to be afraid of.
Since none of you have probably ever spent any time as a night watchman at a middle school, I’ll give you a quick run down of the procedure. I had to make rounds once at 9:00 and again at 3:00. That was fixed. The schoolhouse was a relatively new three storey concrete structure, with 18 or 20 classrooms. It wasn’t that big a school. Then there was the music room, the laboratory, the home-ec room, the art room, and also the staff room and the principal’s office. Apart from the main building, there was also the cafeteria and the pool and the gym and the auditorium. That was pretty much the extent of what I had to cover.
There were about twenty checkpoints that I had to mark off one by one on a form with a ballpoint pen as I made my rounds. Staff Room–check, Laboratory–check, like that. Of course I could have just kept sleeping in the janitor’s room and written check, check, check on the paper. But I’m not quite that lazy. Which is to say that it didn’t take much time, and anyway if someone had broken in they could have attacked me in my sleep.
So at 9:00 and 3:00, I’d take up a large flashlight and a kendo sword and make my rounds of the school. Flashlight in my left hand, kendo sword in my right. When I was a high school student I had practiced kendo, so I felt pretty confident in my ability to defend myself. If a novice had attacked me with a samurai sword, I wouldn’t have been particularly scared. But that was then. If it happened to me now, I’d run away pronto.
It was a windy October night. It wasn’t very cold. To tell you the truth, it felt kind of humid. When night fell, the mosquitoes became unbearable, and I remember lighting a couple of insect coils. The wind was howling all night. It sounded like the gate to the pool was being destroyed as it banged around in the wind. I thought to myself that I should fix it, but it was dark so I left it. It kept banging all night long.
When I made the rounds at 9:00, nothing was happening. I marked all twenty checkpoints ‘OK.’ The doors were firmly locked and everything was in its proper place. There was nothing out of the ordinary. I went back to the janitor’s room, set the clock to wake me up at 3:00, and fell sound asleep.
When the alarm bell went off at 3:00, I awoke with the strangest feeling. I can’t really describe it, but it was a very strange sensation. To make it plain, I didn’t want to get up. I felt like my body was resisting my will to wake up. I usually get up right away, so it was peculiar. But with difficulty I eventually got up to make my rounds. The pool gate was still banging around the same as earlier. But I had the feeling that the sound was somehow different than before. It was probably just my imagination, but I felt uncomfortable in my skin. This sucks, I thought to myself. I don’t want to make the rounds. But of course I pulled myself together and went out. If I faked it even once, I’d be doing it all the time. I took up my flashlight and my kendo sword and left the janitor’s room.
It was a miserable night. The wind was getting stronger and stronger, and the air was growing increasingly damp. My skin crawled and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. First, I checked on the gym and the auditorium and the pool. All three were OK. The pool gate kept banging open and shut like a lunatic bobbing and shaking his head senselessly. It was totally irregular: yes, yes, no, yes, no, no, no…like that. I know that’s a really odd way to put it, but at the time that’s what it felt like.
Nothing seemed to be amiss in the main school building. Same as ever. I hurriedly made my rounds and marked off all the checkpoints on the form ‘OK.’ There didn’t seem to be anything wrong, after all. It was with some relief that I decided to return to the janitor’s room. The last checkpoint was the boiler room, next to the cafeteria, on the far east side of the school. Unfortunately, the janitor’s room was on the far west side of the school. As a result, I had to walk the whole length of the first floor corridor on my way back to the janitor’s room. Naturally, it was pitch black. When the moon was out, a little light penetrated into the hallway, but if not, you couldn’t see a thing. I’d make my way back shining the flashlight right in front of me. Since there was a typhoon close by that night, naturally the moon wasn’t out. Every once in a while there would be a flash of lightning, and then darkness once again.
That night I walked more quickly than normal down the hallway. The rubber soles of my basketball shoes made a slapping sound against the linoleum. The hallway was covered in green linoleum. I can see it even now.
About halfway down the length of the hallway was the entranceway of the school, and when I passed it I suddenly had this feeling like ‘What the…?!?.’ It was like I could make out a figure in the darkness. Just out of the corner of my eye. I fixed my grip on the sword, and turned in that direction. In a heartbeat, I trained the beam of my flashlight there. It was a spot on the wall next to the shoe rack.
And there I was. That is to say–it was a mirror. There was nothing there except my own image reflecting back at me. The mirror must have just been installed, and hadn’t been there the day before. That’s why it had caught me off guard. I felt immensely relieved and totally stupid all at once. You dumbshit, I thought to myself. Still standing in front of the mirror, I set the flashlight down, fished a cigarette out of my pocket, and lit it. I had a smoke staring at myself in the mirror. A tiny bit of light from a street lamp came in through the window, and that light reached the mirror. The clanging sound of the pool gate could be heard coming from behind me.
After I’d taken about three drags off my cigarette, I abruptly noticed something strange. The image in the mirror wasn’t me. The outward appearance was me. There was no mistaking that. But it was absolutely not me. I knew it instinctively. No, wait, that’s not right. Of course it was me. But it was a me outside of me. It was me in a form that shouldn’t have been me.
I’m not saying this very well.
But at that time, the only thing I understood for certain was that the person staring back at me hated me from the very depths of his soul. It was a hatred like a dark iceberg, a hatred that no one could cure. That was the only thing I could understand. I stood there for a moment dumbfounded, unable to move. The cigarette dropped from between my fingers to the floor. We stared at each other identically. My body wouldn’t move, as if it had been bound there.
Eventually, the other guy moved his hand. The fingers of his left hand slowly touched his cheek and then, little by little, wandered across his face. I realized I was doing the same thing. It was as if I was the image in the mirror. What I mean is, he seemed to be in control of me.
Then, summoning all my strength, I screamed as loud as I could. I yelled, like, ‘Garhhh!’ With that, the bonds loosened a little bit. I hurled the kendo sword with all my might in the direction of the mirror. I heard the sound of the mirror shattering. I took off running back to my room without looking back, locked the door, and climbed into bed. The sound of the pool gate continued until morning.
Yes, yes, no, yes, no, no, no…and on and on.
I guess you probably know how the story ends: of course, there was never any mirror there. Nothing of the sort. No mirror had ever been installed in the entranceway next to the shoe rack.
All of which is to say, it wasn’t a ghost that I saw. All I saw was myself. I’ve never been able to forget the fear that I felt that night.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that there’s not a single mirror in this house. I don’t even use a mirror for shaving, although it takes a lot longer that way. It’s a true story.”
Murakami, in The Mirror is describing an illusion-a false image of something, created by ones mind. He sees an imaginary image of himself on the mirror, which scares him. He had refused to join college against his parent’s wishes and chose to move around Japan doing odd menial jobs instead. As his youthful years are fading away, he is coming to doubt his decision. The image he sees on the imaginary mirror is scary because it is a true image of what he has become after refusing to join university. By refusing to use mirrors for the rest of his life the narrator is afraid to look at the true image of himself. The reality that he is a failure is hard for him to confront. He concludes that the most frightening thing in the word is oneself.
“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne
Back to the Zen koan “What did your face look like before your parents were born?
This is a question of “Who am I without my set of beliefs or my image of myself or an identity that I’ve adopted for myself?” What is “real” reality and what is the reality that is “created” by the viewer’s interpretation of what they’re experiencing?
This koan asks us to stretch towards our real and authentic self – the self we are/were before we were born. Our true face before we were born is actually who we were (and still are!) before we were shaped and crafted by our “life experience”. Reflecting on the koan, we can begin to see how we’ve become addicted to our own reality – our beliefs, assumptions, theories, perceptions and perspectives.
But we all have an “original face” – who we were before we identified with anything. And we can return to our original face – a place of inner peace and well-being – if we learn to let go of our “false face.” This “false face” is full of beliefs and assumptions about who we think we are, beliefs that rarely serve us well but instead cause us pain and suffering. The answer to this question can help us understand why we experience so much conflict in dealing ourselves and with others, be it at work, at home or at play.
Deep reflection can also support us to flow in a space of no-mind, an “original space” of mental quietude, unencumbered by our thoughts and thought patterns. In this process, we transcend our “database” of thoughts and beliefs, moving to a place of no-mind – where we experience reality as it truly is and ourselves as we truly are.
The mirror in the koan and stories are a sort of reflector of our inner self.
“You do not see the world as it is. You see it as you are.”
French-born novelist Anais Nin
Jiddu Krishnamurti, the renowned Indian philosopher address this very question of “Who am I?”