by Roshi Joan Halifax: This excerpt is from Roshi Joan’s next book: Standing at the Edge: Finding Wisdom Where Fear and Courage Meet, to be published May, 2018…
During a recent trip to Japan, I had the chance to see a “magic mirror” made entirely of cast bronze. Such mirrors are rare and sacred objects produced by only one Japanese family who still practices this ancient, mysterious craft. On the back of this particular mirror is a relief of a dragon. On its highly polished front surface, I see my face looking in, just as with any glass mirror. It seems to be a normal, if exquisitely crafted, mirror.
But remarkably, when the mirror is aimed so that light reflects off of its surface and onto a dark wall, an image of Jizo Bodhisattva is projected on the wall. This image is hidden inside the cast bronze. The outline of this shaved monk’s head with her robe draped low across her chest is outlined in dark and surrounded by a pool of glowing reflected light floating on the wall. Rays emanate from her head as if she stands in the middle of the sun, and her staff seems to strike the earth in order to open the gates of hell. Although it appears to be solid metal, the mirror holds a secret.
If we are the mirror reflecting the world, then embedded deep inside us is the invisible bodhisattva who liberates suffering beings. Jizo’s great capacity for compassion remains hidden until it is revealed by light. But there’s another element that must be present: darkness. The image can be seen only when projected onto a dark surface. This marriage of darkness and light, of suffering and redemption, speaks to the conditions that Jizo encounters, and that we meet in the hell realms and charnel grounds of our own lives.
Some survivors of terrible adversity resort to causing harm as a kind of revenge against the world. Others enter professions where they can help people who suffer in ways they have experienced themselves. Those who have survived abuse, addiction, bullying, or systemic oppression may be called to step out of the darkness of suffering and, like Jizo, bring others with them. And like Jizo, they may find the great potential within the human spirit to turn toward goodness in the midst of devastation, and in this way, animate their capacity for compassion and wisdom. These are the ones who have found their way back to solid ground, to the cliff’s edge, where their vantage point gives them a wide perspective on the truth of the interconnectedness of all beings and things.
Standing at the edge, our determination to meet the world of suffering becomes a calling, as we discover that compassion is the great vehicle that delivers us from suffering and gives us power and balance, no matter what we have faced. There, we see that all of us share a common life, a common destiny.
As performance artist Marina Abramović once said, “On the edge, we’re really in the present moment. Because we know we might fall.” Because the danger of falling reminds us that the present moment is the only real, the only authentic place to dwell. When we are standing at the edge, we cannot turn away from suffering, whether in our inner or our outer lives. There, we must meet life with altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement. And if we find the earth crumbling beneath our feet as we start to tip toward harm, compassion can keep us grounded on the high edge of our humanity. And if we do fall, compassion can harrow us from the hells of suffering, and bring us home.
Rev. Joan Jiko Halifax
Founder and Abbot, Upaya Zen Center