Mirror… mirror…mirror.

Mirror… mirror…mirror.

by Steve Bokenkamp

I have been a student of Daoism for over thirty years, but I have always managed to steer clear of working with Laozi’s Daode Jing [DDJ]. Why?  For one thing, there is angry disagreement among analysts about the tiniest of points. It’s kind of like Congress and I resist running for that too.

I once spent two years lurking around a Daoism listserv (see my “Taoism FAQs”). In all that time, the assembled worthies from universities all over the world could not reach agreement on Chapter One…  For another, English translations of the text always seem so much more univocal—and boring—than the early Chinese interpretations, which are really quite wild and wonderful. So I spend my time with those.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Chapter Ten is one of my favorites. Since there is so much in it that no one has been able to figure out for over 2000 years, all Chinese interpreters like to dump their personal agendas into the mystery mix. Western interpreters, on the other hand, tend to hang back. The exception that proves the rule, as usual, is Timothy Leary. His Psychedelic Prayers after the Tao-te Ching has five different translations of Chapter Ten, aligned with some of the chakras. Particularly fine is this from the eliminative chakra:  “Can you slowly spiral down the great central drain?  yellow brown”  Yes, I think I can.

So, leaving behind the scatological, here are some Western translations of one fairly simple(?!?) line from Chapter Ten. First I give my fairly literal translation, followed by a smattering of the thousands of English versions. You should know that the question particle is missing in some early copies of the DDJ, thus the lack of uniformity on whether this line is a questioning challenge or a call to action.


The text:          滌除玄鑒能無疵() 

Bokenkamp:    Through cleansing the mirror of mystery, can you make it without flaw?

D.C. Lau:        Can you polish your dark mirror (i.e., the mind) and leave no blemish?

Legge:             When he has cleansed away the most mysterious sights (of his imagination), he

                         can become without a flaw.

Kaltenmark:    Polish your spiritual mirror and you will make it faultless!

Moss Roberts: To purify the eye within, can you keep without stain?

Mitchell:          Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see nothing but the light?         


Western writers have pretty much decided that the mirror must be a metaphor for the mind and nothing else. This view is so deeply imbedded that the mirror image eventually drops out of sight in favor of what it stands in for. In this, translators are likely influenced by the well-known story of the battling verses on the mirror of the mind by the two Chan [=Zen] meditators of the seventh century CE,  Shen Xiu神秀and Hui Neng. The winning verse of Hui Neng countered Shen Xiu’s argument that one must clean the mirror of the mind with the nice Zen observation that both mind/mirror and dust/defilements do not really exist, so why worry about it?  Take that, Laozi! 

Problem is, that mirror metaphor occurs about 1000 years after the composition of the DDJ. So, the metaphorical meaning of mirror in the original text is still very much open to question.

Here, then, are the versions of some Chinese commentators:

The mysterious “Old Man by the River” 河上公 (probably 2nd century CE) makes the DDJ a guidebook for two things, governing the kingdom and governing the body. To govern well and long, the ruler needs to keep the spirits within his body from arousal, since they tend to flee the body at times of emotional excess. Thus he counsels:  You should cleanse your heart to make it pure and clear. When your heart dwells in this mysterious and dark place, you will know all the affairs of the world.” So, the mirror is the heart. In that the ancient Chinese, like others around the globe, considered the heart to be the agent of both thought and emotion, this accords somewhat with Huineng’s winning verse.

But the religious Daoist author of the Xiang’er 想爾commentary (late 2nd / early 3rd century) had other things on his mind. He took the point about keeping the bodily spirits home, but thought that practices meant to achieve physiological wholeness were necessary for all members of his religious movement, the Way of the Celestial Masters 天師道. So, while he interestingly takes other parts of Chapter 10 as Laozi’s warnings against the dangers of indiscriminate semen ejaculation, he takes this line as cautioning against transgressions in general:  “Flaws are evil deeds, those things with which the Dao is not pleased. You should cleanse and purify your whole body and, in your actions, ensure that you do no evil.”  Here, then, the “mirror” is the whole body.

The talented young Confucian scholar Wang Bi 王弼 (226-249), whose interpretations are the source for many early Western scholars, takes the word “mirror” as a verb, meaning “to reflect or see.”  He paraphrases: “Can you erase the deviant and ornamental and so gain a totality of vision whose brightness things cannot block and whose spirituality cannot be flawed?” He connects this with the next line to argue that the sage king should rule through superior, even mysterious, vision that does not come from the humdrum manipulations of the intelligence.

One final example is the Chan Buddhist commentator, Hanshan Deqing憨山德(1546–1623). For him, Laozi (the ancient Chinese sage) had preemptively grokked the central truth of the Buddha that all is illusion created by human desire — some 400-500 years before Buddhism reached China. In Deqing’s rendering of the DDJ, Chapter Ten is all about how to “forget knowledge” so that one can erase traces of self and “join tallies” with the mysterious wondrousness (that is, to cease to exist, but Buddhists usually try to make it sound better than that).

At any rate, Deqing also takes the word “mirror” as a verb. He paraphrases: “Cleanse and purify your mystic gaze. The mystic gaze refers to the aforementioned meditation practices of holding to the One and concentrating the qi. If one becomes adept at this, one can reach the regions of mysterious wonder.”  This is pretty close to the standard Western understanding, but Deqing is a Buddhist and so cannot stop there. Observing even mysterious regions implies an observer and something that is observed and so he goes on to argue that one must let go even of that. Otherwise one suffers from “sickness of the Dao,” which must be what Laozi had.

So there we have it, a “philosophical” Daoist, a “religious” Daoist, a Confucian, and a Buddhist. For them, the mirror was a heart, the whole body, vision into the secrets of governance, or vision as the type of erasure that is Zen meditation practice. These are only four of the 265 different commentaries on the DDJ published recently in China.

 There is no point here. I just want to emphasize even more strongly what readers of this site likely already know. The DDJ is an infinitely pliable text. It is a capacious hat rack upon which many fine minds have hung their hats. I’m pretty much not interested in the hat rack, but the infinite variety of those hats fascinates me. And, I hold, after roughly 2,300 years of interpretation, precisely because it is covered with all those hats, arguments about the “real shape” of the DDJ, or Laozi’s point in building it as he did, are pointless. Such arguments tend to reflect the concerns of the proponent, to be sure, but Laozi refuses to be mirrored.


Stephen Bokenkamp

5 thoughts on “Mirror… mirror…mirror.

  1. Interesting post Steve.

    Talk about mirrors reminded me of a paper by Harold Oshima in Victor Mair’s Experimental Essays on Chuang-tzu called “A Metaphorical Analysis of the Concept of Mind in the Chuang-tzu.” While I wasn’t completely thrilled with the piece, one thing he wrote makes a lot of sense: after quoting two passages from the Zhuangzi which liken the mind to a mirror, he argues “An important precondition, if we intend to use the mirror metaphor to clarify our conception of the xin, is an accurate understanding of what a mirror is, or perhaps more correctly, what a mirror was in the times of the Zhuangzi.”

    He goes on to talk a bit about Chinese bronze mirrors and the various uses and powers mirror were believed to have had. Unfortunately, I didn’t find his “metaphorical archaeology” very helpful. For example, that bronze mirrors were thought to be able to ward of demons and spirits is fairly interesting, but largely irrelevant to understanding the mind-as-mirror metaphor.

  2. Very interesting point, Scott. I’d imagine that bronze mirrors don’t reflect nearly as “purely” as our silvered glass ones, either. The nearly flawless images we get today may have been inconceivable in 300 BCE, which would certainly change the meaning of the passage.

  3. When we see bronze mirrors in museums the reflective side usually faces the wall. And they are unpolisthed as this would remove some of the metal. In fact, these mirrors take a high polish so would reflect fairly well..

    As to 玄 it seems to me impossible to determine when it means “mystery” and when it means “dark.” These meanings overlap in English but have somewhat different connotations. But perhaps not in Chinese.

    1. Thanks, Geoffrey, and welcome. I haven’t seen those bronze mirrors up close, so I wonder what you think about this conjecture: I take your point that the bronze mirrors would reflect quite well, but conceptually I would imagine that someone in the age of bronze mirrors would by default think of a mirror as an approximation, never quite exact, while today we think of a mirror image as reversed but otherwise identical. When using it as a metaphor, that seems like a crucial distinction.

      Thanks, Mark

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