Mirror Bodhisattva

This small sculpture, of bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (China, circa 1620), can relate to my mirror theme in a number of ways. Most obvious is that he does hold a tiny mirror in one of his many hands (at least, if to believe the description). My guess is that it is the third hand from midnight point, clock-wise. However, Avalokiteśvara has also a much deeper connection with an idea of reflection (and thus, with the mirrors).

Avalokiteśvara is himself a bodhisattva (a very complex construct in Buddhism, not a deity but an elevated, enlightened form of being), but he is a very special one; he is understood as a reflective embodiment of all other Buddhas, more specifically even, of all their compassionate relationships with the world.  In simple terms he can be described as a reflection of all their reflections, all their ‘sympathetic lookings’ at the world.

To look at something, to see something has a much deeper meaning in Buddhism than merely an optical, or even a perceptual phenomena.  The Buddhist concept of sympathetic, co-creative ‘looking at’ may resemble an emerging contemporary idea of  how our own ‘mirror neurons’ work (although of course, much more daring in its depth and scale). It is understood now, that the mirror neurons literally forces us to repeat the actions of other members of our species, enact them internally, thus creating a better understanding and sympathy (thus, empathy) towards them.  Buddhas look at the world in a similar way, achieving empathy and mental and spiritual reverberations with the world – but they also have a capacity to make the world more empathic to them, and therefore change the world through this resonance (hopefully, to the better). Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, an Indian neuroscientist who studies this phenomena, often tells (half-joking – but only half), that neuroimaging technique was  all too familiar to the ancient boddhisattvas.

Avalokiteśvara in this context can be seen as mirror of all other mirrors, reflecting (and resonating with) them, and thus reflecting the whole world, achieving the resonance with it, and transforming it toward the ultimate awakening, the escape from the eternal cycle of rebirth and suffering. His name literally means Looking Down at and Seeing All the Worlds (and even more precisely Compassionately Seeing them).

Dalai-Lamas are believed to be the reincarnations of Avalokiteśvara (and mirrors do play an active role in their visioning sessions).

Not always, but relatively often bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara is depicted with multiple arms (like on the above picture), or even multiple heads (and eyes), like on the picture below:

Notice the large disc, as if made multiple eyes. This is a tail of peacock, another symbol frequently associated with Avalokiteśvara (in contrast to the European tradition, where peacocks are perceived as narcissistic and sexually-obsesses creatures, in India peacocks are the symbol of beauty and wisdom, the latter also because of their ‘multiple eyes’).

In this large sculpture (from the But Thap pagoda in Vietnam) Avalokiteśvara holds a mirror near swadhisthana, or the Sacral Chakra, the one in charge of not only reproduction, but more generally responsible for the repetition and reincarnation (which is itself a result of permanent self-reflection and an ‘eternal cycle of return)’.

“The mirror in Buddhist is a symbol of clarity, completeness of perception, and purity of consciousness. A mirror reflects a thing objectively, but what we see in the mirror is not the thing itself. Because the object is not seen directly, it may be seen more accurately –  more clearly, without judgment and with greater perspective. This can lessen the tendency to see a thing as fixed or solid and encourage better understanding. The mirror, or perception, more effectively propels the mind toward insight and compassion than mere argument or lecture.” – Buddhist Symbolism

Apparently, to have mirrors somewhere in your vicinity, and to look at them frequently are both very encouraged in Buddhism, at least in some of its schools, and often a part of meditations and sittings.


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