The Path

– by Gil Fronsdal

When arriving at the monastery new monks and nuns would commonly ask the abbot for instruction on the Path of practice. If they were insistent enough about finding the Path, the abbot would take them to a remote corner of the monastery garden where people seldom went. There he pointed them to a narrow walkway that disappeared into the bushes and trees. He told them, “You will find the Path at the end of this walkway.” Then the old abbot turned away, leaving each novice to walk on alone.

Intrigued, the new monastics set off in search of the Path. Before long, however, the trail took a sharp turn. When they rounded the corner they came face to face with a very large mirror. It blocked their way. Seeing their own image reflected in the mirror confused the new monastics. Some wondered, “Maybe I have taken the wrong path.” Still, no matter how many times they tried to retrace their steps or start over, sooner or later they found the mirror blocking their way again.

More than a few assumed the mirror was placed on the trail to show them that the real Path was in them, not in the external world. This understanding frightened some. They ran away. Others collapsed in hopelessness. Some simmered in anger. Occasionally, someone would become so upset that they would hurl a heavy rock at their reflection. The mirror, however, was impervious. Each time they threw a rock at it the stone bounced back and struck them instead.

There were some monastics among them who lingered in front of the mirror, each gazing at his or her own likeness. It mesmerized and delighted them. They spilled over with the conceit of themselves somehow being the great Buddhist Path. And, of course, there were those novices who simply tried to walk around the mirror. Believing it blocked their way, they plunged headlong into the surrounding thicket of bushes only to emerge scratched and bloodied by an impenetrable web of thorns and undergrowth.

From time to time one of them would see his or her mother or father standing next to them in their reflection. This was an eerie sight, as there was no doubt in their minds about whether their parents were walking with them or not. They knew they were alone. At other times, their reflected image was obscured by crowds of people.

In due course some of the monks and nuns finally calmed down enough to stop and look into their reflection. For many it was the first time they ever really looked deeply into themselves. More than a few concluded that the mirror and the reflection were the end of the Path. Those who did ended up stuck for a very long time. The others, however, remembered the abbot’s directive about finding the Path at the “end of this walkway.” When these monks and nuns stopped and looked deeply into their likeness in the mirror, a wonderful realization arose in their minds instead: “The reflection is of me, but I am not the reflection.” Then when they reached out and lightly touched the mirror, it gave way. Like a great door silently swinging open, it revealed a bright, expansive, sunlit section of garden unlike anything they could ever have imagined existed. Just beyond, at the edge of the path, stood the old abbot holding two shovels.