Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness

Tung-shan Liang Chieh (Tozan Ryokai in Japanese), the author of the Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness, as a youth heard the Heart Sutra being recited. When he heard the part that says, “…no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind…” his youthful naïveté caused him to touch his face and exclaim, “The Sutra says I have no eyes yet I do.” His teacher realized that Tung-shan required a person of greater attainment than himself to impart the Dharma to him. He was sent off on a journey to seek, and ultimately fulfill, his spiritual yearning. The Jewel Mirror Awareness is the poetic summary of his realization.

This commentary on the Song consists of an introduction, a biography of Tung-shan, and clarification of the meaning of each of its forty-seven couplets. The descriptions attempt to provide information that explains Buddhist insights and Chinese lore embedded within the verses. Poems by Zen Master Dogen have been included to demonstrate the intimate connection between these two great expounders of Soto Zen.


The Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness is a chant that is recited regularly in Soto Zen monasteries and centers. It describes the internal process required to attain and maintain the “Jewel Mirror Awareness”, the heart of Zen training. It offers insight through its depiction of a Chinese master’s understanding of the dynamic interpenetration of the personal (phenomenal, relative, particular) and the universal (noumenal, absolute, collective). The study of the Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness provides guidance for the Soto Zen meditation practice of Zazen. Many verses are statements that seemingly offer comparisons in metaphoric language that start with the phrase, “it is like.” The usual understanding of a metaphor is that it is a poetic tool by which meaning is conveyed by comparing one thing to another. The language of Tung-shan, however, is not a comparison suggesting a similarity. The poem is composed from the understanding of the enlightened mind. What he is describing is the mutually beneficial interaction of the personal and universal. Here, the metaphor contains both the symbol and what is symbolized. In order to grasp this meaning, it is necessary to transcend the notion that metaphors in Soto Zen convey only a kind of likeness standing apart from “reality as it is” (thusness). Dogen wrote, “Being like does not express resemblance, being like is concrete existence”. This view is consistent with how “it is like” is used in the Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness. “It is like” is not merely pointing out an idea or concept. Rather, “it is like” is thusness itself. The Chinese character for “thusness” also has the meaning of “like”.

Couplet #4 When you array them, they’re not the same; When you mix them you know where they are. When you array them, they’re not the same; When a person glimpses the world through the jewel mirror, perception is transformed. “Things” are arrayed, are made manifest. Things are what they are – tree, rock, person or frog, and at the same time, everything is much more than what we usually take them to be. What one sees is that all things are made of the same universal substance – light or fire – and everything has cognizance. They are not the same in the sense that they are no longer “just” a tree, rock, person or frog. The splendor and thusness of beings are observed. Enlightenment is not becoming a special being; it is clearly seeing the reality of the world. When you mix them you know where they are. When you mix them means witnessing the universal aspect of all things. You know where they are indicates you can still distinguish and identify a tree from a rock, and a person from a frog.