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The Record of Water Mirror Turning Back Heaven

By Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua
Translation With Preface Andcommentary By Shih Heng Ching

The Record of Water Mirror Turning Back Heaven is a work written by Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua in the formal literary language of China. The wit and delightful humor which mark the Master’s teachings are not as obvious here as in his oral teachings. The language of this book is not unlike that of Mencius. In fact, the Western reader who is not familiar with the classical allusions often finds difficulty separating the language of the ancients from the modern text. The formal structure and regular parallelism make the original grand and majestic. Western ears which find such literary conventions too rigid may miss much of the beauty of the style, but I have done my best to retain as much of this flavor as possible.

One way to explain the difference between the Master’s written style, of which Water Mirror is a superb example, and his spoken style, represented by The Sixth Patriarch's Sutra Commentary, is by way of musical analogy. The spoken lectures may be said to be like Bach’s Two and Three Part Inventions, or occasionally like Scarlatti sonatas. Water Mirror is fully as impressive as The Art of the Fugue or the St. Matthew Passion. Furthermore, as reading a musical score and hearing the work performed differ, so too do the written and oral presentations of these works differ. Don’t just read Water Mirror listen carefully for its great, majestic sound. The Lotus Sutra says, "Wonderful Sound, Regard the World Sound, Pure Sound, Sea Tide Sound, Supreme Over Worldly Sound. Therefore constantly recall; in every thought have no doubt."

The Record of Water Mirror Turning Back Heaven


In stillness, regard the system of three thousand great thousand worlds; bad karma wells up and fills it all. Nation kills nation creating world wars. Family kills family creating civil wars. Man kills man creating wars of that and this. Self kills self, creating wars of mind and nature, and so forth until emptiness kills emptiness, and water kills water creating the wars of shape and shapeless. So many wars. How sorrowful! How painful! There is not one of the limitless disasters which is not brought about because of the activity of killing.

If we do not awaken soon, prohibit and cast off the causes, conditions, Dharmas, and activity of killing and so forth it will certainly be difficult to turn back those great disasters and obtain peace and happiness.

Disasters are produced from the activity of killing; the act of killing is produced from the mind. If the mind does not produce thoughts of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, and intoxication, and awesomely maintains the five precepts, vigorously cultivating the triple study, then all bad karma can certainly be erased. The original face is not at all difficult to recognize; the originally existent wisdom will certainly spontaneously manifest. The wind and light of the original ground have a special wonderful delight. Its flavor is indeed inexhaustible. If we wish to try its taste, we have foremost only to purify our will and that is all there is to it.

Turn the mind toward the good, put forth the vigorous heroic mind, establish the will to cultivate and accomplish the fruit of the way, widely cross over those of like kind, and together ascend to the other shore. Together with all good superior men assemble happily in one place, eternally companions with irreversible Bodhisattvas.

My Water Mirror Turning Back Heaven has been written for just this reason, which is easy to speak, but very difficult to do. Why? Consider beings doing good; grab them by the ear, thrice admonish and five times teach, and still they do not raise up their conduct. If they encounter bad conditions thought after thought they increase and grow, without teaching they can penetrate by themselves. Those who know how to turn way from the confused road are few indeed.

Like the moon in water, and flowers in a mirror, these have merely reflections and no shape. It is properly called the hoping of what cannot be hoped, the accomplishing of the unaccomplishable. Therefore, it is called "Water Mirror Turning Back Heaven".


Disasters come from heaven; to turn back heaven means to stop and reverse calamities. Such an undertaking requires immense strength. This book speaks of the power of water and mirror reflections to do just that.

In stillness means in "dhyana concentration". Dhyana is a Sanskrit word, which is explained as "still consideration". It is the result of disciplined training in what is not too precisely called meditation. Cultivating dhyana concentration aims at obtaining a special rarified insight into the nature of things as they are, and most important into the self–nature so that we might realize the Buddha latent in all beings.

Karma is also a Sanskrit word, which means "that which one does". Karma is simply the doing of any action with the body, mouth, or mind. All activity has its effect. In Buddhism we discover that this is true not only for the physical realm but for the moral and spiritual ones as well.

To kill is used not only in the sense of taking life, but metaphorically includes all manner of cruelty, arrogance, jealousy, and the like. Nations may not actively kill in times of "peace" but they do continue to oppress, steal, deceive, and take advantage of one another. This kind of activity goes on for long periods of time before it breaks into hot war. Two nations fight and their allies join them, soon creating the great disaster which is called world war. Families cheat, slander, gossip, and malign one another, causing dissension within the land. Factions and parties are followed by civil wars, which may be either ones of violent battles, or of silent, sly, and treacherous greed which undermines the very foundation of the state to the benefit of the great families. Man oppresses and extorts man until there arises the war of you and me. Individuals tear themselves apart with indecision and anxiety. This is called the self-warring with the self. Man’s mind and nature fight instead of being in accord and bizarre insanities run rampant throughout the world. This process of warring is not just peculiar to our world; throughout the universe the same principles apply.

Now we have aerial warfare, and missiles and planes fill our skies. This may be called space-fighting space on the near scale. On the far scale we are now setting foot into the cosmos, a frontier teeming with new worlds and world systems. It is impossible to believe that we are alone in this universe; it is only this mind of ours bent on killing which allows us such monstrous egotism. These principles are basic not merely to the nature of man but to the nature of all beings. Aerial warfare certainly continues on this earth. What the future will bring if we continue to kill remains to be seen. And so, in stillness, we see emptiness killing emptiness. From where will these missiles of aerial warfare be launched? We already have launching pads, which can travel submerged through the world’s oceans for vast periods of time without once surfacing. What future technology will bring in the way of improvement is yet unknown. Everything is at war; the doing of bad fills the universe. Bodies battle bodies, space slays space, the war of shape and shapeless.

Disasters means not only the disasters of war, but of fire, water, wind and pestilence.

The causes, conditions, Dharmas, and activity of killing. We are inclined, in our ordinary lives, to consider a thing done as complete in itself, divorcing an effect from its cause and subsequent after–effects. Hence, in Buddhism, when we take moral restrictions and prohibitions on ourselves we do so not merely to forbid the doing of the act itself, but also the cause which brings it about, the conditions which make its occurrence possible, and the dharma, or method, by which that it is realized. No one will admit to enjoying a bed of stinging nettles, and if a gardener finds one he will certainly remove it completely. Only the most foolish person would attempt to leave the plants but strip them of their sting. So too with the causes, conditions, and Dharma of killing.

The prevention of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, and intoxication is the subject of five basic moral prohibitions, which are voluntarily assumed by an individual. Although everyone ought to observe them, they are only truly held when formally professed before the Triple Jewel.

The triple study is the cultivation of morality, concentration, and wisdom.

The original face and the originally existent wisdom are the goal of our cultivation. We must find and understand them. In Buddhism this is foremost. While the Buddhadharma has a vast and profound literature, every word of it is for the sole purpose of leading beings to understand their own nature. The goal of direct spiritual–gnosis has never been forgotten. Even in this, the so–called "Dharma ending age", such experience is not only possible, but essential. Not the shallow alterations of perception caused by external forces, but the true confrontation and understanding of the nature of Buddha latent in all things makes up this experience. Without direct experience there simply is no Buddhism, merely learned chatter.

The wind and light of the original ground means simply that having returned home, we once again see the long forgotten vista from the original dwelling, the place where we belong and from which we have estranged ourselves so very long. The other shore is the standard explanation of the word "paramita", which may also be translated "perfection". It is the other side, Nirvana, which is opposed to this, our restless turning in birth and death. It is everything that this shore is not and yet, its bliss exists only in opposition to the suffering on this shore.

All good superior men means those who have cultivated and attained to one of the fruits of the path, holy men who have achieved such position by dint of their own cultivation.

An irreversible Bodhisattva is one who has reached a position from which it is impossible to regress. This is manifested in three ways. He is irreversible in position, and is unable to revert to the stages of the smaller vehicle; he is irreversible in conduct, and never causes afflictions to sentient beings; he is irreversible in thought, and having produced the thought to cultivate the Bodhisattva path, he cannot cease from doing so. He is unable to retreat from the utmost right and equal enlightenment.

Thought after thought they increase and grow means that sentient beings are such that when they encounter the doing of evil they do not need any instruction but just naturally learn it. Who instructs the gambler in his sport? Who teaches the wife–beater how to wield a belt? How strange that they do so by themselves! As for the cultivation of good, one requires a teacher; even then, it is not easy.

The moon in water and flowers in a mirror are merely appearances which do not correspond to reality. The moon in the water is but one of myriads of such moons, lovely to look at but dispersing like a phantom when a pebble is tossed in the pool. Flowers in a mirror have no scent; drop the glass and the flowers shatter too. Sentient beings with all their propensity for evil and dislike of good, with all their afflictions and their various karmas, are no more real than the moon in the water or flowers in a mirror. In full awareness of this Dharma, knowing the ultimate futility of the undertaking, the very impossibility of its being accomplished, nonetheless, one must teach a turning from the confused road, instructing and admonishing sentient beings, teaching and transforming them. This is the hoping of what cannot be hoped, the doing of the undoable. This is what this book is about. This is the Great Vehicle.


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