In my readings of Buddhist and Taoist literature over the years, I have often run across variations of a certain phrase, “turning the light around,” translated differently with slight changes of meaning changes depending on the context. The phrase comes from the Chinese huiguang, “turn around light”.
In the Taoist classic The Secret of the Golden Flower (as translated by Thomas Cleary, 1991), “turning the light around is a means of refining the higher soul, which is a means of preserving the spirit, which is a means of controlling the lower soul, which is a means of interrupting consciousness.” In Ch’an, originally known as the Inner Light School, it’s a term for the process of meditation: “Now when you turn the light around to shine inward, the mind is not aroused by things.” (Lu Yan 829–874).
Huiguang is also linked in Ch’an to hua-t’ou, literally “source” and essentially refers to the mind in its natural state undisturbed by thought, but often associated with kung-an (Jpn. koan) practice. In the Korean Zen of Chinul, the phrase is “tracing back the radiance,”* a specific practice of seeing the radiant nature of the mind within the present moment and then tracing the radiance back to its source. Chinul connects the practice to a method associated with Avalokitesvara (“Hearer of the Cries of the World”) of tracing hearing back to its source within the mind.
Hsuan Hua (1918-1995), the great Chinese teacher who played a leading role in bringing Ch’an to America during the 20th Century, presents a different take on this phrase, one that shines a bit more directly on our state of mind in daily life, in his commentary, “The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra.” In this treatment of the Heart Sutra, Hsuan Hua comments on a line or few words from the text with a verse he composed and then a short explanation. Here he analyzes the first three words of the “shorter” Heart Sutra:
When Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva
Reversing the light to shine within,
Avalokiteshvara enlightens all the sentient beings; thus he is a Bodhisattva.
His mind is thus, thus, unmoving, a superior one at peace;
With total understanding of the ever-shining, he is host and master.
Six types of psychic powers are an ordinary matter,
And even less can the winds and rains of the eight directions cause alarm.
He rolls it up and secretly hides it away;
And lets it go to fill the entire world.
The name Avalokiteshvara is Sanskrit; in Chinese it is rendered guan zi zai, “Contemplating Ease”. To be at ease is to be happy about everything and to be without worries or obstacles. To be unimpeded is to contemplate ease. If you are impeded, then you are not contemplating ease. Reversing the light to shine within is contemplating ease. If you don’t reverse the light to shine within, you’re not contemplating ease.
What is meant by “reversing the light to shine within”? Regardless of what the situation is, examine yourself. If someone has wronged you, you should think to yourself, “Basically, I was wrong.”
If you say, “When people don’t act properly toward me, I don’t look to see whether I’m right myself; I just smash them right away, smash their heads in so that blood flows” – then you haven’t won a victory, but have only shown your complete lack of principles and wisdom. To reverse the light to shine within is to have principles and wisdom. Reverse the light and contemplate whether or not you are at ease.
I will explain the two characters zi zai, which together mean “ease”. The zi is oneself, and the zai is where one is. I’ll say it word for word. Are you right here (zai), or aren’t you? In other words, do you have false thoughts, or not? If one has false thoughts, then one (zi) is not right here. It’s very simple. To reverse the light to shine within is simply to see whether you have false thoughts. If you have false thoughts, then you aren’t at ease. If you don’t have false thoughts, then you are at ease. That’s how wonderful it is.
“The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra” with “Verses Without A Stand” and Prose Commentary of the Venerable Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua, English translation by the Buddhist Text Translation Society
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* Robert E. Buswell, Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen, University of Hawaii Press, 1991