Moon and Lake in Adhyatma Teachings


Moon in the Water

The moon in the water is a familiar illustration and it is also a yoga practice. Swami Rama Tirtha, a fellow disciple of my teacher Hari Prasad Shastri, used to take a little boat on the river Ravi at night and meditate on the reflection of the moon in the water. And our teacher referred to this also.

In the far east the true Self is often represented by the full moon, in India it is usually the sun.

There is a Chinese poem:

The shadow of the bamboo sweeps the steps,
But the dust does not stir;
The moons disc bores deep into the lake,
But on the water’s surface there is no scar.

The moon is in the sky and we see it also deep in the waters of the lake, but if we examine the water very carefully we cannot find the scar of where it entered.

In the same way we can examine the body and the mind very carefully, but we can’t find where the reflection of the self has entered, and yet it is there. Now as to the moon in the water when the water has ripples and disturbances the moon seems to be broken up into confused flashes of light. In the same way our mind when we are ourselves disturbed seems to be broken up: I have been hurt, I have been triumphant, I lost there, why did they do that? The reflected Self seems to be broken up, but when the mind calms down the image of the moon or the image of the self becomes clear.

Moon in the Sky

Then there is an important point from these illustrations. It is true to say the moon in the lake is the moon in the sky; but it is not true to say the moon in the sky is just the moon in the lake.

Let us look at the equally familiar rope-snake analogy. In the half light we see a rope on the ground and we mistake it for a snake and we get a shock, but some friend tells us that is not a snake, it is a rope, and we go up and see it is. In this case it is true to say that the snake was a rope, but not true to say the rope was a snake. In the same way with the reflection of the Lord in the mind: it is true to say the reflection, the inmost self, is nothing but the Lord, but it is not true to say the Lord is nothing but the inmost self of man. The point is often missed and there is a drop into scepticism where God becomes simply a name for the higher aspirations of man and no more than that. But Yoga training means to bring a living realisation of the Supreme Self onto the main track of life; it is not a question of some dry intellectual house of cards kept on a siding. To do this we have to calm the ripples on the water so that the reflection is seen clearly.

Sun in water-jars

In Chapter 15 of the Gita, Shankara makes it the sun instead of the moon and he describes multiple reflections in jars of water; the sun shines from each pot of water. Now this is an illustration of the Lord projecting himself into many bodies: the pots can be carried about, and it seems that the reflected sun is carried about too.

In some of the far eastern poems about the moon in the water it is said in a similar way that you can capture the moon in the water if you go up to the lake with a dipper; you can catch the moon and carry it away if you hold it very steadily. You have carried the moon away and yet it is still there in the lake and more than that, it is there in the sky. These are themes for meditation, and one of the great Zen meditations is called Moon in the Water.

To return to Shankara and the sun reflected in the pots. Shankara uses this pot illustration to show how how the Lord incarnates in a body, limiting himself to the body as a reflection. He says in one place that the ray of the sun is so to speak like the projection of a part of the sun deep into the water, and if the water is dried up that ray returns to its source in the sun. That is to say the illusory reflected sun is as deep in the water as the real sun is high above. When the water is dried up that illusory depth along with the illusory reflection returns to the sun.

There are many verses in the Gita which speak of this reflected self.

13.31: The Supreme Self, abiding in the body.

13.32: Abiding in the body the self is not stained.

2.13: As to the embodied soul in this body come childhood, youth, old age so they come into another body. The wise man is not confused herein.

3.40: With these it confuses the embodied soul obscuring his knowledge.

13.15: Without and within all beings. (Sankara says “Within refers to the inmost self, pratyag-atman, inside the envelope of the skin”)

How can the Lord be confined to a body? He has given the illustration of the sun seeming to be confined to the water pot and this is developed. We experience this clearly when we see the reflection undisturbed; then by a jump we can realise that it is a reflection of the great sun and we don’t think that sun is confined to the innermost self of man simply. But the ripples have to be reduced by actual practice and experiment.

The Way of the Merchant

There is a story that illustrates several of the points. A high official in a traditional Indian State government came to know a merchant, and was impressed by his character. He said to him: “When we have big changes in the government it is an anxious time for everyone. If things go one way some will be promoted and others disgraced; but if they go the other way it will be the reverse. It does not depend on simply whether one has done a good job or not because luck can play a big part. We all get harassed at these times of crisis. But I have watched you in similar situations in your line – when markets were going up and down and nobody knew what would happen. You worked hard: I saw that. But you never seemed disturbed: when the news was good, you weren’t excited; when it was bad, you sometimes moved quickly but you never seemed nervous. Will you tell me how you got to be like that?”

The merchant quoted to him the illustration of the sun in the water and said that he had used it to develop the Way of the Merchant. “When I am doing business I am seeing the sun of the Lord deep in the waters of the world. I practice calmness so that I can see the Lord more clearly there: when I see him without many ripples I know what to do, and I do it without making more ripples. But every evening in my room I sit alone and take my inner gaze away from the whole world with its ripples and even the reflection. Throwing it all away I close my eyes and mentally look up to meditate on the sun-Lord in the sky. This has set me free from the world and its fears.”

Rama Tirtha says you will succeed in all you do if you can give up completely your personal desire and wish and you can say to the Lord, “This is your work, and therefore I think it to be mine. If you let me be successful, I am pleased. If you make me fail, I am pleased.” When you can give up dependence on the results, your action will no longer be clogged with like and dislike, hope and fear, and it will be efficient.


It is not a question of simply repressing desires and fears for a time only. An Indian visitor went to see a service in a synagogue; he was impressed and he thought the worshippers were impressed too, but as they came out he heard one man say to another triumphantly “23 per cent I tell you, 23 per cent!” Again, a women was reported in a survey of ‘leaving-Church remarks’, as saying to her friend “I stuff mine with onions and apricots!”

Sometimes in the West we may ruefully admit these things, but suppose it must be different in the East. We see staged performances of the Sufi revolving dance, the extended arms with one hand upturned to receive grace from heaven and one hand palm down to distribute that grace on earth; we think they must be in a very high state all the time. Our teacher was once asked about this and he said: “Some of them are but after the dance is over there are some who talk business.”

In some Japanese shrines visitors must observe a rule of silence. A priest once remarked that he had seen a married couple arguing furiously, till they came to the gate of the shrine where they then kept a reverent silence and performed the devotions. They left with quiet solemnity keeping it up till they’d turned out of gate, then one of them said angrily “and there’s another thing too, I want to say!”

This is a common experience at all such ceremonies. The things that have not been said during the hour of worship have been fermenting inside and come out with redoubled vigour immediately the worship is over. There is a feeling: “I’ve done that. I’ve done what I had to do. Now let’s get on to something else.” In Indian folk-lore, this is compared to the elephant which goes into the water and washes itself by squirting water from it’s trunk, gets clean, but then comes out and rolls on the bank to become just as dirty as before. Suppression of thoughts is not the same as control of the mind; the hidden 23 per cent and Apricots and Onions are still in full force.

People say sometimes, “But we have to think of 23 percent and cooking as well, or we shall not be able to live.” True, but the point is to think of these things when it is time to think of them but not otherwise, and to think of them without excitements or fears.

Wang Yang-ming

The last Confucian sage was Wang Yang-ming, a universal genius who as a Minister occasionally commanded military campaigns. A master strategist and tactician he lost very few men.

On one occasion before an imminent battle, he made his dispositions and then in his tent began a lecture to his staff officers on strategy. The fighting began and after a time a courier rushed into the tent to report that the enemy had made a breach in the right wing of Wangs forces. The officers jumped up in excitement, but Wang waved them back into their seats remarking: “The possibility has been foreseen, they know what to do,” and continued the lecture.

Again after a time another courier arrived to say that the enemy had been completely routed. Again the officers rose in excitement but Wang made them sit down and calmly finished his lecture. This famous incident from 15th century Chinese history is often cited as an example of the conduct of the sage who remains in society. He is concerned with success but not with triumph. Triumph or disaster are both ripples which break the surface of the mind and prevent the clear vision of the reflected sun and still more the final experience of the great sun.

He acquired his inner calm by meditation and study. When Yang by his righteous conduct incurred the jealousy of a high Palace official, who saw in him a potential rival, Wang had to leave the capital, but the official sent professional assassins after him. Wang set himself to meditate every evening in front of an open coffin. By this practice he finally freed himself completely from fear.

Leonardo Da Vinci

The metaphor of the reflected moon and sun illustrates a further truth of the Yoga psychology. The whole of our experience is lit by the reflection of the self in us. It lights up all our inner operations of thought, feelings, will, memory, imagination and intuition, the whole mental apparatus.

So there is the Lord, and the reflection of him in the individual which lights up the whole internal body-mind complex. The passions and the memories and the various elements of our inner life and our outer life too are all lit and energised; they would not be active, they would be inert, unless they were vivified and lit by the rays from this reflected consciousness.

Interestingly this is illustrated in an allegorical drawing by Leonardo De Vinci.





In the top left hand corner there is a stylised sun, the jagged rays coming from it represent the impossibility of looking directly at it. The actual sun rays fall on a mirror held by a seated man wearing a robe and a vaguely oriental head-dress. The reflected image of the sun in the mirror sends out its own rays to illumine a cave in which various mythological animals are fighting. There is a winged dragon devouring a lioness, and a bear on the back of the dragon biting and attacking it. Another lioness in the foreground is crouched to spring. At the far left a boar is coming round the corner to join in. These represent the passions fighting among themselves. In the bottom left hand corner is a unicorn, poised to attack the dragon. In the renaissance the unicorn represented the sublimated sexual impulse.

This picture is by Leonardo and there is no text with it. It has never been explained, but from the yoga point of view it is an illustration of the state of man. That is to say the Lord is the Sun, reflected from the clear mirror of the buddhi held by the sage. By the light of that, the animals are seen fighting.

In the case of the ordinary man, the animals are raging. In that ordinary man there is also this calm observing figure, this witnessing Self, but he is not conscious of it. The yoga process is to take the conscious identity away from the fighting animals, from identity with the passions which conflict with each other. They fight: for instance, the desire for revenge fights against fear – perhaps I will not be able to pull it off and they will hit back at me more strongly than ever. The desire to get rich conflicts with the desire for comfort and ease. It is a battle of the passions: the great dragon of Rajas is eating a lioness, and itself is being eaten by a bear. Leonardo took fables of animals to illustrate human characteristics and he said of the bear, that it stands for blind rage. It steals the honey and the bees sting it; it goes nearly mad with fury. It can’t kill the bees, so it tries to kill everything else it meets. From the side, the unicorn, perhaps Sattva, looks set to pierce the dragon. What an arena is the human heart!

But there is one thing more to notice, namely that there is something purposeful here. It is a bit like a film projection and perhaps this is a hint that these great events are a sport of the Lord, that there is something which is separate from it and which is perhaps enjoying it. The calm witness seems to be focusing the beams and enjoying it all.

The scene is not absolutely real, as is clear from the mythological dragon-form, and thus can be enjoyed so long as it is not entered into. Beyond this struggling and suffering self, is a reflection of the Lord, held so to speak by a witness-self. When we are furiously angry, there is within us something that is not angry; when we are frightened there is something within us which is not frightened at all. Sorrow, tragedy, depression, loneliness – there is something within us calm and untouched by any of them. It is like a serene blue sky. First of all it is to be realised in the nine-gated city of the body. “Giving up all actions by the mind”, giving up the sense of action, allowing the power of the Lord to act through us. Shankara quotes this line from the Gita four times in his commentary. This is the witness-self, but above the witness, as in the picture by Leonardo, the sun is illuminating everything, it illuminates the whole landscape, the fighting beasts, the witness-self, everything is under the radiance of the Lord and then finally the witness is one with the Lord.

This drawing by a great genius of the West has no explanation with it. It is catalogued simply as an Allegory, but no meaning has been suggested. However, with the background of Yoga, it can be understood.





As the original may not be perfectly clear a tracing of the main lines is given here to bring out the chief points.


© 2000 Trevor Leggett