Next we have Dogen’s meticulous treatment of all aspects of a koan. As I mentioned before, commentaries on many of the koans that Dogen deemed important and that were included in his Mana Shobogenzo can be found in the classic Song collections. When we compare the commentaries of these collections with Dogen’s commentaries in the Kana Shobogenzo, we find that the truth—the dharma—of these koans is consistently presented by each commentator, and yet, there is a unique quality to Dogen’s expression of the Zen truth that sets his treatment of koans in a class by itself.

For example, a brief look at case 105 of the Mana Shobogenzo, “The Hands and Eyes of Great Compassion,” will help to illustrate Dogen’s depth of understanding and expression. This koan appears in two fascicles of the Kana Shobogenzo: in “Daishugyo” and in “Kannon.” The same koan appears as Case 89 in the Blue Cliff Record and as Case 54 in the Book of Serenity:

Yunyan asked Daowu: “How does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion [Kannon] use so many hands and eyes?”

Daowu said: “It’s just like a person in the middle of the night reaching back in search of a pillow.”

Yunyan said: “I understand.”

Daowu said: “How do you understand it?”

Yunyan said: “All over the body are hands and eyes.”

Daowu said: “What you said is all right, but it’s only eighty percent of it.”

Yunyan said: “I’m like this, senior brother. How do you understand it?”

Daowu said: “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”

Taking up only a few of the points in this rich koan, we find the following. In the Blue Cliff Record commentary, Yuanwu refers to the 84,000 arms of Kannon Bodhisattva as symbolic arms and says, “Great Compassion has this many hands and eyes. Do all of you?” With this question he challenges the reader to consider the statement from the point of view of intimacy.

When he addresses “reaching back for a pillow in the middle of the night,” he asks the question, “[In this activity] tell me, where are the eyes?” But, whereas Yuanwu deals with the phrase “the night” only briefly, Dogen comments on it extensively, since it is a pivotal point of the koan.

Yuanwu also deals with Yunyan’s “all over the body are hands and eyes” and Daowu’s “this is all right, but it is only eighty percent of it” and “throughout the body are hands and eyes.” He asks the question, “But say, is ‘all over the body’ right, or is ‘throughout the body’ right?” Then he himself indirectly answers this with the statement “Although they seem covered with mud, nevertheless they are bright and clean,” implying that although Daowu and Yunyan may appear to be having “a conversation in the weeds” (are intellectualizing), in fact they are both expressing clearly the truth of the activity of Great Compassion.




Yuanwu then concludes by saying that practitioners who think that Yunyan’s response must have been wrong while Daowu’s was right are caught up in words and phrases and have not yet realized the truth.

In the Book of Serenity, Wansong begins his commentary with a quote: “Li Ao asked Ehu, ‘What does the Great Compassionate One use a thousand hands and eyes for?’ Ehu said, ‘What does the emperor use public officials for?’” This exchange seems to imply that the thousand hands and eyes of Great Compassion are meant to facilitate the bodhisattva’s functioning in the world. It is a reasonable and logical conclusion, but it entirely misses the truth of this koan.

He then quotes a couple of stories that are perhaps intended to illustrate the principles presented in the koan, but they do not in any way clarify them for the reader. They just introduce more entanglements of words and ideas. He does agree with Yuanwu about the identity of Yunyan and Daowu’s understanding, refuting the notion that one is clearer than the other.