Let us look now at Dogen, who begins his treatment of the koan by extolling the virtues of both Yunyan and Daowu, and immediately establishing their unity with each other. He then presents the identity of Kannon Bodhisattva and Yunyan, and the uniqueness of Yunyan’s understanding of Kannon. He says: “Kannon is present in Yunyan who has been experiencing it together with Daowu. And not only one or two Kannons, but hundreds of thousands of Kannons are experiencing the same state as Yunyan.”

Then, speaking of the 84,000 hands and eyes of great compassion, Dogen makes clear that they are not limited to any number. He says, “They are indeed beyond the bounds of countlessness and limitlessness.” The limitlessly abundant hands and eyes are clearly the state of consciousness that Yunyan and Daowu are experiencing together. With a unique twist Dogen says, “Yunyan is asking Daowu, ‘The use [of the hands and eyes] does what?’” He is asking the reader to consider how Kannon uses her manifold hands and eyes and to ask, “Does what, moves what, expresses what?”

Dogen then uses Daowu’s answer, “She is like a person in the night reaching back for a pillow,” to launch into an exhaustive exploration of “in the night.” He asks us to examine the difference between “nighttime as it is supposed in the light of day” and “the nighttime as it is in the night. In sum, we should examine it as that time which is not day or night.”

Then he becomes even more specific. He says, “This nighttime is not necessarily only the nighttime of the day and night of human beings and gods.” The night that Dogen is speaking of is in the realm of the absolute, the non-dual state of consciousness in which body and mind have fallen away. Extending this concept of night into the matter of searching for a pillow he says, “You should understand that the expression used here by Daowu does not concern taking a pillow, pulling a pillow or pushing a pillow. If you try to deeply understand what Daowu means when he speaks of ‘reaching behind at night for a pillow,’ you must examine it with night eyes. Look at it carefully.”

The remainder of the koan is subjected to the same kind of close scrutiny, functioning within various levels of understanding and addressing subtleties that were not presented in the Blue Cliff Record and Book of Serenity. This koan is only one among the many examples of the unique style and profound insight that Dogen brings to the understanding of classical koans.

But, all of this would be of little more than theoretical interest to us, were it not for the relevance that Dogen’s teachings have for contemporary western practitioners. In addition to Dogen’s style and insight, a critical aspect of his treatment of koans is how the particular cases he selected can assist practitioners to examine important areas of spiritual practice in the twenty-first century. Among these areas are the moral and ethical teachings of Zen, the teacher-student relationship, and social activism.

Over the years, in developing my own commentaries of the Mana Shobogenzo koans, I have attempted to present Dogen’s dharma heart as it is manifested in this particular time, this place, and these circumstances, as well as address issues that were not dealt with in the past for various political, social or cultural reasons. One example is case 227 of the Mana Shobogenzo, “Priest Xixian’s, I Am Watching”:

Xixian Faan of Lushan was asked by a government officer, “When I took the city of Jinling with an army troop, I killed countless people. Am I at fault?”

Xixian said, “I am watching closely.”

A Japanese master commenting on this koan said:

As Buddhists we take a precept not to destroy life. The government officer was worried since his position involved him in ordering the killing of many people. That his actions were sinful, of course. If we judge his conduct, he committed many sins, but he was unable to avoid this in carrying out his duty. Master Xixian recognized the difficult circumstance of the officer’s life, and so he wouldn’t say that his actions were sins. He just said that he was always watching reality. In reality it is difficult at times to categorize the conduct of others as good or bad. Reality is very severe. Master Xixian recognized the officer’s life was in reality very severe so that he himself was just watching the real situation. In reality, situations are usually complex. We must recognize the existence of such a fact. It is sometimes difficult to criticize or to affirm. If we see a snake crawling toward a baby and we are too concerned with following the precepts exactly we may hesitate too long to save the baby. At the moment of the present we must be free even from the precepts to act as the circumstances demand.