Ejo McMullen on the total response of Avalokiteshvara — with a thousand arms, an eye on the palm of each hand — as the model of the bodhisattva path.
A deep current of pain moves through our world, ancient but immediate. It is the weight of unwholesome karma. It is the ignorance of our true embrace.
In Japanese, Avalokiteshvara is called Kanzeon, the perceiver of the sounds of the world. The sound of the world, that rush and roar that has filled our ears from beginningless time, is the sound of suffering, of a current of pain that flows without cease. The bodhisattva joins this current through vow, through this heart that does not long to leave the world of pain, but chooses instead to flow with it, to perceive, to respond.
Suffering is not what we think it to be. It is an invitation—an invitation to see our true nature. What seems like crushing weight is asking us to stop employing a divided heart.
We feel this current reflected throughout our lives as an unwillingness—an unwillingness to face each other, and also to face ourselves. Another person takes their own life, literally and figuratively. Another diagnosis of a terminal illness. Another child dies from malnutrition, another unarmed Black American is shot by police. Another brother or sister can’t stop drinking. Another brutal flag waves from the back of a truck. Your list is your own, but if you
pay attention, you see that this suffering is boundless, immeasurable. It’s beyond accounting or compare.
Time and again, when I tell people I’ve lost a child, they say they could never imagine, and that is true. If you have not lost in that way, then you cannot even fathom the toll. But suffering, from person to person, is not so different. You can’t line one up against the other, one above and one below.
It doesn’t work like that.
The tragedy of our lives is direct. Essentially, there is no big or small. And it is the radical teaching of the Buddha that suffering does not stand in opposition to joy. This is the part we miss. In our naive exuberance for practice, we bring an intention to overcome, to dominate suffering as if that could bring joy. This mind of domination springs from the seeds of discord and sows the seeds of pain.
The Buddha called it out as the first noble truth, dukkha. The boundless nature of suffering, the Buddha called “noble”; he did not say, “Oh, this is the first truth, which we will quickly dispense with.” Right up front, the noble truth of dukkha, the fountainhead of dharma—you can’t get around it. You can’t get over it. You can’t get past it. You can’t get through it. It is the actuality of our lives. That doesn’t mean it stands in the way of ease and joy, but our attempts to dominate it may make it seem so. We can’t get around, over, past, or through, not because the world is a horrible place filled only with disease but because, like all things, suffering is empty. It is ungraspable. It has no edge. If you examine it in yourself, there’s no place to take a firm hold. We can push against it, try to hold it, but it will not succumb to our containment.
Suffering is not what we think it to be. It is an invitation—an invitation to see our true nature. What seems like crushing weight is asking us to stop employing a divided heart. I’ll say that again: what seems like crushing weight, like the impossibility of this life, is asking something of us. It’s asking us to stop employing the divided heart that wants one side to dominate the other: the sage to kick out the fool, the strong to overcome the weak, the good to dispense with the bad. The stone cliff of our life will not be leveraged.
The first Zen ancestor, Bodhidharma, crossed great mountains to reach China, then sat facing the cliff at Shao Lin Mountain. With his sitting and with very few words, he taught that we should “face the wall unwaveringly and see ordinary people and sages as the same.” This is the heart of the bodhisattva. From his stern face and relentless stillness, we may imagine him as an arhat, someone only concerned with wisdom and drying up the passions, but nothing could be further from the truth. His practice was beings are numberless, I vow to free them; he sat facing the wall, day after day, for us.
To take up this bodhisattva path as the descendants of Bodhi-dharma, we must know that the immense suffering of the world will not disappear or give way to our fixing, our strategies, our plans for a life without difficulty. It will not give way. But the eye of prajna, the clear seeing of wisdom—it, too, is a deep current, one that flows together with the current of pain. There is no gap in the seeing of this eye.
Avalokiteshvara is often portrayed as having a thousand arms; in many of her hands, she holds various implements of response. But in the center of every hand, there is an eye. It’s an image of the compassion of the bodhisattva, that all the myriad phenomena of the world are witnessed and responded to, seen and held, perceived and cared for. Boundless suffering is met with boundless seeing, boundless response. This is the bodhisattva’s activity.
Our ancestors, the dharma brothers Ungon Donji and Dogo Enshi, discussed this precisely. Ungon, the junior of the two, asked Dogo, “What does the bodhisattva of great compassion do by using all those hands and eyes?”
Dogo responded, “It is like someone reaching behind themselves, grasping for a pillow in the middle of the night.”
“I got it,” said Ungon. “I got it.”
Dogo asked, “What did you get?”
Ungon replied, “All of the body is hands and eyes.”
“Well said, but it is eight or nine parts of the way,” said Dogo.
Ungon continued, “I’m just this. How about you, brother?”
“Moving through,” responded Dogo, “the body is hands and eyes.”
When we come across a conversation like this, it is easy for us to hear it as a volley, an example of one-upmanship. But that would be a mistake. Of all the stories through all the years, this one has been saved because these two masters express the truth in each line.
It is not that one bests the other. Each phrase is a full expression, a full invitation, a full inquiry or exploration into the hands and eyes of the bodhisattva, of the heart of compassion, of the vow to cross over together with all beings. These brothers, they sharpen each other. They care for each other. They make space for the dharma to not be stagnant.
We should respect each line. Ungon calls out the dharma with a question, but it’s not simply that he’s asking a question. He’s pointing to the gateway. He’s pointing to what cannot be captured, what cannot be corralled. Only a question can call our attention to the opening; an explanation won’t do. A word of description won’t do. What is the use of all those hands and eyes?
Seeing and responding is inevitable. It is intimate. No escape necessary, here in the darkness. The whole body is nothing but an eye, nothing but a hand, nothing but perceiving, nothing but responding.
If we make a story of total response, it becomes merely an image of response. If we take this question in a typical way, we think he’s asking, “Oh, what does the bodhisattva do with all those arms? What is their function? How are they used?” Those are not unworthy questions, but they’re questions in which the response simply becomes an explanation. Ungon is inviting us to something more immediate, more profound. So listen to the what. Ungon opens up the question of “the use of all those hands and eyes” to the using of all the hands and eyes that is a question. We need to listen to the what. What is the eye of Avalokiteshvara?
What is the use of all those hands and eyes? Don’t answer the question. Know it, feel it. Isn’t suffering what calls to you—isn’t that the sound you hear? How shall I see it? How shall I respond? If you’re not asking that question, the bodhisattva vow can never be engaged. But the what mustn’t be inert. We get frozen in the what when we’re stuck in our head, not feeling our body, not feeling our heart, not feeling our breath. To our head, the question of what demands an immediate answer—it only looks for something to fill the hole. But this what is different.
Lest it become inert, Dogo responds with “reaching behind for a pillow in the middle of the night.” Some take this to mean the casual activity of reaching while not knowing what will be found, but that misses the point. The middle of the night cannot be fabricated. It also isn’t a place where we might just end up; we don’t just find ourselves in this night. It’s not ignorance. Nor is it simply some idea of a natural state, this reaching behind in the middle of the night. How will you arrive there, in that dark place?
Have you been outside on a cloudy night with no moon, so dark you can’t see your own feet? Or perhaps deep in the woods, or in a cave, no light at all, nothing for your eye to fix on, no objects to pick out? This is the womb of prajna. This is the pupil of Buddha’s eye. It is the relinquishment required for total receptivity. How will you arrive there? If you try to go there, you make an object of the dark. If you just wait around for it, you wallow in ignorance.
Dogo gives us a hint: “reaching behind.” Even in the dark, we try to keep the world in front of us. Even in the dark, we try to fix it, keep it still, know it as an object. But here, we reach behind. We step back. We release. We relinquish the knowing. I got it. I got it. The moment of meeting, the joy of the hand meeting the pillow—perhaps you’ve experienced this taking the posture of zazen, of upright sitting. If you sit for a while, you give full play to the what. You step back into the dark, and suddenly, you’re here. The world of pain is not your enemy.
Dogo probes, “What did you get?” More precisely, in the Chinese, it reads, “What did you meet?” What did you meet, Ungon? What was that touching of the pillow? What is it like to be here, not in opposition? And Ungon replies, “All of the body is hands and eyes.” This is the point: this overwhelming world of suffering is completely your whole body of hands and eyes. Seeing and responding is inevitable. It is intimate. No escape necessary, here in the darkness. Reaching behind, the whole body is nothing but an eye, nothing but a hand, nothing but perceiving, nothing but responding.
Ungon has a good brother in Dogo. He doesn’t let that image lie. He keeps it going: “Ah, nicely said, younger brother, but it’s simply eight or nine parts of the way.” Notice how, when you hear that line, “Oh, but it’s eight or nine parts of the way,” you assume there must be ten, that Ungon has come up short. It’s as if Dogo is just laying a trap for our divided mind. Ah, pretty good, but what would be better? How could I skip over this line and get to the punchline? When I’m finished, surely I’ll be enlightened and I won’t have to worry about suffering anymore. But eight or nine parts is just eight or nine parts. What is this business of holding out for ten? Eight is just eight. Nine is just nine. Eight, nine. The eye sees directly. I am just this. How about you, brother?
You don’t get to pull away from suffering. What’s moving through can be your pain alone, but it can also be your vow. It can be the gateway of ease and joy, for if the bodhisattvas do not express joy in the face of this suffering, who will?
Ungon is willing to just be eight or just be nine. Knowing that whatever his understanding is, it is just his understanding, he can ask his brother, “How about you?” If he thinks that his understanding is something more or less than just his understanding, he can never really ask that. He could challenge—he could say, “Oh, you don’t like my answer. What’s your answer? Let me see if I could knock that down.” But that’s not what’s happening here. I am just this. How about you? Is this not the heart of the bodhisattva, the simple, straightforward use of eyes and hands? Although Ungon is the younger, he’s an example of a true good friend. Dogo responds, “Moving through the body is hands and eyes.” Hear that in relation to what Ungon says. They’re both a complete expression. The whole body is hands and eyes. Moving through the body is hands and eyes.
Don’t mistake “the body” here to be just physical form. It’s all of the mind, all of the spirit, all of the physical body, feelings, experiences. Something is moving through. That moving through is the reaching of the hands. It’s the use of the eyes. All these sounds of the world—can you allow them? Must you wall them off? Must you dominate them? Moving through is deep acceptance. It is a portal, a black well, the pupil of the eye. This is the through, the acceptance that moves through and throughout the world of phenomena. The seeing and the seen are never separate. You can meet this, the ungraspable noble truth of suffering. In the clarity of the eye, the complete throughness of seeing, there’s such intimacy.
Every leaf, as it falls from the tree, as it crisps and then melts into the ground—nothing is between you and that leaf.
It is the truth of living that our whole body is hands and eyes, that the moving through is hands and eyes. You don’t get to pull away from suffering. What’s moving through can be your pain alone, but it can also be your vow. It can be the gateway of ease and joy, for if the bodhisattvas do not express joy in the face of this suffering, who will? Who will remind the world that the suffering does not defeat the living, that the living never separates the depths and the heights? Looking to tomorrow, we know we face a turbulent time—the extension, and perhaps the exacerbation of our current turbulent time, which itself flows from yesterday. Do not run from the difficulty. Do not run by hiding; do not run by giving in to the spectacle.
Show the world the beauty of the eye perceiving. Show the world the hand responding. This is your whole body. This is moving through.