This post is about the following interchange between two Chinese Zen practitioners which supposedly took place in the 9th century. First, I will focus on Avalokitesvara, who is the subject of their discussion. Then, I will discuss the interaction between the two monks.
Blue Cliff Record, Case #89
Yunyan asked Daowu, “‘How does the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara use those many hands and eyes?”’
Daowu answered, “‘It is like someone in the middle of the night reaching behind her head for the pillow.”’
Yunyan said, “I understand.”
Daowu asked, “How do you understand it?”
Yunyan said, “‘All over the body are hands and eyes.”
Daowu said, “That is very well expressed, but it is only 80% of the answer.”
Yunyan said, “How would you say it, Elder Brother?”
Daowu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”
Avalokiteśvara is the bodhisattva who vows never to rest until he has freed all beings from their emotional suffering. Despite strenuous effort, he realizes that he can only reach out to some of them. After struggling to meet the needs of so many, he gets a tremendous headache and his head splits into eleven pieces. Buddha then gives him eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering and reach out to all of them. He tries to reach out to all those who need aid but finds that his two arms shattered into pieces. Once more, Buddha comes to his aid and gives him a thousand arms to use to help folks.
With all these arms, hands, and in addition, eyes, he now can embrace everyone. Not knowing whether he will be effective at supporting or connecting, he reaches out. When he does this, he is not split by different thoughts about being good enough helper or how long it will take. He is just naturally extending himself. To do this effectively, he must allow his measuring, judging mind to descend into his heart so he can act from heart-mind.
With his new ability, he (or in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, she) now has the ability to reach out to everyone who needs support. And according to Daowu, she proceeds like someone in the middle of the night reaching out to adjust their pillow. In this situation our eyes are not enough, our ears are not enough, our thinking is not enough. Even the color of our pillow and its other features are irrelevant. To find our pillow we only need to do one thing: let go of our self-talk, which means letting go of the need to have things figured out or even to “know” anything. She just extends herself beyond the limitations of her knowledge or understanding.
This is not to imply that knowledge and understanding are unimportant. They are a vitally important component of who we are, but its only 80%, as Daowu suggests. Our ability to successfully reach out to someone whether we know or understand them is vast and unlimited.
I saw Suzuki Roshi reach out in this way on a number of occasions. Years ago, at Tassajara Zen Monastery, a student continually overslept and missed the early meditation that was a mandatory part of the program. Those who were in charge of practice got together and based on their understanding of him, determined that he just wasn’t suited for a monastic situation and told Suzuki he should be kicked out. Suzuki listened to them and said “Donald has a very good heart and a deep desire to learn our way. I am going to make him my attendant.” The practice leaders scratched their heads. Didn’t he understand Donald’s obvious limitations? But As the months and years went on, this student became one of Suzuki’s most prominent and well-respected disciples.
Now I want to discuss Daowu and Yunyan a little more and the difference between the depth of understanding of each.
What do you think the difference might be in the understanding of Daowu and that of Yunyan? If Chinese lineage charts are correct about that early time period, both these fellows had the same teacher. A personal relationship between a student and his or her teacher has been one of the key distinguishing features of Zen since its beginning. There are a number of stories about Daowu, but Yunyan is less well known.
To reach beyond Yunyan’s 80% and be a fully functioning bodhisattva as Daowu was, I think we need to do three things:
First, we need to allow ourselves to sink into the great spaciousness of not knowing. Our ego operating system, which is vitally important to our well-being, is continually trying to know as much as possible to give us a feeling of security in an insecure world. But if we allow the thoughts which keep our system revved up, to slow down, our mind quite naturally descends into our heart. Then we can settle deeply into a kind of knowing which brings great clarity rather than confusion and we find that we can respond to someone’s pain with both compassion and wisdom.
Second, we need to fully bear witness to peoples’ suffering. By deeply listening to them and being there for them, our mind begins to descend into our heart. My friend, Patrick, before he took me on the first of many treks to reach out to folks in homeless camps, gave me one piece of simple advice. “If you completely focus on being with them, listening to them, paying attention to them with no hint of judgment or attempt to give advice they will begin to trust you.”
Most people who are in psychological pain don’t want or need to be fixed, don’t want us to look away, don’t want us to sink into despair about their situation or condition. But if we can empty out our thoughts entirely and be an undiluted presence for them, together we can work wonders. This means holding a space open, refusing to close our eyes, turn away, or use psychological mechanisms to distance ourselves from them or their situation. There’s no greater gift we can give someone than deeply listening to them from heart-mind.
The third thing we can do to manifest Avalokitesvara’s power is to do our best to act with lovingkindness toward everyone and everything. This seems like a tall order, but through our meditation practice, our mind naturally to descend into our heart time and time again. When this happens, we see/feel others’ suffering as not separate from ours without a trace of co-dependency. When we develop the capacity to embrace not knowing, we find that bearing witness easily follows and loving kindness emanates from these two. Lo and behold, we have developed the capacity to find our pillow in the dark.
This teaching seems to have fully penetrated Daowu’s psyche. He understands that Avalokitesvara models a connection to others that emanates from within and throughout his body, not just on its surface.
The more adept we become at reaching for our pillow, the more all the if’s, and’s, and but’s that circle through our minds subside. We have moved from the interdependent web of life as a good idea, to a description of who and what actually is. The haiku poet Issa feels this when he writes, Hey! Don’t swat: the fly wrings his hands on bended knees.
On the other hand, when we aren’t doing this, as the third ancestor Seng Tsan says, “Heaven and earth are torn apart.” Daowu isn’t necessarily a better person than Yunyan, but Yunyan’s mind hasn’t fully descended into his heart at the moment of their interchange and Daowu’s has. Are you ready to allow your own mind to make this same descent?
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher