Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 5.

Koan Commentaries

Master Ungan asked Master Dogo: What does Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva do with so many hands and eyes?

Master Dogo said: It is like someone stretching out a hand behind their head at night, looking for the pillow.

Master Ungan said: I understand. I understand.

Master Dogo said: What do you understand?

Master Ungan said: Hands and eyes exist throughout the body.

Master Dogo said: Your words describe the situations nicely, but only about eighty or ninety percent.

Master Ungan asked: What would you say?

Master Dogo said: The whole body is just hands and eyes.

Commentary by Nishijima

Avalokitesvara is traditionally the Bodhisattva of Compassion. It is said that he has thousands of eyes and thousands of hands with which to save all beings.

Master Dogo said that Avalokitesvara was like a person stretching out a hand at night to locate a pillow behind the head. He thus saw Avalokitesvara as a very natural basic life force.

Master Ungan expressed his view as hands and eyes existing throughout the body, but Master Dogo thought this implied some separation between the hands and body, so he tried to express it more accurately with “The whole body is just hands and eyes.” We can see our life itself as the natural functioning of Avalokitesvara’s many hands and eyes.

Commentary by John Fraser

In this story, Alalokitesvara’s hands and eyes are manifold. She does not have 84,000 hands and eyes. She does not have inexhaustibly many hands and eyes. They are manifold. And so, we can equate them with all of existence. The whole world is one of the functions of Avalokitesvara. And these ‘hands and eyes’ suggest an interfolding of doing, being, perceiving and intuitively knowing, within the one vivid whole.

It is as if what has been on the butcher’s slab of western rationalism has abruptly risen up, illuminating everything.

The import of Dogo’s simile is that Avalokitesvara, the expression of compassion, is not intentional, and is [the reference to ‘darkness’] non discriminatory. The implication is clear: Compassion is one facet of Nonduality.

And likewise, compassion is one facet of zazen. It is not that zazen is the cultivation of gratitude or compassion, it is the expression. That is why we practice from the perspective of the Buddha, not from the perspective of a human being.

The topmost branch of a tree broke off in a storm. The lower branches held it up. They will not let it fall.


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 2, Case 2.

Koan Commentaries

Whenever Master Hyakujo Ekai gave his informal preaching, there was an old man who would always listen to the preaching along with the rest of the assembly. When the assembly retired, the old man would also retire. However, one day he did not leave. Eventually, the Master asked him: Who is this person that stands before me?

The old man answered: I am not a person. Long ago, in the time of Kasyapa Buddha, I was master of this temple. One day, a Buddhist student asked me whether even a great Buddhist practitioner falls into cause and effect. In reply, I said to him, “He does not fall into cause and effect.” Since then I have fallen into the body of a wild fox for five hundred lives. So I beg you, Master, to say some words that will change me. I would like to get rid of the wild fox’s body. Then he asked: Does someone of great Buddhist practice also fall into cause and effect, or not?

The Master said: Do not be unclear about cause and effect.

At these words the old man realised the truth, and after prostrating himself, he said: I am already free of the body of a wild fox. Now I would like to remain on the mountain behind this temple. Dare I ask you, Master, to perform the funeral ceremony of a Buddhist monk for me?

The Master ordered the Supervising Monk to strike the wooden block to summon the monks. Then he told them: After the meal, we will hold the funeral ceremony for a deceased monk.

All the monks discussed this among themselves, saying: The monks are all in good health and no-one is sick in the infirmary. What is the reason for this funeral ceremony?

After their meal, the Master led the monks to the foot of a big rock behind the temple, and pick out a dead fox with stick. Then they cremated it following the formal method. In the evening, the Master gave his formal preaching in the Lecture Hall, in which he told the above story.

Then Master Obaku asked: The words with which the man in the past taught the student were a wrong answer, and so he fell into the body of a wild fox for five hundred lives. If he had gone on without mistakes, what would have become of him?

Master Hyakujo said: Step up here. I will tell you.

Master Obaku went up, and gave the Master a slap. Master Hyakujo clapped his hands, laughed, and said: Your attitude is like the fact that a foreigner’s beard is red, but there is also the viewpoint that a man with a red beard must be a foreigner.

Commentary by Nishijima

A monk asked the old Master if a person who is in the state of great Buddhist practice is subject to the laws of cause and effect or not. The Master replied that such a person does not fall into cause and effect. For this mistake the Master was reborn for hundreds of years as a fox. Everyone and everything is subject to cause and effect. Even the Buddha was subject to cause and effect.

Is there then no freedom? Is our whole life completely determined? If we look back on the past, it seems that our whole life is bound by cause and effect. However, our human freedom does exist – it exists in the present moment. It exists in our real action here and now. Buddhist Masters – indeed all who practice Zazen – can avoid getting lost in memories of past or dreams of future, so we are able to use our freedom.

When we consider time in the usual way, looking at the past or ahead to the future, then we must say that the Buddhist Masters are also bound by cause and effect. When we act in the present moment we can find our freedom. Thus a person of great Buddhist practice is both bound by cause and effect and free of cause and effect.

In the second part of the koan, Master Obaku asked what would have become of the old Master if he had never made such a mistake. He then answered his own question by giving Master Ekai a slap. This slap was not a abstraction, it was a concrete fact. The Master laughed and said: “Your attitude is like the fact that a foreigner’s beard is red.” This was a Chinese expression about inductive reasoning, i.e., going from concrete fact to general principals. (A is a foreigner with red beard. B is a foreigner with red beard. Therefore, all foreigners have red beards.)

The Master then said there is also the fact that the red beard indicates a foreigner. This expression represents deductive reasoning – going from general principals to more specific conclusions. (Foreigners have red beards. A has a red beard. Therefore A is a foreigner.) The Master agreed that Obaku understood concrete fact but warned him that other perspectives and viewpoints also existed.

Although this story mentions the idea of “five hundred lives” we should not think of it as suggesting that Buddhism holds the view of reincarnation. This koan illustrates one aspect of the fundamental Buddhist view of cause and effect – it is not a description of historical fact. Master Dogen discusses cause and effect in detail in Shobogenzo Sanji-no-go (Karma in Three Times) and Shinjin-inga (Deep Belief in Cause and Effect).

Commentary by John Fraser

This story doesn’t make much sense unless you are aware that in East Asian folklore the fox is a shapeshifter, capable of many guises, including a human being.

Is an enlightened person free of karma, or not? Several errors are quietly embedded in this question. First, there is a dualistic assumption that there is an ‘I’ separate from ‘karma’, separate from ‘the world’. Second, there is the notion that karma is an unchanging burden, like taking up a bag of black stones, which can only be added to, or removed. But your karma is exactly your feeling state at this moment and is completely dynamic; the momentary expression of all conceivable causes. If we can simply feel what we feel, then our karma is liberated from us, and stones become worlds.


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 1, Case 100.

Koan Commentaries

One day a monk asked Master Unmon: What is the Ascending Dharma Body?

The Master said: To explain Ascending to you would not be difficult, but what do you think of meaning of Dharma Body is?

The monk said: Please, Master, find the meaning yourself.

The Master said: Setting aside the meaning for a while, what do you think the Dharma Body means?

The monk said: It means that everything is just as it is.

The Master said: That answer is simply what you learned on the long floor of the Zazen Hall. I ask you, does the Dharma Body eat meals?

The monk could not reply.

Commentary by Nishijima

The Dharma Body, or Universal Body (Hosshin) refers to one of three bodies of a buddha. It describes the body when it is one with the Universe in the present moment. The Master wanted the monk to express his understanding of Dharma Body, and after some prodding the monk replied that it meant everything being just as it is here and now.

The Master felt that the monk was expressing something of the state that he had learned through his long hours in the Zazen Hall, but it was still an intellectual answer. He wanted to see if the monk could apply what he knew in a more concrete way. So he asked if the Dharma Body ate meals.

The Dharma Body is a body of a real person who practices a Buddhist life. So, of course, it must consume meals everyday. The monk was unable to say anything because his understanding was still a little too abstract.

Commentary by John Fraser

The Dharmakaya is one of the three bodies of the Buddha. It is identified with all of existence, and so we can say that the whole world is the body of the Buddha.

It is a way of using language which is unfamiliar to us. Something similar happens in the Lotus Sutra, and in the Heart Sutra. The Numinous is asserted and proclaimed. Language and Reality give birth to each other.

We are used to language being superimposed on reality, giving birth only to itself. But if we can see how it might be different, we can see our own problem, which is the start of a solution.


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 1, Case 89.

Koan Commentaries

One day Master Sekiso asked his Jisha (assistant): Master Dogo once said to a monk, “You should not throw away that place and become attached to this place.” What is your opinion?

The Jisha said: I rely completely on your understanding, Master.

The Master said: What is my understanding?

The Jisha walked from the west to the east and stood there.

The Master said: You just threw away that place and became attached to this place.

Commentary by Nishijima

Master Sekiso said “You should not throw away that place and become attached to this place.” Buddhism teaches the middle way. The middle way is the way between the attachment and detachment. Usually we leave one place with intention of getting to another place. We throw away the place we are at to get to the place we want to be. Buddhism teaches as that reality is where we are now.

The monk said that his understanding was the same as his Master’s. However, the Master asked him to demonstrate his understanding. When the Master saw his assistant simply walking from that place to this place, he realised that the assistant simply walked here to there, not showing oneness of being in his action.

Commentary by John Fraser

The monk laboured under a misconception about language. He imagined that language is ‘conceptual’ and action is non conceptual, and so thought he could only express Sekiso’s teachings by doing something, rather than saying something. As if, somehow, to read the book is conceptual but to burn the book isn’t.

Wholehearted expression – and its opposite – sometimes uses words, sometimes uses actions, sometimes uses silence.

If your words are superficial, why should your silence be profound?


Shinji Shobogenzo Book 1, Case 66.

Koan Commentaries

One night master Yakusan Igen of Reishu had no light. He preached his disciples: I have something to say. When an excellent ox is about to bear a calf, then I will say it to you.

At this a monk walked forward and said: An excellent ox has borne a calf, so Master, why don’t you speak?

The Master said: Bring me a light.

The monk returned to the group of disciples.

Commentary by Nishijima

Master Dogen called the order of Master Yakusan Igen a “Dai Sorin” (great Buddhist temple), although the member of the order numbered no more than ten, and apparently there was sometimes not even enough money to buy oil for the lamps.

Master Yakusan Igen was a buddha. He lived in reality, and he wished to communicate the simple nature of reality of his disciples. He said that he would not tell them what he had to say until “an excellent ox is about to bear a calf.” The ox was frequently used as a symbol of Buddhist practitioners. The birth of a calf symbolises a person who has grasped the truth. So the Master was saying that he would wait until the one of the monks could grasp the truth before he spoke.

The monk stepped forward said that the calf had already been born, or in other words that the monk had already grasped the truth, and he asked the Master to say what he wanted to say.

The Master’s reply, “Fetch me a light,” is a natural enough thing to say in a dark room, except for the fact that there were no light to be had in a whole temple. In asking them impossible, the Master was pointing out the fact; there was no light.

The truth of the situation was simple and obvious; it didn’t really need expressing. The truth is not something mystical or abstract; it is the real situation, just in this place, just at the moment.

In the darkness of the old temple the monk took his place among his fellow disciples. He had grasped the truth in his Master’s wordless teaching.

Commentary by John Fraser

In the literal sense, Yakusan is puncturing the religiosity of the exchange by pointing out a concrete fact : the absence of light.

But also, he is recalling Buddha’s admonition to his disciples “be your own light”; he has to be his own light, and his own darkness, because there is no light which the monk can bring to him.

And additionally, there are similarities with the exchange between Ungan and Dogo [Book 2, Case 5] : the darkness suggests non discrimination, and so the suggestion is that ‘light’ [duality, discrimination] occurs within the wider embracing ‘darkness’ of non discrimination.

And with regard to the excellent ox ; does the teacher give birth to the student, or does the student give birth to the teacher, or both, or neither, or something else?



Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 47

[Commentary on Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 47]

Master Rinzai said that there was a true human being without rank who went in and out through our face.

When we hear ‘face’, we often think of Original face, the face you had before your parents were born.

If we pay attention, we can be aware of the musculature of our face; the fixed patterns we hold, the tensions, the habitual moving contours. And if we have this awareness, we can experience our face as a kind of mask. Indeed, we might identify our sense of self with this social face. If we didn’t have a face to present to the world, could we have a self to present to ourself?

Rinzai’s person without rank is something in us which is true and alive, and which can never be entirely suppressed by our social face. And so, he emerges. And sometimes, we suppress him. And so, he goes back in. This person without rank is our original face. There is not a true face behind our social face. There is not another self behind the self. There is just life channelled by us, like light falling through windows.


Commentary on Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 5

[Commentary on Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 5]

In this story, Kanzeon’s hands and eyes are manifold. She does not have 84,000 hands and eyes. She does not have inexhaustibly many hands and eyes. They are manifold. And so, we can equate them with all existence. The whole world is one of the functions of Kanzeon. And these ‘hands and eyes’ suggest an interfolding of doing, being, perceiving and intuitively knowing, within the one vivid whole.

It is as if what has been on the butcher’s slab of western rationalism has abruptly risen up, illuminating everything.


Commentary on Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 62

[Commentary on Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 62]

Some people say that everything is one, but if that is so, how do we explain the obvious differentiation that we see?

If we say everything is one, the temptation is to think that there is a true world standing behind this world, which we need to get to. And so, we reconstitute the ego, this time as a battering ram.

Or, we take the familiar metaphor of clouds and sky, and imagine that the sky is somehow behind the clouds, that the clouds are an obstruction. But where does the sky begin, or end?

Our practice is not the eradication of anything. It is not breaking down the door of an empty house. It is the actualisation of space.

In vast space, each thing can have its own place.