hands and eyes – a talk by Madelon Bolling

Posted by on Nov 4, 2020 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on hands and eyes – a talk by Madelon Bolling

The Blue Cliff Record, case 89:

Yunyan asked Daowu, “How does the Bodhisattva Guanyin 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 eight-tenths of the answer.”

Yunyan said, “How would you say it, Elder Brother?”

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

“How does the Bodhisattva Guanyin use those many hands and eyes?”

When a koan begins with “how” or “why,” the problem-solving mind automatically starts calculations, like—”well, first the hands on the inner edges start working, and when more are needed, the ones behind them.” Silly, isn’t it? Those calculations are irrelevant. They address a different kind of “how.” Daowu’s wonderful answer places us squarely in the heart of the matter:

How does the Bodhisattva Guanyin use those many hands and eyes?

It is like someone in the middle of the night reaching behind her head for the pillow.

Well, I can’t even say I’m awake when that happens, let alone that I reach behind my head for the pillow in order to stretch a sore muscle or change to a new position. But adjustment happens. I’ve watched cats, dogs, mice, cows, and birds adjust sleeping position. They don’t plan it, either. Daowu’s answer calls into question consciousness in the colloquial sense, volition or will, purpose, all the way out to the slippery notions of identity and agency. And why? Because koans are expressions of the non-dual. I could say, “expressions of the wholly other, something entirely different,” but that’s not right. How could it be? the non-dual means not two: no other. Nonduality calls us to question . . . everything.

It is said that Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion, hears the cries of sentient beings and works tirelessly to help them. It’s one of the most pervasive images in Buddhism. My first years of contemplative practice were within a Hindu worldview where even nondualists seemed comfortable with culturally-sanctioned references to deities. In my mid-twenties I left monastic life with the Vedantists, devastated when I found myself speaking that same dualistic language in order to blend in. I came to Zen study in part hoping to flee such phenomena. Imagine my dismay on visiting zendos—seeing images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and hearing reverent words about Guanyin! Yet here I am again, charged with talking about Guanyin, also known as Avalokiteshvara. This is by way of owning that my grasp of the situation is rudimentary at best, and fraught with antipathy—maybe because opening to the possibility of nonduality leads a person to question everything. I do apologize to anyone here whose experience with the bodhisattva is warm, personal, and meaningful.

Even in the Heart Sutra, a non-dualist touchstone, the first word is the name of this entity:

Avalokiteshvara, practicing deep prajna paramita, clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty, transforming all suffering and distress.

This statement points to a comprehensive clarity from practicing deep wisdom. For years I took it to mean that if one sees this way their troubles are put into perspective, which would, logically, transform the practitioner’s experience of suffering. But what about the claim that Guanyin hears the cries of sentient beings and works tirelessly to help them?

Maybe I was fooled by the word “works” in this sentence, because in everyday language it implies a subject, an object, and an action. And I assumed that Guanyin was a person, albeit a superlative, divine person, rather distant from my flawed experience. So, this impossibly ideal person listens to our cries and works to relieve suffering? That’s nice, I guess, but for some reason I simply cannot relate to stories like this, much as I might want to. I do not believe in the Tooth Fairy either.

But what if “works” just means “functions,” as in, “Hearing the cries of sentient beings, Guanyin responds to their suffering”? What if the function of responding to suffering were called “Guanyin”? In that case, it can be seen all around us; it can be perceived in our own unconsidered actions—those that occur before thinking and that relieve suffering, like reaching for a pillow in the night. It can be observed in the behavior of animals. It works also as sunlight, stones, trees, water, midnight darkness, the very air we breathe, and the modes we call seasons.

The Heart Sutra says Avalokiteshvara clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty, transforming all suffering and distress—not just those of a single successful practitioner. That’s the point of emptiness, really—our modes of experiencing have no independent reality. Rather, they depend on and are connected with everything else in the universe.

There are videos of lions protecting infant antelope and wildebeest from other lions in the pride. Seeing a lost, frightened puppy, people of many temperaments will act to comfort the little thing right away. These might easily be seen as the actions, the benign functioning called Guanyin.

But it is confusing. Most of what we see around us seems to be anything but the relieving of suffering. Lions usually chase down, kill, and eat grazing animals of all ages. Humans overwhelmingly enslave, starve, mistreat and kill other animals—flies and mosquitos, rats and mice, cats, dogs, cows, horses and so on, up to and including other humans. Where is the tireless functioning of the bodhisattva in all of that?

Lions suffer hunger, and the world, or we might say Guanyin, working tirelessly—provides antelope and wildebeest, relieving the lions’ hunger and the suffering of overgrazed land. What about the antelope and wildebeest? they are given vast grasslands to ease their hunger and balance the rampant growth of grasses. What about the grasses themselves? Rich earth, enhanced by rain, manure, and the bodies of plants and animals—rich earth invites the roots of grasses to ease hunger, to consume and transform nutrients. These relationships go on and on, balancing and counter-balancing suffering and need.

But in the opening of the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara, practicing the perfection of wisdom—clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty, transforming all suffering and distress.

Skandhas are the elements of experience called form [shape], sensation [basic judgment: good/bad/neutral], perception [verbal identification, such as window, chair, grapefruit], mental reaction [thoughts in response to verbal identification] and consciousness [awareness holding all of that].

Seeing that these elements are empty—that they have no existence apart from awareness and vice-versa—transforms all suffering and distress, not just the distress of the meditator. The elements of experience do not exist apart from awareness, and notably: awareness has its very being—does not exist apart from, the elements of experience. That’s a radical shift for most of us, as we tend to assume that pure awareness lives in a parallel universe of its own, untouched by limitations of illness, old age, and death.

Seeing that form is consciousness and consciousness is form is no other than Guanyin, the direct experience of what we really are: not different from the particular shape of this moment and so, not limited to one specified view, one set of hands and eyes. It is ultimate relief to see life this way. Though no promise is made to get rid of suffering and distress, the transformation that occurs involves letting go of limited definitions of who/what we are, seeing that each “thing” is rather a set of relationships involved in constant change. And with that comes the fact that “we” are inextricably interconnected, not separate from, the multiplicity and constant change that we call life.

Many people see Guanyin as an ideal to be emulated, and in an effort to approach that ideal, try to be kind, make sacrifices, attend carefully, examine every thought, word, and deed with this ceaseless kindness as a model to be followed. It requires an enormous amount of effort and energy. And the result is rather like putting a hat on a hat. In reality, kindness is already present. If I try to follow a model, I have to reject those aspects of myself that don’t seem to fit—and that’s an endless effortful task. But when asked how the bodhisattva used her many hands and eyes, Daowu answered, “It is like someone in the middle of the night reaching behind her head for the pillow.” That simple, that natural, that built-in.

The functioning of Guanyin is sometimes called love, and is much, much bigger, unthinkably broader and deeper than we can imagine. How else could it show itself as sunlight, trees, stones, water-springs, midnight darkness and the murmur of an otter? We cannot see true being: to see requires separating from it, no longer being it. How then? How does the bodhisattva use those myriad hands and eyes?

I have been helped recently by keeping company with the opening lines of Dai-O Kokushi’s On Zen:

There is a reality even prior to heaven and earth
Indeed it has no form, much less a name.
Eyes fail to see it; it has no voice for ears to detect . . .   

If there is a reality, it must be here, now. “Eyes fail to see it,” so let me attend to what I cannot see. Disregarding the visual, let me not even try to see. Likewise let me not focus on what ears may be contributing. The first line invites me to sense that reality in the body, or rather, in formless quiet before there is any notion of “body.” There, not looking for anything, setting all agendas aside, there is alert rest and simple quiet. This quiet kindly holds my attention and wells up unexpectedly now and again, day and night. It surrounds, reveals, admits and is not separate from impermanence. All the appearances of the world welcome and pierce the aching heart.

Billy Collins said it this way in his poem, Aimless Love:

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.
In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.
This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.
The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.
No lust, no slam of the door –
the love of the miniature orange tree,
the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.
No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor –
just a twinge every now and then
for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.
But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.
After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,
so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.

                        (Poetry, Feb. 2002, p. 251-252.)

As Jungian psychoanalyst and poet Clarissa Estes once wrote, “All that you are seeking is also seeking you. If you lie still, sit still, it will find you. It has been waiting for you a long time.”  

Dharma talk for TTS zenkai Jan. 10, 2021 via Zoom