CASE #50:    Dōgen’s Eyes and Nose

When he returned to Japan, someone asked Dōgen, “What did you bring back from China?” Dōgen answered, “I came back empty-handed. All I have is this: Eyes horizontal, nose vertical.”

Dōgen     Dōgen Kigen (1200-1253) was the founder of the Soto School of Japanese Zen. Often considered the greatest philosopher of Japanese Buddhism, he was also a man of immense literary gifts. Though given to complex poetic expression in his masterwork Shōbōgenzō (“Treasury of the True Dharma Eye”), his greatest teachings, preserved in exchanges with disciples and fellow masters, are nearly always as simple as this.

Empty-handed indeed! The questioner would have got a different answer had he stopped Dōgen going rather than coming back. He’d have asked, “What do you hope to gain?” And Dōgen, honest to a fault, would have replied, “Something special, that’s for sure!”

And what did he get? In summertime, daisies pop out all across the mountain. Fireflies come out after the rain.


The whole universe
Is empty-handed—what makes
A monk so special?
But then, of course, is that not
Exactly what Dōgen said?


Read all the Green Koans here.

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