Case #3: The Great Compassionate One’s True Eye
Mayu and Lin-chi (Rinzai) were 9th century Ch’an Buddhist monks.
The Great Compassionate One is the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, also known as Kannon or Kuan-yin. He/she is often depicted in Buddhist art as having 1,000 arms and hands, each of which displays an eye at the center of its palm.
Mayu’s question is like going to a field of grass blades and asking, “Which one of you is the boss?” We impose all kinds of foolishness on the world by supposing that it functions according to the logic of a self. How can we get a meaningful answer to the question “Who’s in charge?” if the question itself is wrong?
The hands of the world are open. Its eyes are open. Its arms are nimble, joyous, and free. We can deny this if we wish, but in that case we must be ready for a bit of a fright, because the thousand hands and eyes of the Great Compassionate One are juggling all beings at once. Avalokiteshvara is a portrait of Nature. Honestly, what else could it be?
Katsuki Sekita’s comment on this koan in Two Zen Classics is already green:
I once saw an example of such intimacy in an old priest who lived by himself in his temple. He had been ill, and when I visited him he was sitting quietly at the window basking in the sun. A few books of haiku and a notebook were beside him. He had been composing haiku. It was a calm winter day. In the course of our conversation, he pointed to a pine grove in front of the temple and said, “You know the Zen question, ‘The Bodhisattva of Great Mercy has a thousand hands and a thousand eyes; which is the true eye?’ I could not understand this for a long time. But the other day when I looked at the pine trees bending before the cold blasts from the mountain, I suddenly realized the meaning. You see, all the boughs, branches, twigs, and leaves simultaneously bend to the wind with tremendous vigor.” He said this with a quiet but earnest gesture. I could feel his close intimacy with the pine trees. He had to convey his experience to somebody else. It was the evening glow of his life. He died a few weeks after our meeting.
Where there’s a milkweed
There’s a monarch butterfly
About to open—
Of the thousand hands and eyes!
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.