The Eyes of Dogen

One of my favorite quotes from Dogen is also one of his weirdest. It goes like this.

“(In the) words of the ancient, ‘the whole universe in the ten directions is one eye,’ and furthermore, there are thousands of eyes on the tips of the fingers, there are thousands of eyes of right Dharma, there are thousands of eyes in the ears, there are thousands of eyes on the tip of the tongue, there are thousands of eyes on the tip of the mind, there are thousands of eyes of the thoroughly realized mind, there are thousands of eyes of the thoroughly realized body, there are thousands of eyes on top of a stick, there are thousands of eyes in the moment before the body, there are thousands of eyes in the moment before the mind, there are thousands of eyes of death in death, there are thousands of eyes of liveliness in liveliness, there are thousands of eyes of the self, there are thousands of eyes of the external world, there are thousands of eyes in the concrete place of eyes, there are thousands of eyes of learning in practice, there are thousands of eyes aligned vertically, and there are thousands of eyes aligned horizontally.”

This excerpt comes from an essay titled Mujou Seppou. The standard translation of that title is “The Insentient Preach the Dharma” or variations thereof. It’s all about the ancient Buddhist teaching that even inanimate objects like rivers and rocks, or insentient living things like trees and daffodils can teach us about Buddhism.

But what the heck is with all those eyes?

Is it like the old Misfits song 20 Eyes in My Head? Or the old Roger Corman science fiction movie The Beast With a Million Eyes?  

Dogen uses the word “eyes” a lot in Shobogenzo. Sometimes it just means plain old eyes, like the ones you’re using to read this. But other times he uses the word “eyes” as a metaphor.

For example, in several of his essays he talks about “eyes of learning” or “eyes of learning in practice.” In Shoaku Makusa, the essay that I retitled Don’t Be a Jerk in my book of the same name, he talks about “vigorous eyes” which he says exist in the sun and moon. In an essay called Bukkyo, which means The Buddha’s Teaching, he says that the phrase “the Buddha’s mind” means the Buddha’s eye. And in an essay called Kokyo (the Eternal Mirror) he says that mind and eyes are alike.

According to Nishijima Roshi, Dogen uses the word “eye” or “eyes” to indicate a state of experience, perception, or intuition. 

OK. Then how in the heck are there thousands of eyes on the top of a stick? Or thousands of eyes in the moment before the present? Or in death? Or in any of the crazy weird things he lists?

Does Dogen mean to say that there are states of experience in inanimate objects like sticks? Does he mean to imply that the moment before the present can perceive things? Does he think the external world has intuition? Does he mean that all of these things and more have minds?

I believe he does.

I know this sounds bonkers to most of us. A lot of things that Dogen says sound bonkers. But Dogen himself was clearly not bonkers. Hee Jin Kim got it right when he called Dogen a “mystical realist.” He definitely had both feet firmly planted on the ground. Lots of his writing is about the most mundane everyday things like using the toilet, washing your face, or cooking dinner. And yet he also goes off on tangents about how there are thousands of eyes on the tip of your tongue, and how you and I and everyone we know are actually instruments the universe uses to perceive itself.

This is why I love Dogen so much. He straddles the line between bonkers and sensible. Like when David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap observed that there is a “fine line between stupid and clever,” there may also be a fine line between bonkers and sensible.

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