Have Yourself a Compassionate Christmas

Merry Christmas, everybody!

At this time of year I always enjoy seeing prominent Buddhists congratulate themselves on how kind, warm, and generous they have been. I’m on a bunch of mailing lists and stuff, so at year’s end  I always get plenty of self-congratulatory missives from “woke” and progressive Buddhist leaders laying out all the worthy, engaged work they and their organizations have done throughout the previous year. I guess that’s a good way to get some donations from folks who feel guilty for not having given enough to the right causes. Rest assured, money you send to a Buddhist leader will definitely go only to those who need it most and never be used for anything else.

Dogen said that compassionate action is like a hand reaching back to adjust a pillow in the night (see addendum below). No one sees it. No one even knows it happened. The one who received the compassion is hardly photogenic enough for anyone on social media to care about.

I think for lots of American Buddhists compassionate action is like a hand reaching back to adjust a pillow in the night for a refugee in some far off war-ravaged nation then Tweeting about it for the next three months, while making sure to include the proper hashtags and a bit of hatred at anyone who voted for Donald Trump.

Ah well.

I think compassion happens when you do something compassionate. Never mind if the person who receives your compassion isn’t properly approved by the media as deserving of it. Maybe they clearly don’t deserve it, but you do it anyhow.

That kind of compassion is harder to enact. It won’t get you as many “likes” from “friends” you’ve never met. It certainly won’t earn you any donations. And yet I think it’s often even more important.

So don’t worry if you’re not flying off to the Middle East to distribute blankets or driving down to the Mexican border to throw bottles of milk over the wall to starving children. Those are nice things to do. And if that’s what you’re doing this Christmas, then great! But that isn’t all that compassion means.

It means dealing kindly with your loudmouthed uncle in his MAGA hat. It means helping your mom baste the turkey even when you deeply oppose factory farming. It means giving the clerk at the department store a break when she’s surly with you after dealing with hundreds of cranky shoppers all day.

Your part in this is important no matter how un-Tweet-worthy it might be.

So Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!



My Paraphrase of Dogen’s essay “Compassion” (aka Kannon, aka Kuan Yin)

from my book It Came From Beyond Zen

Master Ungan Donjo (Ch. Yunyan Tansheng, 780–841 ce) asked Master Dogo Enchi (Ch. Daowu Yuanzhi, 769–835 ce), “What does Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, do with all her bazillions of hands and eyes?”

            Dogo said, “She’s like someone reaching for a pillow in the middle of the night.”

            Ungan said, “Right on. I get that.”

            Dogo said, “How do you get it?”

            Ungan said, “The entire body is hands and eyes.”

            Dogo said, “Not bad. I’d give that answer a B-plus.”

            Ungan said, “That’s my take on it. What’s yours, bro?”

            Dogo said, “No matter where you go it’s all hands and eyes.”

            Lots of people have tried expressing what compassion really is, but nobody has ever equaled Ungan and Dogo. If you really want to know about compassion you should study their words.

            Along with Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion has a lot of other names, too. Sometimes she’s called “the One Who Hears the Sounds of the World” and sometimes she’s called “the One Who Perceives Everything.” Don’t think of Kannon as one of the lesser Buddhist deities. She is the mother and the father of all the Buddhas. She’s a pretty big deal, actually.

            So let’s take a look at what Ungan says when he says, “What does the Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, do with all her bazillions of hands and eyes?”

            Some schools of Buddhism are all about Kannon, and in others she’s never even mentioned. Ungan was from one of the schools that are all about Kannon. You could even say that Kannon was part of Ungan and part of Dogo, too. And not even just one Kannon either — like a hundred thousand Kannons.

            Kannon is really only Kannon in the lineage of Ungan. Which is to say, compassion is only really compassion in that lineage. Only Ungan could express the truth about Kannon. Other people just like the idea of Kannon, the idea of compassion. But their ideas about compassion are way too limited. They don’t understand what real compassion actually is.

            We can tell Ungan’s ideas are better because he asks about Kannon’s “bazillions of hands and eyes,” which is a way of saying they’re limitless in number. So it’s not just 84,000 or whatever. Her hands and eyes are beyond any measure or restriction. That’s another way of saying that compassion is unrestricted.

            Ungan and Dogo were close friends who practiced together for something like forty years under their teacher Yakusan Igen (Ch. Yaoshan Weiyan, 745–827 ce). So by the time they had this conversation they had already hashed out a whole lot of stuff together. They knew each other well and they knew what was what.

            When Ungan says “bazillions of hands and eyes” and Dogo doesn’t disagree, we know they’re on to something. So don’t just pass by that part of the story.

            Notice that Ungan asks Dogo what Kannon does with all those hands and eyes. This question itself is a manifestation of Kannon’s compassionate hands and eyes. When Ungan asks what Kannon does with them, this is an expression of the truth. Compassion means doing things.

            Dogo says that Kannon is like someone reaching back to adjust a pillow in the night. That means groping around in total darkness. Let’s look at that statement closely. There’s a difference between nighttime as conceived of by a person during the day and the reality of the darkness on an actual night. You should also look into times that aren’t quite day but aren’t quite night, either. If you catch my drift.

            When someone gropes around for a pillow at night they might not understand that they’re acting like the Bodhisattva of Compassion. But there’s no denying they are.

            The person groping for the pillow may not be just any sort of person. Maybe it’s you. Even pillows have their own specific shapes and sizes. They’re not all the same. Furthermore, nighttime isn’t just of one kind. Also make note that we’re not talking about grabbing the pillow or pushing it away.

            Dogo talks about reaching for a pillow. Don’t disregard that eyes see the night. The hand he’s talking about hasn’t actually touched the pillow yet. If it’s important to reach back with the hand, it might also be important to reach back with the eyes.

            We need to be clear about what nighttime really is. Maybe it’s the world of hands and eyes. Is it hands and eyes alone flying around at lightning speed? Do these hands and eyes always do the right thing? Maybe hands and eyes are being used, but just who is this Bodhisattva of Compassion that supposedly uses them?

Maybe we should talk about a Bodhisattva of Hands and Eyes? Maybe we should ask what the Bodhisattva of Hands and Eyes does with all her bazillions of acts of compassion?

            Hands and eyes don’t get in each other’s way. They just do what they do. What they do is something we can’t ever express in words — even though it has never been hidden. Nor are theses hands and eyes waiting for someone to come along and explain them. They are not you. They are not the sun or the moon. And they are not “Mind here and now is Buddha.”

            Ungan says, “Right on. I get it.” But he isn’t saying he understood Dogo’s words. He’s using the real hands and real eyes of unnamable reality, of actual experience. He then expresses the truth of that experience.

This is freedom to enter the place where he is. This is freedom to be exactly in today.

            When Dogo asks, “How do you get it?” that’s another way of saying, “Right on. I get it.” But Dogo says it his own way, which is to ask, “How do you get it?”

How could “How do you get it?” be anything other than “Right on. I get it?” How could it be anything but eyes getting it and hands getting it? Is it understanding that you’ve understood, or is it not understanding that you’ve understood?

            Maybe I got it. But it was you who were asked if you got it. Get it?

            Ungan said, “She’s like someone reaching for a pillow in the middle of the night.” And he also said, “The entire body is hands and eyes.” He’s not saying that her “hands and eyes” are an “entire body” that is everywhere.

            Being everywhere would mean being the whole universe. But your real hands and real eyes at this real moment aren’t everywhere. Even if there were bodies, hands, and eyes that could be everywhere all at once, they wouldn’t be hands and eyes that could shoplift a shirt from an American Apparel store. Such hands and eyes don’t know rightness from wrongness.

            Remember how I said that when Ungan said “bazillions” he meant that Kannon’s hands and eyes were beyond number? This doesn’t just go for her hands and eyes. Every instance of doing the right thing is also limitless. That’s how we make this world a better place. We ought to take care never to get in the way of doing what’s right, whether that means actively doing something or refraining from doing something.

            Dogo said, “Not bad. I’d give that answer a B-plus.” He’s saying that it’s “not bad” to speak the truth. He’s saying that Ungan said all that needed to be said. If he didn’t mean that, he wouldn’t have said, “Not bad.” He’d just have said, “I’d give that answer a B-plus.”

            Ungan’s words aren’t less than perfect. They are a completely perfect B-plus answer. Ungan is so super-cool that he could express himself with A-plus clarity if he wanted to. Yet he chooses instead a B-plus answer. If Buddhism always had to be expressed in an A-plus way, there would be no Buddhism at all today.

            Ungan said, “That’s my take on it. What’s yours, bro?” He says this because he wants to hear Dogo’s take on what Dogo has just called a B-plus answer. Ungan doesn’t mean to say that his own expression was imperfect.

            Dogo said, “No matter where you go it’s all hands and eyes.” He’s describing the way that using hands and eyes is the same as “no matter where you go.”

            If somebody asks what Kannon does with her bazillions of hands and eyes, then “No matter where you go it’s all hands and eyes” might be the right answer. It might be a way of expressing that Kannon’s hands and eyes are doing what, or in other words how they are doing unnamable work.

            Furthermore, it’s useless to compare Ungan’s answer to Dogo’s. Both are expressions of Kannon’s bazillions of hands and eyes. Both are expressions of real compassion.

            The number of Kannon’s eyes and hands of compassion are beyond too many and too few. When you learn this in experience, you learn the real meaning of compassion present in every moment. There are many Buddhist writings that express this truth. The story about Ungan and Dogo is just one of them.

Preached to the assembly on April 26, 1242.


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