Raising his eyebrows and blinking his eyes

Sometimes to understand a koan or a passage from Dogen, it’s necessary to understand the language or a phrase. The phrases often have a symbolic or metaphorical meaning. Part of the beauty of Zen is our tradition of poetic images. Instead of using traditional technical language, our ancestors really challenged each other to come up with unusual, colorful, symbolic language that expressed their understanding, which is essentially not understood intellectually but possibly, pointed at through images. (From the introduction to Zen Sand by Victor Hori.)

I have been trying to understand what raising his eyebrows and blinking his eyes mean from the ending of Uji, Being-Time of Dogen’s Shobogenzo. This has been a detective process for me. Finding a trail of the use of this phrase and then “getting it.” The process led me to my first “find” in my search.

On page 405 of the Eihei Koroku, Leighton & Okamura

“Dogen said,

We hit the han and sit Zazen according to the olden manner, and you are urged to avoid sleep and to seek the elimination of all doubts. Do not let yourself blink your eyes or raise your eyebrows.”

Oh, Oh, so it means to go from stillness to movement. Oh, oh, we are working with the dichotomy of stillness and activity. The main work of all Zen, is to understand the dicotomies as one dynamic working. The opposites swirling around each other in one energy. One sword cuts into one piece.

So now that we see the undermeaning, we can enter into the koan at the end of Uji .

From Uji:

Once Yaoshan Weiyan at the direction of Shitou Xiqian, went Zen Master Ma-tsu (Basso) with a question.

“I believe I have a fair grasp of the three vehicles and the teaching of the twelve divisions (all aspects of Buddhist doctrine) but what about the meaning of the first patriarch’s coming from the West?”

Paraphrased: I understand most doctrinal teachings in Buddhism, but what is the real meaning of Zen?

Ma-tsu replied:

For the time being, I let him raise his eyebrows and blink his eyes.
For the time being, I don’t let him raise his eyebrows and blink his eyes
For the time being, my letting him raise his eyebrows and blink his eyes is correct
For the time being my letting him raise his eyebrows and blink his eyes is not correct.

If we understand raising his eyebrows and blinking his eyes to mean that Bodhidharma, Buddha or ourselves as buddha, begin to move into the activity of the form world from emptiness or stillness, we can see that these sentences are working with the dualities of; affirmation and negation, form and emptiness, activity and stillness. Throughout all of Dogen’s teachings, he is expounding, that no matter what side of a dichotomy is being expressed in the moment, this expression is the entire universe, is the mystery itself without any naming or categorization. We do not pick and choose but see this moment whether we like it or not, as realization and enlightenment itself. Nothing is left out of the mystery and, as I say over and over, the dualities swirl around each other making the dynamics of ‘the whole working’. Both sides are recognized, however they arise, as the source (as emptiness or impermanence itself). If I am practicing and expressing activity, or if I am practicing and expressing not-activity, both are equally an expression of the mystery of life and equally realization.

This passage goes on to work with right and wrong which is the ever-present frustration in human life. Am I doing this right or wrong? Our ever-arising ego-centricity wants to do everything Right. We are attached to right. We are often attached to emptiness or sometimes attached oppositely to our storied form life or to both! Yet both right and wrong, success and failure, form and emptiness, are never outside of the ever-present expression of the mysteriously alive moment. Enlightenment is to be non-attached yet fully present.

While the seasons come and go, and the mountains, rivers, and great earth change with time, you should know that this is buddha raising his eyebrows and blinking his eyes – so it is the unique body revealed in myriad things.

— From Keizan’s, Transmission of the Light, case 1. Shakyamuni Buddha

Each moment we experience in our lives is the expression of Buddha raising his eyebrows and blinking his eyes. Katagiri-Roshi often said that practice was seeing and treating everything as Buddha itself. Buddha’s body is expressed in its myriad forms.

Dogen expresses this reality – that every form arising is the suchness itself, so beautifully in the next poem. Nirvana or the vermillion towers are found nowhere else than in the present expression. Realization is after all an everyday affair. (Fukanzazengi)

From Eihei Koroku, Leighton & Okamura, page 623

8 verses given to a Zen Person
I strain my ears, raise my head, and wait for the dawn breeze.
How many times, dreamily herding an ox in the spring rain?
Who realizes that this intention pierces the heavens?
Just remain with raising eyebrows and blinking eyes.