Filed in Koans

Green Koan 50: Dōgen’s Eyes and Nose

Clark Strand

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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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JohnnyBravo's picture

Great post. Dogen was a great philosopher in Japanese Buddhism. His philosophies still stays firmly in the community. He also had a poetic approach as in “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye”. Anyway, thanks for your share over here. Keep posting. search here

wonderwheel's picture

You are doing a beneficial job "sweeping the ground" with this series. Thanks.

Here's a tidbit from an entry in the "Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms" by William Edward Soothill and Lewis Hodous:

掃地 To sweep the floor, or ground, an act to which the Buddha is said to have attributed five kinds of merit; v. 毘奈耶雜事.

There's a great story I heard from one of Genjo Marinello Osho's teisho's available on line at (Unfortunately right now I don't remember which teisho the story came from.) It is about two brothers, with one being very smart and the other being very slow. The slow brother loved to hear the Buddha speak but he could never remember anything the Buddha said even only a few minutes later. He went to the Buddha and said he didn't know what to do because he could never remember all the beautiful but difficult teachings of the Buddha. Buddha said "Here's an area of ground. Just sweep this ground and while you do it, say over and over to your self 'sweep the ground, sweep the ground' ." The slow brother did this, and for a while the Buddha came by once a day to see if he could remenber this simple practice and he could. The slow brother was able to carry on this practice quite well always repeating to himself "sweep the ground, sweep the ground" as he swept continuously every day. Eventually, the slow brother was greatly awakened much sooner than his much smarter brother.

ClarkStrand's picture

Love this story, WonderWheel. Here's a brief out-take from an article "Keep Sweeping," written for Tricycle in the mid-90s about my Ch'an teacher Ta Tsung.. The speaker is Gene Ham, at that time a student at the University of the South in nearby Sewanee, Tennessee.

One day in early May, I was driving down the street in Monteagle when I spied Ta Tsung sitting on the stone wall under a big oak tree in front of the Methodist Church. He had a small easel and his ink brushes and other paraphernalia, and I guessed that he was painting from life.

It turned out that it was only another one of his Chinese landscapes, with great mountains, cataracts, and flowing streams. About two-thirds of the way down from the top was a small clearing in a pine forest where a hermit, diminutive in the grandeur of the landscape, was sweeping his hut. He had a smile on his face and a glow about his head.

“What’s that about?” I asked Ta Tsung.

“This person just have enlightenment sweeping hut.”

“What happens next?”

“Keep sweeping.”

Jim Spencer's picture

still, cool morning air
flavored with frequent birdsong;
white roses in bloom

ClarkStrand's picture

unintentional blessing
of the thunderstorm's demise

karladiane's picture

Wow - 50! Thank you so much for these gifts.

Monty McKeever's picture

I want to see him reach 100!

ClarkStrand's picture

Thanks, Monty. But I'll need some help for that. The plan is for 108, but starting with Case 55 (the second half of the series), I'll be inviting dharma teachers from various lineages to offer Green Koans from their own tradition. I'll edit and advise where necessary, but I think it's time to broaden the project with an eye toward reaching a greater consensus about what the underlying ecological teachings of Buddhism actually are.