Eyes Open

By Gary Enns

| 2022-12-7 | Saturday Morning Mondo |

Portia: When I first started meditating, I learned to keep eyes closed, but then at Mountain Spirit Center outside Tehachapi, they taught me to keep the eyes slightly open, and I was told it is because you don't fall asleep during the sitting, and here we keep the eyes open, too. What is the reason in our practice?

Greek; eyes from a bronze statue
Mountain Spirit’s is a good, practical answer: we keep our eyes open so we don’t fall asleep. There is a time for sleep, of course, but zazen is not that time. The Japanese word kontin means sinking or falling into darkness, sleepiness, dullness, and it, along with sanran (distraction, over-activity), is one of two mental states we are to avoid when we sit in zazen. In zazen we are awake, aware, cultivating the energy of the universe, or rather, the energy of the universe cultivates us.

Recall the story of Bodhidarma’s eyelids. Tradition has it that he fell asleep seven years into his nine-years of continuous wallgazing. In order to avoid further drowsiness, he cut off his eyelids and cast them to the ground. The first tea plants sprouted up where his eyelids landed, and from then on tea became a useful stimulant for chasing away drowsiness.

This is an entertaining legend to explain the origin of tea, but it also exemplifies the correct psychophysical state of zazen: uprightness, wakefulness, awareness. Closing the eyes sends a message to the body that it is time to drift off, to rest, to dream. Eyes closed, our posture suffers: the head may loll forward, the shoulders slip, the spine collapse or lean to one side. Then what? The curtain opens, and dreams take center stage.

In Fukanzazengi Dogen instructs us to “always keep the eyes open.” He doesn’t explain the reason for this when he mentions the eyes, but later he says that in zazen, “the open mystery manifests, and there are no more traps and snares for you to get caught in.” Kontin is certainly a trap. He also says, “If you grasp the point, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains.” These are not images of sleepiness, of lethargy, but of energy, power, and strength. Finally, he says that in zazen, “the true Dharma appears of itself, so that from the start dullness and distraction are struck aside.”

In eyes-open zazen, we are like the tiger on the mountain, like the dragon in water, abiding in our natural state, at one with reality as it is.


Dogen, Eihei. "Fukanzazengi." Antaiji.org.

Pair of Eyes. Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, Wikimedia Commons.


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