Reaching back at midnight
A number of old Zen teaching stories take the form of dialogues between two Chinese monks from the ninth century, Daowu and Yunyan (Dogo and Ungan in Japanese). In one story, Yunyan asks what the bodhisattva of compassion does with so many hands and eyes. Daowu replies that it is "like reaching back for your pillow in the middle of the night." Yunyan immediately understands and says that "all over the body is hands and eyes." Daowu responds that "all over" is very good, but only expresses 80 percent; "throughout the body" are hands and eyes.
Reaching back for your pillow in the middle of the night is a marvelous image for the natural, unpremeditated, uncalculating function of Avalokiteshvara. The Book of Serenity commentary says, "When reaching for a pillow at night, there's an eye in the hand; when eating, there's an eye on the tongue, when recognizing people on hearing them speak, there's an eye in the ears."
The hands and eyes
are themselves the body of the cosmic buddha, the body of all matter
and all bodies. The entire universe is Avalokiteshvara's many arms
and eyes, reaching back for the comfort of a pillow to share it with
all beings in loving embrace.
Even in the darkness of the unknown, groggy with sleep, the hand feels back to adjust the pillow. In Zen symbolism, darkness represents totality and unification. Light represents the world of assessments and differentiations, the endless distinct phenomena. The thousand hands reach out from the emptiness of absolute unity, feeling around for pillows in the world of particular beings.
We can further see the thousand hands as an image of sangha, or Mahayana community, with each person lending a hand with his own viewpoint and skill to the total body of universally awakening beings.