Masao Abe (阿部 正雄, 1915 – 2006): Horizontal eyes, vertical nose.
Trying to grasp one’s self from the outside may be likened metaphorically to a snake trying to swallow its own tail. When the snake bites its tail, it makes a circle. And the more it tries to swallow its tail, the smaller that circle becomes. When the snake carries this effort to swallow its own tail to its final conclusion, the circle turns into a small dot, until finally it must disappear into emptiness. In more concrete terms, the snake must die through its effort. As long as the human self tries to take hold of itself through self-consciousness (out of which feelings of inferiority, superiority, etc. develop), the human ego-self falls into an ever-deepening dilemma. At the extreme end of this dilemma, the ego can no longer support itself and must collapse into emptiness. When the attempt of self-consciousness to grasp itself is pressed to its ultimate conclusion, the human ego must die. The realization of no-self is a necessity for the human ego. Some individuals only come to realize the necessity of confronting this dilemma on their deathbed. Others may existentially intuit the need for resolving this dilemma while still quite young, and thus embark on a religious quest. In any event, the realization of no-self is a “must” for the human ego. We must realize that there is no unchanging, eternal self.
In order to realize emptiness or suchness it is essential to face this dilemma and break through it. This realization of emptiness is a liberation from that dilemma which is existentially rooted in human consciousness. Awakening to emptiness, which is disclosed through the death of the ego, one realizes one’s “suchness.” This is because the realization of suchness is the positive aspect of the realization of emptiness.
In this realization you are no longer separated from yourself, but are just yourself. No more, no less. There is no gap between you and yourself; you become you. When you realize your own suchness, you realize the suchness of everything at once. A pine tree appears in its suchness. Bamboo manifests itself in its suchness. Dogs and cats appear in their suchness as well. A dog is really a dog. No more, no less. A cat is really a cat. No more, no less. Everything is realized in its distinctiveness.
Then for the first time you understand the familiar Zen phrases: “Willows are green, flowers are red,” or “The eyes are horizontal, the nose is vertical.” Trees, birds, fish, dogs or cats – from the beginning they always enjoy their suchness. Only man has lost that suchness. He is in ignorance. Therefore he does not know the reality of human life and becomes attached to this life and fears death. But when ignorance is realized for what it is through the realization of no-self, one may waken to “suchness,” in which everything is realized in its uniqueness and particularity.
The above is an extract from the excellent book ‘The Buddha Eye’ edited by Frederick Franck, published by World Wisdom. Abe Masao was an author & professor of religious studies in both Japan & America, and was a close associate of D.T. Suzuki.