Opening the Hand of Thought Approach to Zen
by Uchiyama Kosho Roshi (translated by Tom Wright)
“What is the essential meaning of buddha-dharma?”
Sekito replied, “No gaining, no knowing.”
Tenno asked again, “Can you say anything further?”
Sekito answered, “The expansive sky does not obstruct the floating white clouds.”
I was deeply moved by this koan while I was staying at Jippoji temple in Tanba (a part of Kyoto Prefecture) from 1945 to 1948. I asked Sawaki Roshi to write the calligraphy for the words “The expanse of sky does not obstruct white clouds floating.” Later, the calligraphy was framed and now hangs at Antaiji.
The expanse of sky does not obstruct white clouds floating. It lets them flow freely. I think these words from the koan fully express the meaning of buddha-dharma.
At first Sekito answered “No gaining, no knowing” to the question “What is the essential meaning of buddha-dharma?” From looking at the Chinese it might appear that he said, “I don’t know.” But that’s not what he meant. He meant, “No gaining, no knowing is buddha-dharma.” No gaining, no knowing is the attitude of refraining from fabricating. In other words, it means to be free from the ideas we make up in our head. I call this opening the hand of thought.
When we think of something, we grasp it with our minds. If we open the hand of thought, it drops away. This is shinjin datsuraku (falling off of the body and mind). When hearing Dogen Zenji’s words, shinjin datsuraku, many people imagine something like their body becoming unhinged and falling apart. This is not the correct understanding. When we open the hand of thought, the things made up inside our heads fall away-that’s the meaning of shinjin datsuraku.
This expression “opening the hand of thought” has to be equal to the ancient masters’ finest phrases. For example, Zen Master Bankei coined the expression, “unborn buddhamind” (fusslzo no busshin ). This line was wonderful during the Tokugawa period. But unborn buddha-mind doesn’t mean much to people these days. Bankei said that all problems are resolved with unborn buddhamind. In the same way, all problems are resolved by opening the hand of thought. When we try to put everything in order using our brains, we never succeed. Since all our troubles ·are caused by our discriminating minds, we should open the hand of thought. This is shinjin datsuraku-body and mind falling off. That is when our troubles disappear.
There is a short poem that says: When the quarrel over water Reaches its highest pitch -A sudden rain.
People are fighting with each other, each family trying to draw more water into its own paddy field during a dry summer. At the height of the conflict, it suddenly gets cloudy, starts thundering, and big drops of rain begin to fall. The rain resolves the fundamental cause of the fight. In the same way, if we think something is a big problem-should we choose A or B, for example-we struggle to resolve it in our heads.
But if we open the hand of thought, the problem itself dissolves. When we are sitting, we open the hand of thought and let all our thoughts come and go freely.
“What is the essential meaning of buddha-dharma?”
“No gaining, no knowing.”
“Can you say anything further?”
“The expansive sky does not obstruct the floating white clouds.”
This koan describes what zazen is quite well. What on earth is buddha-dharma? Fundamentally, it is just opening the hand of thought concretely with the body and mind in zazen.
We can also say that buddha-dharma is the dharma (Reality or Truth) realized by a buddha. The word “buddha” means “one who has awakened.” So buddha-dharma means “what awareness is,” or perhaps “way of awareness.”
What is the way of awareness? Let us first consider what it means to be unaware, or oblivious to what is going on around us. All human beings are deluded by our brains and become absentminded because of our discriminating minds. One of the many varieties of absentmindedness is falling asleep. This is not so serious, because to awaken from sleep we need nothing more than be full of vigor.
We also get caught up in desire, anger, and group stupidity. These are more difficult to deal with because they are fabrications conjured up in our heads. We create various illusions in our minds and then jump in, becomina immersed in them. There’s a place in Japan called Yawata near Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture. There used to be a big thicket there. Once you lost your way in it, you could never find your way out, so there’s an expression, “Yawata no yabushirazu” (Being lost in the bamboo thicket of Yawata). Anyway, we human beings make up illusions like the thicket of Yawata and then become lost and confused in the jungle we ourselves have created.
How can we awaken from these illusions? The only way is to open the hand of thought, because our thoughts themselves are the source of illusion. When we let go of our thoughts and become vividly aware, all the illusions that create desire, anger, and group stupidity vanish immediately. This is the way of awareness. We must neither fall asleep nor get carried away by our thoughts. The essential point in zazen is to be, vividly aware, opening the hand of thought.
Buddhism emphasizes mujo (impermanence) and engi-shojo (all phenomena” are the result of causation and are without permanent or independent substance). In other words, the reality of life changes from moment to moment, and there is no permanent or enduring substance. Although since antiquity people have said that a diamond cannot be destroyed and have used it as a symbol of” absolute permanence,” in fact a diamond is simply compressed carbon, which is comb1Jstible. Furthermore, modern science has shown that elementary particles are always changing. Everything is constantly changing. The reality of the impermanence