Japanese Version

Zen by Tom Wright

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



By Roshi Uchiyama

Translated by Tom Wright

“Be very clear about this: A fool sees himself as another but a wise man sees others as himself (Eihei Dagen Zenji, 13th Century Zen Master)

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Most of us have read pithy statements like the one above from Dogen Zenji. They often seem easy enough to understand when read quickly and without consideration; but when we start to think about what the statement means we often fall short of truly understanding it. Sometimes whole texts, especially old religious texts, take on the same character; i.e. more terse and profound than apparent at first glance. This was the case, at least for me, when I read Dogen Zenji’s “Tenzo Kyokun,” or “Instructions for the Zen Cook,” the text from which the above statement is drawn. This is a manual written by a 13th century Zen master to the temple cook. He instructs him on the spiritual value of performing his cooking duties as a practitioner of the Way – to approach his work with the right attitudes of mind, heart and devotion to the path of Zen Buddhism.


In some respects it is not difficult reading. However, there are some interesting and obscure references’ which are somewhat confounding, such as like Chanyuan Qinggui or Luling rice; or unfamiliar persons like Guishan Ligyou, Myozen, or King Asoka; or strange idioms like “Shakayamuni (the historic Buddha) was to have lived to one hundred years of age but died at eighty, leaving twenty years for his disciples and descendants.” There are also foreign words like byakugoho and uddhadharma; or unfamiliar geographic locations like Ayuwang, Xishu, and Mount Taintong; or instructions like use ingenuity in your practice; see the cow and Gu1shan as one, not as two, even though temporarily they appear that way;” or “put your awakened mind to work.” Then there are spiritual teachings such as embodied in the following dialogue Dogen Zenji recalled having with a tenzo (temple cook) on Mount Taintong:


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The tenzo said: “(A person who studies characters must know just what characters are, and one intending to pracrtice the Way must understand what practice is.” Dogen asks, ”What are characters?” Tenzo replies, “One, two, three, four five.” Dogen asks, “What is practice?” Tenzo replies, “There is nothing in the world that is hidden.”


It is only when one loo s more deeply into the references, instructions, idioms, spiritual teachings, antidotal stories, metaphors, etc. that the true profundity of the text manifests itself. Nonetheless, practical value can be attained even through a casual reading of “Tenzo K yokun.” As a lay reader, I was able to glean quite an interesting assortment of truisms, such as:


•Stay focused on your work, for by doing so you will not suffer disappointment that comes from comparing t his kind of work (or yourself) to another.

•Take (loving) care in everything that you do, as caring nurtures the (your) spirit and the spirit of those for whom you do things.

•Apply all your energy and focus to what you are doing. By doing that the mind is freed from the pain caused by idle thinking. It also opens to greater creativity and expanded ability in finding new and improved ways of performing your work and in expanding your awareness of your true self.


Understanding what Dogen Zenji is saying in “Tenzo Kyokun” at its deepest level is like trying to penetrate the meaning of the opening quote to this article. It can be done, but only after patient reflection within the context of what was said. Roshi Uchiyama, a Zen master in the Dogen Zenji tradition, has done this for us in his commentaries to Dogen Zenji’s “Tenzo Kyokun” called From The Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment. Roshi Uchiyama has lived as a Zen practitioner and has spent a lifetime studying Degen’s writings. In his clarification of Degen’s “Tenzo Kyokun” he lets us share in the greater value and truth hidden in the text.




He shares with us Degen’s understanding of the true self, that the expanded mind latent within ourselves is of the Buddha. He also shows our potential to live life totally in the present with joy, of the appreciation of impermanence and contraction in our lives by living the Middle Way of acceptance, and many more gems of wisdom. Let me share a few of his thought with you:


On Self: “The true Self has nothing to do with others, it is a Self that lives totally within itself.”


On Self and Buddhism: “To study the way of the Buddhas is to study the way of the Self.”


On Reality and the True Self: “You and the totality of the world you live in together constitute … the life of the Self.”

“Living out the true Self means to put away these ideas Of upper and lower, success or failure, and to learn to see that everything we encounter is our life, our true Self.”


On Self and Zazen: “Sitting is the practice of the Reality of life. Sitting is non-activity. This is the true form of the Self. Outside of this, there is nowhere to search for the buddhadharma.”


On the Self and Others: “You cannot exchange even a fart with another person you have to live your own life.”


On Caring for the Self: “It is vital for us to take the utmost care of the world in which we live out our total Self.”


On Faith in Buddhism: “…faith in Buddhism is the ability to recognize happiness and unhappiness, heaven and hell, all with the same eye, and to live out the life of one’s total Self despite the circumstances that arise.”


On the Middle Way: “The Middle Way means to accept this contradiction of impermanence and cause and effect within your own life. To accept this contradiction means to forbear and overcome it without trying to resolve it.”


On Life Force: ” … the very essence of life is contradiction, and the flexibility to forbear and assimilate contradiction without being beaten down by it nor attempting to resolve it is our life force.”


On the Highest Truth of Life: ” As difficult as it may seem to be, the highest, ultimate truth in life is grounded in the fact that there are not favorable or adverse circumstances, no fortunes or misfortunes. All there is, is the life of the Self.”


On Practicing the Way: “Practicing the Way of the Buqdha means to actually put our bodies to work, vividly living in every moment of our lives.”


On Suffering: ” We suffer because of our goals. Inflating a goal with great insignificance set our ‘self’ in opposition to the goal, and we suffer in direct proportion to our fixation with attaining the goal. Consequently, here is always going to be a sense of instability or anxiety in our lives.”


On (self) Limitation: “You should think only about how to best serve the community having no fear of poverty. As long as your mind is not limited, you will naturally receive unlimited fortune.”


In closing I recommend that you read From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment and discover for yourself the possibilities and value the teachings of Dogen Zenji can bring to your llfe. ·


Tom Johnson is a freelance writer and student of philosophy, presently residing in Kansas City. He professes that he is not an expert or practitioner of Zen, and again apologizes for any misinterpretation of this article which might have occurred in his review.

Author: stevebeimel

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