Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice - by Kosho Uchiyama

Our thoughts are the same as clouds. In our upright sitting all different kinds of thoughts come up, stay for a while, and disappear. We just let them come up and let them go away, not controlling our mind or preventing thoughts from coming up and passing away, not grasping or chasing after them either. We try to keep the same upright, immovable posture no matter what condition we are in, and to trust that above the clouds of thoughts, Buddha's wisdom and compassion are shining like the sun in a clear blue sky. This is what "opening the hand of thought" has come to mean in my life.

On the Nature of Self

Roshi made a distinction between practicing zazen unconditionally, with an attitude of letting go of all thoughts of how zazen could benefit "me," and zazen done for utilitarian purposes. Jiko in Buddhism and in Dōgen's and Uchiyama's teachings is not about utility and self-improvement. Rather it has to do with seeing one's life from the broadest perspective and then functioning in a way that enables that perspective to manifest most fully through one's day-to-day activities.

This Japanese word jiko means "universal self" or "whole self." We live simultaneously as a personal self, an individual taken up with everyday affairs, and as a universal self that is inclusive of the entire universe.

I described two sides to a person who practices zazen. One side is the personal self that is always being pulled to and fro by thoughts about desires. The other is the self that is sitting in zazen letting go of such thoughts; this is an ordinary person living out universal self. The first side is like clouds, and the second is like the wide sky that the clouds float in.

The Four Seals

The first undeniable reality is that every living thing dies, and the second undeniable reality is that we suffer throughout our lives because we don't understand death. The truth derived from these two points is the importance of clarifying the matter of birth and death. The third undeniable reality is that all of the thoughts and feelings that arise in my head simply arise haphazardly, by chance [no-self]. And the conclusion we can derive from that is not to hold on to all that comes up in our head. That is what we are doing when we sit zazen. What we call "I" or "ego" arises by chance or accident, so we just let go instead of grasping thoughts and "I." When we let go of all our notions about things, everything becomes really true. This is the fourth undeniable reality, complete tranquillity, or nehan jakujō.

You might try looking at all the stuff that comes up in your head simply as secretions. All our thoughts and feelings are a kind of secretion.

The Meaning of Zazen

To rely on others in order to know yourself is to be unstable. Of course this does not mean you should live in some kind of isolation from others. To be isolated is just as unnatural and unstable as to live always in reference to others. Your true self is beyond either relying on others or avoiding them in order to know who you are.

What we usually mean when we refer to our "self" is our conscious self, including what we are seeing and thinking right now, and our current role or identity. Actually, our conscious self is not only who we think we are right now, but also our ideas of who we think we have been in the past. In other words, the conscious self is the sum of our thoughts when we are awake from the time we were children up to the present. We take all those conscious thoughts and abstract them from our life and call that our self, but this is only part of the self. I use the expression "opening the hand of thought" to explain as graphically as possible the connection between human beings and the process of thinking. I am using "thinking" in a broad sense, including emotions, preferences, and all sense perceptions, as well as conceptual thoughts. Thinking means to be grasping or holding on to something with our brain's conceptual "fist." But if we open this fist, if we don't conceive the thought, what is in our mental hand falls away. Our universal self, jiko, also includes that which lets go.Our whole self is the force or quality of life that enables conscious thought to arise, and it includes that personal, conscious self, but it also includes the force that functions beyond any conscious thought. The whole or universal self is the force that functions to make the heart continue beating and the lungs continue breathing, and it is also the source of what is referred to as the subconscious.

How to Do Zazen

Straighten your back, with your buttocks naturally but firmly pushing outward and your pelvis slightly tipped forward. Sit upright, leaning neither sideways nor front or back. Your ears should be in line with your shoulders, and your nose should line up with your navel. Keep your neck straight and pull in your chin. Close your mouth and put your tongue firmly against the upper palate. Project the top of your head as if it were going to pierce the ceiling. Relax your shoulders. Rest your hands at the crease of your torso and thighs, with your right hand palm-up in your lap and your left hand in the palm of the right. Your thumbs should touch lightly just above your palms. This is called the cosmic mudra. Keeping your eyes open, look at the wall and drop your line of vision slightly.

Once you have taken the zazen position, open your mouth and exhale deeply. This will help change your whole frame of mind. In order to work out the stiffness in your joints and muscles, slowly swing two or three times to the left and right, finally settling in an unmoving, upright posture. Once you are still, breathe quietly through your nose. The important thing here is to breathe naturally from the tanden, an area in your belly a little below the navel.

When we think, we think of something. Thinking of something means grasping that something with thought. However, during zazen we open the hand of thought that is trying to grasp something, and simply refrain from grasping. This is letting go of thoughts. Zazen enables us to realize that all the thoughts that float into our heads are nothing but empty comings and goings that have no real substance and vanish in a moment.

Since desires and cravings are actually a manifestation of the life force, there is no reason to hate them and try to extinguish them. And yet, if we become dragged around by them and chase after them, then our life becomes fogged over. The important point here is not to cause life to be fogged over by thought based on desires or cravings, but to see all thoughts and desires as resting on the foundation of life, to let them be as they are yet not be dragged around by them. It is not a matter of making a great effort not to be dragged around by desires. It is just waking up and returning to the reality of life that is essential.

While we are living in this world, there will be happiness and unhappiness, favorable and adverse conditions, interesting and boring things. There will be pleasant times and painful times, times to laugh and times to be sad. All of these are part of the scenery of life. Because we plunge into this scenery, become carried away by it, and end up running helter-skelter, we become frantic and we suffer. In zazen, even though various lifelike images appear to us, we are able to see this scenery of life for what it is by waking up.

Self-observation, or observing the effect of our zazen, such as being calmer or more agitated, not only misses the mark, but the moment we do so, we impair zazen and go off the track. Zazen has nothing to do with thinking about results. It is essential just to aim at the posture of zazen without trying to observe its effects.

The Dissatisfactions of Modern Life

Dissatisfaction is the mother of invention and progress. That is why no matter how much scientific or technological progress is made, people will never be satisfied. As long as they walk along this path shouldering the bag of desires and dissatisfaction, every time they open that bag, even hundreds or thousands of years from now, they will always be pulling out their dissatisfaction along with their new ideas. No matter how far science progresses, it is not going to be the answer to our lack of peace of mind. No matter how much technological advancement is made, progress can never bring about spiritual peace, because it lacks the basis for that peace. And the advances of a higher standard of living can never bring fulfillment to a life devoid of peace.

We live within the flow of impermanence, maintaining a temporary form similar to an eddy in the flow of a river. Though the water is always flowing, the eddy, like the flame of the candle, arises out of various conditions as a form that seems to be fixed. That there is this seemingly fixed form that is based on various conditions is interdependence.

Our self is a random collection of elements and circumstances and not some sort of lump, as it is usually understood. This self may become deluded, but as it is not a fixed entity, this delusion also breaks apart. This self as an interdependent being is simply a collection of elements, but insofar as it possesses some form as a particular collection it is not nonexistent. But, if this present self is not nonexistent, can we say that it is a constant entity? No; rather, it is breaking apart and changing into a new form moment after moment.

The Middle Way is nothing other than seeing interdependence as it is, moment by moment; it is seeing our life as it is, without being caught up in our thoughts. Therefore, the Middle Way in Buddhism does not mean taking some in-between position that has been conjured up in our heads, nor acting in a compromising way. Rather, despite the fact that we latch on to our ideas of being or nonbeing, taking the Middle Way means to demolish all concepts set up in our minds and, without fixing on reality as any particular thing, to open the hand of thought, allowing life to be life.

Zazen as Religion

Our ideas about a mind to be trained or a body to be made healthy are expressions of the view of existence, which presupposes that there are things that can be accumulated. The wish to train and discipline our minds and bodies is nothing but our own egoistic desire. For zazen to function as religion, it is of primary concern to give up this ego-centered way of thinking that clings to body and mind.

Acting in accordance with the entire earth and with all beings is zazen practitioners' whole life direction, and simultaneously it is their direction right here and now. In Buddhism, this life direction is referred to as vow. We who practice zazen hold this vow, and function with it as our life direction, while at the same time we just keep returning to zazen repenting at being unable to carry out that vow. This is what constitutes the religious life of the Buddhist practitioner: living by vow and repentance, and being watched over, protected, and given strength by zazen. Where there is no vow, we lose sight of progress; where there is no repentance, we lose the way. Vow gives us courage; repentance crushes our arrogance. This is the posture of a vivid, alive religious life.

Magnanimous mind is the attitude that never discriminates. Without discriminating in terms of "I like that, I don't like this, I want that, I don't want this," since everything I encounter lies within my life-experience, I look on everything equally as my life. The important point here in terms of the truth of universal self is not to run away from the worse way (hell, unhappiness, or bad circumstances) and turn toward some better way (heaven, happiness, or good circumstances) by discriminating between better and worse using our heads. Rather, what is crucial is magnanimous mind, with which we take the attitude of living straight through whatever reality of life we are presently faced with. In other words, if I fall into hell, then hell itself is my life at that time, so I have to live right through it, and if I find myself in heaven, then heaven is my life and I have to live right through that.

Seven Points of Practice

  1. Study and practice the buddhadharma only for the sake of the buddhadharma, not for the sake of emotions or worldly ideas.

  2. Zazen is our truest and most venerable teacher.

  3. Zazen must work concretely in our daily lives as the two practices (vow and repentance), the three minds (magnanimous mind, nurturing mind, and joyful mind), and as the realization of the saying "Gaining is delusion, losing is enlightenment."

  4. Live by vow and root it deeply.

  5. Realizing that development and backsliding are your responsibility alone, endeavor to practice and develop.

  6. Sit silently for ten years, then for ten more years, and then for another ten years.

  7. Cooperate with one another and aim to create a place where sincere practitioners can practice without trouble.

The only true enlightenment is awareness of the vivid reality of life, moment by moment. So we practice enlightenment right now, right here, in every moment.

If we're not careful, we are apt to grant ultimate value to something we've just made up in our heads. Worldly types are always in a haze, thinking that money, fame, or status is the most valuable thing. Since we sometimes become absentminded and forget what is most important, we need to practice and reflect upon ourselves continually. This is what I mean by saying zazen is the most venerable thing in our lives.

You have to expect to be trampled on by difficult circumstances, maybe even for many years, but don't lose your life force under all the pressure. Unless you have that vow, you will lose heart. Only when you live by vow does everything you meet--wherever, whenever, whatever happens--reinforce your life as buddhadharma. As long as you have that vow to live out your life wherever you are, sooner or later spring will come. And when it does, you will have the strength to grow. This is the life force. You have to thoroughly understand that this is completely different from selfish ambition. Ultimately, development and backsliding depend only on you. It really is pointless to say that you became rotten because of your circumstances, or that your education is responsible, or that the blame belongs to somebody else. The fundamental attitude of a practitioner must be to live out one's own whole self.


Conditioned self (see also personal self): What in Western psychology might be termed ego, it is those aspects of self that are limited by circumstance, body, individuality.

Personal self: Who each of us is as a collection of our past and present circumstances, our wishes and ideas, and the identities of which we clothe ourselves.

Samadhi: In a narrow sense, a focusing of one's concentration on one object, but in a much broader sense, being concentrated and pouring all one's energies into each activity.

Universal life, universal self: Refers to the inclusive and endless aspect of life and the shared nature of the life force of all beings.