• SHARE

OPENING THE HAND OF THOUGHT: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice, by Kosho Uchiyama, translated and edited by Tom Wright, Jisho Warner and Shohaku Okumura. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003. 204 pp., with drawings, $16.95 (paper).

“Ordinarily, we think we are alive because our brains are in control. This is a grave mistake. The range our brains control is pretty limited.”

These are the words of Kosho Uchiyama, one of the most contemplative of Zen Buddhist teachers, who until his death in 1999 was also one of the most influential and who now, through this new edition of his most famous book, continues to enlighten our lives.

The “self” of Western philosophy, says Uchiyama, is Cartesian. “I think, therefore I am.” But, actually, I am, whether I think so or not. And behind this conscious self my life continues even if I am unaware or even conscious. My whole self is not an abstract self made up of thoughts.

In fact, continues Uchiyama, thinking is itself limiting. It is satisfied with dualities, pain and pleasure, wrong and right; with processing, discriminating, analyzing, organizing — all imposing limitations resulting in an impoverished life.

One way to avoid such mental hindrance is to “open the hand of thought” (omoi no te banashi): Make it release its grip, refuse to think, make the vow to no longer entertain concepts, convictions, ideas, notions, opinions, judgments.

There is perhaps nothing more difficult, but there does exists a means, a single exercise that defines Zen Buddhism itself — the posture known as zazen. This has been described as “settling into yourself” and means simply sitting (there are variations in the seating arrangements) and emptying the mind (for which there are various recipes). Thoughts come and go, and the seated adept observes this but makes no effort to detain them. Eventually they become fewer as the hand of thought relaxes and reveals that they are merely what Uchiyama calls “the scenery of zazen,” views and vistas that we watch pass.

There is no reason to go out and thrash about in them and chew the scenery; after all, they are only the landscape. To observe it is enough. In that way we are no longer distracted by it. Seated, settled, straight, we are on our way to a comprehension of reality.

Uchiyama makes his point by comparing the zazen stance with that of Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture, “The Thinker.” There “the figure sits hunched over, shoulders drawn forward, chest compressed, a posture for chasing after illusions.” By contrast in the zazen position “everything is straight — trunk, back, neck, and head . . . congestion is alleviated, excitability is lessened, and we no longer need to chase after fantasies and delusions.”

It is sometimes said that zazen has aims beyond this clarity it bestows, that it leads to an event that is referred to as an illumination or satori. Perhaps it does. Sawaki Roshi, Uchiyama’s teacher, once said: “I’ve had several big satoris and numerous small ones, and I can tell you that it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.”

In any event, attainment of something is not the aim of zazen itself. It is a state, not a vehicle. “Zazen,” says Uchiyama, “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.” Nor is it necessary to “believe,” or to “strive.” Rather we are to aim only at the correct zazen posture “with our flesh and bones.” Indeed, “just practicing this is doing zazen.”

And this, just properly sitting, emptying the mind, enduring eternity, is enough. There is nothing to believe, to expect, to sign up for. You are committed only to sitting and this is because you have committed yourself. No longer do you separate subject from object, or this very moment from all eternity.

All of this is for no “reward,” rather, all of this is for the experience, for an understanding, some enlightenment about the true nature of life, its reality. As soon as we start thinking and calculating we become suspended from this reality. All we can do is banish thought and await the revelation of what it concealed.

Uchiyama’s book is important for its clarity, its rejection of churchly jargon, and its refusal to make illumination a drama. When its first version, “Self-Jiko,” appeared in 1965, it was clear that its subject was Zen in daily life, that it was not about utility or self-improvement. Rather, as Tom Wright makes clear in his preface to this new edition of Uchiyama’s book, “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 itself most fully through one’s day-to-day activities.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW