Opening the Hand of Thought

Approach to ZenTracy Cochran

Kosho Uchiyama
Translated by Shohaku Okumura and Tom Wright
Edited by Jisho Cary Warner
Penguin/Arkana: New York, 1993.
233 pp., $12.00 (paper).

Between 1965 and 1975, while Kosho Uchiyama Roshi was abbot of Antaiji monastery in Kyoto, he kept an electric fan above the Buddha statue on the altar. One visitor expressed shock at this irreverence, but the iconoclastic Zen master insisted that the whirring appliance was just where it belonged. His reply became a teaching point in "The Wayseeker," his retirement lecture—the capstone to this wise, clear, deeply useful collection of his writings.

The electric fan is installed above the Buddha statue to keep the room cool in the summer for people who sit. It's important to keep the room cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The Buddha statue is just an embodiment of zazen as the most venerable thing: Actually opening the hand of thought for oneself should have ultimate value....If we're not careful, we are apt to grant ultimate value to something we've just made up in our heads. We...forget what is most important, we need to practice and reflect upon ourselves continually.

Uchiyama Roshi retired as abbot of Antaiji after just ten years, insisting that it was foolish to hang on to the empty role of "abbot" or "teacher," knowing that zazen "is the only true teacher." Throughout these writings (two out of four sections of which appeared in English in 1973 in a rougher translation under the title Approach to Zen), Uchiyama Roshi strives to convey to Westerners the practice Dogen Zenji called "the correctly transmitted zazen of the buddhas and the patriarchs." Buddhism, and Zen in particular, can take deep root in the West, according to Uchiyama Roshi, only if it is stripped to the core. Here, he presents zazen as the fundamental practice that can help us charge up our lives to the force of reality. To Uchiyama Roshi, practice is the enlightenment of the Buddhadharma.

"The only true enlightenment is awareness of the vivid reality of life, moment by moment," states Uchiyama Roshi. "So we practice enlightenment right now, right here—every moment."

The only way to wake up and return to the "reality of life," according to Uchiyama Roshi, is to sit zazen and practice the subtle action, or nonaction, that he refers to by the wonderfully graphic term, "opening the hand of thought."

"Thinking means to be grasping or holding on to something with our brain's conceptual 'hand,''' he states. "But if we open it, if we don't conceive, what is in our hand falls away. Our true jiko—Self—also includes that which lets go."

Throughout these writings, Uchiyama Roshi stresses that this "reality of life" is utterly fresh and alive, present at every moment, although it is utterly beyond the grasp of the intellect. He calls it by the Buddhist term jiko to imply a Self that goes beyond consciousness: "a force that works even when we are sleeping—a force that works when we are unconscious or unaware." Ever the iconoclast, Uchiyama Roshi, who was a student of Christianity and Western philosophy in his youth, likens this Self to "what Christians call the creative power of God" (provided it is understood that this "God" is fresh and present even in evil thoughts).

Now in his eighties, Uchiyama Roshi has no patience for mystical "fog" or "the kind of tripe scholars write about." He cuts through hidebound Soto Zen conventions, seeking the essential core. He is just as quick to dispatch stupid Western ideas. Of the silly American belief from the sixties that Zen equals "spontaneity," he has this to say: "You have to understand that practicing the Buddha-dharma is nothing like drinking a bottle of soda pop, belching, and feeling refreshed."

This collection is both a handbook to zazen (it even includes instructions on how to make a zafu, or sitting cushion) and the chronicle of the spiritual life of a teacher of unusual integrity. From the time he was a student, Uchiyama Roshi has devoted his life to "pursuing a way of living out a Self that is living out the whole truth of life." Uchiyama Roshi has embraced the role of pioneer, deepening his practice and his understanding as a means to help transmit the Buddha-dharma to the West. He is frank about the hardships he has endured—years of no money and little food in a dilapidated monastery, years of being ignored.

Anyone who is planning to devote himself or herself to Buddhist practice has to have the power to overcome adversity. The power of life buried in your deepest parts will never arise until you have become convinced that you're walking the only path open to you.

Uchiyama Roshi's writing is suffused with the force of his experience. The reader believes him when he says, "It is with our flesh and bones that we actualize the reality of the self." His words convey so much of the freshness and vividness of truth that we come to believe that he really can practice what he preaches.

 

Tracy Cochran is a Consulting Editor to Tricycle.

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