On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

January 07, 2010

Opening the Hand of Thought

Kosho Uchiyama (1912-1998)

The world we live in is not something that exists independently of our thoughts and ideas.  Our world and these thoughts and ideas appear to us as a unified whole.  Depending on what our thoughts and ideas are, our world may appear to us in completely different ways.  These thoughts and feelings constitute our psychological condition.  Moreover, our psychological condition is at the same time our physiological condition.  When something breaks down inside of us physically, our minds no longer remain clear. And if our minds are not clear, then the eyes with which we see the whole world take on a gloomy appearance.  On the other hand, when we feel healthy our minds brighten, and so consequently our outlook on everything becomes brighter.

Furthermore, our physiological conditions are tremendously influenced by the environment in which we live.  The changes and conditions of climate and weather both affect us.  This cause and effect relationship is particularly easy to see when you lead a life as unvaried and devoid of distractions as the sesshins at Antaiji.

The essential matter here is the attitude of just striving to wake up regardless of the conditions you are in.  It is not about arriving at some state where all thoughts have disappeared. To calmly sit amidst these cause and effect relationships without being carried away by them is shikantaza.

Like the weather, there are all sorts of conditions in our personal lives: clear days, cloudy days, rainy ones, and stormy ones.  These are all waves produced by the power of nature and are not things over which we have control.  No matter how much we fight against these waves, there is no way we can make a cloudy day clear up.  Cloudy days are cloudy; clear days are clear.  It is only natural that thoughts come and go and that psychological and physiological conditions fluctuate accordingly.  All of this is the very reality and manifestation of life.  Seeing all of this as the scenery of life, without being pulled apart by it—this is the stability of human life, this is settling down in our life.

In The Record of Linji, Linji Yixuan (Rinzai) says:

The true practitioner of the Way completely transcends all things. Even if heaven and earth were to tumble down, I would have no misgivings. Even if all the Buddhas in the ten directions were to appear before me, I would not rejoice.  Even if the three hells were to appear before me, I would have no fear. Why is this so?  Because there is nothing I dislike.

For Rinzai, the appearance of all the buddhas in the past, present, and future was not something to rejoice over, nor was the appearance of the three hells something of which to be afraid.   Of course, not being afraid of the appearance of some hell doesn’t mean that for Rinzai hell had no existence.  For him, hell was a kind of scenery that was different from the scenery of the Buddhas.  The point is that whether some hell, all the buddhas, or anything appeared before him, Rinzai saw all of these as the scenery of his life.  For us this is nothing but the scenery of our zazen.

I hope that people who practice zazen will continue regular sesshins and daily zazen for at least ten years.  It’s a tremendous thing to be able to give oneself to this kind of practice and not be caught up in distractions.  Our deepest mental suffering will come up during these years of zazen, and we will be able to continue our practice only if we have the stability to see this suffering as the scenery of our life and not be carried away by it.  Working through these ten years, we develop a posture of living out the reality of our true self.

If we lead this sort of life and sit zazen, at whatever age, there is no doubt that we will come to have a commanding view of who we are.  When we live this way, not only zazen, but daily life itself, is such that we cannot find the value of our existence in what other people say or in things that we want.  It is a life that is unbearable unless we discover the value of our existence within ourselves.

What is essential is for us to live out the reality of our true self whether we are doing one period of zazen, a five-day sesshin, or practicing for ten years or more.

The Activity of the Reality of Life

All of us, regardless of whether we realize it or not, are living out the self as the whole universe.  Since this is such a critical point, I’ll repeat it here. Usually we make the idea of the small individual self the center of our world and become firmly convinced that this small individual self is our whole self, but this is not our true self.

The reality of life goes beyond my idea of myself as a small individual.  Fundamentally, our self is living out nondual life that pervades all living things.  This self is universal existence, everything that exists.  On the other hand, we usually lose sight of the reality of the life of universal self, clouding it over with thoughts originating from our small individual selves. 

When we let go of our thoughts, this reality of life becomes pure and clear.  Living out this reality of life as it is – that is, waking up and practicing beyond thinking – is zazen.  At this very point our basic attitude in practicing zazen becomes determined.  The attitude of the practitioner in practicing zazen as a Mahayana Buddhist teaching never means to attempt to artificially create some new self by means of practice. 

Nor should it be aiming at decreasing delusion and finally eliminating it altogether.  We practice zazen, neither aiming at having a special mystical experience nor trying to gain greater enlightenment.  Zazen as true Mahayana teaching is always the whole self just truly being the whole self, life truly being life.

We all have eyes to see, but if we close them and say that the world is in darkness, how can we say that we are living out the true reality of life?  If we open our eyes we see the sun is shining brilliantly.  In the same way, when we live open-eyed and awake to life, we discover that we are living in the vigorous light of life.  All the ideas of our small self are clouds that make the light of the universal self foggy and dull.  Doing zazen, we let go of these ideas and open our eyes to the clarity of the vital life of universal self.

We discover the attitude of zazen as true Buddhism when we believe that the truth of this small self as an individual entity is universal self and actually practice the reality of life in zazen. This zazen is referred to as the activity of the reality of life.

Kosho Uchiyama (1912-1998)

Excerpted from Opening the Hand of Thought – Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice-Kosho Uchiyama

Uchiyama Roshi begins with a powerful line that stops us right at the very beginning of this reading.  To live the reality of true fluidity existing between ourselves and the world is a profound existence in anyone’s life and practice.  Our practice starts right where we are each day; acknowledging the impact of internal and external weather, we begin each day with the material of daily life that changes with each day.  Breaking through the bubble of limitation, our small sense of self, is available to us in each moment.

This awareness begins to subtly influence our actions in daily life.  Even if this awareness comes without the big enlightenment experience some people have felt, living the reality of our self being the expression of Universal Self starts to change how we see ourselves and “others” here.  We feel the joy and suffering of all beings around us as our own joy and suffering.  Our actions naturally trend towards alleviating suffering and having compassion for all living beings.

             To study the way is to study the self.

             To study the self is to forget the self.

             To forget the self is to be 
             enlightened by all things.

             To be enlightened by all 
             things is to remove the barriers

             between one's self and others.


From self to self,


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