Opening the Hand of Thought

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by Kosho Uchiyama, Roshi

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

This is the most important point for us as students of Dogen Zenji. No one emphasized practicing buddhadharma only for the sake of the buddhadharma more than he. I think the most important expression in his teaching is buddhadharma. Despite that, we’ve become so familiar with the expression that we often pass over it without considering what it really means.

Lately, I’ve been looking over some commentaries and modern Japanese versions of the Shobogenzo: Genjo Koan (“The Koan of Being in the Present”) because I’m going to translate it into modem Japanese and write my own commentary. At the very start of the chapter are the words “When all dharmas are the buddhadharma…” Yet no one seems to have picked up on the word “buddhadharma” and deeply investigated its meaning. Really, we don’t know what it means at all. We should start, therefore, by examining just what buddhadharma really is.

I’ve been thinking about it for a long time now, because the essence of Dogen Zenji’s teaching is buddhadharma. Recently I’ve felt very keenly that the koan of Sekito Kisen’s “no-gaining, no knowing” expresses the meaning of buddhadharma best. This koan is the ninety-first case in the third volume of Shobogenzo: Sanbyaku-soku (“Commentary on Three Hundred Koans”) compiled by Dogen Zenji. Sekito (Shitou, in Chinese) was one of the great Zen masters of the flowering of Zen in China in the eighth century. He was asked by one of his disciples, Zen Master Tenno (Tianhuang, in Chinese):

“What is the essential meaning of buddhadharma?” 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 float freely. I think these words from the koan fully express the meaning of buddhadharma.

At first Sekito answered “No gaining, no knowing” to the question “What is the essential meaning of buddhadharma?”

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 buddhadharma.” 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 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 buddha-mind (fussho 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 buddha-mind. In the same way, all problems are resolved by opening the hand of thought. When we try to put everything in order using only 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 all 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 buddhadharma?”

“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 buddhadharma? Fundamentally, it is just opening the hand of thought. And to practice opening the hand of thought concretely with the body and mind is zazen.

We can also say that buddhadharma is the dharma (Reality or Truth) realized by a buddha. The word “buddha” means “one who has awakened.” So buddhadharma means “what awareness is,” or perhaps “way of awareness.”

What is this 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 do nothing more than be full of vigor.

We can 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, becoming 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 engishojo (all phenomena are the results 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 combustible. Furthermore, modern science has shown that elementary particles are always changing. Everything is constantly changing. The reality of the impermanence that we awaken to is satori, yet some people aim at shooting down and carting home a ready-made satori or enlightenment, like some kind of trophy. It’s impossible.

The only true enlightenment is awareness of the vivid reality of life, moment by moment. So we practice enlightenment right now, right here—every moment. This attitude is expressed in shusho ichinyo (“practice and enlightenment are one”). This is an essential point of Dogen Zenji’s teaching— not to obtain enlightenment as a result of practice, but to be vividly aware and to open the hand of thought from moment to moment, because it is our thought that binds us. You should understand this true enlightenment of buddhadharma. Enlightenment is not like a sudden realization of something mysterious. Enlightenment is nothing but awakening from illusions and returning to the reality of life.

While Dogen Zenji used the phrase shusho ichinyo (“practice and enlightenment are one”), Shakyamuni Buddha called it pratimoksa. The Sanskrit word pratimoksa means “precepts.” In the Yuikyo-gyo (“The Sutra of the Last Discourse”), which was the final teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha before his death, there is a passage that reads:

Bhiksu, after my death, respect and follow the pratimoksa. If you do, you will be like a person who has been given a light in the dark, or like a pauper who acquires a great treasure.

These are Shakyamuni Buddha’s last words. He said his disciples should respect and follow the precepts. Pratimoksa has also been translated into Japanese as shosho gedatsu or betsubetsu gedatsu, or emancipation through the observance of the precepts. Each precept that is kept liberates us from its corresponding evil. Where we observe that particular precept, there we are immediately emancipated.

Photo by screenpunk

Photo by screenpunk

I think this idea of pratimoksa is the origin of Dogcn Zenji’s shusho ichinyo. Betsubutsu gedatsu means that if we uphold a certain precept, we will be emancipated to the extent of that precept. If we open the hand of thought right here, right now, and experience reality, that is true enlightenment. In this way, Dogen Zenji expressed the spirit of Shakyamuni Buddha in his own words when he said “Practice and enlightenment are one.”

It seems that very few people who study Buddhism these days pay any attention to the idea of pratimoksa—I asked some students from a Buddhist university whether they knew about pratimoksa or not, but none of them had heard of it. Shakyamuni Buddha said very clearly that after his death his disciples should respect pratimoksa more than anything else, so it must be very important. This spirit of pratimoksa is the same as that expressed in “practice and enlightenment are one.” Therefore, instead of aiming at some ready-made enlightenment, we should practice opening the hand of thought and just be aware of the vivid reality of life in every place and in every moment. This is buddhadharma.

Now, what does “practicing buddhadharma only for the sake of buddhadharma” mean? As I said before, it means to practice opening the hand of thought. For example, we usually grasp the idea of life and death with our thinking minds. As people get older, they often express their fear of death. When they were young, they never thought about the fact that, sooner or later, they were going to die. But now, as they grow old and death is approaching, they suddenly remember. They get scared and inwardly terrorized, agonizing over what they can do. They become seized with fear because they are only thinking about death in their heads. Life and death are both just ideas in their heads. They assume that when a living being dies, it must be painful. In other words, by pondering life and death within the illusions they’ve fabricated, they lose themselves and become paralyzed with fear. But in reality, life and death don’t take place in our heads. They occur beyond human thought. They occur where the hand of thought is open.

To practice opening the hand of thought, right now, right here, knowing that the reality of life is beyond human thought—that is what it means to practice buddhadharma only for the sake of the buddhadharma. It is definitely not to practice letting go of thought for the purpose of gaining some utilitarian reward conjured up in one’s head. If you practice zazen to obtain some goal—to become healthy, tough, or brave—you are going in an entirely wrong direction.

A Westerner visiting Japan came to see me and asked if we could attain spontaneity through practicing zazen. I thought it was a strange question. Someone told me that spontaneity is really popular now among Americans who practice zazen. I guess the word “spontaneity” refers to the Buddhist term zenki. I suppose someone translated it that way. So I understood the question to mean: Can zazen help us gain, for example, the power to shout “Katsu!” the way Rinzai did? I replied that I didn’t need such pointless spontaneity and that if you are really spontaneous, you don’t need to chase after such nonsense.

American Zen got going with LSD, and then for a while in the sixties, spontaneity became the fashion. America is a country of pragmatism. For example, when the bill collector comes around demanding his money, it’s very convenient if you can shout “Katsu!” to chase him away. It’s very handy in terms of your human feelings. You’ll feel good—cheerful, pleased, gratified—in your deluded mind. But this kind of human emotion has nothing to do with buddhadharma. You have to understand that practicing the buddhadharma is nothing like drinking a bottle of soda pop, belching, and feeling refreshed.

Today many Westerners practice zazen, but one thing many of you don’t really seem to understand yet is practicing buddhadharma for the sake of buddhadharma. People just want it to be useful or to satisfy their desires. That’s no good. The true Buddha Way is to practice buddhadharma for its own sake.

What is the most important thing in your system of values? If you think it’s something made up in your head, you’re totally wrong. The highest value isn’t something made up in our heads—it arises when we open the hand of thought. Opening the hand of thought is itself what is most valuable. This is the meaning of “practicing buddhadharma only for the sake of the buddhadharma.” Think about it.

I’d like to have those practitioners coming out of a Western tradition really understand this point. There are too many teachers who don’t make any effort to transmit the buddha- dharma only for the sake of the buddhadharma. They attract people by dangling some attractive carrot in front of them and then claim that by practicing zazen you can acquire the ability to shout like Rinzai and chuck out the bill collector. But that kind of zazen is not true zazen, no matter how hard you practice it. True zazen is not practiced for the sake of some value promoted by desire. Anything our discriminating minds believe to be valuable is not of absolute value. Letting go, opening the hand of thought, is the reality of life; and it is that reality of life which should be most valuable to us.

In Paul’s Letter to the Romans (3:4) he says, “Let God be true though every man be false.” A lot of people get very uncomfortable when I quote anything from the Bible, but important sayings are important, and this one is certainly true. In reference to our practice, everything we make up in our heads is false; only “opening the hand of thought” should be our standard of absolute value. We should respect the buddhadharma of letting go of thought as being most valuable. So it is important not to practice for the sake of human emotions or worldly ideas. But we should be careful of a potential trap in this attitude. When people hear that they shouldn’t practice for the sake of human emotions or worldly ideas, sometimes they separate buddhadharma from these things completely and fence off a small area of existence, claiming only such and such is buddhadharma. For example, as part of one of the esoteric practices of the Shingon school, a special place for practice is set aside. This is known as kekkai no dojo (in Sanskrit, simabandha). Here, various items are displayed on an altar called a gomadan used for making burnt offerings. They think of these as the only holy places of the buddhadharma. Or they set aside some holy mountains, prohibiting women, because women are somehow considered impure. This attitude is completely different from that expressed in “The expansive sky does not obstruct the floating white clouds.”

In more complicated cases people insist on buddhadharma as being something special in order to boost their own egos. There are a lot of teachers who talk of buddhadharma only for the sake of buddhadharma as a kind of smokescreen behind which they are just trying to get their own way. This point requires a great deal of caution. The basis of buddhadharma is “The expansive sky does not obstruct the white clouds from floating.” We must neither oppose nor deny the existence of human emotions and worldly ideas.

What this boils down to is that all we can do is persuade ourselves to follow the buddhadharma only for the sake of buddhadharma. We practitioners ourselves must maintain an attitude of practicing buddhadharma only for the sake of buddhadharma, without the justification of human emotions and worldly ideas. No one can stop people from saying you did such-and-such contrary to buddhadharma for the sake of buddhadharma. But we shouldn’t judge people by this standard. The buddhadharma isn’t something like a national law, by which one can judge the behavior of others. Quite a few priests go astray on this point. They speak fancy words to other people for the sake of their own cravings. For example, they’ll talk about dana-paramita, which is generosity or charity, as being the chief virtue, and tell you how you should practice it. Then they collect the money and pocket it themselves! This is inexcusable. We can’t demand that others practice generosity without practicing it ourselves.

Photo by World Bank Photo Collection

Photo by World Bank Photo Collection

The most important point in Buddhism is that each of us practices it for our self. We must apply every teaching and every practice to ourselves. In understanding buddhadharma for the sake of buddhadharma, this attitude is essential.


Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (1912-1998) was a Soto Zen priest, origami master, author of many books and abbot of Antai-ji near Kyoto, Japan.

From Opening the Hand of Thought, translated by Shohaku Okumura and Tom Wright and edited by Jisho Cary Warner. Copyright ©1993, reprinted with permission of Penguin Books.

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