December 2021 Sesshin, Day 1: Opening the Hand of Thought by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi
5:16PM Dec 14, 2021
This is the first day of this two day, December 2021, sesshin. And for the next two Dharma talks we'll be talking from, we'll be reading from, Opening the Hand of Thought: Approach to Zen, by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi.
But first, I do like once in a while to just talk about posture, and working with pain, working with drowsiness. Pretty short, but I think it can be helpful for some to hear this
So with sesshin practice, in terms of pain, we'll always want to avoid the two extremes -- at least the one extreme, which is the sharp pain; if there's any kind of sharp stabbing pain, then we need to get out of that posture and and find something else. We don't want any kind of physical damage going on in the knees, especially; it has happened in the past. The other thing I was gonna say that there's no pain, but that's, that's impossible when we're doing sesshin. Pain's gonna come up, it's could be dull, achy pain, let alone all the other kind of pain that can go on -- mental agony or emotional pain.
But let's just focus on the physical pain and work with our posture. I think it is akin Roshi that talked about sitting on the front edge of our pain. So there's kind of like a yeah, there is an edge to it too much. And we just kind of get lost in it. And it's just it can be a little too excruciating. So again, the find another posture but but at the same time to not avoid it if if it does arise. And of course, by not by by not avoiding it. How do we do that? How do we not avoid the pain? Well, we just become one with the pain. And what does one with a pain means we just get into our practice just putting our full attention on the practice that we have. So again, I brought up extremes. Here's another kind of two sides of the of safe, it's a it's a bar, like on one side of the extreme. It's, it's just trying to white knuckle the pain. I think so many of us can, at the beginning of practice, do that, that just bear down and just kind of like suck it up. Well, that's not it's kind of a form of suppression just trying to orient to it or or suppress it. And it might work for a little while. But ultimately, that's not the way that's not, that's not the way through the pain, that's not the way to get beyond the pain. And perhaps the other extreme is clean to stop trying to suppress it and wipe it out from our minds. There's also the suppressing of it of the non excuse me the clean to this is why me or the you know, thoughts could be why me or when is this round going to end? When is that timer going to hit the bell, and so on and so forth. That's just going to make things worse. It's just gonna exacerbate the pain in our minds. It really is amazing. One of the things that is really inspiring about machine is is realizing that a lot of our pain is caused by what's going on in the mind. If you focus on the pain if we're thinking about the pain if we're thought and about the pain it's just going to make things worse and then we come to realize that some or a lot of our pain is caused by our own mind is caused by what's going on in this monkey mind of ours with just the wheels just turning and and thinking about the pain and sometimes it disappears altogether
so that's that's becoming one with the pain once once that is a major hurdle to get through That kind of that, yeah, it's a hurdle that we get through that can be so kind of confirming life confirming that, that we can work with our pain that way and getting beyond it. And that's what I'm trying to say is getting beyond the pain, it's still there. But as soon as we return our attention to the practice, then the pain doesn't become a problem anymore. Alternate your posture, every single round, switch it up, you know, you have your right foot on top of your left calf or your your left hip if you're doing half lotus, next round, get your left foot up on your right calf or your your, your hip, your thigh, I always like to mention the no moving the no moving is really important. That's one we're not moving more and we're not wanting to shift our posture, or I mean the most egregious which I never see people scratching their faces. But it's it's more of like if you're trying to move your limbs if you move them a little bit, really the not moving. It allows us by not moving, we're kind of facing a pain we're facing ourselves. And and it's committing ourselves to putting our attention on our practice. And again, that's the, that's just a great way, it's an essential way to really work to have more effective zozen is by not moving, of course, like blinking and swallowing, of course, that's fine. micro adjustments are fine. Some times you know if if you notice your chin is out and yet drains out, then go ahead and get that chin in like a drawer, let's push it in, not with your hands, of course, but just physically do that. That's fine to do drain drains or Zen. It's just the more egregious ones, the ones that just will not help. Like especially moving your legs
Yes, we are facing ourselves by not moving
the upper body can really help if the upper body is relaxed as much as possible. That's not always, especially at the start of practice. When we're starting, we have so much tension kind of built in through the misuse of our minds that there's the tension has accumulated in our body. So well a trick that I do sometimes at the start of the round when the bells being struck those three strikes is I'll roll one shore, shoulder forward and back. And then the other one forward and back like rotating it back. There. Now I already feel my my chest going up, I feel more energy going up my spine. Of course I got that natural curve in the lumbar area, that those rolling in the shoulders kind of helped with that. That's another micro adjustment I like to mention is I have sometimes do is to just move the chest up, you get that chin in and then bring the whole chest up and you actually do feel energy coming up through the spine. So that's a good sounds and passion which by the way through this reading of which Yamahas work here opening the head of thought make that will make that point. There is no such thing as a perfect posture. It dawned on me there is no there is no such thing. Why is that? Because it's not a stockstill partial, we're never, we're never going to reach some kind of stockstill 100% This is it. We're in flux, where things are always changing. But we're, without having a goal in our mind. We're really working to have the most effective posture to focus the mind.
If as much as possible to have the hips higher than the knees, this is this, this, this primal base, this foundational base and Zen practice which is your hips higher than your knees, the have your knees into the mat as much as possible if you can, if your hips are a little too tight and you're finding that your knee is up a little bit then go ahead and get some kind of support but the get some kind of really foundational solid base. This kind of like tripod here with the hips and the knees.
No, no thing
I like to mention because I fell into that trap so much in my first years of practice, which is the not trying to have this marine posture. You're not we're not trying to be these. These soldiers just getting this ramrod straight posture you do want your upper body relaxed as much as possible. And what's so incredible about Zen as well as that through the daily practice, through continual Zen day after day, the body does relax, naturally, it does open up, there's no particular method or technique that you need to do, you just need to do this awesome posture and put your attention on the practice. And the body will relax, I'm just kind of reminded of another saying I like which is the Japanese Buddhist had the same word really does take it takes about three years to get the posture down. That's kind of that's that was my experience. So it's this constant experimentation that see what works with within what everything we just discussed with you know, keeping the chin tucked in imagine it like a drawer this as a trick I just came up with recently, I heard it's kind of a good image to have that chin tucked in. So we're not looking down or heads are not down. But it does help us specially for us thinkers, those of us who tend to think way too much or head tends to go opportune goes up. And that the push that chin in can really it can really make a difference. I noticed that in my practice once I finally got that it took the constant adjustment by the Mon monitors and Roshi I think it was almost a year where they kept kind of adjusting my chin and getting that chin tucked in. Once I did I did notice a difference there was a it was just thoughts were not cleaning as much right yeah, I just not clean as much to it. It was it was quite a really qualitative thing that that really helped. Alright, so that's, that's my little my little lecture if you will on on posture. And of course, this is something you can bring up in in private instruction as well. If you have any questions about posture then and that's what the monitors are here for. They're here to help adjust people's posture so that we can benefit from from our practice.
Kosho Uchiyama Roshi was born in Tokyo in 1911. He received a master's degree in Western philosophy at Waseda University in 1937, and then became a Zen priest Three years later, under Kodos Sawaki Roshi. Upon sub Sawaki Roshi, his death in 1965, he assumed the abbot should have on Taiji a temple monastery monastery, then located near Kyoto. And also following the death of his teacher. He led a 49 days to sheen and memorial of his teacher which Yama Roshi developed the practice of not the practice at a not TG including monthly five days machines, and often often traveled throughout Japan lecturing and leaving machines. I think he came here to the US I'm not quite sure I cannot find a lot of biographical information about this teacher. He has written over 20 texts on Zen, including translations of Dogan Zenji, into modern Japanese with commentaries, one of which is available in English, refining your life yet we read from that a couple years ago, focusing on instructions to the cook. Which Yama Roshi is also well known in the world of origami, of which he is the master. And he's published several books on this. He did die 20 years ago in March 1998 little more than 20 years ago at the age of 86. So we'll be reading from this book again opening the hand of thoughts
we'll start off with a section called letting go of thoughts I've already said that if you sit and think during za Zen, the night is thinking and not zozen Does that mean no thoughts at all should occur to us during za Zen is good za Zen that condition when all thoughts have ceased to come into our minds. Here we have to clearly distinguish chasing after thoughts and thinking from ideas or thoughts or occurring. This is such an A point and point. Thoughts will arise in the mind. That's That's who we are as that's what the brain does. But it's the pursuing of those thoughts that get us into trouble. If a thought occurs, joins us in and we proceed to chase after it, then we are thinking and not doing Zen. Yet this doesn't mean that we are. Yet this doesn't mean that we are doing zozen Only when thoughts have entirely cease to occur. How should we understand this contradiction? Imagine placing a large rock next to a person and doing Zen. Since this rock is not alive, no matter how long it sits there, a thought will never occur to it. Unlike the rock, however, the person doing zozen next to it is a living human being. Even if we sit a stationary as a rock, we cannot say that no thoughts will occur. On the contrary, if they did not, we will have to say that that person is no longer alive. But of course, the truth of life never means to become lifeless, like the rock. For that reason, thoughts ceasing to occur is not the ideal state of one sitting zozen. It is perfectly natural that thoughts occur. Think I didn't get this for the longest time. It finally dawned on me. Russia probably said this to me 1000 times, maybe not 1000 times. But more than 10, I'm sure. And it finally finally struck me in Doakes on one time where I don't support it's not about suppressing your thoughts. It's impossible, we have not thought will be dead. So what we need to do is not avoid the thoughts we need to do is put our attention on the practice, but I'll let him speak more of this. Yet if we chase after thoughts we are thinking and no longer dunes as Zen. So what should our attitude be? Briefly, aiming at maintaining the posture of Zen with our flesh and bones, letting go of thoughts is the most appropriate expression for describing what our minds our attitude should be.
What is letting go of thoughts? Well, when we think we think of something, thinking of something means grasping that something with thought, however, drains us, when we open the hand of thought that is trying to grasp something and simply refrain from grasping, this is letting go of thoughts. Alright, so just give a different definition. He came up with this, this terminology opening the hand thought what exactly does that mean? I use his expression, opening the hand of thought to explain as graphically as possible that connection between human beings and the process of thinking. And hear the process of thinking should be understood to include the emotions feelings and all sense perceptions, as well as thoughts. Thinking means to be grasping or holding on to something with our brains conceptual quote, hand. But if we open it, open this quote, hand, if we don't conceive, what is in our hand falls away. Our true self, this is capital S, our true self also includes that which let's go opening the hand of thought. Thinking means to be grasping or holding on to something with our brains conceptual hand. But if we open it, if we don't concede, if we don't conceive, what is in our hands falls away. Even if a thought or something does actually arise, as long as a thought does not grasp that something nothing will be formed. For example, even if a thought say thought a which is a flower occurs, as long as it is not followed by thought B is beautiful. No meaning such as a is b that is a flower as beautiful as form. So Japanese have this world word called Nan. So then it's kind of like the first thought that comes up. So as long as we don't pursue that thought, say we hear the sound of the train If I just kind of channeled that, here to the sound of the train, the train, I still remember that time that I took the train from Paris to London and on and on and on we go and we're not we're not, we're not focusing on a practice anymore, we're lost in thought. So, as soon as we get into that referee the key really is to notice and as soon as we notice, just go back to counting the breath or following the breath.
So, back to this flower is beautiful. Now, there is something that could be taken in the sense of a which is be a beautiful flower. So even if thought a does occur, as long as a thought does not continue, a occurs prior to the formation of meaning. It is not measurable in terms of meaning in in that condition will disappear as consciousness flows on the flower just disappears. As I explained earlier, since blood receives recedes from the head and excitability is lessened by keeping this posture, cell Zen is by nature, a posture in which we inherently see the futility of chasing after thoughts. So as long as we entrust everything to the Zaza and posture, opening, the hand of thought will come naturally and spontaneously. Again, however, human life is not a machine. So even in the zozen posture, it is possible to think as much as we like. So the essential point when doing zozen, is to aim full of life, at the posture of Zen, with our flesh and bones, while at the same time, leaving everything up to the posture and letting go of thoughts. By aiming at desires and posture, and simultaneously opening the hand of thought, both body and mind does all Zen in the proper spirit. And this is something goes without saying we do over and over and over again. And it is it is an uphill battle. But it is it is a battle that we can master it is something that all every single one of us can improve and improve and improve as time goes on. It's just a question of, again this. Another word I like to use is body mind. So body mind, really, you cannot keep your mind and body apart. So if we're maintaining an effective zozen posture that is going to improve what's going on in the mind that's going to improve, noticing what's going on in the mind and generating that energy by putting our attention on our practice they are not too.
By aiming at desires and posture and simultaneously opening the hand of thought both body and mind desires then in the proper spirit. Zen is not something we think about doing wholeheartedly. It is something we actually practice
the organ Zenji quoting yakusoku again, called this the thought of no thought something we actually just recite it in the Hakuin Chan as well. While doing Zen with our flesh and bones, we aim at letting go of thoughts which is no thought when we're doing Zen, the thoughts become no thought. It's not that they're not there, but they're just they don't have to hold on. They don't have a hold on us the way it used to.
As I mentioned before, we are at all times in every situation, living out the reality of our own life, whether we believe to be so or not. Nevertheless, we lose sight of this we doze off or start thinking and cause this reality to appear dull and fog fog and this reality to appear dull and foggy. It's just like driving a car when we are either sleepy or absorbed in thought. Our life like our driving Driving becomes careless in hazardous. Waking up means to let go of thoughts. That is we wake up from sleep or thought and perform the reality of disaster and posture, which we're practicing with our flesh and bones.
Alright, next section waking up to life. Next in as much detail as possible, I will give an analytical description of the actual internal experience when doing zozen. Alright, so the man got his degree in philosophy Long, long ago, Western philosophy. So he knows quite a lot. And he does have some diagrams as well, which I'm not even going to attempt to describe, I don't want us to get lost in this. But we do have another kind of metaphor, if you will, that can help instead of trying to describe these diagrams, so I'm going to as best I can switch over to that metaphor. And actually maybe just talk about right now before I dive into to his writing here about it. Imagine if you will, that you are on a one road highway, one lane highway. Which yami here describes it as just a horizontal line going from z to z prime. But I'm going to stop right there until I get into all the letters that he uses. But this this image is going to work. So what we're doing in za Zen is we're staying on that highway. On this highway, there are exits. Those exits are thoughts, feelings, emotions. So what ends up invariably happening as we get on this highway. Next thing, you know, we're taking an exit, we're getting off on one of those exit ramps, and we get on a secondary road. We're on that secondary road for a while lost in thought. And next thing you know we're in a small town, we might even stop off at a diner and have lunch. And it goes on and on and on and on like that. The beautiful thing about this is as soon as you notice through your practice, as soon as you notice that you're not diner, get right back on the highway, there's no going back onto the road secondary road, we don't have to do that. Practice is noticing we're lost in thought, and going right back on that highway. All right, so let's use that image. That analogy. First of all, we're on the highway. This highway represents truly maintaining dissolves and posture. When we were doing zozen This highway should be the reality of our lives right now. So by all means, we must keep to it. But human beings sitting are not like rocks that have been set down. We are not fixed. And so it happens that we tend to move away from this line, we move away from this highway, either thoughts come up or we doze off. For example. Thought A comes into our mind and we move off of the highway. If we take this thought as a basis this. In other words, if we take this thought this exit ramp as a basis and continue with those thoughts, going on the secondary road, getting into town going to that diner, we are thinking if something about our work comes to mind, for instance, and we continue with thoughts about the arrangements and management of the work, we are clearly doing nothing but thinking about our work. Then we let go over thoughts and wake up to the partial Zen with our flesh and bones. We return to the reality of life and return to the highway.
Just as an aside here, I certainly want to want to say negative impression I got the one thing that I misconceived from the three pillars of Zen, Roshi Kapleau His book is that Zen or Zen practices and anti electoral pursuit and that turned out to be wrong. It's not that we it's not that Zen rejects the intellect it's that we use the intellect when we need to use the intellect not joins us in just talking about our daily lives, you know when we need to plan when we need to figure something out when we need to. As he wrote with thoughts about the arrangements and the management of the work, we are clearly doing nothing but thinking about our work. Well that can certainly help when we're doing our work when we're when we're if we have some say office work, we need to figure things out. That's not what we're talking about. What we're talking about is when we're doing Zen, the intellect has no place in that
but after a while, we become drowsy as well. This is B so B I can kind of picture it as kind of like an exit but an exit going down into a tunnel. Perhaps it seems strange to use this progression of symbols may be tunnel after tunnel after tunnel for dozing to but in actuality dunes all Zen, that is the way it is. That is, when we become sleepy during za Zen, and some thoughts floats into our head, we are already dreaming. Having some thought float into our heads is nothing but dreaming. If a thought comes to mind while we are wide awake, and we chase after it, this is called thinking. And if a thought comes to mind when we are sleepy and we chase after it, we are simply chasing after a dream and our sleep are we maybe not in a way and at the same time thinking that we are sleepy but holding out and sitting as solidly as ever. What we're really doing here is just dreaming. And actually doing za Zen, there is no difference between chasing after thoughts and sleeping, at least speaking from my experience of Zen, this is the case. Therefore, when we become sleepy germs or Zen, we have to wake up by vigorously putting our energy energy into our sitting with our flesh and bones and cease from chasing after thoughts. We have to wake up and return to the reality of life which can also be expressed in in by an arrow pointing up to the highway. So this is one of the reasons why we do always get maintain fresh air in the Zendo even though Zendo might be for some people too cold, it's the cold is just it's our Bodhisattva friend the call to help us stay awake, I can help us prevent from falling asleep. In other words, it's not some masochistic thing that's been put upon us, you know, why is it so damn cold in the middle of the night or when I'm doing Yassa this late night sitting? Well, we don't want to make it too cold. We don't want to make it intolerable. But we do want we do want fresh air, it will really act that can really help us especially further down the road machine that can really help us stay awake
sometimes we completely forget about waking up, we may chase after thought after thought after thought after thought I use that train imagery here I'm still riding that train. Now I'm having lunch, ended up and ended up completely separated from the reality of our lives. In other words, we may become separated from the reality of doing zozen Right now, without being aware of it we may start associating with or carrying on a dialogue with some vivid figure that has been totally fabricated, fabricated within our own chasing after thoughts. Even at a time like this, if we wake up, that is if we notice, that is actually excuse me that is actually that is actually performed the postures as then with our flesh and bones in open the hand of her thoughts. This very lifelike phantom will disappear instantly. And we will be able to return to the reality of Zen phantom it that is such a great word for what's going on in our mind. All these these vectors these phantoms that that's what thoughts are, they're just phantoms of the mind I use yesterday use that weather pattern or weather storm it's just the more we open up this hand the thought the more likely this weather pattern the storm will dissipate.
This is truly this is a truly remarkable point. It makes us realize clearly that our fantasy has no reality in that it is nothing but empty, coming and going. Again, it's been lost in When we are lost in our thoughts, is as soon as we notice, get back on the highway. This is really the miraculous thing about Zen is that there's no, there's no, there's no working our way back on the highway, you know, through other thoughts. No, as soon as we have a thought, as soon as we notice the thought, or thoughts, as soon as we get out of this fantasy state, and we notice, get back, you get right back on Highway, just skip, focus your attention back onto the counting of the breath, or following the breath, without any other dialogue. This is another trap that we often get into is having this dialogue about why is this so hard or kind of lost in thought again? No, as soon as we notice, get back on the highway. And if we just that be really the noticing is the ZA Zen. And this is what you chamas Roshi is really getting to and we'll talk a little more about this later on. But the zozen itself is the noticing the note as soon as we notice. It's not entirely just the Highway of this kind of really, this this blank slate like a stone like you Chan Yama talks about this stone, this lifeless, solid stone that has no thoughts. That's not the highway. It's the noticing. And as time goes on, as we, as we keep doing this practice day after day after day, month after month, year after year, we notice more, and we get back more
it sounds I mean, it sounds so simple, doesn't it? It sounds it sounds like Oh, okay. And yet, and yet, it's not simple. It's not It sounds simple, but it's not easy. But again, the great thing about Zen is we just get better at that we just get better at noticing. I used to beat myself up so much. We're especially during you know during a meal, finding out and going and having a meal and then realizing that I wasn't on my practice at all throughout that whole thing. Well, of course it's it is harder to do this moving Zen, but it doesn't matter what matters is notice I'm often thought and then just picking up my spoon. And then I'm lost not again, I get that soup in my bowl, just continually returning to what's here now.
Think I'll repeat what he just said. This is a truly remarkable point. It makes us realize clearly that our fantasy has no reality and that it is nothing but empty, coming and going. At any rate, noticing things like this during za Zen whether it's like a whole bunch of thoughts, we should wake up to Zen as soon as possible and return to the highway. Actually doing Zen is a continuation of this kind of returning up or down. That is the posture of waking up and returning to the highway at any time is itself za Zen. This is one of the most vital points regarding Zen. Earlier I mentioned that when doing czas in the highway, or just dunes Zen should be the reality of our life. So it is essential to maintain that line. However, I now have to restate this, I now have to restate this highway represents the reality of the posture of Zen. But the reality of our life is not just the highway. If it were only the highway, then we would have no life and would be the same as a rock. Although we aim at the line, we can never actually adhere to it. We tend to diverge from it and go off it in various ways. Very power to wake up to the highway and return to it is the reality of the life of Zen. Zen enables us to realize that all the thoughts that float into our heads are nothing but empty comings and goings without any real substance and that vanish in a moment.
There's this great book that was recommended to me called the Zen harvest Japanese folks in Zen Saints has just kind of flipping through it. And this is one of the poems I came across go along the Broad Street, just go straight. The small ones are often blind alleys actually, they're all blind alleys.
Truly, all thoughts, delusions and cravings are like bubbles, and are nothing but empty comings and goings that have no substance when we wake up dissolve Zen. Even a how like a Vici, developed by our own thoughts and fantasies becomes eradicated in an instant. So Zen enables us to experience this as reality. The reason I have taken it upon myself to try to explain with diagrams what is actually happening during Zen is this. Usually, people tend to think that doings all Zen means to aim at the line to train and discipline their minds. And finally, the whole hold firmly on the line itself. I wish to make it here I just instead of using highway decide to use the word line might be a little more helpful. So let me repeat that. Usually people people tend to think that Doones as n means to aim at the line to train and discipline their minds and finally the whole firmly to the line itself. I wish to make it clear that Zaza and his real life dissolves then that Duggins mg called the correctly transmitted zozen of the Buddhas and patriarchs it's not like that
well our time is almost up I just a little more about this line
I mentioned earlier about my own frustration with trying to stay on this line especially with with the meals
what can be so pernicious about sesshin when we're say in line getting our food is thinking that we need to be on that line like it's some kind of this line is like some kind of blank slate or even just just being totally completely lost in thought just going on and on and on. pernicious thing about that is once we know the scope, good, you just noticed it, get back on that line just get back Zen itself the noticing itself is the Zaza. So the being ourselves up or the critical this critical mind that we have been in swells up it's not going to do us any good notice it but get back just get back to noticing and alright to get back to without the commentary. The other extreme is you know, we can get into a deeper state and then the thoughts going to be all I'm doing pretty good here. Already then we're lost
our time is up. We'll stop now and recite the four vows