Greatest Zen Book Ever

Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice.  By Kosho Uchiyama, Translated and Edited by Tom Wright, Jisho Warner, and Shohaku Okumura.  Wisdom Publications.  205 pp.  $16.95.

Factoids that I’ve picked up about Kosho Uchiyama through years of being obsessed with him:  He was an expert at origami, as his father had been, and was inordinately proud of his abilities, saying he could make out of one sheet of paper things that other people took two or three.  Before he became a Zen monk, he studied Western philosophy and religion; he knew the Bible quite well, quoted from it in his Zen teachings, and continued to read it until he died.  He was married three times.  When he was writing his book about Dogen’s Instructions to the Cook, and considered the question of what he did for pleasure, the only thing he could think of was the fact that, at the end of the day, before bed, he drank three small shots of whiskey.  By the end of his life he had just one tooth left.  On his last day he smoked a cigarette.  He also wrote a poem.

In the interviews on the website Sweeping Zen, the last question asked of all the teachers is what books they would recommend, and in my informal observation—I haven’t counted up—the two titles most often mentioned were Opening the Hand of Thought and Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.  Both are great books, but Suzuki never really faces the question of how you do zazen, while Uchiyama takes it up intimately.  He writes a long chapter about it.

Uchiyama was a student of the famously charismatic Sawaki Kodo, and on one occasion said to his teacher, “As you know, I’m a rather weakminded person, but I want to continue to practice zazen with you for twenty or even thirty years, or until you die.  If I do that, will it be possible for a weak person like me to become a little stronger?”  Sawaki replied, “No!  I’m not like this because of my practice.  I was like this before I began to practice.  Zazen doesn’t change a person.  Zazen is good for nothing.”

Uchiyama cared for Sawaki—who had founded their temple, Antaiji—well into his old age, and was himself the abbot of the monastery for only ten years.  He retired in 1975 at the age of 63 because his health was delicate—he’d suffered from tuberculosis—and then, like other people who had had TB, took such good care of himself that he lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1998 at the age of 86.

Uchiyama was apparently not a charismatic teacher; when Arthur Braverman wrote his wonderful book Living and Dying in Zazen—a must-read for Zen students—he devotes chapters to all the people around Uchiyama, but hardly writes about Uchiyama himself.  Uchiyama was squarely in the Soto Zen tradition of Eihei Dogen, and he was soaked in the teachings of the Buddha as well, but he was also his own person, who had studied and been influenced by various teachings, who faced the great questions of existence—What is ultimate reality?  How should we live?—with no preconceptions at all.  He was as happy to quote the the Bible as he was to quote Dogen.  He also consulted his many years of practice, one man’s lifelong encounter with the universe.

W.H. Auden once said that the best way to review a book of poetry was just to quote from it, and I often feel the same way about a dharma book.  In this case, the temptation is to quote the whole thing.  I’ll try to restrain myself.


“I’m concerned with how a person, any person, who is completely naked of any religious or philosophical clothes, can live out their life fruitfully.”


“Zen concerns the true depth of life that is beyond the reach of the intellect.  This ‘life’ is not Eastern or Western, it extends through all humanity.”


“I described two sides to a person who practices zazen.  One side is the personal self that is always being pulled to and fro by thoughts about desires.  The other is the self that is sitting in zazen letting go of such thoughts; this is an ordinary person living out the universal self.  The first is like clouds, and the second is like the wide sky that the clouds float in.”


“Dwelling here and now in this reality, letting go of all the accidental things that arise in our minds, is what I mean by ‘opening the hand of thought.’”


“The life that runs through everything in the universe is me.  I don’t mean me as an ego.  I mean my self in the true sense, the universal self.  . . . This self is not some fixed body, it’s constantly changing.”


“Zazen is to Buddhism what prayer is to the Judeo-Christian traditions.  Just as prayer is giving up of our small petty desires and asking that God’s will be done, zazen is also a giving up of our egotistical evaluations of ourselves (whether as superior or inferior) and entrusting our life to the power of zazen . . . as soon as we start thinking and calculating about things, we become, in a sense, suspended from reality.”


“Whatever our way of life may be, that is the reality of life, so there is no possibility of living outside the reality of life.  Nevertheless, it is all too possible to live losing sight of that reality, and because of that, to suffer and agonize about our lives.”


“The important thing is to find a sane way to live out the reality of life.  This is what a true spiritual practice is about: not spirit or mind separated from the body and the world, but a true way of life.  This is what zazen is—a practice of living out the fresh reality of life.”


“In our zazen, it is precisely at the point where our small, foolish self remains unsatisfied, or completely bewildered, that immeasurable natural life beyond the thought of that self takes place.”


“If in our practice we try to achieve some goal by means of zazen, even if the goal is satori, then we have become completely separated from true zazen and practice.  Precisely because we live the life of universal self, we just practice and manifest that life source.”


“The presence or absence of a god concept is not what is most fundamental, since religion must be that which teaches humanity what is most important in life and offers genuine spiritual peace.  In this most fundamental sense, Buddhism is pure religion.”


I consider Uchiyama to be one of the great religious minds of the twentieth century.  I have no idea how many times I’ve read this book.  I’m sure I’ll be reading it for the rest of my life.