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Three Books by Kosho Uchiyama
February 21, 2000 and September 28, 2004
Reviewer: Eric Arbiter from Houston,TX
"Opening the Hand of Thought", "The Wholehearted Way", and From "Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment"
I am re-posting this review because "Opening the Hand of Thought" went out of print for several years. It has just been re-released with wonderful new introductory materials.
Ten years ago I had determined to take up Zen practice and this book was a key ingredient in that process. I was truly saddened that it was not available to help others as a guiding inspiriation for doing zazen during the time it was out of print.
I am so grateful to Wisdom Publications and the authors for taking the time to refine and make this seminal work available again for people sincerely seeking to undertake the practice of zazen (Zen seated meditation). Below is the original review, of these three books, with a few additional observations in parenthesis.
I have re-read these books so many times that I think of them as different components of the same work, since the subjects interweave to produce a wonderful fabric of integrated Zen practice viewed from different perspectives. At first glance all of these books might seem "lightweight". I thought so at first because of their covers. Especially "Opening the Hand of Thought- Approach to Zen" (this is no longer the case with the new edition). It suggests a new-age type of quick fix book about Zen. Nothing could be further from the truth. This was just the book I needed, though I didn't yet know it. Having come to Zen meditation 2 years before reading this book, I was still unclear about meditation (zazen). (Ten years later I am still unclear about it- but I am still sitting!) Many of us reach the point where we realize that we need and want to practice meditation. Then we get to the same point of the monk in Master Dogen's (1200-1250) quote in Fukan Zazen-gi:
"When Yakusan was sitting [in meditation], a monk asked him 'What do you think when you sit?' The master said, 'I think of not thinking.' The monk inquired further, 'How do you think of not thinking?' Yakusan replied, '[by sitting] beyond thinking'".
What is beyond thinking? This is where Uchiyama makes his point of departure, walking us through just this juncture. He describes the movement of the mind and what need be done or not done about it. He even includes a diagram of the action of the mind getting caught up in thoughts and alternatively falling asleep. He speaks of zazen as neither developing thoughts, nor hating them, but releasing them (hence the title Opening the Hand of Thought). Zazen is opening the hand of thought (not grasping thought) and returning to seeing the wall millions of times.
"Opening the Hand of Thought" addresses the vast world of seated meditation and the religious and personal underpinnings behind it. It is as though Uchiyama Roshi is your own grandfather, telling you about his life, and your life, too. It is about living the "most refined way". This is not a detached dry retelling of ancient stories about someone else, but the vital story of ourselves living the life of ourselves (which he says is the very life of the buddhas, patriarchs and matriarchs). It is the way of "not being dragged around by our thoughts" and living our lives based on this even-mindedness. We take this into our daily lives in every encounter.
"From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment- Refining Your Life" at first appears to be a popular cookbook appending Zen to the title for more interest. Again, not so. This is Uchiyama Roshi's commentary on another of Master Dogen's texts: Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions to the Zen Cook) which was part of Dogen's manual for his monks. Translator and practitioner Thomas Wright says in the introduction: "Now, what possible connection could a text written for a group of male monks some 750 years ago have for present-day Europeans and Americans, neither living in a monastery nor particularly familiar with the society or way of looking at life which differs totally from our modern Western societies? That is the question to which Kosho Uchiyama Roshi addresses himself when he began writing the commentary that accompanies Dogen's text". I would say that the emphasis of this book is on Master Dogen's "three minds": magnanimous mind, joyful mind and parental mind. Through meditation we come to the place where we see that the world is none other than the self and that we take care of others because they are really ourselves. Everything which arises in your life IS your life.
"The Wholehearted Way" is Uchiyama Roshi's commentaries on Master Dogen's Bendowa, his early manifesto about the practice of zazen. It is followed by questions and answers (probably asked by his chief disciple, Ejo) directed at various misunderstandings of what Dogen felt to be the true significance of zazen.
"Sitting is itself the practice of the buddha. Sitting itself is nondoing. It is nothing but the true form of the self.
Apart from sitting there is nothing to seek as the buddha-dharma."
Eihei Dogen, Shobogenzo-Zuimonki
Uchiyama Roshi's commentaries are in the same vein as the other books, bringing these ancient teachings to us in a fresh and vital way so that they function in our daily lives. The translations and introductions are done by three of Roshi's close disciples and long-time practitioners, Tom Wright, Daniel Taigen Leighton and Shohaku Okumura. Their comments in themselves are worthy of our study.
There is for me tremendous appeal in the great scope and depth of Roshi's teachings expressed in his straightforward and engaging way. Although carefully thought out, I get the feeling, (as I expressed earlier) of being spoken to directly. He takes great pains to really look into and study certain Buddhist terms that can cause confusion if we are unclear about them. For example, he devotes several pages to the term "buddha-dharma".
I consider these three books to be essential in the deepening of my practice of Zen and meditation. Here are Uchiyama's closing words in his foreword to "Opening the Hand of Thought":
"Above all, I hope that when you read this book, (Opening the Hand of Thought) you will forget your sentiments about exotic foreign lands and read with a completely fresh mind. I hope that, as you read, you will look at your own life and apply what I have written to your everyday life. That is the only place where the real world of Zen is".