Opening the Self


Kosho Uchiyama Roshi was the teacher of my teacher, Shohaku Okumura. He wrote a book that has become pretty famous in American Zen circles called Opening the Hand of Thought. He actually wrote this book specifically for Western Zen practitioners. In the 1960s and 70s lots of Americans and Europeans came to practice with Uchiyama Roshi at Antaiji in Kyoto. Unfortunately Uchiyama Roshi didn’t speak any language other than Japanese so there was a barrier between him and these folks who came to practice with him. Real-time translation of this kind of thinking and expression is a pretty tough game, so he wrote this book to try to communicate to them what his teaching and practice of zazen mean.

Opening the Hand of Thought is Uchiyama Roshi’s expression for our zazen practice. One of my ways of studying for the last few months has been listening to my teacher Shohaku Okumura’s commentary on this book. This study has stirred a lot of thoughts about the way I practice. Okumura Roshi started doing his commentary during his Sunday morning talks more than 10 years ago. Now there are probably more than 300 hours of commentary on the book! In the introduction to Opening the Hand of Thought Okumura Roshi writes, “We try to keep the same upright, immovable posture no matter what condition we are in, and to trust that above the clouds of thoughts, Buddha’s wisdom and compassion are shining like the sun in a clear blue sky. This is what opening the hand of thought has come to mean in my life.” My jumping off point for this talk is my realization that the word ‘thought’ in this expression is a translation of the Japanese word so, or xiang in Chinese (想). So or 想 is the third of the five skandhas.

What are the Five Skandhas?

One of the unique teachings in Buddhism is sometimes called No Self. One thing this means is that no matter how closely we examine anything in the universe, including ourselves, we cannot find some essential entity that IS that thing. Instead, the Buddha teaches that we are made up of five skandhas – nothing more and nothing less.

Bhikku Bhodi, a contemporary Theravada monk and scholar, writes that the word khandha (the Pali version of the Sanskrit word skandha) means a heap or mass. Each skandha is a heading under which we find many different phenomena all of which share some trait that unites them. In other words, there are many variations and different manifestations of each kind of thing that all fall under each broad category these five skandhas.

Bhikku Bodhi also writes that “…Because the 5 aggregates that make up our ordinary experience are the objective domain of clinging (upadana) they are commonly called the five aggregates subject to clinging” (pancuppadanakhandha)

He explains that there are two basic ways that we cling to or identify with the five skandhas.

1.       Grasping them, taking possession of them, appropriating them

2.       Using them for the basis of our view of ourselves (in other words, comparing ourselves to others)

The classic formulation for how we do this is: “this is mine (appropriation), this I am (identification 1), this is my self (identification 2)”

The aforementioned skandhas are:

1.       Rupa  色(Ch. Se. Jap, shiki) - form

2.       Vedana 受(Ch. Shou, Jap. ju) – receive, accept, subjected to) sensations, feelings

3.       Samjna 想(Ch. Xiang, Jap. so) – to think, to believe, to suppose, idea) perception or discrimination

4.       Samskara 行(Ch. Xing, Jap. gyo) – behavior, conduct) conditioning factors

5.       Vijnana  識 (Ch. Shi, Jap. shiki) - consciousness

When I realized the word that is translated as thought in the expression opening the hand of thought refers specifically to the third of these five skandhas my understanding of this expression really broadened. I began to see it as an abbreviation. Opening the Hand of Thought, in its unconventional English, points at releasing our attachment to thought (which, in this case, is a category that includes our beliefs, suppositions, ideas, perceptions, discriminations among other things). It means also opening our hands in relationship to each of the other skandhas. This means, at the very least, being willing to allow the possibility that we cannot own, appropriate, control, or identify with any of the things on the following list. It means, as a start, being open to the prospect that nothing in the universe can be owned, appropriated, controlled, or identified with.

  • Our bodies
  • Our sensations
  • Our feelings
  • Our thoughts
  • Our beliefs
  • Our suppositions
  • Our ideas
  • Our perceptions
  • Our discriminations
  • Our habits
  • Our behavior
  • Our conduct
  • Our consciousness
  • Our impulses
  • Our predilections
  • Our fabrications

One thing we commonly do that causes discomfort and/or is a result of discomfort is attempt to hold our corporeal bodies together while we sit. On some level I think there is a sense, and it can be a scary one, that we will literally come apart – physically, mentally, or emotionally – in this kind of practice. When we find we have wandered from the present and into fantasy or dreaming or sleeping or any of the other numberless ways we have of escaping where we are during our zazen practice, Uchiyama Roshi often suggests that we return to our posture. My understanding of this suggestion is that, first of all, we check to see if our body is still in order. Hips solidly on the cushion or chair? Spine rising effortlessly (ideally) with its natural curve intact toward the sky? Head balanced freely on top of that structure? I check to see where I am holding on unnecessarily. My shoulders? My hips? My face? Letting go of all this is an act of trust. Your body will balance itself and hold itself together with minimum effort or interference from your mind. This is returning to posture. Uchiyama Roshi wrote, “Doing correct zazen means taking the correct posture and entrusting everything to it.”

One unsurprising thing I have discovered is how protective I am of this body. I don’t want it to die. I don’t want it to be in danger. I don’t want it to be in pain. I very strongly identify it as mine (this is mine, this I am, this is myself) and in certain senses this is all true. For example, this body is not yours. It is the body I have to practice with and to live in this world. I have found that it does not always feel safe or comfortable to let go of this body in my sitting practice.

The term Mara is an important word in Buddhist teaching. It literally means “Maker of Death”. In the traditional Buddhist cosmology Mara is a powerful divinity devoted to preventing beings from achieving liberation from rebirth. The great teacher Nagarjuna, who was so important and influential he is sometimes called the second Buddha, said that there is only one Mara and that is our own five skandhas. The Buddha says almost the same thing in the Radhasamyutta, a sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya. In a conversation between Buddha and Radha the Buddha discusses the five skandhas. He says that we should see form as Mara. He says we should see it as a killer, and as the one who is killed. We should see it as a disease, as a tumor, as a dart, and as misery. He tells us that seeing it like this is seeing it rightly.

Radha: What is the purpose of seeing rightly?

Buddha: The purpose of seeing rightly is to develop a sense of revulsion.

Radha: What is the purpose of revulsion?

Buddha: Dispassion so that we have freedom from the greed of our 5 skandhas (upadana skandhas).

Radha: And what is the purpose of this dispassion?

Buddha: Liberation.

Radha: What is the purpose of liberation?

Buddha: The purpose is Nirvana.

Radha: And what is the purpose of Nirvana?

Buddha: This is beyond the range of questions!

Here is another short conversation between Radha and Buddha about the five skandhas (slightly edited for concision by me).

Satta Sutta: A Being

translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi at Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's monastery. Then Ven. Radha went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: "'A being,' lord. 'A being,' it's said. To what extent is one said to be 'a being'?"

"Any desire, passion, delight, or craving for form, feeling, perception, fabrications, or consciousness [the five skandhas], Radha: when one is caught up there, tied up there, one is said to be 'a being.'

"Just as when boys or girls are playing with little sand castles: as long as they are not free from passion, desire, love, thirst, fever, & craving for those little sand castles, that's how long they have fun with those sand castles, enjoy them, treasure them, feel possessive of them. But when they become free from passion, desire, love, thirst, fever, & craving for those little sand castles, then they smash them, scatter them, demolish them with their hands or feet and make them unfit for play.

"In the same way, Radha, you too should smash, scatter, & demolish form, and make it unfit for play. Practice for the ending of craving for form.

"You should smash, scatter, & demolish feeling, and make it unfit for play. Practice for the ending of craving for feeling.

"You should smash, scatter, & demolish perception, and make it unfit for play. Practice for the ending of craving for perception.

"You should smash, scatter, & demolish fabrications, and make them unfit for play. Practice for the ending of craving for fabrications.

"You should smash, scatter, & demolish consciousness and make it unfit for play. Practice for the ending of craving for consciousness — for the ending of craving, Radha, is Unbinding."

This is pretty harsh talk, and although I think the meaning of it is the same as Dogen’s, or Uchiyama Roshi’s, or Okumura Roshi’s teachings about how we should practice with our five skandhas, the feeling of it is different. This reflects a general change in the means of expression I’ve noticed in Buddhism between the early teachings and the Mahayana (although there are plenty of Mahayana teachers who use very strong language to get their points across). I want to emphasize that although the style of expression changes, and is in fact unique from teacher to teacher, the central message does not change: Clinging to the five skandhas is the central cause of suffering. There can also be transformation in the way we relate to our own five skandhas over the course of our practice lives. Sometimes we may view our bodies as obstacles, things we would like to smash, scatter, and demolish. But before we get too attached to that plan, it may be helpful to remember that this body and mind are the only ones we have to practice with! I want to follow this thread. Is smashing, scattering, and demolishing the way to go?

We think about things using words, which means defining what things are. This is our way of sorting things. Simply by saying what something is, we've already made a definition and separated it from other things. In Buddhist terms this is called nama rupa (nama = to be named [Ch. ming], rupa = form). The name we give something demonstrates our relationship with, and our thinking and desire concerning that thing.

This branch of Buddhism, Soto Zen Buddhism which came to North America from Japan in the 20th century, was founded by Eihei Dogen Zenji. Dogen Zenji was born in 1200 CE. I don’t have time to say anything about him, except that he was almost indescribably brilliant and influential. One of his most important writings is called Genjokoan. The first sentence of Genjokoan reads: “When all dharmas [things] are the Buddha Dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, life and death, buddhas and living beings.” When all dharmas [things] are the Buddha Dharma describes a condition where this process of separation leading to clinging and suffering has not happened. I imagine something primordial – things simply exist as they are, like the condition in the garden of Eden before the fall. No sense of self-consciousness, no sense of existence or non-existence. Things have not taken on the weight of being objects of our thinking and evaluation. They are the five skandhas without attachment. They are not in a state of clinging. They are the Buddha Dharma.

The Heart Sutra is the most commonly read and chanted piece of literature in the Zen world. It is chanted every day in every Zen temple, monastery and practice center throughout the world. Despite that, it is really not easy to understand. The first sentence reads: “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajna paramita, clearly saw that all five aggregates [skandhas] are empty and thus relieved all suffering.” As there cannot be an Avalokiteshvara separate from the five skandhas, this means the emptiness of the five skandhas is seen by the five skandhas themselves. To see that there are only the five skandhas without attachment to themselves is what it means to relieve all suffering. In other words, the five skandhas see that they themselves are empty, that there is nothing to be attached to, and this itself relieves suffering.

When we talk about clinging to the five skandhas, we are talking about nothing other than the five skandhas clinging to the five skandhas themselves. As we are exactly the five skandhas we suffer because of this attachment. There is no separate thing that suffers. The five skandhas themselves are suffering because of their attachment to themselves. 

The opening sentences of Dogen’s Makahannya Haramitsu, one of his earliest writings and in many ways a commentary on the Heart Sutra, read, “The time of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva practicing profound prajna paramita is the whole body clearly seeing the emptiness of all five aggregates.  The five aggregates are forms, sensations, perceptions, predilections, and consciousness; this is the five-fold prajna. Clear seeing is itself prajna.” The Sanskrit word prajna is most commonly translated as wisdom. It refers to a kind of wisdom that reflects a true and clear understanding of reality. Dogen tells us that our five skandhas (which Nagarjuna told us are devoted to preventing us from achieving liberation) are the five-fold prajna. Our bodies and minds are true and clear expression of reality itself.

But what does it mean for our bodies and minds to be like this when they feel so ordinary, so often out of control or unsatisfactory, at the very least so unenlightened? Does being a true, clear expression of the reality of the universe have something to do with what we do with our bodies and minds? Can we accomplish or earn this? According to my teacher, Shohaku Okumura, Dogen's style is to not stop thinking until we reach the limit of thinking. At that point we have no choice but to become free from our thinking. We have reached the limit and experienced for ourselves that thinking is not reality itself. When we think thoroughly enough, we see that we cannot reach reality itself through thinking. We experience that our personal view is not reality itself. Using our five skandhas in this way is to “see” reality beyond our thinking. In Opening the Hand of Thought Uchiyama Roshi wrote, “Self does not exist because I think about it or because I don’t think about it. Either way, this self, universal and personal, is my life. Zazen practice is a way of truly putting this reality of life into practice”.

In his commentary on Dogen’s Keisei Sanshoku (Sounds of Valley Streams and Colors of Mountains) Okumura Roshi said, "Our zazen practice is not a training to make our five skandhas have the capability to teach. We just sit. We gain nothing. Of course, we lose nothing - we just sit. So this has nothing to do with whether we can be a teacher or not, whether we can be a master or not. In this practice we just become ourselves. That's all. That's why Sawaki Roshi said our zazen practice is good for nothing.”

This is my current understanding about the meaning of zazen practice as taught by Dogen and my teacher. Opening the Hand of Thought means “all dharmas [things] are the Buddha Dharma”, everything is simply itself, the five aggregates exist are already freed from attachment to themselves. This ‘five aggregates’ or skandhas means you. You, as the five skandhas, exist freely. This is true all the time. Our practice of zazen is our body and mind manifesting this. Our practice of zazen is what it means to see reality beyond our thinking. It is not that you will clarify this through something you see with your eyes, or even necessarily with your mind’s eye. I don’t think it means that you will become a different or better or enlightened person. I don’t know anything about what those things mean. Opening the Hand of Thought means to bloom as the exact instance of the exact kind of being you are in the universe right now, with all your energy and without any comparisons. To quote Uchiyama Roshi one last time for today, “…the violet blooms as a violet, and the rose expresses its life as a rose. The flowers blooming in the field do not feel with pride that they should win first prize in a beauty contest; they do not feel that they are in competition with other flowers. The violet does not develop an inferiority complex, thinking, ‘The roses are big and beautiful but a little violet like me is useless.’ It doesn’t say with impatience, ‘I’ve got to become more efficient.’ It simply manifests its own life force with all its might.”

I end here by encouraging you to read the short introduction to the book by Desert Notes Barry Lopez (actually, read the whole thing. It is short and incredibly beautiful). It is a book that had an enormous impact on me when I was young. I recently rediscovered it and find that he expresses things I have no words for.