"Mindfulness and Meditation allow us to open our hearts, relax our bodies, and clear our minds enough to experience the vast, mysterious, sacred reality of life directly. With Practice we come to know for ourselves that eternity is available in each moment.

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call:
Musings on Life and Practice
by a Longtime Student of Meditation

Friday, October 18, 2013

Opening the Hand of Thought

(This is the post I began last week but had to let go of.  Thanks so much to all of you who extended your kind words and support these past weeks.  It has meant a lot to me---Lance)

"To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away."
                                                         --Eihei Dogen, from Genjokoan

 "If we open the hand of thought that grasps "this person" (that is, our self) as the center of the world, then our lives broaden and our hearts open to all beings."
Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen's Shobogenzo

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253)
Although Sitting is the Heart of Practice for me,  I also generally spend a bit of time most days going over spiritual teachings in the written form.  For awhile now, I had been re-reading Pema Chodron's Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, digesting it a chapter at a time once again, sometimes alone, sometimes reading aloud to Betsy before we retired for the night. Although it's was my third time through in succession, each journey through has been inspirational.

Then, several weeks ago, I spied a copy of Shohaku Okumura's Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen's Shobogenzo laying in the back seat of my buddhy Peel Sonier's car as we're driving up to Greenfield for the #OMG! Sit.  Having been hoodwinked into a bit of koan study by Daido Roshi during my residency at Zen Mountain Monastery (a funny tale which I won't go into here), I had been deeply touched as I studied Genjokoan with the Roshi.   Having been also touched by the writings of Okumura, one of the founding forces of the Pioneer Valley Zendo in Charlemont, and his teacher, Kosho Uchiyama,  I immediately asked Peel if I could borrow the book.  He smiled and said "sure." 

The timing was perfect.  Sometimes the right book at the right time can make all the difference.
As many of you know, my life has been quite topsy turvy for the past month.   Although my usual life is pretty unconventional, it has its re-occuring rhythms, its routines and rituals.  There's MMM and #OMG!, a solo morning sit most mornings.   There's morning coffee at Greenfield Coffee Tuesdays through Thursday.  Coffee in Betsy's kitchen Friday through Monday.  Most evenings, wherever I am, I read at least a few minutes of Dharma before I turn the lights off, turn my attention to my body and breath and notice a few dream bubbles before I fall asleep.

Now, as I spend another week "on duty" as father and grandfather for much of the time, those routines have evaporated.  Although I have managed to meditate most days, sometimes twice, I rarely have Sat in the same place or at the same time two days in a row for weeks.  I haven't dragged a zafu with me as I've traveled between South Deerfield, Greenfield, Wilbraham, Turners Falls, Hancock and Barre attending to the family business at hand, so I've Sat on assorted couch cushions, a tree root, the conveniently shaped edge of a boulder, a curb, my shoes. I've sat first thing in the morning a few times and the noon Sit in Greenfield a few times,  but besides Monday morning (and I even missed that once), I generally just grab the time to meditate when it presents itself amidst taking care of business. 

At times, I miss "my" life.

Yet, as I've poked my nose into Okumuru's book in spare moments here and there over the past month, I came across a few notions that have proved to be quite helpful.

The first is his teacher, Uchiyama Roshi's, differentiation between Life and what he calls "the scenery of our lives".  As I understand it, Life is the Universal Oneness that flows within us and that we flow within.   It's what what I've come to call the One Love, the essential Sacredness that glows in what some Buddhists call the suchness of each moment.  I think it is what the Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven, which contrary to the Christian doctrine that emerged over the centuries, exists not as some glorious land of milk and honey that we enjoy after we physically die, but exists within us and among us amidst the reality of our lives here on earth.  Philosophically, this might be termed the Absolute, or Absolute Truth.  It's the underlying fabric of our lives whether we "know" it or not.

Then, on what might be termed the relative level there is "the scenery of our lives", the myriad details of our individual existence; the roles we play, the daily occurrences, our moment to moment experiences, the actions we take in the cauldron of the conditions of our unique incarnations as human beings.  It's the stuff we are as finite beings, the stuff we deal with every moment--until we die.

In Zen, the distinction between Life and 'the scenery of our lives", between the Absolute and the Relative, however,  is understood as being primarily conceptual, the result of our discriminating minds. The distinction itself is not the Absolute Truth.  There isn't really any separation between Life and "the scenery of our lives"!

Then what?

It is here that another notion offered by Okumuru was really helpful these past few weeks.  His teacher, Kosho Uchiyama, had coined the term "opening the hand of thought." Though essentially the same as "letting go" of thoughts, this term was a word picture that gave me an even deeper recognition that many of the storylines that run through our minds are simply our "grasping" to be someone, to cling to an identity that is primarily ephemeral,  the result of our conditioning to "think' that we exist as separate and distinct from the rest of Life. 

Again and again, as I felt the dissonance between what "my life" had been, between what "I wanted" and what was emerging right in front of my nose; again and again as I felt frustrated or confused or fearful or overwhelmed, I simply "opened the hand of thought" and turned to exactly what was happening around me, to help out as best I could.  And, again and again, the drama immediately dispelled and I took care of business right there and then with some semblance of grace and efficiency.

Moments of drama, of course, re-emerged again and again as storylines amidst uncomfortable feelings emerged, but that is, after all, what I've signed on for in choosing the Bodhisattva Vow: a life of ceaseless practice amidst the ups and downs of a life embedded in karmic responsibilities to family and friends, responsibilities to the larger world, to all sentient beings. 

What I've seen more and more clearly during this chaotic and unsettled time, is that at any one moment there is a fundamental choice: I can collapse in and identify with my own "plight", or  I can simply "open the hand of thought"--and see what needs to be done.  What's really neat is that with  my effort to make it better for others, it most often gets better for me, too.

I can certainly live with that!


Proud AP Momma said...

Your Family obligations remind me of that young women I met some 30 years ago at a family retreat at Insight Meditation. ,She told me she was a closet meditator...literally..she would hide in a closet to meditate for even a few minutes of mindfulness..always brings a smile.

Charles said...

I enjoyed your perspective thanks.
It's good to here other lay practitioners stories, especially when family is involved. I call my wife & daughter my lovely Buddhas. In this article you talk about absolute/relative truth as being without distinction and opening the hand of thought or letting go. These two concepts as I've come to realize are also without distinction, and I refer to this as "disappearing into the center" or "disappear into balance". The middle path being a balancing act between the absolute/relative.. intuition/intellect.. in breath/out breath.. expansion/contraction.. etc.
This is the movement of the universe.. A perfect circle or cycle. The interval, pause, axis, center point being emptiness. The position of being as the disappearing act. "You" must disappear into what is being done. Being happens. This "You" must get out of the way of this ebb & flow happening, similar to moving out of the way of an aggressor attacking. If "You" are in the way as an opposition then conflict results. But if "You" disappear into the center then the absolute/relative remain balanced. In this way a plan/action happens without conflict. Because "you" are not what is doing something.. "You" has disappeared into what is being done. Thanks again, great blog.

Lance Smith said...

Hey Charles,
A bit belated, but thanks for disappearing into a good presentation of the middle path!
One Love,