1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

Skillful Means With Both Hands

By July 3, 2012

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Last week I posted a quote that described traditional Zen monastic training as teaching "mystical insight by means of ritual formalism." This is described a bit by Koun Franz at Nyoho Zen:

"In a monastery, there are almost endlessly specific physical instructions, for how to stand from a seated position (using your index and middle fingers as support, if there is a table in front of you), how to brush one's teeth (with the right hand, left hand covering the mouth), how to enter certain spaces (from the left side of the entrance, left foot first), and on and on -- and those are just a few that don't require synchronizing with the movements of those around you (there are many, and they get complicated).† All of these can be considered expressions of this etiquette, and they can take years to learn, and even more years to really integrate in a natural way."

I don't know if any American monasteries insist on moment-to-moment ritual formalism as much as one finds in Japan, although my experience in monasteries has been as a visiting layperson.

This formalism is the sort of thing that the secularists and modernizers of Buddhism pooh-pooh as being silly. But one of the things to be appreciated through practice is the way how we use our body affects our minds. Practice is a whole mind-body discipline, not an intellectual pursuit.

Koun recommends a simple practice that we all can do at home -- use both hands. Whatever you normally do with one hand -- drinking coffee, opening the door, petting the dog -- use two hands. In this way, you are making a total commitment to what you are doing.

Koun writes,

"When we drink with one hand -- the normal way -- we do nothing with the other hand, or we use it to gesture, or perhaps we even use it to prepare our next bite of something.† That is to say, we multitask, and in doing so, we do not commit to any one thing.† Every action is partial.† Zen practice, as I understand it, is total commitment -- to this action, to this moment, to this encounter.† Drinking coffee with one hand is not total commitment to that action. There is something we are holding back, something we are keeping for ourselves."

Sometime -- maybe the remainder of today -- remember to always use both hands, and see what happens.
July 3, 2012 at 6:06 pm
(1) won says:

My mouse action has become troublesome…

July 3, 2012 at 7:04 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

won — Yeah, I see what you mean! :-)

July 4, 2012 at 2:25 am
(3) Hein says:

I tried placing my left hand on my right lower arm while working the mouse…and both works.

July 4, 2012 at 10:02 am
(4) Ben Zhen says:

I am reminded of something that Zen master Seung Sahn repeated over and over: when eating just eat, when drinking just drink, when reading just read, and so on. Once the master was seen drinking while reading. Criticized on this point the master replied: “When drinking and reading just drink and read.” So I suggest that if you were previously uncommitted while using your hands individually, you will be equally uncommitted while using both of them together. Learn to commit to each act, act by act, whether one or both or no hands are involved.

July 4, 2012 at 10:45 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

Ben — The “two hands” exercise is kind of a reinforcement to commitment.

July 4, 2012 at 1:12 pm
(6) David says:

I must admit that drinking tea with two hands in the zendo tea ceremony really does make the experience contemplative and different. I wonder if left brain/right brain stuff has something to do with it–both halves of the brain involved and so forth.

July 4, 2012 at 5:43 pm
(7) Hein says:

‘wonder’ is speculation
let go or ‘wondering’
do ‘two hands’ and experience the myriad things
(with apology to Shifu Dogen)

July 5, 2012 at 7:25 am
(8) Ben Zhen says:

Barbara, thank you, I get that. Allow me to expand on my comment. I think this two-handed reinforcement is empty, impermanent, and unsatisfactory. It’s temporarily useful, that is, until it becomes routine. And if you haven’t established yourself in commitment-practice before then you’ll have to find a new technique for reinforcement. Ultimately you have to “just do it”, without holding onto any particular technique.

July 5, 2012 at 9:23 am
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

I think this two-handed reinforcement is empty, impermanent, and unsatisfactory. It’s temporarily useful, that is, until it becomes routine. And if you haven’t established yourself in commitment-practice before then you’ll have to find a new technique for reinforcement. Ultimately you have to just do itĚ, without holding onto any particular technique.

Yeah, of course, Ben, but the point is to try it for a bit to see for yourself how it changes your focus. It’s a demonstration of mind-body connection. It’s not the magic bullet to enlightenment. OK? In fact, try it yourself. Observe closely how it feels.

July 6, 2012 at 2:04 pm
(10) mickeypamo says:

Great comment, Ben. Thank you. And once again, Barbara, you’re on a roll! As dancer (I am 60, started at 5), I am thrilled at the lesson your article carries for any dance movement, and any mundane movement: to feel your whole body/mind There. Now, that is living the Dharma, eh? I’ve succeeded in complete-commitment-to-any-action several times (tiny little spots of time) in performance, and it is utter bliss. My first time was as a teenager in Dayton Ballet at The Dayton Art Institute. It was totally accidental. This is as it could be for all of us, all of the time!

July 6, 2012 at 2:11 pm
(11) mickeypamo says:

. . . me again. I love the ritual of Tibetan Buddhism. I guess because I was always comfortable inside the spectacle of performance in dance. Color, sound, movement, mudras . . . the delectable performance of these seems like the kind of energy needed in the true serving of Tea Ceremony.
I think, as a culture we have dismantled so many of our own environments of religiosity, spirituality, hence of course . . . art.
good wishes,

July 6, 2012 at 10:04 pm
(12) Yuriy L says:

What a great exercise Barbara! I’ve been experimenting it now on every activity I can think of since first reading your post last night. There is something about putting your hands together that brings forth full commitment and devotion to the task at hand.

For example I noticed the biggest difference when walking my dog and holding the leash with both hands. Both hands is like saying – this deserves my full attention in this present moment, nothing else.

It also made me think of prayer (i.e. in Buddhism or religions that believe in a creator). It seems somewhat linked in that it gathers mindfulness, peace, loving-kindness and devotion. What do others think?

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