Please pick something up and hold it in your hand — a pencil, a coffee cup, your keys, whatever is nearby. If you’re reading this on your phone, then just for a moment, allow your attention to shift away from the words on the page, and towards the act of grasping the machine in your hand, the sensation of it, the weight. Even just this — paying attention to the sensation of ordinary activity, noticing that we are always touching something — is something we do very rarely.
Put the object down. Now pick it up again, but with two hands. Hold it with two hands. Feel that. Notice how using both hands changes your posture just a little, how it makes this simple gesture so much more deliberate, so much more careful. So much more generous. Notice how, especially if it’s a small object, using two hands allows you to treat it with so much more care. You hold a coffee mug the way you might hold a kitten. With two hands, you don’t just grip a pencil — you hold it with your fingers, as you would something breakable. This is something we almost never do, not unless we choose it.
This simple choice is one face of what is called hōrei (法礼). The hō is Dharma. The rei in this case refers to a kind of etiquette, so in my head, I tend to translate hōrei as “Dharma decorum.” But the rei also means “gratitude.” We should keep that in mind. Hōrei applies to human interaction, of course — how we serve a guest, how we approach a teacher, how we receive a gift, and so on. But on a more basic level, it speaks to how we treat the world, how we stand as both host and guest in each moment.
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.
But the most basic principle of hōrei can be expressed very simply: use both hands. Whatever you are doing, whenever possible, use two hands. If you are opening a door, open it with two hands. If you are shaking someone’s hand, use both hands. Even when it seems like overkill — like picking up a fork at the start of a meal — use two hands. Like so many aspects of Zen practice, this may seem silly or useless or like a waste of time, but if you really apply this, it will change the way you approach your life.
Holding a coffee cup with both hands is holding a coffee cup one hundred percent. Nothing is withheld. The action is given full value. If you are drinking coffee with a friend, try it both ways: drinking one-handed, then holding the cup with both hands. 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.
When I type on this keyboard, I touch the keyboard; my legs touch the chair; my feet touch the floor. If someone were to ask me what I’m doing, I might say, “I’m writing,” but that does not begin to cover it. There’s an intimacy in action, all the time. When I get stuck on an idea, I put my hands on my face and read the words on the screen. When I stop mid-sentence, unsure how best to proceed, I squeeze the carpet with my toes. I take great joy from this blog, from the comments that come, from that dialogue. It feels like communication, like a reaching out. But right here, in this room, in this city, far from anyone who reads these words, there is a world of contact.
How I touch the world of this room is how I touch the world. In concrete terms, it’s all I can do — it’s all I’m doing. There are teachings that we should treat books with reverence, never placing them on the floor, always holding them just so, because the preserved word is such a precious gift, a link to the world of the writer. But there is a simpler way of looking at it: we treat a book with reverence because it is the thing in front of us. We hold it with two hands because we use both hands to receive a gift, and because we use both hands to make an offering. We hold it gently because this action is the culmination of all of our actions, all of our thoughts, all of our experiences. I drink a glass of water with two hands because that’s drinking with my whole body, and that’s drinking with my whole life. I open the door with two hands because I only have two hands.
I once heard a Tibetan teacher say something like, “You should drink coffee with the same intensity as if you’re being chased by three tigers.” In Zen, we might change that to say, “Drink your coffee as if your head were on fire.” And in Soto Zen, we might simply lean forward and pick up the coffee mug with two hands, cupping it in our palms.
It’s not so much that your life depends on it, but that this is your whole life.