Two Hands

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.

21 comments on “Two Hands

  1. David Ashton says:

    This is a welcome reminder. At the grocery store, an asian clerk handed me my receipt with both hands. I was a little surprised but took it with both hands and we exchanged smiles. When I go home tonight, I’m going to move my books off the floor onto the bookshelf. _/\_

    • Koun says:

      David–

      Thank you. I teach writing at a local university, and one of my favorite things every week is just to collect homework from a bunch of young people who very seriously and generously face it towards me and pass it to me with both hands (and a little bow). It’s one of my small pleasures.

      Gassho,
      -koun

  2. Peter says:

    Gosh Koun I continue to be impressed by how clearly I hear your voice in these unique teachings. Thank you so much for sharing in this way. An excellent reminder about how we should live each moment. Since my books are on shelves, I intend to go home tonight and place them all on the floor with both hands! Peter

  3. Mike Daido Bard says:

    “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 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.”

    Interesting to see the progression of the different flavors of buddhism of putting this one act of drinking coffee into action. I really got a lot out of it Thanks.

  4. Al Coleman says:

    Why is the blog so awesome? 🙂

    Seriously, I feel that you are touching aspects of zen practice that the lay person would never be privy to. With the exception of Oryoki, I’ve never been introduced to practice like this.

    Koun, you have a unique and articulate way of expressing zen practice. I would consider writing a book if I were you.

    Gassho,

    Al

    • Koun says:

      Al–

      Thank you for the encouragement. There are things I would like to write about (and have tried to write about) that don’t fit neatly into the format of a blog like this one. Some things need to be held together as a book. Maybe I’ll try.

      And thank you for the reminder to write about oryoki — that goes on the list for the blog. 🙂

      Gassho,
      -koun

  5. A wonderful post. Thank you very much for it.

    Gassho
    Matthew

  6. Alex Perucchini says:

    Thank you again for the wonderful insight. I echo the sentiments of the other commenters… This feels like a blessing!

  7. Karen Laing says:

    I love this, Koun. I will practice. (Bird watchers and ornithologists know to hold binoculars with both hands. You can always tell if a photo shows someone holding them with one hand–the photo is staged, or else the person holding the binoculars hasn’t learned yet. And they probably can’t figure out why they can’t really see or find anything).

    • Koun says:

      Jikun–

      Thank you. (And how great to meet you here!) In my mind’s eye, I can picture photo after photo of people casually looking through binoculars, one-handed. This will probably drive me crazy now, looking out for it. 🙂

      Gassho,
      -koun

  8. Chris Amirault says:

    I have been inarticulate in describing to myself what has been so compelling — ennobling — about your blog posts, but the coincidence of this entry on hōrei and this morning’s Tricycle email blast clinched it for me.

    The Tricycle email states that “Western Buddhists often discuss stripping Buddhism of its traditional Asian ‘cultural baggage'[.]” There’s much to say about the peculiarly Western ethnocentrism of “stripping” “baggage,” but here I’ll merely comment that your blog consistently enriches my understanding of Zen practices in their particularity, whether we call them spiritual practices or cultural practices or….

    Like you, I suspect, I prefer cultural baggage, wherever I encounter it, to be enriched, not stripped. That is to say: gassho.

    • Koun says:

      Chris–

      Thank you. The short quotation from Tricycle itself carries so, so much baggage that it’s hard to know where to start. That’s a rich vein. To carry the metaphor, for myself, I think there’s a value in carrying the baggage around for a while, to see if we can get a solid grip on it. There are times when we discover that it’s just not as heavy or cumbersome as we thought, but we can rarely make that judgment without actually picking it up ourselves.

      Gassho,
      -koun

      p.s. How does one receive the “Tricycle email blast?”

      • StoneCutter says:

        It has been a while since I signed up for the Tricycle updates, but I believe you go to http://www.tricycle.com/join and pick the basic/free membership and then you begin recieving their updates and what they call Daily Dharma. What I like about the latter is they link to fuller articles & interviews back on their site if you want more than a snippet.

      • Koun says:

        StoneCutter–

        Thank you! I’ll check it out.

        Gassho,
        -koun

  9. Bob Powers says:

    Your post reminds me of an experience I had 26 years ago. I was bringing my wife and newborn daughter home from St. John’s Mercy Hospital in St. Louis. I was nervous and driving ridiculously slow. I had both hands on the steering wheel because I was surrounded by a sense of “everything precious, everything fragile.” And it was in my hands that I felt this.

    Holding something precious, we do it with both hands. Your post reminds me that everything is precious. But in the way I carelessly figure it and jigger it, as Paul Simon says, I often mistake the value for the price. Thanks for reminding me how to remember that the value is always right here.

    With two open hands,

    Bob Powers

    • Koun says:

      Bob–

      Thank you. I relate to what you’re saying, that feeling in your hands. I sometimes feel it on the bare soles of my feet, this palpable sense that I am here, and this is where it’s all at.

      My 3-year-old son, by the way, is really strict about two-handed driving, even though I’ve never said anything about it to him. If he catches me slacking off, he’ll start shouting, “Papa! Two hands! TWO HANDS!” I can’t really complain about that.

      Gassho,
      -koun

  10. Raj says:

    Great reading

  11. Raj says:

    Rereading your post after a gap. Thank you. Since then, being in your space with two hands. It is not a matter of just two hands. It is holding this glass and feeling this gap before drinking. In fact, two hands is more or less an undercut. It is this wholeness of mind feeling this gap of drinking. Feeling the drinking. It is a great inclusive act, ecstatic and agreeable. -Outside the window, the yellow beckoning flowers, staying there for many days in this season. The cock and his companion, the hybrid hen picking and looking up in another ecstasy. This is Palghat, where my being is mellowed. Thank you for the visitation.

  12. rajan singh says:

    thanks for such a nice post. Can we get the dogen instruction manual of every activity he has mentioned? will you please do this for us?

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