Redundancy (II): How to meditate with our redundant hands?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Saigyo (1118-1190), known in Japanese history as one of the finest poets of waka, or thirty-one syllable verses, was a member of the elite corps of imperial palace guards before he became a Buddhist monk, disillusioned by the social turmoil in the last days of the Heian period. Saigyo traveled extensively while composing wakas. One example of the wakas he composed during his travels is the following, which was included in Shin Kokin-shu, or New Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern:

On the road along
A stream with clear water and
In the shade of a willow,
If only for a moment,
I take a break from my walk1

Living as he did in one century before Dogen (1200-1253) spread his teachings in Japan, Saigyo was not directly influenced by Soto Zen, or Dogen’s brand of Zen Buddhism. Nevertheless, it is clear from this waka that Saigyo was well aware of the state of samatha (serenity) and vipassana (insight) sought by practitioners of Zen meditation. As a mater of fact, Saigyo manages to skillfully combine walking meditation and standing meditation in a single waka, which are two of shiigi, or “four forms of meditation”—zazen (sitting meditation), gyozen (walking meditation), jyuzen (standing meditation), and gazen (lying meditation)—recognized in Zen Buddhism, especially in Soto Zen.

The four forms of meditation appear to have evolved out of the Zen tradition established by Huineng (638-713), the sixth patriarch of Chan Buddhism in China, who stressed the idea that every act at every moment in our daily living should be treated as a practice that could potentially lead us to samatha (serenity) and vipassane (insight). As for Dogen, it is well known that he singled out zazen as the only effective form of meditation in Zen practice as represented by his idea of shikantaza, or “just sitting”, or his words recorded in Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendation for Zazen): “The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the Dharma-gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment.”2 In this, Dogen was following the form of practice set up by Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan Buddhism, who is said to have lost the use of his legs after sitting in meditation for nine years facing the wall of a cave. This is also the form of practice inherited by Nyojyo (1163-1228), who was Dogen’s teacher while he studied and trained in China.

Dogen’s insistence on zazen as the only effective form of meditation in Zen practice naturally raises the question of how to conduct that sitting meditation. Here again, Dogen is quite specific as to how to sit and meditate: “At the site of your regular sitting, spread out thick matting and place a cushion above it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus position. In the full-lotus position you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus you simply press your left foot against your right thigh. … Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left palm (facing upwards) on your right palm, thumb tips touching. Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward or backward.”3

While allowing a choice between the full-lotus and the half-lotus position for legs and feet, Dogen does not allow a similar choice for hands and fingers, for his instructions for the positioning of hands and the forming of fingers are quite specific. Why is Dogen so fastidious about the way our hands are positioned and fingers are formed? Looking at the Buddha statues found in many countries in Asia, including Japan, we find wide variations in hands and fingers gestures, known as mudras. Some statues show the Buddha with his right hand raised and his left hand placed on the left knee, some two hands joined in the middle of the body, some one hand placed on top of the other, and others both his hands placed on the knees. Of the two famous Buddha statues in Japan, the one in Kamakura shows the Buddha’s two hands joined in a mudra known as samadhi mudra (concentration gesture), while the one in Nara shows the Buddha’s right hand raised in a mudra known as abhaya mudra (fearlessness gesture) and his left hand placed on his left knee.

Wide variations in hands and fingers gestures are what is to be expected from the fact that human hands have been made redundant in the process of evolution when our ancestors started to walk on two legs, making it possible for us to use our hands for other purposes than just for locomotion. While hands thus freed from locomotion have found many usages, both beneficial and harmful, hands in zazen serve as another example of the flexibility that redundancy allows, for the state of meditative concentration can be accomplished with a variety of hands and fingers gestures. Redundancy can thus be considered good news for practitioners of meditation, as each practitioner is able to choose a specific gesture that is most comfortable and conducive to concentration.

  1. Translated from: 「道の辺に清水流るる柳陰しばしとてこそ立ちどまりつれ」
  2. Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendation for Zazen), from The Art of Just Sitting: Essential Writings on the Zen Practice of Shikantaza, edited by John Daido Loori, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2002.
  3. ibid.