People are sometimes surprised (or even alarmed) to learn that during my time in a Japanese Zen monastery, there wasn’t a whole lot of discussion of Buddhism. Occasionally, on retreat, we’d hear a talk. And of course there was a lot of recitation—chanting, reading classical texts aloud, that kind of thing. But there wasn’t much actual teaching about philosophical principles.
“But…then…what did you learn?” That can be a hard question to answer. Or at least, in many cases, it’s easier to show you than to try to put it down in words. But here’s one thing I learned: to do things with two hands. This popped up on my first day, the first time I was part of gyohatsu, the formal style of eating using oryoki bowls. I started setting out my bowls with my right hand and was corrected: “No, like this, using both thumbs.” That makes sense, I thought, it’s so the bowls don’t slip and break. But when I reached for my chopsticks with my right hand and was told, “No, pick them up with two hands,” I thought, I was wrong—this doesn’t make sense. This, I realized, is something else.
It soon became clear that using two hands applied to everything. When you pick up a teacup, pick it up with two hands. When you ring a bell, hold the striker with two hands. When you open a door, place a hand on the doorknob and another on the door itself, and the same when closing. Whatever the situation, whatever the object, if you have two hands free, use them both.
This is not philosophy—it’s not, as I’ve heard some people describe bowing, that one hand holds the relative and one the absolute. Or one hand wisdom, one hand compassion. Or whatever we want that to be, so that it means something. In Zen, actions don’t mean something else. They mean what they are.
The choice to use two hands when you could use just one—and let’s be honest, that’s most of the time—is a choice to do whatever it is, to hold whatever it is, completely. Nothing is withheld. If I do one thing with the left and the other with the right, I’m doing two things halfway. If I do one thing with the right and nothing with the left, now I’m doing one thing halfway. But that one thing, even if it’s as small and insignificant as picking up a fork—in this moment, that action is my life. It’s the shape my life takes in this moment, and if there’s anything Buddhism makes perfectly clear, it’s that this moment might be your last.
Picking up a fork feels like an intermediate step, something on the way to the main event of putting food in your mouth. And eating that food also feels like a step along the way—it’s happening in between meetings or in between projects, just a moment of fueling up for whatever activity defines us. And that work, in time, becomes a minor chapter in some overarching narrative of our lives. Who cares how I picked up that fork?
No one. No one cares. But that doesn’t change that in the moment that you pick up a fork, picking up a fork is the most important activity of your life. It is the only activity of your life in that moment. It is the culmination of every thought you’ve ever had, every word you’ve ever said, every choice you’ve ever made. It all led to this moment of picking up the fork. That may sound silly, but it’s true. What’s silly, and said, is how many of these moments we miss on the way to something we think is bigger.
Try this. Next time you drink from a cup, use two hands. (If humans had three hands, the teaching would be to use all three; if you have just one hand, then use that one hand. This is about doing something completely, whatever your tools may be.) Use everything you have when you open and close a door, or when you cook, or when you clean, or when you shake someone’s hand. Whatever it is, explore what it is to do it 100 percent, nothing held back. See how it feels not just to touch this moment but to hold it.
Lifting a fork, opening a door, turning a steering wheel—however you choose to do it, is what you’ve become. Yes, it’s a small thing; it doesn’t feel like much. But no moment will actually be bigger. No moment will be more significant. So why wouldn’t you grab it with both hands?
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.