Enlightenment is none other than recognizing the unity of opposites. However, this definition is totally intellectual, and doesn’t necessarily connect Enlightenment with anything real or concrete. Intellect needs to be connected with the physical body, with actually doing something in a particular way, through a proscribed form. Freedom is not found through intellectualizing Zen practice nor in thinking it can be found outside the forms that practice takes.
It took over a century for Zen to take root on American soil before the actual forms of practice were taught to a westerner audience. Prior to that, Zen largely remained in a theoretical stage, taught by professors, or written about in books. Suzuki Shunryu Roshi, according to How the Swans Came to the Lake, by Rick Fields, was one of the first, if not the first Zen master to begin teaching how Enlightenment is embodied. Rather than talk too much about what Zen is or about Enlightenment, he gently straightened people’s posture, and taught them how to put their hands in Hokkaijoin, or the “Cosmic Mudra.” He taught them not to scrape the chair against the floor when pushing it into the table.
Zen Master Dogen said that, “Practice and Enlightenment are one.” This takes Zen out of the theoretical and gives us concrete expressions for Enlightenment that may seem totally square or unexciting. The first form that my teacher taught me was not how to sit in meditation, but how to make “gassho,” or “joined palms.” Joining the palms together in front of the face, a certain distance from the nose and bowing to my meditation cushion was the first thing she taught. This gassho, she explained, means the unity of opposites. It’s a concrete manifestation for the oneness of all reality. The concepts of high-low, up-down, black-white, good-bad, forward-backward are all examples of how we divide up the world. To bring our left and right hands together is to join those opposites.
We can’t have something called “good” without something called “bad.” The one does not exist without the other. Gassho is an immediate expression of Enlightenment here and now when it is enacted. It may seem like an insignificant thing to do, but for me this gesture collects my mind and conveys a sense of humility yet non-separation. You may wish to pause for a second from reading and join your palms together for a few moments just to experience what it’s like to do this form for yourself. What do you notice?
If we really understand gassho we can put it into action off our meditation cushion by serving others. Service to others happens when we forget about our personal preferences and become one with those in our immediate surroundings, as though we make up one part of a larger body. Then, for example, when we are sitting at the dinner table, we intuit that the salt needs to be passed before it is requested, or water needs to be poured, or any host of things that has us look beyond our own personal desires and consider what the others around us are needing.
In one of his Dharma talks (133 in Eihei Koroku) Dogen instructs his students:
Whenever brother monks meet each other in the hall, on the walkway, by the stream, or under the trees, lower your head and bow in gassho to each other in accord with Dharma. Then start to speak. Before bowing it is not permissible to speak to each other on great or minor matters. We should always make this a constant rule.
When I practiced at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, founded by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, we practiced this. Every time we passed a fellow practitioner on the path to our cabins or to the meditation hall, we would bring our palms together and do a slight bow. It was a way of acknowledging through our physical body that there was no separation between ourselves and the other person, and got us out of our heads, and out of theories about Enlightenment.
We don’t know what is going on in people’s heads that we may be passing on the street. If we are totally caught up in our own conceptual world, we’ll miss the countless opportunities to connect with others, even random strangers. A gassho with a bow would probably not go over too well for those who are not Buddhist practitioners, but a simple smile with eye contact can show a sense of warmth and care. Now, in this time of social isolation, such simple gestures can mean the world to someone, and can perhaps even be the difference between life and death.
There was a suicide of a student at Bucknell University years ago. I remember my teacher encouraging the students who were grieving this loss to acknowledge each other with a simple smile or a “hello” when they passed each other through the hall or on the paths between classes. For someone contemplating suicide that “hello” can mean, “I care about you and what you do matters,” and may even totally reverse what the person was thinking.
Start small. Consider gassho, the unity of opposites, as part of your practice. Before sitting try gassho-ing with a bow to your seat, turn 180 degrees clockwise and gassho bow to the external world. After sitting, repeat the gassho in both directions. Practice and Enlightenment are one. Gassho.