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TNH bell

Years ago at a literary conference, I lent a book to a Japanese friend. A few days later, as the conference was ending, she returned the book, holding it with both hands and presenting it to me as if it were an offering. Silent, direct, and present-minded, her gesture filled the space between us. And though she was not a Zen practitioner, so far as I know, her action epitomized the practice of Zen.

In the early years of my formal Zen training, I learned to do everything—or almost everything—with two hands. No one taught me to do this. Rather I learned it through observing longtime Zen practitioners. Observation, of course, is one thing and performance another. And for a Westerner like me, the practice of using both hands to return a book or to hold and strike a bell, however conventional in East Asian cultures, felt foreign and unnatural.

I grew up in a culture, after all, where “single-handed” is a term of praise. As a teenager, newly licensed to drive, I tooled around in my father’s Buick, my left elbow resting in the open window and my right hand on the wheel. My friends and I thought that way of driving manly and cool. And well into my thirties, I could be seen walking across a room with a book in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. Only decades later, as I was learning Zen at Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreats and subsequently at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, was I to experience the benefits and indeed the joys of using both hands to perform the actions of ordinary life. Those benefits are many, but three in particular stand out.

First and most obvious, using both hands concentrates attention. It aligns the body and focuses the mind. If you once took Driver Training, as I did, you were probably taught to keep both hands on the steering wheel, the left at ten o’clock and the right at two. This physical configuration enables the driver to maneuver quickly in an emergency. And even under normal driving conditions, this simple discipline keeps the body aligned and the eyes trained on the road ahead. Likewise, in everyday, domestic situations, developing the habit of using two hands can make life easier, safer, and less costly. Transferring an expensive china plate from the dish drainer to the cupboard, for example, we are less likely to chip or break it. Closing a door, we are less likely to slam it or leave it ajar.

In the second place, using both hands balances the two sides of the body and by extension the distracted or agitated mind. I am decidedly right-handed. My given name means “son of the right hand,” and I more than live up to my name. I suspect that the same is true for most people, unless they are ambidextrous, and it becomes more so with advancing age. Training oneself to use two hands when filling a bird feeder or picking up a garden tool balances the tendency to favor one side of the body over the other. And, like cross-legged sitting, this practice also integrates the left and right sides of the body/mind. As the Zen teacher Christian Dillo has observed, the act of pouring tea with two hands, as is done in Zen rituals, aligns the spine, the shoulder girdle, and the chest of the server toward the teapot and the person being served. And in my experience, the practice also promotes a sense of somatic and mental reunion: a reuniting of the body/mind into one, naturally functioning whole.

Third and perhaps most important for secular, 21st-century Westerners, using both hands in our daily tasks restores, or begins to restore, a sense of the ceremonial in everyday life. Some might call this a sense of the sacred. Call it what you will, the practice of using two hands for even the most mundane task counters the tendency to be inattentive and disrespectful, both in our attitudes toward physical objects and in our treatment of other people. Just as it is difficult, if not impossible, to bow in gratitude and complain at the same time, so is it hard to apply two hands to a task and not bring some degree of reverence to the present moment—the only moment, as Thich Nhat Hanh so often remarked, where life is available to us.

To be sure, the practice I’ve described is not for everyone. Nor should we make a fetish of it. Some actions, such as writing, shaving, or turning a door knob, are meant to be performed single-handedly. But if this practice should interest you, may I suggest you try it for a week and see what happens. Note how it affects your actions and their outcomes. Observe how it influences your state of mind. 

            __________

Christian Dillo, The Path of Aliveness (Shambhala, 2022), 246.

Photo: Thich Nhat Hanh

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