The Position of our hands during Zazen

In our practice we’re given instructions about our hand position. 

When we’re doing kinhin we wrap our thumb inside our left fist; we put the root of the thumb against the diaphragm and wrap the other hand around so our elbows are in a horizontal line; our shoulders are relaxed.

In zazen, we create a mudra by resting our left hand onto our right hand. Our thumbs lightly touch in a horizontal line; our little fingers are between our navel and our pubic bone, touching our lower belly. 

These instructions are universal, but the explanation of why we hold our hands in those positions is often either lacking, or superficial.  Sometimes we can reason it out from some other discipline. For example, the hand position that we have in kinhin has very substantial similarities with a mudra in yoga which encourages whole torso breathing.

But the  – much more important – mudra during zazen really isn’t given much explanation at all. We’re told that our thumbs touching horizontally are a barometer of our state. If we’re sleepy our thumbs tend to come apart; if we’re agitated our thumbs tend to push together. We’re told that having our hands in that position, touching our lower belly, directs us to breathe to our lower belly. All this is true, but the significance of the mudra is hardly exhausted by these statements. 

Part of our difficulty in understanding the mudra is that we’re attempting to get within the mind of a culture which is very different from ours. For us, what’s easiest is either to define a mudra in abstract symbolic terms, or in terms of expediency. The symbolic explanation can often be very poetic and beautiful. We can talk about this little fragment of being – the left hand – resting within all being – the right hand. We can talk about the reconciliation of opposites. But whenever we stay within this realm of interpretation, there’s a sense in which the meaning of the mudra escapes us, because our understanding of the symbolic is severely deficient.

It seems to me that when we’re sitting in the correct position,sitting on our sit bones, our spine is relaxed and uncompressed. All that opens up the pelvic area of our body. We know intellectually, in terms of anatomy, that that area of our body is quite physically dense. But we’re not concerned with anatomy, we’re concerned with our actual experience. And in terms of that, what we’re feeling when we’re doing zazen is, it seems to me, that the whole area of our pelvic bowl is a field of energized spaciousness. It also feels as if it extends further down than our anatomical picture will allow. It feels as if there’s a substantial indeterminate area behind and below where our little fingers rest against our lower belly.

From another perspective, it’s as if my spine is stretching energetically down into the ground. I’m very aware of the front of the lower spine, seen in this way,  and it’s as if this dynamic space is in front of that. This space also seems in dynamic relationship with the jade pillow, which I’ve written about elsewhere.

Your experience might be different. Obviously one always labors to describe what’s experienced in a way that’s understandable to another person. Please consider it. Try to find something that makes sense within your own experience. Don’t try to superimpose these words onto that experience.

If you were – for the sake of argument – to accept these words as possible experience for you, you could understand that the mudra takes the shape of this area, of our pelvic bowl. Granting that, it seems to me that another kind of understanding of the mudra becomes possible.

A core part of Chinese Buddhism is Buddha Nature. This is the faith that all beings –  in themselves, now – are perfect. That perfection is hidden, sometimes hidden very well indeed, but it’s there.

That idea is given the most obvious form in the concept of tathagatagarbha. In Sanskrit the word garbha is ambiguous. It can mean either womb or embryo, but the word that the Chinese chose for garbha, ‘zong’, privileged womb. 

Zong means variously womb, storehouse and treasure house. There’s lots of references to treasure house in the literature. For example, in Dogen’s Fukanzazengi there’s a reference to “the treasure house opening naturally of itself”. And isn’t the womb, as it were, behind our hands?

It seems to me that the mudra is a representation of that. It’s also a statement about what Buddha Nature is. It’s not something tangible. It isn’t something which you have. It’s something which is empty: the space that is created by the mudra is empty— dynamic and empty— so we’re not reifying Buddha Nature. And the mudra, and zazen generally, is an enactment of this faith, not a striving for some future state.

So think about all this.

Reflect on your own experience, when you’re sitting.

See if explanations of this kind make any sense to you. If they don’t, just continue with your inquiry. Find your own language, and do your best to express what you experience, not from a position of knowledge, but from a position of openness and sharing.