Beginner’s Mind 1: Taking Care of Each Other

Notes on a talk by Michael Stone at Centre of Gravity, Toronto, May 8, 2012

Prologue to Beginners Mind, Zen Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

People say that practicing Zen is difficult, but there is a misunderstanding as to why. It is not difficult because it is hard to sit in the cross-legged position, or to attain enlightenment. It is difficult because it is hard to keep our mind pure and our practice pure in its fundamental sense. The Zen school developed in many ways after it was established in China, but at the same time, it became more and more impure. But I do not want to talk about Chinese Zen or the history of Zen. I am interested in helping you keep your practice from becoming impure.

In Japan we have the phrase shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind.” The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind. Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times, or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it. The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices. For a while you will keep your beginner’s mind, but if you continue to practice one, two, three years or more, although you may improve some, you are liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind.

For Zen students the most important thing is not to be dualistic. Our “original mind” includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.

If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself. If you are too demanding or too greedy, your mind is not rich and self-sufficient. If we lose our original self-sufficient mind, we will lose all precepts. When your mind becomes demanding, when you long for something, you will end up violating your own precepts: not to tell lies, not to steal, not to kill, not to be immoral, and so forth. If you keep your original mind, the precepts will keep themselves.

In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice.

So the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind. There is no need to have a deep understanding of Zen. Even though you read much Zen literature, you must read each sentence with a fresh mind. You should not say, “I know what Zen is,” or “I have attained enlightenment.” This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner’s mind. It is the secret of Zen practice.

It’s hard after reading Suzuki’s words to say anything because he’s so clear. If you get what he says about beginner’s mind there’s nothing to add. Every generation hears these teachings and then we have to digest them and express them for ourselves. We have to metabolize these teachings.

Suzuki was a Japanese priest in the Soto lineage. In 1959 he traveled to the US and became a teacher in a small centre when he was 55 years old. He married for a second time and attracted American students who wanted to learn about Zen and who had, according to Suzuki, the most important characteristic for practice, namely, beginner’s mind. They built the first Soto Zen monastery in the West, and then later the Zen Mountain Center at Tassjara, its city adjunct, the Zen Centre in San Francisco, and Green Gulch Farms. In Japanese Zen he was an obscure figure, but in the 12 years he spent in America he became a founder of western Buddhism.

One of the problems when you die is that your words get elevated. They get extracted from a living context and then are ratcheted up. I find the post-mortem idealization of Suzuki problematic, idealization is not helpful for anyone. So even though he spoke beautiful sentences and had deep wisdom, let’s not idealize him, I don’t think he would have wanted that. He was a modest person who suffered a lot of pain in his life. There was a very unstable person who came to practice that no one else wanted around, but Suzuki insisted he be allowed to stay. This person brutally murdered Suzuki’s wife, and a couple of years later his daughter was so distraught she took her life. Behind his eloquence there is a great deal of pain, you can hear it if you listen for it.

Crooked Cucumber by Rick Mitchell
“Little in Suzuki’s early years indicated the inspirational impact he would have later in life. He was born in 1904, the son of a Japanese country priest. He followed his father into the priesthood as a young teen; the book’s title is taken from a derogatory nickname given to him by his first teacher, who felt he would never amount to much.

In recounting Suzuki’s story, Chadwick investigates the relationship of Buddhism to Japanese culture. Zen, which originated in China and spread to Japan in the 12th century, is a school of Buddhism emphasizing the role of meditation (or zazen in Japanese) in Buddha’s spiritual enlightenment.

But as practiced in prewar Japan, the religion complemented nativist Shinto beliefs to fulfill a largely ceremonial function in Japanese society. Parish priests such as Suzuki’s father officiated at weddings and funerals, and hosted community functions. Even in the monastic training temples, there was not much focus on the teaching of zazen among either priests or laypeople.

While he eventually inherited his father’s temple and assumed its ritual duties, Suzuki dreamed of a way to point people to the deeper meaning of the core teachings. He was inspired by his youthful experience with an aristocratic Englishwoman for whom he served as a valet. Through patience and clarity, he overcame the woman’s arrogant assumptions about his faith.

Suzuki considered this encounter the turning point in his life.

“I developed some confidence in our teaching and in the thought that I could help Western people understand Buddhism,” he wrote. “For Japanese people it is pretty difficult to study Buddhism in its true sense, because the tradition has been so often mistaken and misunderstood. It is difficult to change the misunderstandings once we have them.

“But for people who don’t know anything about Buddhism, it’s like painting on white paper. It is much easier to give them the right understanding. I think that the experience I had with Miss Ransom resulted in my coming to America.”

Suzuki waited most of his life for the chance to fulfill his dream. In the years preceding World War II he acted as a mentor to a progressive group of students who advocated alternatives to nationalism and militarism. During the war he kept his beliefs to himself as a matter of survival. But the Buddhist establishment’s wholehearted support of the expansionist military effort only strengthened his conviction that Zen in Japan had lost the way.

In 1959 Suzuki surprised his family and his parishioners by accepting a position ministering to a Japanese-American congregation in San Francisco. Almost immediately he began attracting spiritual seekers from the city’s artist/bohemian community. Despite the cultural barriers, there was something about his calm presence and humble manner that convinced these beatnik converts they had at last found the real thing.” (Book Review of Crooked Cucumber by Rick Mitchell, Houston Chronicle, March 21, 1999)

We have such strict limits on our own mind. Can you feel the relation between begin still when you sit and being true to yourself? Can you drop into a place where mediation is happening but you’re not talking about a technique happening? This is beginner’s mind. Because most of us have so many limits on our beginner’s mind we don’t have beginner’s mind.

I have a friend who is an incredible improvising musician. Put him in a room with any musician and no matter what the style or temperament he can go to where they are, and his whole body is loose while he finds the brand new notes. But everywhere else in his life he’s so stiff. The beginner’s mind he has in the music column doesn’t reach into the other columns of his life.

Suzuki says, “Beginner’s mind is compassion.” It means: you’re ready for anything. We’re constantly anticipating. Meditation instruction is just a practice of not anticipating. Not anticipating is beginner’s mind, is the mind of compassion. And if you’re moving from this place then the precepts take care of themselves. Not harming, honesty, not stealing, the wise use of sexual energy, non-greed.

Suzuki: “If we lose our original self-sufficient mind, we will lose all precepts. When your mind becomes demanding, when you long for something, you will end up violating your own precepts: not to tell lies, not to steal, not to kill, not to be immoral, and so forth. If you keep your original mind, the precepts will keep themselves.” The precepts happen in this moment right now. How can you meet this moment? The way you arrange your cushion is the way the precepts are operating right now. Then we have beginner’s mind for whatever shows up at the centre of the universe, which is this place here.

Suzuki uses a word I have a lot of difficulties with: dualism. He says that people who practice with beginner’s mind are non-dual. Doesn’t everyone want to be non-dual? How can I join? Non-dualism is a feeling you have for your life, it means you’re not separate from your life, only “your life” isn’t the life you might think you have. We keep gripping onto ideas like, “This event is happening to me.” Or: “I am sad, I am sadness.” Instead of watching these energy flows and sensations pass through the frame of awareness. Arising and passing away. And expressing this arising and passing away through the self form.

The place where beginner’s mind emerges clearly is in silence. That’s why silent retreats are so important. There’s been so much work done before the retreat starts to create a place and a container for that silence. Silence is the vortex of practice. And out of silence comes beginner’s mind.

I’m just back from a month in Japan, and while I was there I practiced in a large temple called Daitoku-ji. The temple is 700 years old, and the room I practiced in is 300 years old. It smells like 300 years of incense and tatami mats. The garden design, the roof tiles – they’re all exactly the same. One day the teacher came hobbling past and I was initially very judgmental of him because of his inelegance, until I learned he had cancer in the hip. After the sit there’s a service and then a work period. My job was to go and pick maple shoots out of the moss. It was endless, and how I loved that job. You look for the moss overturned by the birds who are in search of those delicious shoots, and then re-place it. There were so many of us down on our hands and knees in the garden, happily doing this endless work. One afternoon the teacher stopped by and said, “This is the bodhisattva vow.” I asked him, “How is this the bodhisattva vow?” He said, “You can translate the first line of the vow (Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to serve them) as taking care of things. The reason this garden looks the way it does, is because this garden is us. Then he said, “There’s a gap between rich and poor, educated and undereducated. The practice is just taking care of each other. Taking care of the garden.”

The room I practiced in was the same room that Gary Snyder had practiced in during the 1950s. I opened his book and found this poem he wrote. “My teacher is teaching me to sweep the garden. No matter what size it is.”

I think we can get caught believing that beginner’s mind is just the mind of stillness, but it’s also the expression, the communication of beginner’s mind. For anyone who meditates you can get so still that you can hit beginner’s mind, and the point where you aren’t suffering any more. You can see your self form suffering without having to attach to it. During a retreat you can see how people suffer, especially during the first few days. And then they see how they’re creating this dukkha. Sometimes it can take a while to let go of our usual frames and let the bottom drop out of our lives. And then? And then you take care of things. Compassion means taking care of things. If you’re not stuck in your fixed narratives then you can be true to yourself and help others.

Depend totally on each moment. On each inhale. On each exhale. Until all the sensory experience that is inevitably disturbing begins to settle. Try and become the breath, become breathing. There is no duality, no separation. Meditation is not something you’re doing, it’s something you are. Breathing is intelligence. Prana is citta. Where the breath goes intelligence goes. This is so important in relation to beginner’s mind. Otherwise it becomes something else you turn into a material task, it’s something else you’re doing, or trying to do. Beginner’s mind is not a task, it’s what you are.

Alan Watts used to say that something is sentient if it looks back at you. But what doesn’t look back at you?