In the opening line of his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, Zen monk and teacher Shunryu Suzuki shares the following; “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
Suzuki played a major role in bringing Zen Buddhism to the United States. He is known for founding the San Francisco Zen Center in 1959 followed by Tassajara Zen Mountain Center –the first Zen Monastery in the West– as well as Green Gulch Farm. While founding these revolutionary Buddhist spaces, Suzuki went out of his way to adapt to the needs of Western practitioners, and he modified the ways in which he shared the teachings in order to make them understandable and accessible to his Western audience. As an author, Suzuki held true to his commitment to making the practice clear and comprehensible. He did not overly intellectualize the teachings; rather, much of his writings center around the description of manageable physical and mental practices that all people can utilize to better themselves and enhance their lives.
Specifically, in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki introduces the Zen Buddhist concept of shoshin, or the “beginner’s mind.” Having a beginner’s mind means being without expectations and preconceptions. Instead, one with this mindset is curious and open. When one is new to something, they are typically not attached to any specific idea of what that thing or experience “should” be. Rather, they are welcoming new lessons as experiences as they come and as they are. The goal of Zen practice, as outlined by Suzuki, is to always keep shoshin. Suzuki advises practitioners not to lose their initial attitudes towards any teachings or practices once they become familiar with them.
There is a certain arrogance that can sometimes come with familiarity. When one develops an idea of what something “should” be, they might begin to resist new knowledge or experiences that don’t align with their conceptions. The childlike sense of openness and wonder fades away and is replaced by egotism. One might begin to center their practice around trying to achieve a specific feeling or experience, and as a result they close themselves off to other ones that may come about during their practice. The Zen practice is about sitting with whatever conditions exist in the present moment without judgment. In order to achieve this, practitioners must accept their lack of control over many conditions and remain open minded in each and every moment.
So, how might we practice maintaining shoshin while learning new information? The first and simplest practice is to always assume that we know less than we might be compelled to think we know. Keeping a fresh mind and never claiming to know anything is what Suzuki calls “the secret of Zen practice.” Thus, we are able to experience life fully and as it is in each and every moment. More importantly, we are open to learning more about the teachings as we practice, even –if not especially– the ones with which we already have experience with.
If you attend classes at the Dharma Bum Temple, you may be familiar with our Intro to Buddhism classes. To conclude these sessions, there is typically time set aside for visitors to ask questions about Buddhist practice or whatever else they may be sitting with. There are many foundational subjects that often tend to come up in peoples’ questions, and frequent visitors might become frustrated or bored with hearing about the same teachings repetitively. Eventually, they may begin to believe that they cannot benefit from hearing these questions and responses anymore because they believe they already know the answers. Shunryu Suzuki would say that this represents a loss of the beginner’s mind, and it is a detriment to our practice. No matter how many times one has learned about a subject, there will always be more to know, learn, and experience. With this in mind, we must always remind ourselves to keep our minds fresh and open! One might attend an Intro to Buddhism class for the rest of their life, and as long as they maintain a Beginner’s Mind, they will leave every session with new understandings and wisdom.
Throughout Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki outlines various aspects of Zen Buddhism. He begins with a straightforward explanation of Right Practice, which includes a wide variety of contributing exercises such as posture, breathing, control, bowing, and what he calls mind waves and mind weeds. He then goes on to explain Right Attitude, which involves maintaining shoshin while practicing routinely. Suzuki emphasizes the importance of repetition here, as Zen is not meant to be what some might assume to be a special and highly spiritual practice. While openness, awareness, and presence is immensely important, Suzuki states, “Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual, everyday routine.” Once one understands what Zen practice truly is, they may begin to cultivate the practice in their everyday life.
In the final section of his book, Suzuki describes Right Understanding, which is summarized in his statement “Our understanding of Buddhism is not just an intellectual understanding. True understanding is actual practice itself.” While reading about Buddhist thought can be very helpful with initially understanding it, Buddhism is experience at its very core. Suzuki makes sure that this is clear in his writings. He provides readers with a powerful framework for their practice and encourages them to take the tools he provides and genuinely do something with them, as the practice requires action and goes far beyond just having a knowledge of the teachings. This understanding often goes hand-in-hand with the Beginner’s Mindset.
People often come into Buddhist spaces with a craving for knowledge and wisdom, and one of the most common questions new practitioners often ask is for book recommendations. While, as Suzuki stated, real wisdom is found through practice, his own book is highly recommended as an incredible resource for guiding people toward Right Practice, Attitude, and Understanding. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki masterfully shares his teachings on Zen Buddhism and the Beginner’s Mind in a way that makes Zen practice accessible for all people, no matter the level of experience. This is ultimately because we are all beginners in many ways – and that is a beautiful thing!
If you are interested in picking up your own copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, we have copies in both English and Spanish available at our gift shop, Buddha for You.