Book Review – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
By Shunryu Suzuki
© Weatherhill, Inc. 1970, 1973, 1999
(Revised edition)

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki

Shunryu Suzuki came to America from Japan in 1959. Already a respected Zen master, Suzuki-roshi was a welcome presence to Americans just beginning their efforts to comprehend and practice the enigmatic challenges of Zen. He spent much time among the American Zen practitioners, answering questions, teaching, and encouraging. While intending to make only a brief visit, he continually put off his return to Japan until, finally, he elected to stay permanently among the new and enthusiastic Zen Americans.

What compelled Suzuki to remain in the US from 1959 until his death in 1971 was, according to him, an appreciation of the “beginner’s mind” he detected in the Zen westerners. Indeed, at that time, most westerners practicing Zen were true beginners, struggling to unravel a way of thinking and living that was quite foreign to them. While Zen itself has rarely been called a “religion,” but more of a “philosophy of being,” the simplicities of the Zen concepts were seemingly at odds with the sometimes overly-intellectualized, or under-contemplative spiritual practices most in the West knew. So Suzuki made his home in California and founded a Zen Center there to help new students refine their understanding and practice.

It was not originally Shunryu Suzuki, but a different Suzuki — D.T. Suzuki — who was responsible for introducing Zen to the West. But while D. T. Suzuki’s contribution to western Zen is incalculable, Shunryu Suzuki’s presence in America established a solid foundation on which much of today’s Zen culture in America truly rests. As Huston Smith notes in the Preface to “Zen Mind, “Whereas Daisetz Suzuki’s [i.e., D.T. Suzuki] Zen was dramatic, Shunryu Suzuki’s is ordinary.” Smith rightly suggests that Shunryu Suzuki’s methodology, while perhaps less poetic than that of his predecessor, is direct and accessible to those of us working to understand and apply concepts of mindfulness, nonattachment, and compassion to everyday life.

I was first handed a copy of Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” about 20 years ago. At that time in my life I was busy exploring as many different personal development concepts as I could get my hands on. Zen was, frankly, the last thing on my mind. That was for navel-gazers and people with nothing important to do with their time. In my incessant reaching and striving to be Intellectually Developed and Spiritually Adept, I had no time for books with “Beginner” in the title! Beginner?! I was far too busy becoming Wise and Advanced to think about “beginnings!” Of course when I finally got around to reading the book, I found that I had much to learn about this deceptively simple idea of the “beginner’s mind.” I can honestly say that the book changed my life the moment I began reading it.

“It is the readiness of the mind that is wisdom.” — Shunryu Suzuki

The concept of the “beginner’s mind” is simply that if we wish to be fully present to life, we should approach everything in life with a constantly renewed perspective. A beginner’s mind is not clouded by preconceptions and opinions, but is instead open to truth. Rather than striving, scraping and clawing toward enlightenment, the beginner’s mind starts from a place of calm, centered attention. Nothing is hidden from the beginner’s mind as it is unrestricted by perceived boundaries and instead moves freely from moment to moment. Richard Baker, Suzuki’s successor, says in the introduction:

“The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities. It is the kind of mind which can see things as they are, which step by step and in a flash can realize the original nature of everything.”

Have you ever watched a child practice writing her alphabet? As she carefully and mindfully makes her “a,” then “b,” and “c,” the movements she makes may be awkward, the forms of the letters imperfect, yet the attentiveness is absolute. She is a beginner. She is not on “autopilot,” hastily scribbling, but is fully focused on the process. She may work slowly, for in that moment, as the letters take shape beneath her careful hand, she is not aware of time. To teach “beginner’s mind,” Zen students go through a very similar process, by learning the ancient art of calligraphy.

The point of beginner’s mind is ultimately not to labor over each letter or digit we write down (if I were taking a minute or two to sit and contemplate every word I typed, this review would be ready in about 2 years), but rather to develop and refine our awareness to the point where it pervades whatever we do, regardless of how quickly or slowly we do it — to be fully present to the life before us. Right here, right now.

Think back to a time when you learned something new. Perhaps you learned a new language, or learned how to ride a bike, or how to execute the perfect golf swing. Do you recall the degree of mindfulness that went along with that learning process? There is an innocence to the learning process, an opening-up and surrendering of preconceived ideas and bias. To learn, we have to bring down the walls of the ego and be willing to be a beginner. We have to take what we think we know and put it on the shelf, and welcome in new and foreign ideas that challenge us to grow. What if this ability to grow were not limited to those moments when we’re confronted with something new and foreign, but when we’re performing our usual everyday routine? Perhaps life would not feel “routine” at all, but fresh and truly alive from moment to moment.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki consistently compels us to function as beginners, and to approach even the most mundane and automatic daily tasks with fresh, newborn awareness. Developing this kind of awareness is quite a challenge for those of us conditioned to rely on our constant split-second decisions and reactions to get through our day. Suzuki says:

“Most people have a double or triple notion in one activity. There is saying, ‘To catch two birds with one stone.’ That is what people usually try to do. Because they want to catch too many birds they find it difficult to be concentrated on one activity, and they may end up not catching any birds at all!”

Suzuki also challenges us to embrace the moment by totally investing ourselves in the task at hand:

“When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely.”

“Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” is actually comprised of a series of talks given by Suzuki to a small group of Zen practitioners in Los Altos, California. As such, the book has a certain conversational tone, putting the reader in the presence of this master and his wisdom. Throughout his talks, Suzuki emphasizes the basics of Zen life; practice, patience, attitude, study, and mindfulness. This is not a book of “three easy steps to enlightenment,” or “nirvana made quick and easy.” Rather, it is honest in its expectation that readers are serious in their desire to live a fully integrated life and embrace the range of sensations that come from expanding one’s awareness to the fullest. While many of us are anxious to realize this way of living, Suzuki reminds us that growth takes time:

“The progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little.”

This bears attention, especially for those of us who meditate, where felt shifts and leaps in functioning are common. More often, we find our development unfolding like an opening flower bud; slowly but surely. Frequently, we find ourselves preoccupied with our “progress.” But Suzuki, though without the benefit of modern neuro-audio technology, assures us, “There is no need to worry about progress. It is like studying a foreign language; you cannot do it all of a sudden, but by repeating it over and over you will master it.”

Many of Suzuki-roshi’s original American students understood the principle of “beginner’s mind” by watching Suzuki himself live as a “beginner” in terms of American culture. Suzuki did not come to convert the American practitioners to any specific doctrine, but rather to express a way of thinking and practicing that could grow and develop within the unique cultural framework of America. He understood that although the roots of traditional Zen must be acknowledged and honored, the real value of Zen is to continually allow for newness of perception to flourish — to think, always, with a beginner’s mind.

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