Spiritual Classics

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
(1970)
Shunryu Suzuki

It has become a familiar word to us, but what is Zen? When Buddhism spread to Japan, it gained its own distinctive flavor and practices, and became known as Zen Buddhism. One of these practices, zazen, is a meditation posture that involves little more than sitting and breathing.

Daisetz T Suzuki was the first to bring Zen philosophy to the West, but Zen master Shunryu Suzuki consolidated its influence by establishing the Zen Center in San Francisco in the 1960s. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind was his one and only book, but has been treasured for its beautiful expression and life-changing insights.

What is meant by his term 'beginner's mind'? The purpose of Zen practice, the author explains, is to have a simple, pure mind, open to possibilities. Our normal mind congratulates itself for achieving certain things, but such self-centered thoughts prevent us from really learning and seeing. The beginner's mind goes beyond 'me' to the realization that it is just an expression of the larger universal Mind, and this naturally produces compassion. It ceases to think in a dualistic way, in terms of polarities such as good and bad, or agreeable and disagreeable, and consequently can focus on the fullness of the moment, as it is.

If you feel your life is chaotic and lacks any real peace, this book can have a profound impact.

Ordered mind, ordered life

Zazen practice is not done to 'achieve' a certain state of mind. When this is tried, the mind only wanders. The book gives simple instructions on the relaxed sitting position that is the core of zazen practice. The posture provides stability and puts one into a state of mind which provides freedom from the tyranny of constant thought.

Breathing is at the heart of the practice. The mind follows the pattern of breathing, its inhaling and exhaling, and in doing so begins to lose its focus on the 'I', the small self that normally generates our thoughts. In its place, our universal nature, the 'Buddha nature', comes into focus. We go from the small mind, as Suzuki describes it, to 'big mind'. Sitting and breathing will take us away from the ego's idea that we are someone special. We think that the part of ourselves that wants special things is who we are, but our true nature, which comes out in Zen practice, is more powerful than this. It is attuned to the larger Mind, so when we are in touch with it we go beyond the 'I', which paradoxically makes us more compassionate and more joyful. When everything is based on the 'I', we struggle all the time.

Why is breathing so important? Concentrating on our breathing reminds us that we are totally dependent on the world around us, on the very air we breathe. It also reminds us that if we are breathing, then we are alive and therefore independent. If you realize the fact of this dependence/independence, it can free you. We are not talking of some intellectual idea, but a very real, physical thing.

Through zazen practice we understand that the world is fundamentally out of balance, that it is always changing and often chaotic. This gives the world and our life within it the flavor of suffering. But the invisible background to the world, the realm which generates it, is perfect, and it is this awareness of perfect harmony that we can experience in zazen practice. Naturally, this experience puts the world with all its created things into perspective. It allows us to think, 'Well, that is only the nature of the world'.

However, this does not mean that we can never take positive action. On the contrary, the action we take following zazen, when we have just been in attunement with perfection, will necessarily be right action. Normally, our actions are not generated from this point, they are distorted by desire or ambition, and therefore create more disorder, or karma. Therefore, the more time we spend in meditation, the more ordered our world becomes. If you have a calm mind, in touch with what is real and stable, your life has a way of sorting itself out. This is the intelligent, natural way of being.

Zen practice

It may seem obvious, but the best way to soften the extremes of the mind, Suzuki says, is to sit, be still and breathe. See your thoughts as waves which, with constant breathing, gradually get smaller, until the water of your mind grows calm. Leave your mind to itself, and this will always happen. The mind of 'I' will become big mind, or the field of pure being.

Sitting and breathing will take us away from the ego's idea that we are someone special. We think that the part of ourselves that wants special things is who we are, but our true nature, which comes out in Zen practice, is more powerful than this. It is attuned to the larger Mind, so when we are in touch with it we go beyond the 'I', which paradoxically makes us more compassionate and more joyful. When everything is based on the 'I', we struggle all the time.

Suzuki cautions not to have a thought of gaining something through zazen practice, just to do it for the sake of it. Using an analogy, he says: "To cook is not just to prepare food for someone or for yourself; it is to express your sincerity." Meditation is the highest form of self-expression.

Yet zazen practice requires discipline. Repetition, constancy, sameness is the way of Zen. Not looking for excitement or great joys, which imply a loss of our true nature, but just seeing the 'is-ness' and beauty of each moment. Suzuki looks to the humble frog to demonstrate Zen practice. Frogs sit, without thinking they are anything special, yet their sitting does not take anything away from their identity. They are clearly still a frog. The author talks of the purity of practice. He does not mean wanting to make ourselves pure, turning something bad into good, but just to see things as they are - their 'quality'.

What is enlightenment?

We tend to think of enlightenment as some great flash of understanding, achieved by decades of spiritual work, and indeed there is a Zen term, satori, for the sudden realization of Buddhahood. But most of the time, Suzuki says, enlightenment is quite ordinary. It is actually just the understanding of a simple fact. First comes realization of the fact, then practice to remind ourselves of it, which in turn is expressed in thought and action.

What is the realization? That everything comes out of nothing, that there is a formless, colorless 'nothingness' which constantly generates the color and forms of our world. Because all emerges from nothing, 'nothing' must be something. It is an indefinable quality.

Sanity requires that you must believe in this creative field of potentiality as the basic reality of life, behind all the forms that it creates. In daily practice, you must be able to go through 'the gate of emptiness', clearing your mind of the illusions that you habitually take to be real. Everyone thinks that the forms, the world as we know it, is 'reality', but they are only a representation of that which creates it. Everyone acts as if they have something, Suzuki says, because they possess a bit of the representation, but when we come to think of these forms as permanent and 'mine' it causes problems.

The person who can freely acknowledge that life is full of difficulties can be free, because they are acknowledging the nature of life - that it can't be much else. Yet in doing this, we lose the idea that we are the center of life, and the pain of self-centredness. We are a 'temporal embodiment of the truth', Suzuki says, a brief expression of the essential Truth contained in nothingness, and if we can appreciate this our problems lose their bite. As the author better puts it: "Because you think you have body or mind, you have lonely feelings, but when you realize that everything is just a flashing into the vast universe, you become very strong, and your existence becomes very meaningful."

Final word

Suzuki's book shatters the belief that we can achieve salvation or happiness through looking elsewhere, beyond who we are and where we are now. We want to escape because of suffering, but Suzuki says that finding pleasure in the transient nature of life in action - which we often label suffering - is the only way to live in the world successfully. This outlook of coping with and even 'enjoying' the experience of suffering as part of life is a radical thought, but is it not closer to reality than a belief that we must be living a perfect existence? We can be empowered by our acceptance, whereas denial of the facts of life only causes more pain. Equanimity is a great spiritual gift.

We usually seek to gain knowledge by gathering information, Suzuki says, but in Buddhism, the reverse is true. Its purpose is clear the mind of 'stuff', to be empty-minded. This is not dumbness, but how we access the universe's endless and perfect intelligence.

Source: 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose, Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)

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From Zen Mind, Beginner's 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."

"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."

Shunryu Suzuki:

Born in 1905 in Japan, Suzuki was only twelve when taken on as a disciple of Gyokujun So-on-roshi, a Zen master who had been his father's disciple. He studied at a Buddhist university, Komazawa, then at the Eiheiji and Sojiji training monasteries. Upon his master's death, Suzuki had to take over the running of his temple and its associated responsibilities.

Suzuki-roshi, as he was known, traveled to the United States in 1959 as a visitor but became permanent resident, based in San Francisco. He established three Zen centers, including the first Zen training monastery in America.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind was conceived by Marian Derby, a Suzuki disciple, and is based on talks given by him at Los Altos. Trudy Dixon and Richard Baker (who was anointed Suzuki's successor) edited the work and brought it to publication.

Suzuki died at the San Francisco Zen Center in 1971.
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