Beginner’s Mind

I have written about beginner’s mind before, and I hope long-time readers will excuse me if I delve into this subject again, but it is on my mind as I noticed that today is the anniversary of Shunryu Suzuki’s death in 1971.

Suzuki’s book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is a great Buddhist classic. Immediately accessible, rich, and cuts through the crap clearly and succinctly. I checked it out of the library a few years after it was published, bought a copy soon thereafter, lost it, bought another copy later on, and lost that one, too. It’s strange, because I don’t normally lose books. I have kept a few books longer than some of you reading this have been alive. In any case, ZMBM has meant a lot to me. I am not a Zen Buddhist and yet I have gleaned so much about the spirit of Buddhism from this collection of Suzuki’s dharma talks.

It was not until I got my third copy, sometime in the 1990’s, that I was really began to appreciate the spirit of beginner’s mind. In the prologue, Suzuki says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” We live in a world where there are experts around every corner, but very few beginners.

Cover featuring Suzuki’s calligraphy of “shoshin.”

In Japan we have the phrase shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind.” The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind.”

Shoshin literally means “original intention; initial resolution.” The Chinese character shin, as some of you may know, means “mind.” It’s very easy to lose our beginner’s mind, to think we’ve got it made, that we know what’s what. But a person who has held on to his or her beginner’s mind, no matter how many years they’ve been practicing, is continually confronted with what they don’t know, frequently kicked out of their comfort zone. If Buddhism doesn’t challenge us, then we’re not doing it right.

Nikkyo Niwano (1906–1999) understood the spirit of beginner’s mind. He was one of the founders and first president of the Rissho Kosei Kai, a lay organization based on the Lotus Sutra. Niwano wrote in his autobiography that one day he was leaving the house to go to work when his three year old granddaughter said to him, “Grandfather, are you going to join the Kosei-kai again?” He replied, “Yes, I’m going to join again today.” He wrote that the exchange reminded him of “the importance of preserving, always, the freshness of the emotional impact I experienced when I first encountered the Lotus Sutra . . . I knew I would be busy again that day, but my heart was full of morning.”

Later he famously summed it up with these words: “I am beginning today. I am a lifetime beginner.”

The first person to use the expression “beginner’s mind” was Tanken ((711-782), a Tendai priest. Evidently, this soon became a popular term as it is well known within not only Zen Buddhism but also Japanese martial arts. Centuries later, Zen master Dogen, who began as a Tendai priest himself, was very impressed with the idea of beginner’s spirit. It’s said that shoshin was one of his favorite terms. In Bendowa, he wrote, “Because practice within realization occurs at the moment of practice, the practice of beginner’s mind is itself the entire original realization.”*

Beginner’s mind is a treasure of the mind, a jewel as precious as bodhicitta, the thought of awakening. The beginner’s mind is empty, open, forever learning and developing. All the truly great and authentic teachers I’ve had said the same thing, albeit with different words: always go back to the prime point, don’t forget to return to the fundamentals, never lose your seeking spirit, no matter how far you go just remember to start over at the beginning . . .

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.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

May your mind always be a beginner’s mind, and may your heart always be full of morning.


*Bendowa (Tanahashi 2004)


4 thoughts on “Beginner’s Mind

  1. I began studying Zen in the 1980’s. I stumbled across some pop literature about Zen and liked what I read. I later purchased a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and didn’t care that much for it at first. I was used to the westernized, pop culture, feel-good literature that I first encountered. As the years have gone by I found that I still own the copy of ZMBM and read it at least once a year. I don’t seem to have the pop-lit from the 80’s and can’t even remember the titles or authors.

    Dan Garner

    1. That’s great Dan. I think I have seen ZMBM criticized for being pop lit, or at least for catering to Western sensibilities. Such criticism probably comes from experts.

  2. ZMBM is such a continual delight, in part because of Suzuki Roshi’s struggle with the English language. Here is roshi, attempting to duplicate Dogen Zenji’s mideval Japanese linguisitic gymnastics in a still not completely mastered foreign tongue. The results are sheer mind-expanding poetry! I recently heard a talk by Buddhist scholar Griff Foulk who suggested that when Dogen went to China, his command of the Chinese language was not up to that of a native speaker. In listening to his teacher, Rujing, he probably understood many Chinese metaphors concretely — misunderstanding things a native speaking Chinese peasant might have correctly understood. He then returned to Japan and translated these mis- understandings into Japanese…. and here we are hearing them re-translated into English… And of course, Rujing learned his Buddhism from Chinese (mis)translations of Pali and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit texts. I love the idea of milennia of mistranslations and mishearings as Buddhism moves from culture to culture, like some fantastical cosmic game of telephone. The wonder of Suzuki Roshi’s grammatical errors, is that, like poetry, they express more than correct English ever could. I especially like his reference to “things-as-it is.” ZMBM is still the best book on Buddhist practice in English, a continual revelation. Happy Birthday, Roshi!

    1. Thanks for the great comment, Seth. I’m glad you mentioned all this, because it gives those who have read ZMBM and those who might be inspired to read it some added insight for appreciating and understanding Suzuki’s words.

      I have long enjoyed the not-quite-correct English of Japanese and other Asian teachers and leaders. For many that I have dealt with, English was their second language. Of course, in having conversations, it can also be frustrating. But when on the written page, as you mentioned, it can be like poetry, and sometimes it takes these ideas into a whole new territory so that we have to think about them differently, and that’s a good thing.

      Thanks also for the info on Dogen’s grasp of Chinese. I didn’t realize or even think about that. It’s clears a few things up. From what I gather, Dogen changed the wording to some of the texts when he quoted them and had his own interpretation of a few key terms. I see folks criticize him for this from time to time. I’ve never had a problem with it. I figured it was just part of the evolution process and it is not as if he perverts the meaning, rather he just opens up another dimension to the meaning, providing a bit more for us to consider and explore.

      Whose birthday is it?

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