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.
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)