“Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”

Calvin’s a delusional little guy, but you gotta love him:


“When your life is always a part of your surroundings–in other words, when you are called back to yourself, in the present moment–then there is no problem. When you start to wander about in some delusion which is something apart from you yourself, then your surroundings are not real anymore, and your mind is not real anymore. If you yourself are deluded, then your surroundings are also a misty, foggy delusion. Once you are in the midst of delusion, there is no end to delusion. You will be involved in deluded ideas one after another. Most people live in delusion, involved in their problem, trying to solve their problem. But just to live is actually to live in problems. And to solve the problem is to be a part of it, to be one with it.”

– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 1970

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Post title taken from “Nowhere Man” by Lennon & McCartney

Calvin and Hobbes is the product of cartoonist Bill Watterson. Although the strip concluded its run in 1995, it is still syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate, and published by Andrews McMeel Publishing


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)


Buddha System Cleaner

It’s Monday and if you are reading this online then you weren’t hit with the dreaded “dns changer” malware. If you want to double check to see if you are infected, go to this site and if the color is green, you’re cool. If it’s red, oh oh – better clean your computer.

We all use a program or two to protect our PCs from viruses, malware and spyware, or should. I have several that I use in conjunction with each other. I also use a “system cleaner,” a program that will clean up temporary files and the registry.

Now – how’s this for a segue – Buddhism is a bit like a system cleaner. After all, our brain does function like a computer, or vice versa. Interestingly, we assume that a computer is more powerful than the human brain, but I’m not sure that is true. Brains are efficient and compact. According to Scientific American, even a cat’s brain, about the size of a macadamia nut, “smokes the newest iPad—1,000 times more data storage and a million times quicker to act on it.”

Back in the day, when the great Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, was giving his famous dharma talks at the center in Los Altos, California, no one had personal computers. As recorded in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, he used the analogy of housecleaning:

So we say true understanding will come out of emptiness. When you study Buddhism, you should have a general house cleaning of your mind. You must take everything out of your room and clean it thoroughly. If it is necessary, you may bring everything back in again. You may want many things, so one by one you can bring them back. But if they are not necessary, there is no need to keep them.”

This applies to practice, too. In meditation, we sweep the mind clean, clear the temporary files of discriminating thoughts, and remove reflections of the past and anticipations of the future from our registry. This is also called “emptying the mind,” what Suzuki meant when he said true understanding comes out of emptiness.

The Sixth Patriarch of the Ch’an school said,

Our self-natured Bodhi is fundamentally pure and clean. Use this mind of yours for your direct understanding and realization of awakening.”

Normally a house starts out clean. When it becomes dirty, then we use a broom or vacuum to return it to its original clean state. The same is true of our personal computers. They get cluttered up with garbage wasting space that slows the performance and we need to use a system cleaner to clear that stuff out.

In meditation, we use mind to clean mind. Han Shan, a Ch’an monk from the Ming Dynasty, in his Collection of Dreams, wrote,

If you can make effective use of your mind, by concentrating on that which is self-existent before your mind is disturbed by a thought, you will gradually become accustomed to it, and with the passing of time, realization is bound to follow.”

That’s why I say Buddhist meditation is an effective maintenance tool. It removes viruses like the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance. It cleans malware that Suzuki called our “preconceived ideas” and “subjective opinions” from the mind’s system.

Cleaning the mind is a big job. Unlike cleaning your computer’s system, it takes more than a few minutes. It’s the process of a lifetime.


Sunday Dharma: Enlightenment is nothing special

I’ve noticed there are some folks out there in the blogosphere who write disparagingly about bloggers who use quotes. I use a lot of quotes. One reason is to sort of put a cap on whatever I’ve said, and another is to give some credence to what I’ve said, so that readers will know, hopefully, that I am not talking out of my hat. “Sunday Dharma” is almost always a long quote, because I usually prepare the posts one day ahead, and on Saturdays I’m lazy.

I’ve quoted Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind on a number of occasions. That’s because I think it is a very good book, almost indispensible. To my way of thinking, Suzuki had a really good handle on Buddhism and the practice of dharma. It was down to earth, no bs. And the longer I practice (nearly 30 years now), I become more and more attracted to no nonsense, simple and straightforward teachings.

A Japanese Buddhist named Nikkyo Niwano once wrote a book called Lifetime Beginner. I’ve always liked that phrase, and that’s the attitude that I have towards Buddhism and spiritual practice. To consider oneself a lifetime beginner is a good attitude for both teacher and student. Ultimately, there is no end game in enlightenment. No finish line. No diploma. The only prize is really a booby prize. In fact, I don’t even like the word enlightenment. Enlightening is better. It’s a process.

Apparently, I have misplaced Niwano‘s book, so here are some quotes from Zen Mind, Beginners Mind that address this notion of being a lifetime beginner, along with some guidance about faring on the way to “enlightenment,” which is just an endless further.

From the Introduction by Richard Baker

Beginner’s mind was a favorite expression of Dogen-zenji’s. The calligraphy of the frontispiece, also by Suzuki-roshi, reads shoshin, or beginner’s mind. The Zen way of calligraphy is to write in the most straightforward, simple way as if you were a beginner, not trying to make something skillful or beautiful, but simply writing with full attention as if you were discovering what you were writing for the first time; then your full nature will be in your writing. This is the way of practice moment after moment.

So the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind. There is no need to have a deep understanding of Zen. Even though you read much Zen literature, you must read each sentence with a fresh mind. You should not say, “I know what Zen is,” or “I have attained enlightenment.” This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner’s mind. It is the secret of Zen practice.

Shunryu Suzuki:

Enlightenment is not some good feeling or some particular state of mind. The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is, itself, enlightenment. If you cannot be satisfied with the state of mind you have in zazen, it means your mind is still wandering about. Our body and mind should not be wobbling or wandering about. In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it. This is the conclusion of Buddhism.

We say our practice should be without gaining ideas, without any expectations, even of enlightenment. This does not mean, however, just to sit without any purpose. This practice free from gaining ideas is based on the Prajna Paramita Sutra.

If you continue this simple practice every day you will obtain a wonderful power. Before you attain it, it is something wonderful, but after you obtain it, it is nothing special. It is just you yourself, nothing special. As a Chinese poem says, “I went and I returned. It was nothing special. Rozan famous for its misty mountains; Sekko for its water.” People think it must be wonderful to see the famous range of mountains covered by mists, and the water said to cover all the earth. But if you go there you will just see water and mountains. Nothing special.

It is a kind of mystery that for people who have no experience of enlightenment, enlightenment is something wonderful. But if they attain it, it is nothing. But yet it is not nothing. Do you understand? For a mother with children, having children is nothing special. That is zazen. So, if you continue this practice, more and more you will acquire something–nothing special, but nevertheless something. You may say “universal nature” or “Buddhanature” or “enlightenment.” You may call it by many names, but for the person who has it, it is nothing, and it is something.

Our unexciting way of practice may appear to be very negative. This is not so. It is a wise and effective way to work on ourselves. It is just very plain. I find this point very difficult for people, especially young people, to understand. On the other hand it may seem as if I am speaking about gradual attainment. This is not so either. In fact, this is the sudden way, because when your practice is calm and ordinary, everyday life itself is enlightenment.

When something becomes dualistic, that is not pure. If you think you will get something from practicing zazen, already you are involved in impure practice. It is all right to say there is practice, and there is enlightenment, but we should not be caught by the statement. You should not be tainted by it. When you practice zazen, just practice zazen. If enlightenment comes, it just comes. We should not attach to the attainment. The true quality of zazen is always there, even if you are not aware of it, so forget all about what you think you may have gained from it. Just do it. The quality of zazen will express itself; then you will have it.

If you find some difficulty in your practice, that is the warning that you have some wrong idea, so you have to be careful. But do not give up your practice; continue it, knowing your weakness. Here there is no gaining idea. Here there is no fixed idea of attainment. You do not say, “This is enlightenment,” or “That is not right practice.” Even in wrong practice, when you realize it and continue, there is right practice. Our practice cannot be perfect, but without being discouraged by this, we should continue it. This is the secret of practice.

Even if the flashing of enlightenment comes, our practice forgets all about it. Then it is ready for another enlightenment. It is necessary for us to have enlightenments one after another, if possible, moment after moment. This is what is called enlightenment before you attain it and after you attain it.



The experience that took place as one man sat meditating under the Bodhi Tree was transforming – he was no longer an ordinary person, he was awakened. Yet, this was a very human experience, and one that is available to the ordinary person.

The message this awakening conveys is that all people have the potential to affect a similar transformation in their own lives.

What, then, did the Buddha become awakened to? The Pali suttas offer several explanations.  In one, it is the realization that the “self” (atman) was the source of human trouble. In a second account, it is the knowledge of the working of the law of karma, along with the truth of suffering, the arising of suffering, the conquest over suffering, and the path that leads to the conquest over suffering. In yet another version, it is the theory of “interdependent origination” (pratiya-samutpada) that is the focus of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

Laying aside the specifics, we can say that in general the Buddha attained the realization that human beings were deluded to the true nature of life, and that they create their own unhappiness and pain by thinking, speaking and acting based on this delusional understanding.

Buddha taught that the source of suffering lies within our own lives. At the same time, also existing within each individual life is the cause for overcoming suffering. We call it an awakened or Buddha-nature, which all beings posses. When we wake up to this Buddha-nature we are able to see reality as it truly is and develop the wisdom to transform sources of suffering into causes for a more enlightened condition of life.

The concept of Buddha-nature did not originate with the Buddha, rather it is inferred. The concept was developed within the philosophical tradition of Indian Mahayana. The Theravada school does not accept this idea. A rather well-known Theravada monk once told me that he was uncomfortable with the idea of Buddha-nature because the Buddha was “perfect” and that ordinary people should not see themselves as equal to him. I think it should be fairly obvious that this sort of attitude misses the point of the Buddha’s message completely, and this was the real mission of the Mahayana, to return to the original spirit of the Buddha’s dharma.

Buddha-nature as a term is derived from another term, tathagata-garba, compounded from the words tathagata, or “thus-gone-one, and garba, meaning embryo or womb. Tathagata is a name for the Buddha; specifically, the name the Buddha used in the sutras to refer to himself.

Tatha means “thus,” referring to “thusness” or “suchness” – reality as it actually is, and gata means gone, indicating movement in the direction of this understanding. A tathagata, then, is someone who sees the true nature of reality.  The meaning of tathagata-garba is that all dharmas (things), both stained and pure, are united in the nature of the Tathagata, and is therefore called the womb or the storehouse of the Tathagata.

The merits of all the dharmas are stored within the garba, the storehouse. This is also called the Dharma-body. Regarded as hidden, it is able to produce the Buddha Who Has Thus Gone, and thus the name tathagata-garba. Regarded as revealed, it is the ground of all dharmas, and so has the name Dharmakaya. It is further named Buddhata or Buddha-nature. The Buddha is awakened, and all beings have the potential for this same awakening.

Mahayana Buddhism asserts that all people inherently posses Buddha-nature. The Buddha swept away all troubles and afflictions and totally fulfilled his Buddha-nature. Therefore, he became a Buddha. Since all beings already have the Buddha-nature, they can cultivate themselves completely and fulfill their Buddha-nature, and they can become Buddhas.

Shunryu Suzuki said:

Buddha-nature is our original nature. When we have no idea of ego, we have awakened life, out egotistic ideas are delusion, covering our Buddha-nature. Everything has Buddha-nature, so something apart from Buddha-nature is just a delusion . . . So to be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha-nature is just another name for human nature, our true human nature.