“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
but in the expert’s there are few.”
People say that practicing Zen is difficult, but there is a misunderstanding as to why. It is not difficult because it is hard to sit in the cross-legged position, or to attain enlightenment. It is difficult because it is hard to keep our mind pure and our practice pure in its fundamental sense.
In Japan we have the phrase shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind.” The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind. Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it.
The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices. For a while you will keep your beginner’s mind, but if you continue to practice one, two, three years or more, although you may improve some, you are liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind.
For Zen students the most important thing is not to be dualistic. Our “original mind” includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This doesn’t mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready 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.
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. Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice.
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 a 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.
“What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.”
When we practice zazen our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into our inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say “inner world” or “outer world,” but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door.
If you think “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.
So when we practice zazen, all that exists is the movement of the breathing, but we are aware of this movement. You should not be absent-minded. But to be aware of the movement does not mean to be aware of your small self, but rather of your universal nature, or Buddha nature. This kind of awareness is very important, because we are usually so one-sided.
Our usual understanding of life is dualistic: you and I, this and that, good and bad. But actually these discriminations are themselves the awareness of the universal existence. “You” means to be aware of the universe in the form of you, and “I” means to be aware of it in the form of I. You and I are just swinging doors. This kind of understanding is necessary. This should not even be called understanding; it is actually the true experience of life through Zen practice.
When you practice zazen, there is no idea of time or space. You may say, “We started sitting at a quarter to six in this room.” Thus you have some idea of time (a quarter to six), and some idea of space (in this room). Actually what you are doing, however, is just sitting and being aware of the universal activity. That is all. This moment the swinging door is opening in one direction, and the next moment the swinging door will be opening in the opposite direction.
Moment after moment each one of us repeats this activity. Here there is no idea of time or space. Time and space are one. You may say, “I must do something this afternoon,” but actually there is no “this afternoon.” We do things one after the other. That is all. There is no such time as “this afternoon” or “one o’clock” or “two o’clock.” At one o’clock you will eat your lunch. To eat lunch is itself one o’clock. For someone who actually appreciates our life, they are the same.
When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door, and we are purely independent of, and at the same time, dependent on everything. Without air, we cannot breathe. Each of us is in the midst of myriads of worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment. So we are completely dependent and independent. If you have this kind of experience, this kind of existence, you have absolute independence; you will not be bothered by anything. So when you practice zazen, your mind should be concentrated on your breathing.This kind of activity is the fundamental activity of the universal being. Without this experience, this practice, it is impossible to attain absolute freedom.
“Because we enjoy all aspects of life as an unfolding of big mind, we do not care for any excessive joy. So we have imperturbable composure.”
When you are practicing zazen, do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears as if something comes from outside your mind, but actually it is only the waves of your mind, and if you are not bothered by the waves, gradually they will become calmer and calmer.
In five or at most ten minutes, your mind will be completely serene and calm. At that time your breathing will become quite slow, while your pulse will become a little faster. It will take quite a long time before your find your calm, serene mind in your practice. Many sensations come, many thoughts or images, arise, but they are just waves of your own mind. Nothing comes from outside your own mind. Usually we think of our mind as receiving impressions and experiences from outside, but that is not a true understanding of our mind.
The true understanding is the the mind includes everything; when you think something comes from outside it means only that something appears in your mind. Nothing outside yourself can cause any trouble. You yourself make the waves in your mind. If you leave your mind as it is, it will become calm. This mind is called big mind.
If your mind is related to something outside itself, that mind is a small mind, a limited mind. If your mind is not related to anything else, then there is no dualistic understanding in the activity of your mind. You understand activity as just waves of your mind. Big mind experiences everything within itself. Do you understand the difference between the two minds: the mind which includes everything, and the mind which is related to something? Actually they are the same thing, but the understanding is different, and your attitude towards your life will be different according to which understanding you have.
That everything is included within your mind is the essence of mind. To experience this is to have religious feeling. Even though waves arise, the essence of your mind is pure; it is just like clear water with a few waves. Actually water always has waves. Waves are the practice of the water. To speak of waves apart form water or water apart from waves is a delusion. Water and waves are one.
Big mind and small mind are one. When you understand your mind in this way you have some security in your feeling. As your mind does not expect anything from outside, it is always filled. A mind with waves in it is not a disturbed mind, but actually an amplified one. Whatever you experience is an expression of big mind.
The activity of big mind is to amplify itself through various experiences. In one sense our experiences coming one by one are always fresh and new, but in another sense they are nothing but a continuous or repeated unfolding of the one big mind. For instance, if you have something good for breakfast, you will say, “This is good.” “Good” is supplied as something experienced some time long ago, even though you may not remember when.
With big mind we accept each of our experiences as if recognizing the face we see in a mirror as our own. For us there is no fear of losing this mind. There is nowhere to come or to go; there is no fear of death, no suffering from old age or sickness. Because we enjoy all aspects of life as an unfolding of big mind, we do not care for any excessive joy. So we have imperturbable composure, and it is with this imperturbable composure of big mind that we practice zazen.
Shunryu Suzuki (1905-1971)
For many of us, this was one of our first introductions to what Zen practice feels like studying in contemporary times. This comes from a Zen master talking to his students, and with a contemporary, we don’t have to translate the expressions into our own times; they are already experiencing the same time and space as we do. Or are they?
Beginner’s mind is a term used in Zen and some martial arts that are wedded with meditation. It is an element of awareness pointing out whether we are asleep in the present moment carrying out some script, or are we fully here seeing each moment fresh? It is what keeps a sense of aliveness in any activity we do. Are we relying on habit or is there that opening to see things in a new way?
Breathing is germane to any meditation practice. In the beginning, we count our exhalations, then bring the attention back to the counting when distractions come up. Later on, we just follow the breath. What I have always appreciated about breathing is that we do this every minute of our lives, so no matter what we are doing we can always return to awareness of breathing, and just that can return us to awareness and equanimity.
That moment of awareness is like a pause that can help us disengage from what’s going around outside ourselves or inside. We create a meditative moment in our daily activity that is not dependent on a cushion or bench; once we associate awareness of our breathing with a meditative state our entire relationship with everything changes. What possibilities!
Exploring possibilities together,
Elana, Scribe for Daily Zen