Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

The Book in a Few Sentences

Brilliant Buddhist insights on the nature of the human mind from one of the most widely regarded Zen teachers. Despite the title, I wouldn't recommend this for beginners who are likely to end up more confused and frustrated. Instead, I would recommend starting with Theravada Buddhism.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind summary

This is my book summary of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. My summary and notes include the key lessons and most important insights from the book.

Introduction

  • The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities.
  • It is the kind of mind which can see things as they are, which step by step and in a flash can realize the original nature of everything.
  • Directly or by inference, every section of the book concerns the question of how to maintain beginner’s mind through your meditation and in your life.
  • He [Shunryu Suzuki] stayed because he found that Americans have a beginner’s mind, that they have few preconceptions about Zen, are quite open to it, and confidently believe that it can help their lives.
  • “A Roshi is a person who has actualized that perfect freedom which is the potentiality for all human beings.
  • He exists freely in the fullness of his whole being.
  • The flow of his consciousness is not the fixed repetitive patterns of our usual self-centered consciousness, but rather arises spontaneously and naturally from the actual circumstances of the present.
  • The results of this in terms of the quality of his life are extraordinary—buoyancy, vigor, straightforwardness, simplicity, humility, serenity, joyousness, uncanny perspicacity, and unfathomable compassion.  
  • His whole being testifies to what it means to live in the reality of the present.
  • Without anything said or done, just the impact of meeting a personality so developed can be enough to change another’s whole way of life.
  • But in the end it is not the extraordinariness of the teacher which perplexes, intrigues, and deepens the student, it is the teacher’s utter ordinariness.
  • Because he is just himself, he is a mirror for his students. When we are with him we feel our own strengths and shortcomings without any sense of praise or criticism from him.
  • In his presence we see our original face, and the extraordinariness we see is only our own true nature.
  • When we learn to let our own nature free, the boundaries between master and student disappear in a deep flow of being and joy in the unfolding of Buddha mind.”

Prologue

  • “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
  • The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind.
  • For Zen students the most important thing is not to be dualistic.
  • So the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind.

Part One: Right Practice

  • Our body and mind are both two and one.
  • We die, and we do not die.
  • When we have our body and mind in order, everything else will exist in the right place, in the right way.
  • But usually, without being aware of it, we try to change something other than ourselves, we try to order things outside of us.
  • But it is impossible to organize things if your yourself are not in order.
  • The start 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.
  • So in the realm of pure religion there is no confusion of time and space, or good or bad.
  • When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door, and we are purely independent of, and at the same time, dependent upon everything.
  • We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment.
  • To give you sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him.
  • So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them.
  • To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy.
  • The second worst is trying to control them.
  • The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.
  • If you want to obtain perfect calmness in your zazen, you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come, and let them go. They will be under control.
  • The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes.
  • This is to put everything under control in its widest sense.
  • It appears as if something comes from outside of 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.
  • It will take quite a long time before you find your calm, serene mind in your practice.
  • Nothing comes from outside your mind.
  • You yourself make the waves in your mind. If you leave your mind as it is, it will become calm. This 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 not dualistic understanding in the activity of your mind. You understand activity as just waves of your mind.
  • Because we enjoy all aspects of 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.
  • If you have some experience of how the weeds in your mind change into mental nourishment, your practice will make remarkable progress.
  • In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind.
  • But those who find great difficulties in practicing Zen will find more meaning in it.
  • When you are sitting in the middle of your problem, which is more real to you: your problem or your yourself? The awareness that you are here, right now, is the ultimate fact.
  • To stop your mind does not mean to stop the activities of mind. It means your mind pervades your whole body.
  • With your whole mind you sit with painful legs without being disturbed by them.
  • When you say, “Whatever I do is Buddha nature, so it doesn’t matter what I do, and there is not need to practice zazen,” that is already a dualistic understanding of our everyday life.
  • By bowing we are giving up ourselves. To give up ourselves means to give up our dualistic ideas.
  • The result is not the point; it is the effort to improve ourselves that is valuable. There is no end to this practice.
  • Real calmness should be found in activity itself.
  • Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little.
  • Just to be sincere and make our full effort in each moment is enough.
  • But as long as you think you are practicing zazen for the sake of something, that is not true practice.
  • The most important thing is to express your true nature in the simplest, most adequate way and to appreciate it in the smallest existence.

Part Two: Right Attitude

  • So when you cook you should express yourself in your activity in the kitchen. You should allow yourself plenty of time; you should work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything.
  • The Bodhisattva’s way is called “the single-minded way,” or “one railway track thousands of miles long.” The railway track is always the same.
  • The sights we see from the train will change, but we are always running on the same track. And there is no beginning or end to the track: beginning less and endless track. There is no starting point, no goal, nothing to attain. Just to run on the track is our way. This is the nature of our Zen practice.
  • If you lose the spirit of repetition it will become quite difficult…
  • If an artist becomes too idealistic, he will commit suicide, because between his ideal and his actual ability there is a great gap.
  • Actual practice is repeating over and over again until you find out how to become bread. There is no secret in our way. Just to practice zazen and put ourselves into the oven is our way.
  • Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.
  • If you become too busy and and too excited, your mind becomes rough and ragged.
  • But if your mind is calm and constant, you can keep yourself away from the noisy world enough though you are in the midst of it.
  • 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.
  • …because when your practice is calm and ordinary, everyday life itself is enlightenment.
  • Our effort in our practice should be directed from achievement to non-achievement.
  • 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.
  • You already have everything in your own pure inquiry. If you understand this ultimate fact, there is no fear.
  • But if your effort is in the right direction, then there is no fear of losing anything.
  • There is only the constant pure quality of right practice.
  • When we practice zazen our mind is calm and quite simple. But usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrated on what we are doing. This is because before we act we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea.
  • But when we do something with a complicated mind, in relation to other things or people, or society, our activity becomes very complex.
  • Thinking which leaves traces comes out of your relative confused mind. Relative mind is the mind which sets itself in relation to other things, thus limiting itself. It is this small mind which creates gaining ideas and leaves traces of itself.
  • In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind…You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should burn yourself completely.
  • That is what Dogen meant when he said, “Ashes do not come back to firewood.” Ash is ash. Ash should be completely ash. The firewood should be firewood.
  • You should not have any remains after you do something. If you understand this point, all the dualistic thinking and all the problems of life will vanish.
  • We have a saying, “Dana prajna paramita.” Dana means to give, prajna means wisdom, and paramita means to cross over, or to reach the other shore.
  • To reach the other shore with each step of the crossing is the way of true living.
  • With the right spirit, all that we do, all that we create is dana prajna paramita.
  • Even though something has no material or relative value to any “small I,” it has absolute value in itself. Not to be attached to something is to be aware of its absolute value.
  • If you understand dana prajna paramita, you will understand how it is we create so many problems for ourselves.
  • And we should forget, day by day, what we have done; this is true non attachment.
  • When you are idealistic, you have some gaining idea within yourself; by the time you attain your ideal or goal, your gaining idea will create another ideal.
  • Because your attainment is always ahead, you will always be sacrificing yourself now for some ideal in the future. You end up with nothing.
  • It is when your practice is rather greedy that you become discouraged with it.
  • Whether or not you are aware of it, you have your own true enlightenment within your practice.
  • Even in wrong practice, when you realize it and continue, there is right practice.
  • In our way the point of the sharp angle is always towards ourselves, not away from ourselves. So there is no need to worry about the difference between Buddhism and the religion you may believe in.
  • The purpose of studying Buddhism is not to study Buddhism, but to study ourselves.
  • Dogen-zenji said, “To study Buddhism is to study ourselves. To study ourselves is to forget ourselves.”
  • When you are you, then no matter what you do, that is zazen.
  • Actually, just to work on the problem, if you do it with single-minded effort, is enough.
  • You should just polish the tile; that is our practice. The purpose of practice is not to make a tile a jewel. Just continue sitting; that is the practice in its true sense.
  • Instead of gathering knowledge, you should clear your mind. If your mind is clear, true knowledge is already yours.
  • To understand reality as a direct experience is the reason we practice zazen, and the reason we study Buddhism. Through the study of Buddhism, you will understand your human nature, your intellectual faculty, and the truth present in your human activity.
  • If you try to adjust yourself in a certain way, you will lose yourself. So without any intentional, fancy way of adjusting yourself, to express yourself freely as you are is the most important thing to make yourself happy, and to make others happy.
  • True communication depends upon our being straightforward with one another.
  • Actually, we have Hinayana practice with Mahayana spirit—rigid formal practice with informal mind.
  • Dogen-zenji said, “When you say something to someone, he may not accept it, but do not try to make him understand it intellectually. Do not argue with him; just listen to his objections until he himself finds something wrong with them.”
  • So big mind is something to express, not something to figure out. Big mind is something you have, not something you seek for.
  • Whenever Dogen-zenji dipped water from the river, he used only half a dipperful, returning the rest of the river again, without throwing it away.
  • When we feel the beauty of the river, when we are one with the water, we intuitively do it in Dogen’s way. It is our true nature to do so. But if your true nature is covered by ideas of economy or efficiency, Dogen’s way makes no sense.
  • Before we were born we had not feeling; we were one with the universe. This is called “mind-only,” or “essence of mind,” or “big mind.”
  • We say, “Everything comes out of emptiness.” One whole river or one whole mind is emptiness. When we reach this understanding we can see the beauty of human life. Before we realize this fact, everything that we see is just delusion.
  • When you realize this fact, you will discover how meaningless your old interpretation was, and how much useless effort you had been making.

Part Three: Right Understanding

  • The understanding passed down from Buddha to our time is that when you start zazen, there is enlightenment even without any preparation.
  • The points we emphasize are not the stage we attain, but the strong confidence we have in our original nature and the sincerity of our practice.
  • If you are trying to attain enlightenment, that is a part of karma, you are creating and being driven by karma, and you are wasting your time on your black cushion.
  • More important than any stage which you will attain is your sincerity, your right effort.
  • If our practice is only a means to attain enlightenment, there is actually no way to attain it! But when we believe in our way firmly, we have already attained enlightenment.
  • You may think Buddha attained some stage where he was free from karmic life, but it is not so. He was not at all different from us.
  • And after he attained enlightenment he continued the same effort we are making.
  • Not by reading or contemplation of philosophy, but only through practice, actual practice, can we understand what Buddhism is.
  • When we realize the everlasting truth of “everything changes” and find our composure in it, we find ourselves in Nirvana.
  • Because we cannot accept the truth of transiency, we suffer. So the cause of suffering is nor non-acceptance of this truth.
  • We should find perfect existence through imperfect existence.
  • We do not seek for something besides ourselves. We should find the truth in this world, through our difficulties, through our suffering.
  • The purpose of zazen is to attain freedom of our being, physically and mentally.
  • Strictly speaking, there is no connection I myself yesterday and I myself in this moment; there is no connection whatsoever.
  • It is quite natural for you to take a nap when you are very sleepy. But to take a nap just because you are lazy, as if it were a privilege of a human being to take a nap, is not naturalness.
  • If it comes out nothingness, whatever you do is natural, and that is true activity.
  • When you do something, you should be completely involved in it. You should devote yourself to it completely.
  • If you want to study Zen, you should forget all your previous ideas and just practice zazen and see what kind of experience you have in your practice. That is naturalness.
  • Nyu nan shin means a smooth, natural mind. When you have that mind, you have the joy of life. When you lose it, you lose everything. Although you think you have something, you have nothing. But when all you do comes out of nothingness, then you have everything.
  • We say true existence comes out of emptiness and goes back again into emptiness.
  • When you understand one thing through and through, you understand everything. When you try to understand everything, you will not understand anything. The best way is to understand yourself, then you will understand everything.
  • As long as you are caught by duality you cannot attain absolute freedom, and you cannot concentrate.
  • In zazen practice we say your mind should be concentrated on your breathing, but the way to keep your mind on your breathing is to forget all about yourself and just to sit and feel your breathing.
  • If you continue this practice, eventually you will experience the true existence which comes from emptiness.
  • So realization of the truth is salvation itself.
  • But usually we understand the practice of zazen and enlightenment as two different things: here is practice, like a pair of glasses, and when we use the practice, like putting the glasses on, we see enlightenment. This is the wrong understanding. The glasses themselves are enlightenment, and to put them on is also enlightenment. So whatever you do, or even though you do not do anything, enlightenment is there, always.
  • It is the readiness of the mind that is wisdom.
  • Wisdom is not something to learn. Wisdom is something which will come out of your mindfulness.
  • I discovered that it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to believe in nothing. That is, we have to believe in something which has no form and no color—something which exists before all forms and colors appear.
  • In constantly seeking to actualize your ideal, you will have no time for composure.
  • Zazen practice and everyday activity are one thing.
  • We call zazen everyday life, and everyday life zazen. But usually we think, “Now zazen is over, and we will go about our everyday activity.” But this is not the right understanding. They are the same thing. We have nowhere to escape.  
  • So in activity there should be calmness, and in calmness there should be activity. Calmness and activity are not different.
  • Dozen said, “To learn something is to know yourself; to study Buddhism is to study yourself.” To learn something is not to acquire something which you did not know before. You know something before you learn it.
  • All we want to do is to know things just as they are.
  • In the thinking realm there is a difference between oneness and variety; but in actual experience, variety and unity are the same.
  • Happiness is sorrow; sorrow is happiness. There is happiness in difficulty; difficulty in happiness. Even though the ways we feel are different, they are not really different…
  • But for Zen students a weed, which for most people is worthless, is a treasure. With this attitude, whatever you do, life becomes art.
  • In our everyday life we are usually trying to do something, trying to change something into something else, or trying to attain something. Just this trying is already in itself an expression of our true nature.
  • The trying to do something in itself is enlightenment.
  • By continuing your practice with this sort of understanding, you can improve yourself. But if you try to attain something without this understanding you cannot work on it properly. You lose yourself in the struggle for your goal; you achieve nothing; you just continue to suffer in your difficulties.
  • Those who are attached only to the result of their effort will not have any chance to appreciate it, because the result will never come. But if moment by moment your effort arises from its pure origin, all you do will be good, and you will be satisfied with whatever you do.
  • So for us there is no need to know what Zen is intellectually.
  • No school should consider itself a separate school. It should just be one tentative form of Buddhism.
  • Whether or not you make yourself peaceful is the point, and whether or not you stick to it.
  • The best way towards perfect composure is to forget everything.
  • So to have firm conviction in the original emptiness of your mind is the most important thing in your practice.
  • The best way to develop Buddhism is to sit in zazen—just to sit, with a firm conviction in our true nature. This way is much better than to read books or study the philosophy of Buddhism.

Epilogue

  • Moment after moment to watch your breathing, to watch your posture, is true nature. There is not secret beyond this point.
  • Enlightenment experience is to figure out, to understand, to realize this mind which is always with us and which we cannot see.
  • We practice zazen to express our true nature, not to attain enlightenment. Bodhidharma’s Buddhism is to be practice, to be enlightenment.
  • The purpose of practice is to have direct experience of the Buddha nature which everyone has. Whatever you do should be the direct experience of Buddha nature. Buddha nature means to be aware of Buddha nature.

Afterword

  • As Suzuki says in this book, Instead of having some object of worship we just concentrate on the activity we do in each moment.
  • Beginner’s mind is the key to awakening to big mind, a favorite term of Suzuki’s—big mind, the absolute, our true nature; not small mind, the product of our “silly idea of self.”
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