Shunryu Suzuki on Cultivating a Beginner’s Mind, in Meditation and in Life

You don’t have to do it. You don’t have to take every thought in your head too seriously. It’s one of many gifts of meditation — a deep state of concentration and tranquility that keeps you open to life.

This is what great meditation teacher Shunryu Suzuki (May 18, 1904–December 4, 1971) means when he says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” And this is what he explores with penetrating insight in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Shunryu Suzuki.

Shunryu Suzuki writes:

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 does not 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.

If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself. If you are too demanding or too greedy, your mind is not rich and self-sufficient. If we lose our original self-sufficient mind, we will lose all precepts. When your mind becomes demanding, when you long for something, you will end up violating your own precepts: not to tell lies, not to steal, not to kill, not to be immoral, and so forth. If you keep your original mind, the precepts will keep themselves.

He weighs the rewards of selfish achievement against the rewards of selfless learning he had chosen, concluding:

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 achieving, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.

Complement Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind with our article on Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

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