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Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

May 1, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Last night, our sangha tried something new. After the service, instead of my giving a Dharma Talk we read the opening chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind . As we took turns reading paragraphs, I offered commentaries and answered questions about various points. While the first chapter is ostensibly concerned with the elements of the physical posture of zazen, Suzuki Roshi returns over and over to the central features of Zen Buddhism: 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.

For those of you are not familiar with the book, I should say that is a series of short talks given by the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1960’s that were skillfully edited by his senior students. The book is divided into three sections: Right Practice, Right Attitude, and Right Understanding. If you are looking for explanations of posture, breathing,or bowing,  you will find them here.

If you are looking for simple statements about the fundamental teachings of Buddhism you will also find them here. It is the clearest and simplest introduction to Zen in the English language. As I often tell new students, Zen is the simplest as well as the most advanced of all practices. As Suzuki Roshi put it, 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. While this book is very helpful at all stages of our practice, we need to be aware that the teaching which is written on paper is not the true teaching. Written teaching is kind of a food for the brain. Of course, it is necessary to take some food for the brain, but it is more important to be yourself by practicing the right way of life.

I have read this book many times over the years, but each time I pick it up I understand what I am reading in a new way. The words may have been printed many years ago (1971) but their meaning is still freshly alive and active. Last night, I was freshly taken by his comments about the importance of following the forms and rules of our practice in regard to posture: how we stand and walk in the Zendo and, most important, how we sit on our cushions.

He says that the purpose of these rules is not to make everyone the same, but to allow each to express her own self most freely. How we sit and stand reflects the physical dimensions of our bodies as well as the more subtle dimensions of our psyches. The rules are manifestations of objective reality but how we express them depends on our individual subjectivity. Paying careful attention to these rules allows us to see ourselves in the context of the teachings of Zen in our physical activities. Sometimes during a period of zazen I will look at each person to get an impression of their work. While I rarely see any movement and have no idea what is going on inside a person, I often have the impression that I am seeing him or her exactly as they are at that particular moment. This is exactly what Suzuki meant.

This reminded me of something that I was taught many years ago. We need to look at a wisdom tradition as a living organism in which everything is intimately connected to the parts and the whole of the teaching. Each part of a living tradition must contain the DNA of the entire tradition. And more than that, I would say that each part of our tradition contains the DNA of the entire universe.

So if you look deeply into any part of our practice, whether it is sitting or standing or bowing you will find yourself as an expression of your own Buddha nature.



From → Zen Buddhism

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