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Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

Updated: Sep 21, 2018

The greatest and simplest lesson I’ve taken away from the book is that the teachings of Zen are not concerned about philosophical understanding. Rather, it emphasises practice. EXPERIENCE OVER PHILOSOPHY. Practice of zazen, practice of any activity intentionally so that zazen appears in any form/ action. Just to sit is enough. The simplicity in this encompasses the lesson: “If we know things as they are, there is nothing to point at; there is no way to grasp anything; there is no thing to grasp.” — I do not have to feel like there is something else I should be doing or doing something in any other way in order to be practising correctly. Presence in the moment becomes presence everywhere and everything so that one’s mission to find happiness or seek enlightenment becomes an everyday accomplishment.

“To find meaning in life is to find meaning in the everyday living”. This is described as Right Understanding. Not intellectually but through the truest understanding of practice itself: zazen meditation without description or achievement. Again, it is simply sitting and doing it. Sometimes I feel discouraged or confused if sitting on a certain day is particularly challenging because of physical pain/ mental noise. But the book reminds me that more important than any stage or attainment of understanding or enlightenment is my sincerity and effort to do the practice. Having read this, I feel more at ease with my own meditation practice and the ease of discussing Zen and meditation with others. Suzuki wants the way of Buddha/ Buddhism/ Zen/ any other religion to be discussed and shared in a common and universal language. For it to remain free and protected from any mystic or magical interpretations.

When I meditate I often get caught up in thinking. Even if it’s not a lingering thought I’ve learnt to watch how my mind shifts from thought to thought. Sometimes I notice when I drift out of non-thinking— the point when I begin thinking again. This place before thinking started to flow again is a space of curiosity/ mystery, and equally peace. Those moments demonstrate the reality of “the mind minding the mind” in that I am always bearing witness to my thoughts and mental landscape however calm or noisy. Then in moments that I may no longer be seeing or feeling what’s there, I relate this place or space with what Suzuki describes as Big Mind. 

Big Mind, or mind-only, is the essence of the mind. The quality before birth when we had no feeling: being one with the Universe. After birth when we are separated from this oneness we have feeling. And with time as we mature we attach to feeling without understanding their true origins. I relate this back to the construct that we can only ever experience through the mind, which is ultimately our brain. Anything we experience we do through our senses, and these are processed by our brain, which confirms sensations and ties meaning to them. So without our brains we would not be capable of thinking or experiencing anything at all. 

This being said, if Big Mind encompasses the space before we have feeling of sense then Small Mind is a limited concept and is related to something. However, Suzuki also says there is no gap between things. Oneness is all, everything and nothing. Oneness is absolute. Zen does not place emphasis on oneness because if there is only one then there is no need to emphasise one separate from anything else. So the DUALITY of being runs in and through every concept that Suzuki shares with us because as much as we discuss these constructs, we are still discussing them with and through the process of our human brain. I link it back to the line: “Movement is nothing but the quality of our being.” because I like how it ties in with the idea that how we move in our bodies is a reflection of how we think and how we live our lives. Truly, how we do anything is how we do everything. Likewise, the constant flow, rhythm and movements of our minds is nothing but a reflection of who and how we are as humans. Always exploring, defining, seeking, making meaning to all things, and even no things.

In meditation, we’re constantly moving between Big Mind and Small Mind: “Waves of the mind come and go. Nothing comes from outside.” Another slight contradiction to the concept of Oneness— if we are potentially experiencing something which is other/ else from our brain-processed information. This sort of experience is visualised as emptiness/ the omnipotent self as dark sky. We must clear the mind of hoarding knowledge and see it as dark empty sky with temporary lightning or flashes of enlightenment happening over and over. Still, the dark sky remains. Enlightenment is a recurring event not a one-off prize. CONSTANCY, TRANSIENCY, NATURALNESS. When we try less we do better in a sense. There is no searching or effort in attainment or progress. Yet we are not quite functioning on the level of Monkey Mind either. One who is always looking for something without knowing what for or how. Simply put: “If you want to see something, open your eyes.” So it is suggested that some level of effort is necessary in order not to mindlessly wander in any direction of pursuit. This sort of effort is mindfulness. A mind that can process when it is ego-driven by results and progress, and a mind that is aware when it has become clouded with thought and fabricated meaning. Theses WAVES are unavoidable but the way in which we observe/ bear witness/ detach ourselves from their ripples is a practice in itself too. So in every act we can be practising zazen. Suzuki’s sharing of Koan/ Zen stories emphasises the construct of true zazen being present in whatever we do. Not just in the seemingly special and sacred act of sitting. The idea that REPETITION of a practice in different disciplines is still zazen if it is done mindfully. And through this repetitive process then anything that happens— flashes of enlightenment/ disturbances/ realisations/ self-teachings are again nothing special. They are merely moments of lightning in our constant experience of a dark sky. Their presence and their non-presence doesn’t change or better the quality of our experience. Rather we have to detach from any excitement of experience through naturalness. A lesson here is that through the MISTAKES I may come across in my practice such as seeking achievement or a type of experience merely shines a light on my own WEAKNESS as a practitioner/ student/ human being. There is no doing it wrong, or sitting wrong— if my awareness is present to the shifts happening that particular day, why I may get so wrapped up in thought and struggle to soften into my seat and posture then my struggle to practice is my practice that day. Likewise, out of the seated posture in an activity when I am doing less than my expectations, so long as I am conscious to the fact that I have already applied standards to that experience then the practice or even enlightenment as one might like to call it— is already there.

Suzuki’s loose translation of the Japanese word “Nin” most directly means patience. However, his interpretation of Nin is more aligned to the English word “constancy” as he feels that one can be patient to something without fulling accepting it. Constancy on the other hand implies an effortless acceptance of whatever as it is. So whether I sit for calm/ or headspace/ or self-improvement/ enlightenment, I need to stay mindful to the reality that experiences come and go, my attachment to a good/ bad experience must also come and go, and that the teachings of Suzuki/ Zen/ Buddha/ meditation practice are far greater than getting caught up in feeling a certain way after sitting.

“To study Zen or Buddhism is to study yourself.” Taking it back to the point that just to sit is enough— the practice is enough and any thinking or impression of achievement is a waste of time and space, and untrue. Like how an artwork can speak for itself without description, likewise the practice can speak for Zen or Buddha’s way better than any text or teaching. Suzuki mentions that at a monastery whilst monks follow a strict code of conduct and daily practice through routine and repetition— in actual fact those practising feel NOTHING SPECIAL. It is those around and outside the monastery who feel its atmosphere and effects more.

For me, as I continue to sit with the guidance of my Headspace app, I am constantly reminded that I may start to practise with the intentions of self-improvement but with time will come to realise and learn that the effects of my sitting extend further to the people I spend my time with later. When I am not actually practicing meditation with the intention of sitting and being still, that is when its benefits and teachings surface all the more clearly and unpretentiously. It’s in the title: Beginners Mind. To learn from the viewpoint of a total beginner who can accept that he/she knows nothing and acts vulnerably to the unknown openly and authentically. This is how we can approach a lot of the things we do.

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