Zen Mind Beginner's Mind Deciphering Term Paper

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According to Suzuki, when meditation is performed appropriately, time becomes a river that can be traveled: "When we experience this kind of truth it means we have found the true meaning of time. Time constantly goes from past to present and from present to future. This is true, but it is also true that time goes from future to present and from present to past" (pp. 33-34).

Certainly, the Zen master is not suggesting that people can actually travel through time, but he is trying to make the point that a beginner's mind, a Zen mind, possesses the capacity to perceive time in this fluid fashion without the constraints imposed by the physical world. Moreover, Suzuki concedes that the process to achieving a Zen mind is not seamless or easy, and insists that proficiency in attaining a beginner's mind is a matter of practice and time. Nevertheless, the Zen master also emphasizes that the goal is obtainable by anyone who has the desire and the will and who is willing to follow some relatively straightforward guidance to achieving it. When the Zen mind is attained, though, clarity rushes in to fill the void. According to Suzuki, "When everything exists within your big mind, all dualistic relationships drop away. There is no distinction between heaven and earth, man and woman, teacher and disciple" (p. 44). This level of clarity also means that the respective role and position of the practitioner is malleable and situationally relative. In this regard, in the "big mind," "Sometimes a man bows to a woman; sometimes a woman bows to a man. Sometimes the disciple bows to the master; sometimes the master bows to the disciple. A master who cannot bow to his disciple cannot bow to Buddha. Sometimes the master and disciple bow together to Buddha. Sometimes we may bow to cats and dogs" (p. 44).

The latter assertion may cause some practitioners to pause. It is one thing to have sufficient humility to bow to one's superiors and even one's equals, but it is quite another thing to bow to "cats and dogs." What is the world was Suzuki thinking when he wrote this? It turns out that he was thinking the same thing all along, which is attaining the big mind means that everything is worthy of respect and acceptance as it is rather than as it is wanted to be by the practitioner. As Suzuki puts it, "If you do not have this firm conviction of big mind in your practice, your bow will be dualistic. When you are just yourself, you bow to yourself in its true sense, and you are one with everything. Only when you are you yourself can you bow to everything in its true sense" (p. 44). Consequently, from this perspective, it just makes good sense to bow to others and even bow to dogs and cats because everything in the universe is equal and one. In fact, just as the simple act of sitting has its proper form and approach that may be considered difficult by some, so too does bowing for the Zen practitioner. According to Suzuki, "Bowing helps to eliminate our self-centered ideas. This is not so easy. It is difficult to get rid of these ideas, and bowing is a very valuable practice. The result is not the point; it is the effort to improve ourselves that is valuable. There is no end to this practice" (p. 45).

Indeed, one of the vows that is ritually communicated through bowing is the commitment to attain the unattainable. In this regard, Suzuki advises that, "Although Buddhism is unattainable, we vow to attain it. If it is unattainable, how can we attain it? But we should! That is Buddhism" (p. 45). The danger exists, though, that purposeful attempts to attain the unattainable will be to no avail simply because this positive approach is contrary to the tenets of the beginner's mind advocated by Suzuki. It is only when the mind is allowed by become empty of conscious thought and action that progress towards this goal can be made. As Suzuki concludes, "When you give up, when you no longer want something, or when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something" (p. 47). The "something" that is aspired to in this case is to rid human nature of all that is not human in order to restore its natural state so that the practitioner can achieve the Buddha nature that is always there.


It is tempting to disregard the teaching of Zen master Shunryu Suzuki based on his sometimes-cryptic guidance that admonishes practitioners that they must do nothing before they can do something and that people die but do not die. Although these teachings may appear superficial, the Zen master also makes the point that if the big mind has been achieved, the teaching will make perfect sense. To the extent that individuals have failed to clear their minds of extraneous worldly matters and allow these thoughts to intrude is likely the extent to which they will not attain the big mind state that allows practitioners to understand the here and now and what part they play in the scheme of things. In sum, Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, is not recreational reading but is rather a series of teachings that can be used to attain the beginner's mind that is the goal of Zen.


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