Book cover art for Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
Shunryu Suzuki

All the time I spent reading, taking notes on and trying to understand this book would probably have been better spent in simply sitting in zazen. But here we are nonetheless. An insightful and calm look into the mind of a Zen buddhist through the talks he gave, it's worth reading if you have even a passing interest in Buddhism and Zen in particular.

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

Right Practice - Posture, Breathing, Control, Mind Waves

The importance of posture is in making sure we are in our bodies when we practice zazen (seated meditation). You should be able to feel yourself and not be slumped over.

'The most important thing in taking the zazen posture is shoulders should be on one line. Relax shoulders, and push up to keep your spine straight. Your ears and your your towards the ceiling with the back of your head. And you should pull your chin in. ... Your hands should form the "cosmic mudra." If you put your left hand on top of your right, middle joints of middle fingers together, and touch your thumbs lightly together (as if you held a piece of paper between them), your hands will make a beautiful oval.'

Be aware of your breathing. Do not be absent-minded.

'What we call “I" is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all.'

Life comes to us an we choose our way through it, even if it is to not do anything. That is a choice, too.

The only way to control is by not controlling. Just watch what happens, encouraging mischief. You can not control by trying to control. This also works in zazen - just watch yourself.

'The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in its wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them.'

Nothing comes from without; the waves that happen in our mind happen only in our minds. Leave your mind as it is, and it will become calm.

Even if we are 'no good', we can still be good. The marrow of zen can be accessed even by those who do not practice the proper forms, or who are not able to be 'very good'.

'Those who can sit perfectly physically usually take more time to obtain the true way of Zen, the actual feeling of Zen, the marrow of you Zen. But those who find difficulties in practicing Zen great will find more meaning in it.'

The best thing we can do if we are feeling disagreeable is to sit.

'You may feel as if you are doing something special, but actually it is only the expression of your true nature; it is the activity which appeases your inmost desire. But as long as you think you are practicing zazen for the sake of something, that is not true practice.'

Right Attitude

'Our way is not to sit to acquire something; it is to express our true nature. That is our practice.'

Don't let yourself be too interested in Zen for Zen's sake, this is not true interest. It will make you excitable, and that's not what you want.

'So the kind of practice we stress thus cannot become too idealistic. If an artist becomes too idealistic, he will commit suicide, because between his ideal and his actual ability there is a great gap.'

Our thoughts leave their traces on our actions, and our actions leave their traces on our thoughts. Pure actions come from a clear mind, pure thoughts come from pure actions.

'Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine. If you become too busy and too excited, your mind becomes rough and ragged.'

The things we do can have imprints on our thoughts and mind over time. This is what we call attachment.

'Building character is like making bread-you have to mix it little by little, step by step, and moderate temperature is needed.'

'In order to find out how dough became perfect bread, he made it over and over again, until he became quite successful. That was his practice.'

There are three kinds of creation:

  • Awareness of the self after zazen
  • Making things in the world / acting
  • Making within yourself (art, culture etc)

We like to think of Zen as being special, when it is not. It is as singular as anything can be. Anything else is an embellishment.

'It is the people who are outside of the monastery who feel its atmosphere. Those who are practicing actually do not feel anything. I think this is true for everything.'

'Our understanding of Buddhism is not just an intellectual understanding. True understanding is actual practice itself.'

Right Understanding

If you set out trying to attain enlightenment, you will not get there. This is because, to think and act like this, you are thinking and acting in the karmic world. Karma is like samsara.

'When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself. When are concentrated on your mind on the you the quality of your being, you are prepared for the activity.'

A high and mighty understanding of the philosophy of Buddhism is not true Buddhism. Only practice is true Buddhism.

When we do something, we should do only that thing. Otherwise we are not gaining a true understanding of the thing we do, or doing this thing properly. How hard and hardened is your attitude? Can you accept what you do not know?

'Without nothingness, there is no naturalness-no true being. True being comes out of nothingness, moment after moment. Nothingness is always there, and from it everything appears.'

Enlightenment and its realisation is there, always. It is there before we sit zazen, during, and after. It is simply the truth of existence, the big mind that our small minds cannot see without right practice (and even that is no guarantee).

'Wisdom is not something to learn. Wisdom is something which will come out of your mindfulness. So the point is to be ready for observing things, and to be ready for thinking. This is called emptiness of your mind. Emptiness is nothing but the practice of zazen.'

Sitting in practice is now different to going about our daily lives, they are one and the same thing. There is nowhere we may escape to, not really. We are always here. The same can be said of any kind of activity—drugs, alcohol, sex, work, sleep, eating, games, fitness...

'No matter what god or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief will be based more or less on a self-centered idea.'

Truth be told, there is no point in understanding Buddhism intellectually. It must be practiced. Me, in reading this book and making notes on it is, perhaps, utterly pointless. I should instead just go and sit zazen.

'If you want to understand it, you cannot understand it. When you give up trying to understand it, true understanding is always there.'

'Soto' and 'Zen' are classifications that matter only to outsiders. If you are a Buddhist, you are a Buddhist.

'Actually we are not the Soto school at all. We are just Buddhists. We are not even Zen Buddhists; we are just Buddhists. If we understand this point we are truly Buddhists.'

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