Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

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Trade Paperback

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“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

So begins this most beloved of all American Zen books.nbsp; Seldom has such a small handful of words provided a teaching as rich as has this famous opening line.nbsp; In a single stroke, the simple sentence cuts through the pervasive tendency students have of getting so close to Zen as to completely miss what it’s all about.nbsp; An instant teaching on the first page.nbsp; And that’s just the beginning.

In the forty years since its original publication, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind has become one of the great modern spiritual classics, much beloved, much reread, and much recommended as the best first book to read on Zen. Suzuki Roshi presents the basics–from the details of posture and breathing in zazen to the perception of nonduality–in a way that is not only remarkably clear, but that also resonates with the joy of insight from the first to the last page.



FOR A DISCIPLE of Suzuki-roshi, this book will be Suzuki-roshi’s mind—not his ordinary mind or personal mind, but his Zen mind, the mind of his teacher Gyokujun So-on-daiosho, the mind of Dogen-zenji, the mind of the entire succession—broken or unbroken, historical and mythical—of teachers, patriarchs, monks, and laymen from Buddha’s time until today, and it will be the mind of Buddha himself, the mind of Zen practice. But, for most readers, the book will be an example of how a Zen master talks and teaches. It will be a book of instruction about how to practice Zen, about Zen life, and about the attitudes and understanding that make Zen practice possible. For any reader, the book will be an encouragement to realize his own nature, his own Zen mind.

Zen mind is one of those enigmatic phrases used by Zen teachers to make you notice yourself, to go beyond the words and wonder what your own mind and being are. This is the purpose of all Zen teaching—to make you wonder and to answer that wondering with the deepest expression of your own nature. The calligraphy on the front of the binding reads nyorai in Japanese or tathagata in Sanskrit. This is a name for Buddha which means “he who has followed the path, who has returned from suchness, or is suchness, thus-ness, is-ness, emptiness, the fully completed one.” It is the ground principle which makes the appearance of a Buddha possible. It is Zen mind. At the time Suzuki-roshi wrote this calligraphy—using for a brush the frayed end of one of the large swordlike leaves of the yucca plants that grow in the mountains around Zen Mountain Center—he said: “This means that Tathagata is the body of the whole earth.”

The practice of Zen mind is beginner’s mind. The innocence of the first inquiry—what am I?—is needed throughout Zen practice. The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities. It is the kind of mind which can see things as they are, which step by step and in a flash can realize the original nature of everything. This practice of Zen mind is found throughout the book. Directly or by inference, every section of the book concerns the question of how to maintain beginner’s mind through your meditation and in your life. This is an ancient way of teaching, using the simplest language and the situations of everyday life. This means the student should teach himself.

Beginner’s mind was a favorite expression of Dogen-zenji’s. The calligraphy of the frontispiece, also by Suzuki-roshi, reads shoshin, or beginner’s mind. The Zen way of calligraphy is to write in the most straightforward, simple way as if you were a beginner, not trying to make something skillful or beautiful, but simply writing with full attention as if you were discovering what you were writing for the first time; then your full nature will be in your writing. This is the way of practice moment after moment.

This book was conceived and initiated by Marian Derby, a close disciple of Suzuki-roshi and organizer of the Los Altos Zen group. Suzuki-roshi joined the zazen meditations of this group once or twice a week, and after each meditation period he would talk to them, encouraging their practice and helping them with their problems. Marian taped his talks and soon saw that as the group developed the talks acquired a continuity and development which would work well as a book and could be a much-needed record of Suzuki-roshi’s remarkable spirit and teaching. From her transcriptions of talks made over a period of several years, she put together the first draft of the present book.

Then Trudy Dixon, another close disciple of Suzuki-roshi who had much experience editing Zen Center’s publication, Wind Bell, edited and organized the manuscript for publication. It is no easy task to edit this kind of book, and explaining why will help the reader understand the book better. Suzuki-roshi takes the most difficult but persuasive way to talk about Buddhism—in terms of the ordinary circumstances of people’s lives—to try to convey the whole of the teaching in statements as simple as “Have a cup of tea.” The editor must be aware of the implications behind such statements in order not to edit out for the sake of clarity or grammar the real meaning of the lectures. Also, without knowing Suzuki-roshi well and having experience working with him, it is easy to edit out for the same reasons the background understanding that is his personality or energy or will. And it is also easy to edit out the deeper mind of the reader which needs the repetition, the seemingly obscure logic, and the poetry in order to know itself. Passages which seem obscure or obvious are often illuminating when they are read very carefully, wondering why this man would say such a thing.

The editing is further complicated by the fact that English is thoroughly dualistic in its basic assumptions and has not had the opportunity over centuries to develop a way of expressing nondualistic Buddhist ideas, as has Japanese. Suzuki-roshi uses these different cultural vocabularies freely, expressing himself in both Japanese and Western ways of thinking. In his lectures, they merge poetically and philosophically. But in transcriptions, the pauses, rhythm, and emphasis that give his words their deeper meaning and hold his thoughts together are apt to be lost. So Trudy worked many months by herself and with Suzuki-roshi to retain his original words and flavor, and yet produce a manuscript that is in understandable English.

Trudy divided the book according to emphasis into three sections—Right Practice, Right Attitude, and Right Understanding—roughly corresponding to body, feeling, and mind. She also chose the titles for the talks and the epigraphs that follow the titles, these being taken usually from the body of the lectures. The choices are of course somewhat arbitrary, but she did this to set up a kind of tension between the specific sections, titles, and epigraphs, and the talks themselves. The relationship between the talks and these added elements will help the reader probe the lectures. The only talk not given originally to the Los Altos group is the Epilogue, which is a condensation of two talks given when Zen Center moved into its new San Francisco headquarters.

Shortly after finishing work on this book, Trudy died of cancer at the age of thirty. She is survived by her two children, Annie and Will, and her husband, Mike, a painter. He contributed the drawing of the fly in the part two chapter titled “God Giving.” A Zen student for many years, when asked to do something for this book, he said: “I can’t do a Zen drawing. I can’t do a drawing for anything other than the drawing. I certainly can’t see doing drawings of zafu [meditation pillows] or lotuses or ersatz something. I can see this idea, though.” A realistic fly often occurs in Mike’s paintings. Suzuki-roshi is very fond of the frog, which sits so still it might be asleep, but is alert enough to notice every insect that comes by. Maybe the fly is waiting for the frog.

Trudy and I worked together throughout the development of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and she asked me to complete the editing and see the book through to publication. After considering several publishers, I found that John Weatherhill, Inc., through Meredith Weatherby and Audie Bock, were able to polish, design, and publish this book in exactly the way it should be published. The manuscript was read before publication by Professor Kogen Mizuno, head of the Buddhist Studies Department, Komazawa University, and an outstanding scholar of Indian Buddhism. He generously helped with the transliteration of the Sanskrit and Japanese Buddhist terms.

Except for now and again in lectures, Suzuki-roshi seldom talks about his past, but this much I have pieced together. He was the disciple of Gyokujun So-on-roshi. He had other teachers; the most influential for him was Kishizawa Ian-roshi, a leading authority and lecturer on Dogen. Kishizawa-roshi emphasized a deep and careful understanding of Dogen, the koans—particularly the Blue Cliff Records—and the sutras. Suzuki Roshi was twelve when he began his apprenticeship under his father’s disciple, Gyokujun. After years living with his teacher, he continued his practice and study at a Buddhist university, Komazawa, and at the main Soto training monasteries, Eiheiji and Sojiji. He also studied with a Rinzai teacher for awhile.

Gyokujun-roshi died when Suzuki was thirty. As a result, he had the responsibility, at a rather young age, of both his father’s temple (who had died shortly before Gyokujun) and his teacher’s temple. The latter, Rinsoin, was a small monastery and head temple for about two hundred other temples. One of his main tasks was the rebuilding of Rinsoin in the exacting tradition his teacher and he wanted.

Exceptional for Japan during the nineteen thirties and forties, he led discussion groups at Rinsoin that questioned the militaristic assumptions and actions of the times. Before the war, and from the time he was young, he had been interested in coming to America; however, at the insistence of his teacher, he had given up the idea. But in 1956 and twice again in ’58, a friend, who was one of the leaders of the Soto School, persisted in asking him to go to San Francisco to lead the Japanese Soto congregation there. On the third request, Suzuki-roshi accepted.

In 1959, when he was fifty-five, he came to America. After postponing his return several times, he decided to stay in America. He stayed because he found that Americans have a beginner’s mind, that they have few preconceptions about Zen, are quite open to it, and confidently believe that it can help their lives. He found they question Zen in a way that gives Zen life. Shortly after his arrival several people stopped by and asked if they could study Zen with him. He said he did zazen early every morning and they could join him if they liked. Since then a rather large Zen group has grown up around him—now in six locations in California. At present he spends most of his time at Zen Center, 300 Page Street, San Francisco, where about sixty students live and many more do zazen regularly, and at Zen Mountain Center at Tassajara Springs above Carmel Valley. This latter is the first Zen monastery in America, and there another sixty or so students live and practice for three-month or longer periods.

Trudy felt that understanding how Zen students feel about their teacher might, more than anything else, help the reader to understand these talks. What the teacher really offers the student is literally living proof that all this talk and the seemingly impossible goals can be realized in this lifetime. The deeper you go in your practice, the deeper you find your teacher’s mind is, until you finally see that your mind and his mind are Buddha’s mind. And you find that zazen meditation is the most perfect expression of your actual nature. The following tribute from Trudy to her teacher describes very well the relationship between Zen teacher and Zen student:

“A roshi is a person who has actualized that perfect freedom which is the potentiality for all human beings. He exists freely in the fullness of his whole being. The flow of his consciousness is not the fixed repetitive patterns of our usual self-centered consciousness, but rather arises spontaneously and naturally from the actual circumstances of the present. The results of this in terms of the quality of his life are extraordinary—buoyancy, vigor, straightforwardness, simplicity, humility, serenity, joyousness, uncanny perspicacity, and unfathomable compassion. His whole being testifies to what it means to live in the reality of the present. Without anything said or done, just the impact of meeting a personality so developed can be enough to change another’s whole way of life. But in the end it is not the extraordinariness of the teacher which perplexes, intrigues, and deepens the student, it is the teacher’s utter ordinariness. Because he is just himself, he is a mirror for his students. When we are with him we feel our own strengths and shortcomings without any sense of praise or criticism from him. In his presence we see our original face, and the extraordinariness we see is only our own true nature. When we learn to let our own nature free, the boundaries between master and student disappear in a deep flow of being and joy in the unfolding of Buddha mind.”


Kyoto, 1970



It is wisdom which is seeking for wisdom.


BEGINNERS MIND “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

People say that practicing Zen is difficult, but there is a misunderstanding as to why. It is not difficult because it is hard to sit in the cross-legged position, or to attain enlightenment. It is difficult because it is hard to keep our mind pure and our practice pure in its fundamental sense. The Zen school developed in many ways after it was established in China, but at the same time, it became more and more impure. But I do not want to talk about Chinese Zen or the history of Zen. I am interested in helping you keep your practice from becoming impure.

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.

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 achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice.

So the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind. There is no need to have a deep understanding of Zen. Even though you read much Zen literature, you must read each sentence with a fresh mind. You should not say, “I know what Zen is,” or “I have attained enlightenment.” This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner’s mind. It is the secret of Zen practice.


Right Practice

Zazen practice is the direct expression of our true nature. Strictly speaking, for a human being, there is no other practice than this practice; there is no other way of life than this way of life.

POSTURE    “These forms are not the means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this posture is itself to have the right state of mind. There is no need to obtain some special state of mind.”

Now I would like to talk about our zazen posture. When you sit in the full lotus position, your left foot is on your right thigh, and your right foot is on your left thigh. When we cross our legs like this, even though we have a right leg and a left leg, they have become one. The position expresses the oneness of duality: not two, and not one. This is the most important teaching: not two, and not one. Our body and mind are not two and not one. If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think that they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one. We usually think that if something is not one, it is more than one; if it is not singular, it is plural. But in actual experience, our life is not only plural, but also singular. Each one of us is both dependent and independent.

After some years we will die. If we just think that it is the end of our life, this will be the wrong understanding. But, on the other hand, if we think that we do not die, this is also wrong. We die, and we do not die. This is the right understanding. Some people may say that our mind or soul exists forever, and it is only our physical body which dies. But this is not exactly right, because both mind and body have their end. But at the same time it is also true that they exist eternally. And even though we say mind and body, they are actually two sides of one coin. This is the right understanding. So when we take this posture it symbolizes this truth. When I have the left foot on the right side of my body, and the right foot on the left side of my body, I do not know which is which. So either may be the left or the right side.

The most important thing in taking the zazen posture is to keep your spine straight. Your ears and your shoulders should be on one line. Relax your shoulders, and push up towards the ceiling with the back of your head. And you should pull your chin in. When your chin is tilted up, you have no strength in your posture; you are probably dreaming. Also to gain strength in your posture, press your diaphragm down towards your hara, or lower abdomen. This will help you maintain your physical and mental balance. When you try to keep this posture, at first you may find some difficulty breathing naturally, but when you get accustomed to it you will be able to breathe naturally and deeply.

Your hands should form the “cosmic mudra.” If you put your left hand on top of your right, middle joints of your 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. You should keep this universal mudra with great care, as if you were holding something very precious in your hand. Your hands should be held against your body, with your thumbs at about the height of your navel. Hold your arms freely and easily, and slightly away from your body, as if you held an egg under each arm without breaking it.

You should not be tilted sideways, backwards, or forwards. You should be sitting straight up as if you were supporting the sky with your head. This is not just form or breathing. It expresses the key point of Buddhism. It is a perfect expression of your Buddha nature. If you want true understanding of Buddhism, you should practice this way. These forms are not a means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this posture itself is the purpose of our practice. When you have this posture, you have the right state of mind, so there is no need to try to attain some special state. When you try to attain something, your mind starts to wander about somewhere else. When you do not try to attain anything, you have your own body and mind right here. A Zen master would say, “Kill the Buddha!” Kill the Buddha if the Buddha exists somewhere else. Kill the Buddha, because you should resume your own Buddha nature.

On Sale
Jun 28, 2011
Page Count
176 pages