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Beginner's Mind

Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman

I want to talk today about beginner's mind. The first book of Suzuki Roshi's teaching was named Zen Mind, Beginners' Mind. He founded two temples. One of them is named "Zen Mind Temple" (Zen Shin Ji, Tassajara) and the other is named "Beginner's Mind Temple" (Ho Shin Ji, the City Center in San Francisco). In that presentation, Zen mind and beginner's mind seem to be equated. Suzuki Roshi highly esteemed beginner's mind. What is it?

A few years ago, I went with a group of people to Eiheiji monastery in Japan. We were sitting in the guest meditation hall, and Matsunaga Roshi came in and sat with us. He's head of the international department at Eiheiji now, but he was in Los Angeles for a number of years. We sat together for a while, and then he started to talk. He said, "When I visited San Francisco thirty years ago," (that was at the very beginning, over at Sokoji temple) "I could not understand Suzuki Roshi's meaning. But now, sitting in this zendo with you, I can feel beginner's mind. Now I understand his meaning." What is this beginner's mind?

Beginner's mind is Zen practice in action. It is the mind that is innocent of preconceptions and expectations, judgements and prejudices. Beginner's mind is just present to explore and observe and see "things as-it-is." I think of beginner's mind as the mind that faces life like a small child, full of curiosity and wonder and amazement. "I wonder what this is? I wonder what that is? I wonder what this means?" Without approaching things with a fixed point of view or a prior judgement, just asking "what is it?"

Earlier this week I was having lunch with Indigo, our small child at City Center. He saw an object on the table and got very interested in it. He picked it up and started fooling with it: looking at it, putting it in his mouth, and banging on the table with it—just engaging with it without any previous idea of what it was. For Indigo, it was just an interesting thing, and it was a delight to him to see what he could do with this thing. You and I would see it and say, "It's a spoon. It sits there and you use it for soup." It doesn't have all the possibilities that he finds in it.

Watching Indigo, you can see the innocence of "What is it?"

Can we look at our lives in such a way? Can we look at all of the aspects of our lives with this mind, just open to see what there is to see? I don't know about you, but I have a hard time doing that. I have a lot of habits of mind—I think most of us do. Children begin to lose that innocent quality after a while, and soon they want to be "the one who knows." We all want to be the one who knows. But if we decide we "know" something, we are not open to other possibilities anymore. And that's a shame. We lose something very vital in our life when it's more important to us to be "one who knows" than it is to be awake to what's happening. We get disappointed because we expect one thing, and it doesn't happen quite like that. Or we think something ought to be like this, and it turns out different. Instead of saying, "Oh, isn't that interesting," we say, "Yuck, not what I thought it would be." Pity. The very nature of beginner's mind is not knowing in a certain way, not being an expert. As Suzuki Roshi said in the prologue to Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's there are few." As an expert, you've already got it figured out, so you don't need to pay attention to what's happening. Pity.

How can we cultivate this mind that is free to just be awake? In zazen, in just sitting, in sitting and noticing the busyness of our mind and all of the fixed views that we carry. Once we noticed the fixed views that we are carrying around with us, the preconceptions that we are carrying around with us, then it is possible for us to let them go and say, "Well, maybe so, maybe not." Suzuki Roshi once said, "The essence of Zen is 'Not Always So'." "Not always so." It's a good little phrase to carry around when you're sure. It gives you an opportunity to look again more carefully and see what other possibilities there might be in the situation.

In China, there was a teacher named Dizang (J.: Rakan) who had a student named Fayan (J.: Hogen). Dizang saw Fayan all dressed in his traveling clothes, with his straw sandals and his staff, and a pack on his back, and Dizang said, "Where are you going?" Fayan answered, "Around on pilgrimage." Dizang said, "What is the purpose of pilgrimage?" Fayan said, "I don't know." Dizang said, "Not knowing is nearest." Sometimes it's translated as "Not knowing is most intimate." Not knowing is nearest or most intimate.

So what is this "not knowing"? This is not the same "not knowing" as when Zhaozhou (J: Joshu) asked his teacher Nanquan (J.: Nansen), "What is the way?" Nanquan answered, "Ordinary mind is the way." Just your mind, the way it is right here and right now. Zhaozhou asked, "Well, shall I seek after it or not?" Nanquan said, "If you seek after it, you'll miss it." Zhaozhou said, "If I don't seek after it, how will I know the way?" Nanquan said, "The way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion, and not knowing is dullness. When you reach the Way beyond all doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. What can that have to do with right or wrong?"

Nanquan's "not knowing" is paired up with knowing. It's a dualistic pair—not knowing as opposed to knowing. But Fayan's "not knowing" is just "I don't know, I'm going to go see. I'm just going to set out and trust what occurs." That not knowing is non-dualistic. It's not set up against knowing. It's just "I'm going to set out on pilgrimage and see what happens. Just this is it. Just each moment. Just this is it. Each moment I'll see what happens." With that kind of openness and readiness, when Dizang said "not knowing is nearest," Fayan opened up completely.

When he spoke of "beginner's mind," I think Suzuki Roshi was pointing to that kind of mind that's not already made up. The mind that's just investigating, open to whatever occurs, curious. Seeking, but not with expectation or grasping. Just being there and observing and seeing what occurs. Being ready for whatever experience arises in this moment.

Returning to Fayan's story, we need to remember that pilgrimage was an arduous undertaking in China fifteen hundred years ago. It meant walking long distances in straw sandals, depending on alms for food, visiting teachers, and trying to settle the "great matter": What is this? Who am I? What am I? What is this? How do I live a life that is impermanent? Given that life is impermanent, how do I live? What is this? These are very urgent questions when we come to actually have a strong sense of our beingness in the world. When our mind is somehow turned from its preoccupation with acquisition which is so prevalent in our society these days. Acquiring material goods, acquiring knowledge–being one who knows. Getting. It's endless. As Stephen Batchelor says in Alone with Others, this horizontal dimension of having or getting or acquiring just goes on and on; there's always more. It's insatiable. There's never enough. But sometime, something will turn or transform our attention from this dimension of having and accumulating and acquiring to the dimension of being. What is that? What is it to be human? What is this life? What am I? How shall I manifest this life now? This becomes the great matter.

Fayan knew, in himself, that he had to undertake this arduous effort of pilgrimage to settle the great matter. But when the teacher said, "What is the purpose of pilgrimage?" he said, "I don't know." It's just seeking. When I first started to sit zazen, I knew I had to sit zazen but I did not know why. Still, to this day, I know I have to sit zazen. If you say "Why?" I don't know. But I know I must. This is not the same as the "expert's" knowing.

There's another story about intimacy that I want to share with you. It's wonderful how all of these stories of all these monks who practiced over a thousand years ago are relevant to us right now, and are all related in a certain way. The forty-second ancestor (Liangshan Yuanguan, J.: Ryozan Enkan) was the attendant to the forty-first ancestor (Tongan Guanzhi, J.: Doan Kanshi), and as such he carried his robe for him. There was a moment in which his teacher needed to put on his robe, so he handed the robe to him. Doan Kanshi said to his disciple: "What is the business under the patched robe?" His student, Ryozan Enkan, had no answer. The teacher said, "To wear this robe and not understand the great matter is the greatest suffering. You ask me." So the student asked the teacher, "What is the business under the patched robe?" The teacher said, "Intimacy. Intimacy." This was the moment when the forty-second ancestor broke through. He bowed to his teacher in great gratitude, and tears were flowing. The teacher asked, "What have you understood? Can you express it?" He said, "What is the matter under this robe? Intimacy." His teacher said, "Intimacy and even greater intimacy."

What is this intimacy? This becoming intimate with yourself? No gap. No ideas about who this is or what this is, but just being one, right here, complete, whole, undivided. Just this. This is the work of Zen practice. To come to know your own original nature intimately and to be able to live from that place and express that in the world. Kobun Chino said, "Zazen is the first formulation of Buddha existing in the world." Each one of us has the nature of awakening. Each one of us is Buddha. How do we meet it? How do we become intimate with it and bring it into the world? How do we bring this wisdom and compassion and vision of Buddha into the world with this very body and mind? This is what our practice is about. This is why we must practice.

I don't know about you, but when I started to sit I really began to see how many fixed ideas and fixed views I had. How much judgment was ready right on the tip of my tongue. How much expectation, how much preconception I was carrying around with me all the time, and how much it got in the way of actually noticing what was happening. I don't want to tell you that after thirty years I'm free of all that, but at least I notice it sooner and I sometimes don't get caught in believing it.

First, before you can let go of preconceptions and expectations and prejudices, you have to notice them; otherwise, they're just carrying on unconsciously and affecting everything you do. But as you sit, you begin to recognize the really persistent ones: "Oh my gosh...You again! Didn't I just deal with you yesterday?" And again. And again. Pretty soon, you can't take them seriously. They just keep popping up, and popping up, and popping up, and after a while you become really familiar with them. And you can't get so buried under something once you realize that it's just a habitual state of mind and doesn't have much to do with what's right in front of you. It's just something that you haul around with you all the time and bring out for every occasion. It hasn't much to do with the present situation. Sometimes you can actually say, "Oh, I think I'm just hauling that around with me. I don't think it has anything to do with this."

One day about twenty years ago, when I was Secretary of Zen Center, Head of the front office, ordained as a priest, on the Board of Directors, and a practice leader here, I opened the door to let someone in. The thought occurred to me: "I bet this person thinks I'm on the inside." I had carried around with me all my life the feeling of being on the outside, wanting in. But at that moment, it somehow occurred to me: "That person thinks I'm on the inside." I realized that any way you might look at it, it looked like I was on the inside of Zen Center. And I was still feeling like I was on the outside, like I wasn't where the real juice was. It was very interesting. I thought, "Oh, that's a feeling I've been carrying around with me all my life." My husband, Lou, noticed it when he met me, when I was in college up at Davis—wanting to be in the in-group. I decided that that notion had probably been with me since I was born. I had an older sister. There were my mother and father and older sister, and I thought there must have been something juicy going on over there that I was outside of. I didn't know how to get it, but I carried that feeling with me—being outside, left out, or not included—with great pain for a long time. It was just the way I thought of myself, just a habitual thought. And suddenly it popped. Suddenly it became apparent to me that it really had nothing to do with my life, it had to do with a fixed idea that I had acquired some time in the past and hauled around with me.

It's often the case that when people begin practicing here at Zen Center, first they'll be curious about all of these forms we have. Then they'll get kind of interested in practice, and they'll really get into it. They'll start to learn the forms, and then they're experts. They know the forms, and they're looking around: "He didn't do it right...She didn't do it right!" The Form Police. Suzuki Roshi used to say that you should just take care of your own practice; don't concern yourself with other people's practice. But there is that stage in almost every student who is here for a while, where they "know," where they feel like they know, and the new people don't know. Don't be concerned with people like that—they'll learn after a while. Not knowing is nearest. They'll learn that if they want to help someone learn the forms, it's altogether different from judging someone about whether they are doing them right or wrong, or correcting someone so that they'll be right instead of wrong. So you'll notice that after someone has been here a little longer, if you're not sure of what to do, they'll be quite different in the way they help you figure out the appropriate formality for the situation.

These forms may seem rather cumbersome and burdensome, but they are just ways of bringing us back to the present moment all the time. We step into the zendo with our left foot, the foot nearest the outside edge of the doorway. There is no religious significance to that. If you step in with the other foot, nothing awful is going to happen. Really. But it's a way for you, at that moment, to notice where you are. You can see if your mind is where you are, or if your mind is somewhere else. All of these little formalities function that way. They're aids to help you bring your mind back here, like following your breath or checking your posture during zazen. You turn toward what's happening right now to bring your mind and body together so that you're wholly present. When you're passing someone in the hall, bowing. Just Buddha bowing to Buddha. Just bringing yourself back here, back here, back here, so that you can actually experience your life.

Baofu (J.: Hofuku) and Changqing (J.: Chokei) were out walking and Baofu stopped and pointed to the ground and said, "Right here is the peak of the mystic mountain." Changqing looked and said, "So it is, what a pity." Right here. Where else would it be? Where else could it be except right here? Can you find the vitality of your life wherever you are, under whatever circumstances?

Both Baofu and Chanqing were disciples of Xuefeng (J.: Seppo). I have a very great fondness for Xuefeng. He practiced long and hard. He struggled and had a very hard time coming to some resolution of the great matter. He had a dharma brother, Yantou (J.: Ganto), who was very quick and had a sharp mind—he always had the last word. They were out on pilgrimage together once, and they got snowed in on Turtle Mountain. Yantou was just lying around resting—they were snowed in, they were going to be there a while. Xuefeng was sitting zazen and sitting zazen and sitting zazen, and he said to Yantou, "How come I'm stuck with you just lying around like that? How can you do that?" Yantou said, "What are you doing? We're going to be here for weeks stuck in the snow. What's the matter with you, sitting there like a stone Buddha?" Xuefeng answered, "I'm not yet at ease in my mind. I have to practice." Yantou said, "I'm surprised to hear you say that. Why don't you tell me what you've learned and maybe I can help you." Xuefeng said, "Well, when we were with Dongshan and he said this, I got a little opening. And when we were with Deshan and he said this...." He started reciting the various teachers they had been with and the things they had said that had been very important to him. Yantou finally said, "No, no, what comes in through the gate is not the family treasure. Hereafter, if you want to help beings, let it flow forth from your heart to cover heaven and earth." This was the great opening for Xuefeng. He jumped up and danced around and said, "Oh brother Yantou, today Turtle Mountain woke up!" He was so delighted. He always gave his brother Yantou credit for helping him break through. In future years, Xuefeng was said to be a very compassionate teacher. He had many many developed disciples, and I think it was because of his own hard practice, and how difficult it was for him, that he was able to be so patient and so compassionate with his disciples. He would meet them with a question: "What is it?"

There is a great story of a couple of monks who came to his gate. He came out to meet them and said, "What is it?" One of the monks responded, "What is it?" And Xuefeng sort of hung his head and went back inside. They went on around the mountain and they found Yantou in his temple. They told him the story. He said, "Too bad. If only I had told him the last word, nobody could have gotten the better of him like that." So they practiced there with Yantou all summer. Toward the end of the summer, they came to him and said, "Remember that story about Xuefeng? What is your last word?" He said "Why didn't you ask me about this earlier? Xuefeng and I were born of the same lineage, but we will not die in the same lineage. And if you want to know my last word, it is 'just this is it'." So those two brothers on opposite sides of the mountain worked in tandem with each other with the students. "Just this is it." And as for this not dying in the same lineage, Suzuki Roshi said, "Xuefeng was completely Xuefeng. Yantou was completely Yantou." They were born in the same lineage because they had the same teacher, but then they each became completely themselves, and each had their own lineage from there. This is what our work is: to become completely who we are right here.

"Right here is the peak of the mystic mountain." "Just this is it." How will you bring forth this Buddha that you are and manifest it in the world? You must approach everything with beginner's mind, with an open mind, the mind that is questioning and looking and listening and hearing and seeing and feeling and smelling without prejudgment, without preconception, without fixed views. Open. Ready to see what is right here. Open. Ready to see "What is this?" and ready to let it flower, ready to let it bloom in the world. When I first had zazen instruction, Katagiri Roshi said, "We sit to settle the self on the self and let the flower of the life force bloom." That's intimacy: to settle the self on the self. Then this Buddha can bloom in all it's particularity, as you being totally you. Suzuki Roshi used to say, "When you are you, Zen is Zen." But what is this? Who is this? Will the authentic "you" please come forward and bloom? How will we open up this authentic "you" in the midst of all the accumulated fixed views that we carry about? We just have to notice them and let them go, and let them go, and let them go, and let them go, and let them go. Dongshan (J.: Tozan) visited his teacher Yunyan (J.: Ungan) and his teacher said, "What have you been studying?" "I haven't even been studying." "Well, what have you been practicing?" "I haven't even been practicing the four noble truths." "Are you joyful yet?" Joy is one of the stages of a bodhisattva. Dongshan said, "It would not be right to say that I'm not joyful ...it's as if I've found a pearl in a pile of shit." And that's what it's like, you know. There's all this stuff that we drag around with us, but the pearl is right there. What we need to do is free the pearl and let it gleam.

In her poem "When Death Comes," Mary Oliver has a few lines that say, "When it's over, I want to say I have been a bride married to amazement, I've been a bridegroom taking the world into my arms." This is beginner's mind: "I've been a bride married to amazement." Just how amazing the world is, how amazing our life is. How amazing that the sun comes up in the morning, or that the wisteria blooms in the spring. "A bride married to amazement, a bridegroom taking the world into my arms." Can you live your life with that kind of wholeheartedness, with that kind of thoroughness? This is the beginner's mind that Suzuki Roshi is pointing to, is encouraging us to cultivate. He is encouraging us to see where we are stuck with fixed views, and see if we can, as Uchiyama Roshi says, "open the hand of thought" and let the fixed view go. This is our effort. This is our work. Just to be here, ready to meet whatever is next without expectation or prejudice or preconceptions. Just "What is it?" "What is this, I wonder?"

So please, cultivate your beginner's mind. Be willing to not be an expert. Be willing to not know. Not knowing is nearest. Not knowing is most intimate. Fayan was going on pilgrimage. Dizang said, "Where are you going?" Fayan said, "Around on pilgrimage." Dizang said, "What is the purpose of pilgrimage?" Fayan said: "I don't know." Dizang said, "Not knowing is most intimate."

© Zenkei Blanche Hartman, 2001

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