Sunday, January 7, 2018

Beginners Mind: Zen and the Act of Observing the Universe


There was a famous master called Suibi. And he was asked by a monk in the middle of a busy lecture hall, “What is the secret teaching of Buddhism?” He replied, “Wait until there’s no one around and I’ll tell you.”

So later in the day, the monk came back to him and said, “There’s nobody around now, what is the secret teaching of Buddhism?” So Suibi led him to the garden and pointed at the bamboo.

The monk said, “I don’t understand.” Suibi looked up and said, “What a tall one that is.” Then down and said, “What a short one that is.”

And this awakened the monk.


 As a youth my response to the Universe was clear as a bell.  My mind was not cluttered with interpretations of what I was seeing.  With fresh eyes this direct experience took hold of me and has never left.  This simple act of observing under the night sky and the realization that took place, shook me to my core.  The experience was similar to the monk's in the above Zen story.   I had a transcendental experience -  an awakening.

I had tried in vain to reconcile my experiences in youth with my family's traditional beliefs.  This took some time, but nothing validated just what had happened.  It was quite the contrary.  I was told stories that stretched credibility.  In no way did I find any of it plausible.  Even its message and narration of mankind was replete with superstition and prejudices. A thoroughly human made story.  A story made even more unbelievable by the notion that it was the word of an omnipotent creator of the universe.  I turned skeptical of all religion and eventually considered myself a thoroughgoing atheist. 

Atheism can be a nihilistic belief system or just a realization that the stories we tell ourselves are just that - stories.  But, one does not have to presuppose a god to be spiritual.  I spent many years not interested in any spiritual tradition, however Zen Buddhism pressed several buttons.  What Zen had to say and what I had experienced was beyond belief, and it was also beyond all knowing.  Man must have intellectual life, but with spiritually one cannot wait for knowledge to explain everything, which it cannot and may never.  

"The history of thought proves that each new structure raised by a man of extraordinary intellect is sure to be pulled down by the succeeding ones. This constant pulling down and building up is all right as far as philosophy itself is concerned; for the inherent nature of the intellect, as I take it, demands it and we cannot put a stop to the progress of philosophical inquiries any more than to our breathing. But when it comes to the question of life itself we cannot wait for the ultimate solution to be offered by the intellect, even if it could do so. We cannot suspend even for a moment our life-activity for philosophy to unravel its mysteries. Let the mysteries remain as they are, but live we must… Zen therefore does not rely on the intellect for the solution of its deepest problems."

D.T. Suzuki 


Realization can come into one's life via the tall and short bamboo or anything that breaks the cycle of seeing the ordinary as ordinary.  The ordinary is extraordinary, but our commonplace habitual lifestyle introduces a delusion that it is not.  The experience also conveys a simple truth not found in conventional religious belief, the fact of non-duality.  There is no separation between matter and spirit or a separation between the experience and the experiencer.    The universe is whole.  We are are not apart of that whole, but a part.  To think otherwise is delusion.


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

Shunryu Suzuki 


Shoshin (初心) is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning "beginner's mind". It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. 

This attitude can be beneficial to those "stuck in their ways".  We need this openness, but Zen primarily concerns ourselves with what is directly in front of us and is rather uninterested in things beyond what is directly in front of the mind.  

If you recall your first direct experience of a pristine sky where all was wondrous and the mind empty with the sense of a loss for words, then you know zen.  But the rapturous experiences of youth seem to fall away in older age.  Such is the price for being too astute in ones avocation.  It becomes routine, even laborious.  Like an old shoe, comfortable, and without exception.  This "nothing special" is also zen.

Seeing anew takes practice and clearing the mind of the minutiae of the everyday.  Seeing through the clouds, bringing the important aspects of a life in the greater universe back to the front.  Everything becomes whole again. 

This practice takes place in the mind.  

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