Buddhist Zen Mind

Two years ago, just as I began reading a book on Zen Buddhism by Suzuki Shunryu called “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” I had started a training program in pastoral care at a famous New York City cancer hospital. Surprisingly, I discovered that these two very different activities served to each greatly inform the other – being the new person at the cancer center exemplified the “Beginner’s Mind” that Suzuki writes about, while Soto Zen ideology helped me process my experiences with pastoral care.

I was keenly aware of the Beginner’s Mind before ever reading about it in Suzuki’s book. We all know what it is like to be a beginner at something, the novice in a room full of experienced experts. The feelings are easily recalled: embarrassment, ignorance, trepidation, exhilaration and humility. Though we may dread the “newbie environment” and cling to comfortable, familiar surroundings, we periodically find ourselves thrust into unfamiliar situations. We cannot avoid beginnings, especially if we want to grow. It is the exhilaration, humility and growth that I believe Suzuki is concerned with when he talks about Beginner’s Mind. As he writes, "a mind full of preconceived ideas, subjective intentions, or habits is not open to things as they are. That is why we practice zazen: to clear our mind of what is related to something else" (88*). In the clear Beginner’s Mind, firmly conceived ideas of self go out the window, leaving only a receptive, almost hyper-awareness of all things; the mind is open to everything, and totally free for becoming.

The beginner’s state of mind is, by necessity, selfless – as a neophyte, he really has nothing to bring to the task at hand, but is there only to observe. He knows that, to be a good beginner, he must become a sponge absorbing everything around him, a
current of energy willing to be directed by the experienced hands of a teacher. This lack of egocentrism is of key importance to Buddhism, which stresses fundamental emptiness beneath what we perceive as the self. “Self” is a sad conglomeration of false truths that will ultimately fail us, while “emptiness” is absolute reality that joyously lasts forever.

Of course, most of us spend our lives wrapped up in the self. From the earliest days of childhood, when we learn to see the world around us and reach out for it, we divide reality into two realms: Me and Not Me. As we grow, we pile endless attributes onto the idea of “Me”: son, brother, friend, student, smart, talented, etc. We deny the temporal nature of these attributes, even though we constantly see them changing: sons become orphans, friends drift apart, students graduate and become workers. Sooner or later, relative attributes must die, and we – if we define ourselves solely by these notions – must die with them. Frightening.

Yet our lives began with no concept of Me and Not Me – everything was one, naturally. And in this perspective lies the truth about reality: we are each part of Creation’s infinite and eternal unfolding. If we define ourselves in these terms, then there is no loss in the death of relative attributes. Yet it is very difficult to attain such a perspective. The course of normal human activity generally pushes us further away from this type of consciousness; focusing on separation and egocentrism (what Suzuki calls the “small mind”). But there are times, such as when we undertake humble beginnings, that our sense of separation and self are lessened, helping us return to pure, innocent awareness (the “big mind”).

The small mind is the greater part of life’s delusion, according to Suzuki. With the perspective of the small mind, I take credit for many things in life (even calling it “my” life). With the perspective of the big mind, I see that I am merely a temporary conduit or container for Life, which is not “mine”. This is the liberating understanding that lent me courage as I walked the corridors of the cancer center, among endless ranks of desperately sick people. My “small mind” wanted to say “these people are Not Me” and chase me out the door toward home and my familiar world. But my “big mind” argued that my home and the sick cannot, in truth, be hidden from each other.

In fact, Suzuki would argue, sick and healthy are just two aspects of the same reality. In terms of the big mind, everything is said to be equal – an idea that is definitely at odds with the perspective of the small mind. The relative view is all about placing different values on different things, deeming certain things “good” and others “bad”. Suzuki points out repeatedly in his book that there is no difference between the two: "Pleasure is not different from difficulty. Good is not different from bad. Bad is good; good is bad. They are two sides of one coin" (103). All aspects of life are opposed in this way – love and hate, light and darkness, life and death – none can exist without their opposite. But, as Suzuki says, “We cannot speak in a positive and a negative way at the same time" (90); human nature is to see only one side of the coin at a time. Zen Buddhism calls upon us to keep in mind that the other side of the coin is there, even when we cannot see it. This view is inherent in what Suzuki calls “Buddha nature” – to transcend the self, and truly realize the big picture of absolute truth.

Getting to this big picture isn’t easy. Overcoming our relative tendencies is a difficult journey, where even the desire for enlightenment can hinder our chances of
actually attaining it. "When you try to attain enlightenment,” Suzuki counsels, “then you have a big burden on your mind. Your mind will not be clear enough to see things as they are” (129). Seeing things as they are is our challenge – to see things through the open perspective of absolute reality (the big mind), and not through the limited lens of relative existence (the small mind). “If you truly see things as they are, then you will see things as they should be" (129).

Clearing the mind is accomplished in the Soto Zen practice of seated meditation by freeing the mind of all thoughts, and allowing oneself to simply observe. "It is not necessary to make an effort to think in a particular way,” writes Suzuki. “Your thinking should not be one-sided … just to see, and to be ready to see things with our whole mind, is zazen practice" (115). This methodology differs from some other meditative practices that encourage the practitioner to concentrate on something in particular, be it words (such as a mantra or verse from Scripture) or image (such as a crucifix, or a depiction of the Buddha). Suzuki points out how this type of concentration is imperfect: "Concentration is not to try hard to watch something... Concentration means freedom. So your effort should be directed at nothing. You should be concentrated on nothing" (113). Directing our thoughts toward a particular idea or object may help us achieve a deeper level of understanding, but cannot reveal absolute truth because all ideas and objects are only fragments of infinite reality. Sooner or later, we will have to abandon each object of our concentration, until we reach the highest understanding, that All is One. With this understanding, good and bad are One, life and death are One, the patient and the caregiver are One.

This idea of Oneness touches on the paradoxical question of self. Traditional Buddhism teaches that, beneath the “skandas” (aggregates) of form, sensation, perception, tendencies, and consciousness, nothing remains that can be called a “self”. The asserted absence of a self (anatma) seems at odds with the Zen Buddhist idea of a being guided by Buddha nature, observing the world and his own mind. But Buddha nature, at least as I understand it, is not an individual self. To be in touch with Buddha nature means to be immersed in the Oneness of Creation. Buddha nature is to be One with the Universal Self.

On my first day of training at the cancer center, I overheard a volunteer telling a colleague how exhausting and depressing her work there had become. She was not certain how much longer she could endure it, feeling that it was making her ill. “It’s killing me,” she sighed. In contrast, I found myself feeling intensely alive and healthy. At this moment it was easy for me to appreciate the qualities of Beginner’s Mind that so greatly aid enlightenment. In such an alien environment, surrounded by need, my “self”, which normally blinds me with its blaze, shrank to the tiniest flicker. I could allow myself to function instinctively, a grain of sand moving through a cosmic hourglass. And I could clearly see that nothing – not my health, my welfare or even my life itself – is within my control. Everything is a gift, and the only power I can wield is to share my gifts with others. If I can hold onto this Beginner’s Mindset, I think I will be able to perform productive and satisfying work at the hospital for a long time.

*All quotes from Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Boston: Weatherhill, 1970.

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