Beginner’s Mind

by Jeff McMahon

Suzuki001
The characters for beginner’s mind in calligraphy by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

What were you thinking the moment you were born?

There was sudden light, a painful rush of sensation—maybe it was cold, maybe it was dry, maybe you were slapped—and then you felt the thrill of doing something for the first time that your body was made to do:

You took a breath.

But it’s unlikely that anything resembling thinking was happening in your original mind. And perhaps for that reason, everything was new, and everything was possible.

A Zen teacher who came to America in 1949—Shunryu Suzuki—emphasized the value of original mind, which he says never leaves us, although it may be obscured by thinking:

Our ‘original mind’ includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself…. 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.

What were thinking when you took your first yoga class?

You must have heard something about yoga, and those expectations constrained your original mind. You didn’t arrive empty.

But at some point the class overtook your expectations, didn’t it? Maybe in a rush of sensations—an opening at the heart or hips—your thoughts began to quiet. Maybe it happened when you focused your attention—for the first time in how long?—on your breath.

Many remember fondly the beginning of our practice, when yoga took hold. The teacher Saul David Raye likes to say that the worst thing that can happen to your yoga practice is level two.

And Suzuki seems to agree:

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.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Piper Lori-Parker invited me to anchor this blog for Zen Garage, and when I saw the list of teachers she had assembled I quickly agreed. Who would not want to be a part of such a brilliant, dynamic kula (a word I learned from one of those teachers, Jessica Carlin, that means “community of the heart.”)

The teachers bring so much experience, wisdom and enthusiasm into a single garage. Many of these teachers have changed my life, and only for the better. I will follow their classes at Zen Garage and at the other studios where they teach.

But I am reminded by Suzuki that when I took my first yoga class, I had no favorite teachers.

There were no poses I loved nor poses I feared. My mind was empty of such opinions. My body, meanwhile, couldn’t manage a low lunge, much less a headstand—yet.

Everything was new, and everything was possible.

“In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something,'” says Suzuki. “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.”

In spite of all the experience these teachers bring with them, all have an opportunity to be beginners again as a new practice is born in an old garage. Piper-Lori, who brings us together, has experience in corporate marketing, musical theater (you’ll see during the kirtans), yoga teaching, and yoga studio management, but for her too, Zen Garage is a new beginning, filled with new possibilities.

And this blog can only rightly strive for beginner’s mind. I know nothing about yoga or spirituality. I haven’t done a teacher training. I haven’t taken a pilgrimage to Rishikesh or Brindavan. I have nothing to teach that I haven’t recently learned, nowhere to point but toward those who have taught me.

So the purpose of this blog will be for writer and reader together to explore yoga as best we can while trying to retain our beginner’s mind—where everything is new, everything is possible, and we can really learn something.

Teachers and teachings:

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki (book)

Not Always So, by Shunryu Suzuki, (book)

Saul David Raye

Jessica Carlin

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2 thoughts on “Beginner’s Mind

  1. Does the picture of the characters for beginner’s mind in calligraphy come with the new edition of the book? Because, I found a piece of paper with that exact picture in the middle of the new copy I bought at B&N.

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