Beginner's Mind

Given by Suzuki Roshi at Los Altos on Thursday, November 11, 1965
About this talk
When this particular, otherwise unremarkable, reel, was photographed as part of Engage Wisdom’s archiving process, unlike many other tapes stored at Zen Center, there were no complete dates, only two pieces of writing on the box, which offered a tantalising promise: Nov 10 - Suzuki, Beginner's Mind Prologue, Waterfall ‘In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.’ (ZMBM p21) A note from a 1967 edition of Zen Center’s magazine Wind Bell states: 'Suzuki Roshi lectures and meditates with the Los Altos branch of Zen Center every Thursday morning and evening. The group meets at the beautiful Haiku Zendo which was built in the two car garage of Marion Derby. She collected his Thursday lectures on tape and tentatively entitles them Beginner's Mind because Suzuki Roshi started by giving them as short lectures for beginners. Marion and Peter Schneider are editing the lectures for publication as a small book which we hope will be ready for the publisher the first of the year.' (WB 67-02, p63) Now that the phrase, and the title of the book, ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ is so much a part of the dharma lexicon in the west, it is hard to imagine how it must have sounded to those hearing it for the first time. This talk was taken as the starting point for the book: the notion that keeping a beginner’s mind in Zen practice was the most important point to transmit. 'Even though you read Zen literature you have to keep this beginner’s mind. You have to read it with fresh mind. We shouldn’t say, “I know what is Zen” or “I have attained enlightenment.”. We should be always big enough. This is very important. And we should be very very careful about this point.' (@12’50”) Suzuki Roshi, as he does in many other talks, also mentions Eihei Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, as emphasizing this idea. A large part of Suzuki Roshi’s gift was how he managed to expound Dogen’s often deeply complex writings for a group of Westerners who had very little context for understanding them. As Richard Baker, Suzuki Roshi’s successor as Abbot of Zen Center, observed in his introduction to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, "he found that Americans have a beginner's mind, that they have few preconceptions about Zen, are quite open about it, and confidently believe it can change their lives." (ZMBM p17) It is often proposed that the Japanese zen teachers who came to the west during the 20th Century were the renegades, the one who found the traditions of formal Japanese zen too restricted for the essence of the teachings as they understood it. In the west they found the receptivity they were looking for in students. Suzuki Roshi praises the feeling in the Los Altos group, even though - and also because - they are beginners. In the talk, Suzuki Roshi cautions ‘the most difficult thing is to keep our beginner’s mind in our practice’ and that being able to do so is the ‘secret of zen practice’. He also adds that being able to do so enables us to keep the precepts - emphasizing the moral dimension of practice which sometimes gets sidelined when the focus is just on mindfulness and meditation. 'In beginner’s mind we have many possibilities, but in expert mind there is not much possibility.' (@6’03”) When we read the transcript, and listen to Suzuki Roshi’s words as he gave them, we can appreciate the editing work that went into transforming these short talks into a book. The phrase is re-written, and its place in the talk is changed, but we can still enjoy both the spontaneous expression and the deeper meaning conveyed clearly in the published version.
This talk formed the basis of the Prologue of the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Newly imported in 2020 from the original tape reel, this audio recording was previously lost from the archives, with only the 1960’s transcript surviving. Significant audio distortion has been carefully removed in the remastering process, uncovering some previously inaudible words - including immediately before the famous “beginner’s mind” passage, from 4:55 through 6:30. --- David Chadwick's notes: 65-11-11 Los Altos box transcript. Exact copy entered onto disc and emailed to DC by GM 06/28/08. *** Beginner's Mind Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p. 21, (Not Verbatim) was 11-10 but 11-11 = thurs
People say to study Zen is difficult but there is some misunderstanding why it is difficult. It is not difficult because to sit in cross legged position is hard or to attain enlightenment is hard, but it is hard to keep our mind pure and to keep our practice pure in original way. Zen become more and more impure and after Zen school established in China it is development of Zen but at the same time it is -- it become impure. But I don’t want to talk about Chinese Zen or history of Zen this morning. But why I say I want to talk about why it is difficult is because just you came here this morning, getting up early is very valuable experience for you. Just you wanted to come is very valuable. We say ‘shoshin’. Sho shin means beginner’s mind. If we can keep beginner’s mind always that is the goal of our practice. We recited Prajna Paramita Sutra this morning only once. I think we recited very well, but what will happen to us if we recite it twice, three times, four times and more? Then we will easily lose our attitude in reciting -- original attitude in reciting- the sutra. Same thing will happen to us. For awhile we will keep our beginner’s mind in your [blank space in transcript]. If we continue to practice one year, two years, three years or more we will have some [blank space in transcript] and we will lose the limitless meaning of the original mind. In beginner’s mind we have many possibilities, but in expert mind there is not much possibility. So in our practice it is important to resume to our original mind or inmost mind which we, ourselves, even we ourselves do not know what it is. This is the most important thing for us. The founder of our school emphasized this point. We have to remain always beginners mind. This is the secret of Zen and secret of various practices -- practice of flower arrangement, practice of Japanese singing and various art. If we keep our beginner’s mind, we keep our precepts. When we lose our beginner’s mind we will lose all the precepts and for Zen students the most important thing is not to be dualistic or not -- we should not lose our self-satisfied state of mind. We should not be too demanding, or we should not be too greedy. Our mind should always be rich and self-satisfied. When our mind become demanding -- when we become longing for something, we will violate our precepts not to kill, not to be immoral, not to steal, or not to tell lie and so on. Those are based on our greedy mind. When our mind is self-satisfied we keep our precepts. When we ourselves is always self-satisfied, we have our original mind and we can practice good and we are always true to ourselves. So the most difficult thing is to keep our beginner’s mind in our practice. So if you can keep your beginner’s mind forever, you are Buddha. In this point, our practice should be constant. We should practice our way with beginner’s mind always. There is no need to have deep understanding about Zen. Even though you read Zen literature you have to keep this beginner’s mind. You have to read it with fresh mind. We shouldn’t say, “I know what is Zen” or “I have attained enlightenment.”. We should be always big enough. This is very important. And we should be very very careful about this point. I was very much impressed by your practice this morning. Although your posture was not perfect, but the feeling you have here is wonderful. There is no comparison to it. At the same time we should make our effort to keep this feeling forever in your practice. This is very very important. In Japanese art, when you master some art -- when you become successor of your master, you will receive some paper on which something is written. No one knows what it is. It is very difficult to figure out what it is -- to explain what it is. But if you have beginner’s mind, it’s all right. If you can say, “Thank you very much” from the bottom of your heart, that’s all right. If you say “What it is?” you have no secret -- you can say “Thank you very much”. That’s enough. But this is very difficult. So by your practice we must make our beginner’s mind more and more -- we should appreciate beginner’s mind. This is the secret of practice -- Zen practice.