Cultivating a Beginner's Mind
With traditional arts in Asia much emphasis is put on long-term practice and effort, so as to reach continuously higher levels of skill development. There is a deeper character training happening as well, to reduce the ego’s voice, let go of fears, cultivate mindfulness, increase gratitude and live more fully in the present moment.
Beginner’s Mind is a phrase from Japanese Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki’s book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He uses it to describe an approach to life that is empty of preconceptions and egotism, yet very mindful.
In Japan we have the phrase shoshin (初心), which means ‘beginner’s mind.’ The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind… This [means] 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.
The idea of an empty mind in Asian cultures is different from Western conceptions, which signify that something is lacking. It is closer to our idea of being open-minded, providing a spacious awareness that allows the outer world to flow in freely through our senses.
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu shared a similar conception of emptiness, in verse 11 of the Tao Te Ching, describing structured spaces which invite participation as being very practical and useful.
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub; It is the center hole that makes it useful. Shape clay into a vessel; It is the space within that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows for a room; It is the holes which make it useful. Therefore benefit comes from what is there; Usefulness from what is not there.
In Zen Buddhism, to maintain a beginner’s mind means to be open to continuous growth and deeper understanding. One is encouraged to drink in each moment of life, without excessive desire, pride or judgment.
A beginner’s mind is not willful, power seeking or egocentric. As a beginner, we are encouraged to develop skills without comparing ourselves to others or seeking to be superior in any way. In Japan, this also relates to the idea of kenkyo (謙虚) which means to cultivate modesty and humility, to not be full of oneself.
In Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (by Paul Rep) there is a section entitled 101 Zen Stories. Here a tale is told of a University professor who visits Nan-in, a Japanese Zen master. The professor says he wants to learn about Zen, but is filled with his own knowledge and opinions. Nan-in pours tea into his cup and does not stop so that it begins to overflow.
What are you doing? It is overfull. No more will go in!” yells the Professor. “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?
Zen & Japanese Traditional Arts
Even now, a beginner’s mind is very much a part of traditional arts training in Japan. The idea of mu (無) or mushin (無 心) is commonly taught to students. It is often translated as ‘not, nothing’ or ‘no mind’ but it’s closer to openness of awareness in meaning. Students are encouraged to be attentive and mindful, carefully observant of the present moment.
A core idea with Zen-influenced arts is that deep mastery and learning requires that we keep all our senses open. Over time one’s knowledge becomes intuitive, instinctual. We do not have to ‘think’ consciously to act skillfully.
The goal with arts training is not to receive praise or do better than others, but to grow spiritually, develop as a human being and learn to live each moment peacefully, mindfully and deeply connected to the present.
The Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki (no relation to Shunryu Suzuki), gave this description, in his essay An Introduction to Zen Buddhism:
The idea of Zen is to catch life as it flows. There is nothing extraordinary or mysterious about Zen. I raise my hand; I take a book from the other side of the desk; I hear the boys playing ball outside my window; I see the clouds blown away beyond the neighboring wood — in all these I am practicing Zen, I am living Zen. No wordy discussion is necessary, nor any explanation… When the sun rises the whole world dances with joy and everybody’s heart is filled with bliss. If Zen is at all conceivable, it must be taken hold of here.
by Christopher Chase