Beginner’s Mind . . . and Body

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In Zen Buddhism, and put into common usage by Shunryu Suzuki, “beginner’s mind” (shoshin) is a way of approaching all situations with an open mind, fresh energy, and without preconceptions. Beginner’s mind is a path to discovering the new experiences and knowledge that are invisible to the unaware and the unmindful. Beginner’s minds experience new situations without preconceptions.

In Engaged Buddhism the term ‘bodymind’ is used so that the unbreakable interconnection and interdependence of body and mind are realized. With this we add “beginner’s body” to the lexicon. The body reacts to internal and external phenomena with habitual movements that consist of body language and micro-expressions. These too must be set-aside in order that positive transformation can take place.

We all engage in activities that have become habitual. From putting together jigsaw puzzles to hiking in the woods we can find ourselves becoming complacent. The aphorism, “been there . . . done that” can cause us to miss that piece of the puzzle with a bit of sky and the tiny curve of a bird’s wing or fall into the washed out gully that wasn’t along that trail last year. We may have in fact “been there” but it is just as much a fact that we haven’t “been there in that next moment”. The aphorism Buddhist style could be, “unique situation . . . unique experience” as a reminder that one has not “been there” or “done that” right now.

The Parable of Overflowing

Once, a learned professor of Asian studies went to a Buddhist Zen Master. He asked him to explain the meaning of Zen. The Master quietly poured a cup of tea. The cup was full but he continued to pour.

The professor could not stand this any longer, so he questioned the Master impatiently, “Why do you keep pouring when the cup is full?”

“I want to point out to you,” the Master said, “that you are similarly attempting to understand Zen while your mind is full. First, empty your mind of preconceptions before you attempt to understand Zen.”

The beginner’s mind in Buddhism is always asking, “What is there to learn now?”. It is not thinking, “I already know that.” Thinking with a beginner’s mind doesn’t require starting over; it requires a mind that is open to all new experiences as ways to gain more knowledge and wisdom. It is the action of setting aside what you think you know so you have the open-mind to learn what you need to know. This is when ego can arise as a hindrance. Few people like to recognize their own ignorance. The ego may cause one to resist engaging a beginner’s mind because it views that as a tacit admittance that there are gaps in knowledge.

Before I became a formal student of Buddhism I had read many books on the subject. I was a hard-core “book Buddhist”. From the colorful and mystical Buddhism of Tibet to formally structured Rinzai Zen, the words of Thich Naht Hanh to Robert Thurman I knew quite a bit . . . or thought I did, and I did . . . there just wasn’t any real foundation to it. It wasn’t until I sat before my first Buddhist teacher, decided that his was the tradition I felt connected with, that I discovered how much I didn’t know. At first I had to consciously set-aside what I thought I knew so that I could deeply listen to what was being taught. My discursive mind eventually stopped comparing what I was learning to what I had learned . . . and then real learning began. With the view that each moment we encounter is unique, and each situation is unique then each moment and situation requires a beginner’s mind so that it can be appropriately engaged.

Shunryu Suzuki said, In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Beginner’s body” requires recognizing the arising of body language, movements and micro-expressions that occur as a result of habitual muscle memory, then realizing the need to set those aside that have negative effects on learning. As an example think of Michael Jordan when he decided to play baseball for a few seasons instead of basketball. Jordan spent many years on the basketball court perfecting his style of play. Constant practice and playing made the majority of his basketball moves spontaneous, driven by muscle memory. When he left the court and entered the baseball field an entirely different set of muscle memories would have needed to be relearned and developed. To be effective, Jordan would have had to set-aside his ‘basketball body’ so that a ‘baseball body’ could arise.

Hate is one of the negative emotions/disposition that a Buddhist practitioner works to diminish in their thoughts. This can begin with subtracting the very word from their vocabulary. When feelings of hate start to arise in the mind great effort is made to determine why it arises, and to let it fall away. Over time the ideal is that when the object of hate is encountered the feeling/emotion doesn’t reveal itself in though or language. What about body language and facial expressions? Words may have been changed but a sneer on the lips, arms crossed tightly over the chest, or a roll of the eyes will reveal that the underlying hate is still there.

A beginner’s mind is ready and willing to set-aside what it thinks it already knows, in favor of an emptiness ready and willing to learn something new. Beginner’s body is as important as beginner’s mind. There must be an equanimity of beginning for learning to encompass the whole of the bodymind . . . Beginner’s Bodymind.

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2 thoughts on “Beginner’s Mind . . . and Body

    • Hello Stefano,

      It is not the “expert mind” that is useless. It is said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice in order to become an expert at something. The time and effort has great value if the expert mind is put to use in a pragmatic way, its skills and knowledge used to promote human flourishing and the alleviation of suffering.

      A person who views their mind as full or who can’t learn new knowledge because they let the old knowledge get in the way, that is an expert mind that is useless. Like I said in the dharma talk on Monday . . . “You must set-aside what you think you know so that you can learn what you need to know.”

      Stefano, thank you for your engagement during sangha meetings, and your comments on the website.

      I bow with respect,
      Wayne Ren-Cheng, Shi

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