By Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi
In an interview with Peter Sagel on the NPR show ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” the television writer and producer, Norman Lear (All in the Family) was asked how, at the age of 94 he stayed so connected with the world around him. He replied: Two simple words, over and next. We don’t pay enough attention to them, when something is over . . . it is over . . . and we are on to next. If there was a hammock in between over and next . . . that is being in the moment.
Be in the moment. This adamant instruction arises in many talks or writings about the practice of Zen. What is it? Why? How is that done?
In Zen this practice starts with the recognition of the value of a “beginner’s mind” (shoshin). It is a state of being, a way of approaching all situations with an open mind, open heart, fresh energy, and without the fog of habitual reactivities. In the 1960s this term, “beginner’s mind” came into common usage as a result of a talk given by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the venerated Zen teacher who founded the San Francisco Zen Center, and whose book ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ offered a way to realize this ideal in a Buddhist practice. Beginner’s mind is the path to discovering the new experiences and knowledge that are invisible to the unaware. It is a factor in the stilling of the “monkey mind”, the state of being when the mind continually chatters like an excited monkey. The beginner’s mind opens the practitioner up to fully experiencing the reality of each moment and to respond to those moments appropriately.
Each of us 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 . . . right in that moment”. The aphorism Buddhist style could be, “unique situation, unique experience, unique response” as an intentional reminder that a past experience doesn’t equal a present experience.
Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
The beginner’s mind in Buddhism is always asking, “what is there to learn now?”. The beginner’s mind is one that questions. The expert’s mind is always saying, “this is what I know”. The expert’s mind is one that thinks it already knows what others need to hear. The question does arise, “If I am always beginning then how do I progress?” Thinking with a beginner’s mind doesn’t require starting over. It is the action of setting aside what you think you already know . . . to learn what you need to know. This is when ego can arise as a hindrance. Few people are comfortable admitting their own ignorance. The ego may cause one to resist acting with a beginner’s mind because it views that action as a tacit admittance that there are gaps in information, and gaps in practice. What needs arise in the hearts of men . . . the ego knows . . . or likes to believe it does.
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 Soto Zen, the words of Thich Naht Hanh to translations of the sutras by Edward Conze I had gathered quite a bit of information. . . or thought I did, and I did. What I hadn’t gained was the knowledge that comes through engaging the information with a commitment to moment-to-moment practice. . . 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, listened with an open-mind and open-heart, letting my beginner’s mind arise 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.
It is in meditation practice that the beginner’s mind can most readily be experienced. In fact, this can be the first thought of enlightenment that many practitioners recognize. You get into a good meditation posture, erect but relaxed, chin tucked, tongue touching behind the upper front teeth, eyes half-lidded, arms resting in the lap, hands in the proper mudra, and begin to watch your breath. Then . . . suddenly . . . the phone rings, the dog barks, the image of your Google calendar pops into your head, did you mail the electric bill, boredom arises, leg itches . . . and there goes your focus. That was the monkey mind. You stop the chattering of the monkey mind by gently starting over. You get into a good meditation posture, erect but relaxed, chin tucked, tongue touching behind the upper front teeth, eyes half-lidded, arms resting in the lap, hands in the proper mudra, and you begin again to watch your breath. The act of starting over, of gently returning to a practice is the way of a beginner’s mind.
There is a parable that Shunryu Suzuki Roshi would offer his listeners as an opportunity for a thought of enlightenment concerning a beginner’s mind.
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.”
Beginner’s mind requires one to ’empty the cup’ between moments, so that the next moment can fill it with that reality. A moment can happen in the time it takes to blink. A moment can happen over a period of years. It is the experience that defines the length and breadth of a moment. Being in the moment is the act of focusing on the reality of a given situation as it occurs and responding in the most appropriate manner likely to contribute to human flourishing and to the liberation of human beings.