Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind Essay, Research Paper
Critical Book Review: Zen Mind, Beginner s Mind
For my critical book review I chose to read, Zen Mind, Beginner s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki was a direct spiritual descendant of the great thirteenth-century Zen master Dogen. Suzuki was already a deeply respected Zen master in Japan when he came to America in 1958 intending on a short visit. He was very impressed by the seriousness he found among Americans interested in Zen that he became a permanent resident in San Francisco. His following became so large that it expanded into three major locations including, Zen Mountain Center, the first Zen training center outside of Asia. He died at the Zen Center in December 1971; a year after this book was published. I chose this book because Zen meditation is something that has interested me for a few years after learning briefly about it in high school. Zen is something that I hope to try in the near future, possibly after I visit a Zen Center when I m in California this summer. However, after reading this book I have learned that Zen is not really something which you are supposed to try at, you re just supposed to do it and not think about it.
Zen Mind, is composed of three major sections with many sub-categories in each section to explain the theme. Part 1 is entitled Right Practice. In this section zazen is explained to the reader. Zazen is the name for seated meditation. Part 1 was my favorite section. There are many interesting ideas and explanations found here. In this section Suzuki explains Right Practice through talks on posture, breathing, control, mind waves, mind weeds, the marrow of zen, no dualism, bowing, and nothing special. Correct posture is explained describing full lotus position. Full lotus position is when your left foot is on your right thigh, and your right foot is on your left thigh. He explains that when you cross your legs in this way even though you have a right leg and a left leg, they have become one. The position expresses the oneness of duality. Lotus position is complete when you have your hands cupped resting on your lap. It is important that when you sit in the lotus position that you keep your back fully straight. Suzuki says, You should not be tilted sideways, backwards, or forwards. You should be sitting straight up as if you were supporting the sky with your head. If you slump, you will lose yourself. (pg.26) Breathing is the second idea touched upon by Suzuki in this section. He talks about how important it is to allow your mind to follow your breathing. As you regulate your breathing and relax, your mind is slowly able to clear of all thought and your practice will be pure. The absence of thought is the pure aspect of zazen. To do nothing but exist and have a clear mind is what is desired in zazen. The section on bowing struck me as very interesting. It is symbolic of the theme of humbleness seen throughout Buddhism. Suzuki states, Sometimes a man bows to a woman; sometimes a woman bows to a man. Sometimes the disciple bows to the master; sometimes the master bows to the disciple. A master who cannot bow to his disciple cannot bow to Buddha. (pg.43) In many religions there is usually a supreme being, something which is worshipped and that you humble yourself towards. I have a respect for Buddhism because of its equality it preaches. Growing up as a Catholic I was always taught to humble myself before priests; it wasn t often when they would do likewise for me. It seems that there is much less of a hierarchy in Buddhism than in other religions, which is something that appeals to me. The last theme in this section is entitled nothing special. This section talks about the simplicity in which you should approach zazen. Zen practice is the direct expression of our true human nature. Beneath our complicated exteriors we are very simple creatures. Zazen allows us to put everything around us out of our mind and relax into a meditative state. Suzuki explains that practicing zazen should be nothing special. It is natural and can be done as routine like going to bed each day.
Right Attitude is the name of the second part in, Zen Mind, Beginner s Mind. Within this part the sections are entitled, single-minded way, repetition, zen and excitement, right effort, no trace, god giving, mistakes in practice, limiting your activity, study yourself, to polish a tile, constancy, communication, negative and positive, nirvana, the waterfall. In this part Suzuki explains the type of attitude you should have when practicing zazen. The section on right effort talks about the type of effort you should put when practicing zazen. Suzuki says, try not to see something in particular; try not to achieve anything special. You already have everything in your own pure quality. (pg.59) Suzuki explains that to practice zazen you shouldn t try to focus on anything in particular, rather, try not to focus on anything at all. To have right effort is to not put effort into practicing; just doing is the goal here. The section after right effort is entitled no trace. It is a good compliment to right effort because it displays the theme of duality that is always reappearing throughout Buddhism. No trace explains how to practice zazen. In right effort, Suzuki said not to try anything when practicing zazen, but here he says, When you practice zazen you should do it with your whole body and mind, you should be concentrated on what you do. Do it completely, like a good bonfire burns its firewood. (pg.62) The idea in this section is to leave no trace of yourself in any other activity than what you are doing (zazen). Suzuki explains that when we do something our mind is cluttered with other things and our focus is not complete. There are traces of others things on our mind. The next section on limiting your activity was also very good. This section spoke on how zazen is for everyone. It s not reserved for Buddhists alone. Suzuki says, our practice is for everyone, it has nothing to do with some particular religious belief. (pg.75) The universal nature of zazen is explained in this part and why everyone can practice zazen. One last section that I found interesting in this part was the section on constancy. Constancy reminds us to, cultivate our own spirits, (pg.83) everything we need is within us. Suzuki speaks a bit on the importance of the sutras. The sutras he explains are merely a guide, something that points you in the right direction. It s up to you to find what you want in them. A teacher can only teach so much to a student, the student has to come to his or her own conclusions on what they feel.
Part 3 is called Right Understanding. It includes sections on traditional Zen spirit, transiency, the quality of being, naturalness, emptiness, readiness, mindfulness, believing in nothing, attachment/non-attachment, calmness, experience/not philosophy, original Buddhism, beyond consciousness, and Buddha s enlightenment. Transiency was the first section in this part that I really enjoyed. This section echoed the idea of impermanence that we ve learned this semester. The self-nature of all existence is nothing but change itself. (pg.102) Suzuki explains transiency as the basic teaching of Buddhism, change. The teachings of Zen aren t concrete and rigid, they are meant for you to find your own path. Suzuki also did a chapter on the ever-important theme of emptiness. Suzuki states, If you want to understand Buddhism it is necessary to understand the idea of emptiness. (pg.110) The Buddhist understanding of life includes existence and non-existence. We have learned these ideas in our class this semester, however, the explanations in this book by Suzuki are difficult to understand in some parts. The idea of existence is certainly a difficult one to explain, not to take away from what he wrote.
I found this book as a whole very interesting. There were some themes that we haven t discussed in class that were in this book which gave me a better understanding of themes we have discussed. For example, Transiency helped me understand emptiness better. The way that Suzuki went through Zen Mind and zazen systematically helped me understand these difficult concepts. Suzuki goes through each specific aspect and gives metaphors and anecdotes to explain these better. This technique was very effective. The section entitled study yourself I found to be very well written and interesting. Suzuki says here, To have some deep feeling about Buddhism is not the point; we just do what we should do, like eating supper and going to bed. This is Buddhism. (pg.76) Most religions call for you to do certain things and live a certain way (Ten Commandments). Buddhism wants you to study yourself and grow as an individual. The thing that appeals to me here is that other religions seem to want you to be part of a collective whole and don t push for the individuality that Buddhism does.
As a college student I found that I could relate to some of the things that Shunryu Suzuki spoke on in this book. Getting through college is not an easy task. The focus that is inherent in many of the Zen skills I feel I apply to my own life at times when I m studying for multiple tests and meeting difficult deadlines. In college there are many temptations to follow what is going on around you; there are always people that are going to try to bring you down. Seeing the reality of things and keeping a strong mind just as Zen teaches are tools that I apply to my own life as a student. I found many of the teachings in this book new and interesting. I didn t find anything that I could say I didn t like, It s all new to me and I m just beginning to learn it, at this time I can t be so judgmental.