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“Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” by Shunryu Suzuki

book cover Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

A respected Zen master in Japan and founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, Shunryu Suzuki has blazed a path in American Buddhism like few others.

From diverse topics such as transience of the world, sudden enlightenment, and the nuts and bolts of meditation, Suzuki always returns to the idea of beginner’s mind, a recognition that our original nature is our true nature.

With beginner’s mind, we dedicate ourselves to sincere practice, without the thought of gaining anything special. Day to day life becomes our Zen training, and we discover that “to study Buddhism is to study ourselves.”

Suzuki had a rare dedication to the teaching of meditation, which was apparently due not only to a natural inclination in that direction as a gifted teacher, but also because as a newcomer to the US he found his English to be inadequate to expounding the deep Zen teachings that he has mastered. And so, turning a handicap into a strength in true Zen style, Suzuki taught in a simple, although suitably paradoxical style.

Although his grasp of english was basic and he taught in simple language, his teaching does not in any way lack depth. On the contrary, Suzuki finds ways of surprising us and even of shocking us out of complacency. The central teaching of Beginner’s Mind — a complete openness to our experience — is a profoundly useful one and one that has entered the wider culture.

My favorite teaching from this book is the notion that if you want to control a wild bull, give him lots of space. Try to confine him and he’ll fight. Give him a big field and he’ll just stand and eat grass. The bull of course is the mind, and the field is mindfulness. Have a spacious, expansive, open field of awareness, and the mind will settle down.

I’ve often heard readings from this book dropped in before sits on intensive meditation retreats, and perhaps this is the best way to use this book. Reading it through like a novel would be to miss the point, for Suzuki taught from a state of meditation and his words should be received in meditation. That doesn’t mean you should only read the book on retreat, but that it’s best read in small doses, reflectively, and perhaps just before your daily practice.

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