BOOK REVIEW: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

Zen Mind, Beginner's MindZen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This thin volume packs a great deal of knowledge about the Zen approach to the mind. It’s divided into three parts: right practice, right attitude, and right understanding. The first section is technical (e.g. posture, breathing, etc.); the second section is inspirational; and the third section is philosophical. This is consistent with the Zen priority of putting practice first and being cautious about philosophizing.

The core concept is captured by the book’s topic sentence, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” This sentence contains a valuable truth, but I can’t help but think that the related title probably hurt the book’s sales. Sadly, many people would rather read a book entitled “How to be a Zen Master in 90 Days.” Everybody wants to be an expert, and few are open to the lesson that they must look at the world through the eyes of a novice. I’ve noticed this in the martial arts. Most individuals seem to be much happier as mediocre black belts with only a few years of practice than they would be as a highly competent white belt. This, of course, is the lure of external validation, which is a weak salve for one’s private demons.

At any rate, the value of cultivating shoshin (i.e. beginner’s mind)is to avoid have one’s experience jaded or tarnished by one’s past. It’s about avoiding attachment to what one believes one knows, such that one is incapable of learning something new. It’s like that old, but popular, tale that is told in both the Zen Buddhist and Taoist traditions about a cocky, young student who comes to learn from a master and proceeds to tell the master all he has already learned. The master pours tea for the youth, and when the cup is full he continues to pour until the scalding liquid spills over into the kid’s lap. When the student angrily asks why the teacher did that, he is told, “Your cup is already full. In order to take in more you must first empty your cup.”

I enjoyed this book. It’s very readable. The chapters are concise and not the least bit arcane. The bits on practice are not bogged down in minutiae. As I indicated, this book covers a lot of ground. I would dare say that if you are only going to read one book on Zen in your lifetime, this is a suitable candidate.

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6 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

  1. I am a huge fan of Master Shunryu Suzuki, and quote him often on my own blog. There is another collection of his lectures called “Not Always So” that I recommend often to Buddhism beginners, as it is specifically aimed at those who have grown up in western culture, to begin to increase their understanding, as it did for me immensely. It’s a great companion to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

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  2. Thanks for your post. I love that quote! It profoundly pnotis to the contradiction that is at the heart of the human experience of time. It spurred me to write a post of my own on change, as I read yours just as had been thinking about this very subject in relation to library work.

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