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Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind 1

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 01/09/2008
In Topics: Suzuki roshi, Uncategorized

Series of talks based on Suzuki Roshi’s book “Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind” In this series, only small portions of the book are addressed and not a total overview of the writings.

Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind (1 of 4)

Series of talks based on Suzuki Roshi’s book “Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind”

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | January 9, 2008

Transcribed and abridged by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum

I would encourage you all to go out and buy a little notebook – you know, one of those small format notebooks? I think it would be a lovely thing if everybody could keep a personal notebook of Suzuki Roshi sayings – things in your reading that you would write down. You would have your own selection of his sayings, which you could have to look at and read over your practice lifetime.

I am going to make a few comments about the introduction by Richard Baker. This is the sentence that caught my eye and delighted me in his introduction. He says on page 13:

This is the purpose of all Zen teaching – to make you wonder and to answer that wondering with the deepest expression of your own nature.

I thought that was a lovely, grand statement about the purpose of all Zen teaching – to make you wonder. To make you wonder, and to answer that wonder with the deepest expression of your own nature.

We all know from reading Zen teachings that they’re often paradoxical or not obvious in their form of expression. If you pay attention to them and don’t just dismiss them, it does have the effect of making you wonder, “What is going on in this life? What is my experience of every moment? Who am I, actually, besides my conditioned definitions of myself? What really is the significance of my living, on a daily basis? What is happening with my life, and can I ever know? Isn’t it much more than I would imagine?”

I think that this sense of wonder at the ineffable significance of our human living is not only a characteristic of Zen teaching, but of all religious teaching. But Zen teaching is maybe a little different from others in that you can’t help but feel disoriented – which is what we want – slightly disoriented from our habitual frame of mind.

The purpose of all Zen teaching is to make you wonder – to see things more deeply and to go beyond our surface views – and then to answer that wondering with the deepest expression of your own nature. So there is something beyond the wonder. You are responding to that wondering. You are answering to that wondering. This seems to me to be very true and crucial about Zen practice. It’s a practice that is active. It’s a form of life, rather than an understanding or a teaching that we take in. It’s a response. Practice really is an act of response, an act of expression of the teachings, as they come uniquely through every individual life.

There is an answer to this wonder. We don’t just passively receive or acknowledge this wonder. It causes us to come forth in our living. So our practice is an active practice. It’s an expressive practice, but it’s not an activity or expression that is willful or possessive. In other words, it’s not my great idea of Zen expression. It is coming from deep within my nature. So it’s not egotistical or expressive in the conventional sense. But it’s rather a touching deeply with my own nature what I most truly am, and letting the expression come from there. So, in a way, it’s almost an unconscious or non-intentional expression. It’s not something that I do or that is mine. It’s something that just flows through me. And at the same time, it’s something more completely myself than anything that I could ever cook up on my own, because it comes deeply from my nature.

Then another little quotation from the introduction on page 17. He says,

You find that zazen meditation is the most perfect expression of your actual nature.

In the first quotation he talks about expression of your nature, and then he says that zazen is the most powerful expression of your actual nature. So that’s a beautiful thing to conceive of. Nowadays there’s so much discussion about meditation and how good it is for you. It makes your heartbeat slow down. It reduces your stress. You live longer. You’ll be a happier person. You’ll be calmer. And then Zen students think of all the great things they can accomplish by meditation.

Actually, in the end, we want to sit in zazen, but not for all the wonderful things it will do for us – and it does do great things for us, I think – but because this is our expression. Imagine having that motivation while sitting in meditation: “This is the deepest expression of who I am. That’s why I am sitting here. It’s the deepest expression of who I am.” It’s a beautiful thought and something to be working toward.

Suzuki Roshi is, as we all know, the founder of our local Zen Center and of our extended lineage family. We’re all children of Suzuki Roshi. We’re his lineage and family members. You may notice that I don’t often refer to Suzuki Roshi, but it’s not particularly intentional. I don’t avoid mentioning him, but I notice that I’m not always mentioning Suzuki Roshi, because I feel a little bit uneasy about the cult of Suzuki Roshi. I certainly feel that the way I approach Zen practice, and the way I feel about it, comes from what he says. I hope that I am following his way of understanding. I certainly feel that Everyday Zen is a part of the Suzuki Roshi line of Soto Zen, a line which is stamped with Suzuki Roshi’s personality and understanding and spirit.

So I don’t have any problems with that. But still, it seems to me – and maybe it is just me or my paranoia or my conditioning – that there is something of a false note of excessive admiration for any spiritual figure. There is so much imagination involved, and so much wish-fulfillment and projection that it always seems to me a little bit much. In the end it sometimes has a bad effect. We concoct the expectation that we would be just like the person we are imagining. And along with that we would notice that we aren’t like that. Then we would be continually dissatisfied with who we are and not notice how marvelous we really are, because we would be thinking, “Why am I not like Suzuki Roshi?” But that wouldn’t be Suzuki Roshi; it would be the Suzuki Roshi that we had imagined.

So I’m not sure how great that all is. I am certain that from his own point of view, Suzuki Roshi saw himself as a Zen teacher and as a Zen priest. I think he saw that as his commitment and as his role. But I think he also saw himself as an ordinary, flawed individual. I don’t think he saw himself as a very special person, and I am sure that he was aware that the kind of person he was on the last day of his life was the same person that he was on the first day.

Still, though, as we know in our tradition, the role of teacher is very important. The teacher has to be a person that we deeply respect and honor. That’s an important aspect of our practice. The teacher is not just another friend. And also, at the same time, the teacher is an ordinary person. They’re a flawed human being, because they are living in this world and are a product of a culture, language, and parents.

The necessity to have a deep respect for our teachers is so that we can learn that level of respect for ourselves. You can’t have that level of respect for yourself unless you respect another person. That’s what we want – to feel that we ourselves deeply and truly have respect.

Of course it is a mistake to attribute superhuman agency to a teacher, which I am sure was done to Suzuki Roshi. He was, after all, an exotic fellow from Japan, in his fifties, and all his students were impressionable, American hippies in their twenties. And those were the times for great gurus and cults. So that did happen, and he must have been amused by it.

So I guess I am saying that for our own practice we have to see our teacher with binocular vision – see a person who is worthy of respect, and also an ordinary schlemiel, just like us. So the teacher is just like us – and also not like us – until we come to the place where our practice fully ripens. And then the teacher is altogether just like us.

So I say all this because the last thing I’ll do is read a passage that ends Dick Baker’s introduction. It’s not his words, but the words of Trudy Dixon. I never knew Trudy Dixon, but she was probably the main editor and creator of this book. She died at age thirty from cancer, after completing most of the manuscripts. All that I have been saying is a preamble to these words of hers, which are actually quite wonderful, I think. She’s explaining to an audience in 1970, that knows nothing about Zen or Zen centers, what a roshi or an enlightened Zen master is. She says,

A roshi is a person who has actualized that perfect freedom which is the potentiality for all human beings. He [she] exists freely in the fullness of his whole being [of her whole being.] The flow of his [her] consciousness is not the fixed repetitive patterns of our usual self-centered consciousness, but arise spontaneously and naturally from the actual circumstances of the present. The results of this in terms of the quality of his life are extraordinary – buoyancy, vigor, straightforwardness, simplicity, humility, serenity, joyousness, uncanny perspicacity, and unfathomable compassion. His whole being testifies to what it means to live in the reality of the present. Without anything said or done, just the impact of meeting a person so developed can be enough to change another’s whole way of life. [As so many people felt their lives change just by meeting him.] But in the end it is not the extraordinariness of the teacher which perplexes, intrigues, and deepens the student, it is the teacher’s utter ordinariness. Because he is just himself, he is a mirror for his students. When we are with him we feel our own strengths and shortcomings without any sense of praise or criticism from the teacher. In the presence of our teacher we see our original face, and the extraordinariness that we see is only our own true nature. When we learn to let our own nature free, the boundaries between master and student disappear in a deep flow of being and joy in the unfolding of Buddha mind.

It’s a little bit idealized, maybe, but it’s wonderful nevertheless. It was certainly an expression of Trudy’s deep joy and delight. Who knows at what point in her life she wrote those words. Maybe it was very close to the end. Maybe she wrote them knowing that soon she was going to die – as a beautiful appreciation of how meaningful her life was. She had met Suzuki Roshi, and listened to him, and even had the honor of shaping his words into English.

So that’s all I wanted to say tonight.

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