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Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind 2

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 01/16/2008
Location: Tassajara Zen Center
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 (2 of 4)

Talk by Zoketsu Norman Fischer, based on Suzuki Roshi's Zen Mind Beginner's Mind


Abridged and edited by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum


First of all, what I thought I would do in my ten minutes is to read you some stories from the little book, To Shine One Corner, edited by David Chadwick. These are little stories, tiny vignettes, of Suzuki Roshi, as told by his students.

Next to the temple on Bush street was a grocery store run by an old woman. Suzuki Roshi used to buy the old vegetables there. Finally one day the woman said, "Here are some fresh ones. Why don't you take them?" [Because he always seemed to prefer the ones that were the rattiest and oldest.] "The fresh ones will be bought anyway," he said.

One morning as we were all sitting zazen silently in the zendo, Suzuki Roshi said, "Don't move. Just die over and over. Don't anticipate. Nothing can save you now, because this is your last moment. Not even enlightenment will help you now, because you have no other moments, with no future. Be true to yourself, and don't move."

"When you prescribed a year at this place for me, you told me I would find great joy," a student said to Suzuki Roshi, as they sat sipping tea in Suzuki's cabin in Tassajara. "To find that great joy, I will first have to lose the will to live, won't I, Roshi?" "Yes," he said, "but without gaining a will to die."

My family and I returned to San Francisco after being away from the Zen Center for a year. When I saw Suzuki Roshi, I said, "I think I got a little lost." He replied, "You can never get lost."

I have a few general thoughts on reading this week's section of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. I have read his book a lot of times. I don't actually go back to it and refer to it a lot. I usually read it, and then maybe I don't think about it for some years, and then I read it again. And it always strikes me as strange and wonderful. In a way, it's a very dense book. It reads along simply – it doesn't look like a complicated book. But if you start thinking about what he is saying, you have to stop on almost every sentence and say, "What does he mean by this? Why did he say that?" The whole book is really koan-like. You could really stop almost anywhere, and ponder as a koan something that he says. And yet, at the same time, the way he speaks is very simple and very casual.

So, many of the things he says – so easily and so casually – are not at all obvious or self-evident. You wonder, "What does he mean by this?" I think it's because he is never speaking, as we commonly speak, from the relative level – the everyday, gaining and losing, and not-getting-what-I-want level. He is always aware of that level. By no means does he dismiss it, but he's speaking simultaneously from that level and also from some sort of absolute level in which nothing matters and everything matters. As that little vignette says, every moment is the last moment. Every moment is the moment of death. That kind of level of speaking seems to be coming simultaneously from both the relative and absolute levels. This makes what he says so often arresting and odd, and that's why, I think, there are so many paradoxical and strange sayings.

I will share a few passages with you that caught my eye. He says on page 22,

If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself.

This is a strange thing, when you think about it. I mean, you might think, "If you discriminate too much, your mind is busy," or, "If you discriminate too much, you get nervous," or "If you discriminate too much, you get dissatisfied." But, "If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself." That's really interesting.

Of course, "discriminate" just means everyday, ordinary thinking. When do we not discriminate? Every single thought is a thought of discrimination. We're distinguishing one thing from another. We're sorting out what we want and what we don't want. We're defining something as different from something else. All of our activity and all of our thinking is exactly discriminative thinking, and the idea that the ordinary activity of our mind is limiting us – that somehow we're far less limited than that – is an astonishing thing. It's radical to think that our mind is much less limited – that maybe there's a wealth of expansiveness within us that we have no idea is there – and that we keep shrinking as we go through our ordinary life and our ordinary way of thinking. What would it be like to know that? Of course, you couldn't avoid discriminative thinking. You can't avoid thinking, and so discriminative thinking can't be avoided. But what would it be like to know that thinking is not describing things as they actually are, the way the world is, or even the way you are, but is always limiting you? What if you had a sense, at all points, of the bigger, more enriched condition of your mind and life?

Then he goes on from there:

If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself. If you are too demanding or too greedy, your mind is not rich and self-sufficient.

If you just let go and are not demanding and don't want anything, a rich, self-sufficient mind comes forward. Isn't that something, to think about that?

If we lose our original self-sufficient mind, we will lose all precepts.

Precepts, all of a sudden, come into this. Where did that come from? That seems counter-intuitive.

When your mind becomes demanding, when you long for something, you will end up violating your own precepts: not to tell lies, not to steal, not to kill, not to be immoral, and so forth. If you keep your original mind, the precepts will keep themselves.

Many of us here have taken Zen precepts and have studied them. Precepts always seem like rules of conduct – don't do this and don't do that. You want to do it; you're dying to do it; but don't do it – it's bad. That's how we usually understand precepts – as rules in that way. But here he is saying, "No, precepts are not that. Precepts are the spontaneous expression of a full and self-sufficient mind. You don't need to limit yourself. It's not a limitation to be kind. It's not a limitation to be generous and not stingy. It's not a limitation to always set aside causing harm." So ethical conduct is an overflow of the fullness of the mind.

Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and we can actually practice.

So to resume our boundless original mind, that's the understanding of zazen; not to meditate or understand something, but to resume the boundless, original mind. Just to sit and give ourselves to our practice is to resume our boundless original mind.

So just one more. On page 25 he is talking about zazen posture. It's from the section I was reading for you during the zazen period.

After some years we will die. If we just think that it is the end of our life, this will be the wrong understanding. [If you think that you die and think that is the end of your life, that is mistaken.] But, on the other hand, if we think that we do not die, this is also wrong. [So now we're confused. Death is not the end of our life, but we do die.] We die, and we do not die. This is the right understanding.

So, thank you! We die and we do not die. What it really comes down to is that if you think that's it when you die, there's an automatic, built-in despair and nihilism in that. On the other hand, if you think, "Don't worry. I'll go on and on and on," this is very unrealistic. Death is a big deal. Let's not kid ourselves.

Some people may say that our mind or soul exists forever, and it is only our physical body which dies. But this is not exactly right, because both body and mind have their end. But at the same time it is also true that they exist eternally. [They exist eternally…the body and mind exist eternally. Now this is really getting strange, since we know that the body disappears at the time of death, what does he mean when he says the body exists eternally?] And even though we say mind and body, they are actually two sides of one coin. This is the right understanding. So when we take this posture, it symbolizes this truth.

When we sit in this posture, we are symbolizing – or I would say we are embodying – all that he has just been speaking about. Lately I have been thinking that I would rather not call zazen "meditation." I would rather call it "Silence," or "Entering Silence." Suzuki Roshi follows Dogen's understanding of zazen, that it is a sacred act. It's an act of resuming our boundless original nature: returning to the rich and full silence that stands behind every word we speak and every thought we ever have, returning to our most true, most real self. We're not trying to accomplish something. We're not trying to improve something or achieve something. We're just taking the backward step – Dogen uses that very language – into the silence that is always what our life is. We're running around, we're busy, and we've got things to do – and so we forget about that silence. So when we sit down, we take a step back into that.

Okay. Sorry, one more. Overtime. One more, because this is the most astonishing one. It's on page 27:

When you do things in the right way, at the right time, everything else will be organized.

This is an astonishing statement that he is making. Don't worry about anything else. You don't need to worry about the arrangements outside of yourself. Just take care of yourself, and do things in the right way – by which I think he means being really present and fully giving yourself to what you do. Do them in the present, the right way and at the right time – just do that – and everything else will fall into place. The whole world will be organized. You don't need to worry about that. Imagine if you believed that and lived that. Wouldn't that be something? Wouldn't that be a load off your mind?

So I'll leave you with that. "When you do things in the right way, at the right time, everything else will be organized." I don't know about you, but I'm always worried that I'm missing something, or screwing something up, going to be late, and so on. But I don't need to do that. All I need to do is to do things in the right way and at the right time, and everything will be fine. Always.

Anyway, that is what Suzuki Roshi thought.


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