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Published on Aug 30, 2022

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Shunryu Suzuki (1904–1971) was one of the most influential spiritual teachers of the twentieth century and is truly a founding father of Zen in America. A Japanese priest of the Soto lineage, he taught in the United States from 1959 until his death. He was the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. 

Quotations: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

“Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.” 

A book of his teachings, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, has become one of the most popular books on Zen and Buddhism in the West:

“In Japan we have the phrase “shoshin”, which means “beginner’s mind.” The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind. Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times, or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it. The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices. For a while you will keep your beginner’s mind, but if you continue to practice one, two, three years or more, although you may improve some, you are liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind.”

At the time of Suzuki Roshi’s arrival in the United States,  Zen had become a hot topic amongst some groups in the United States, especially beatniks. Particularly influential were several books on Zen and Buddhism by Alan Watts. Word began to spread about Suzuki among the beatniks through places like The San Francisco Art Institute and The American Academy of Asian Studies, where Alan Watts was once director. Zen Priest Wako Kazumitsu Kato had done some presentations at the Academy and asked Suzuki to come join a class he was giving there on Buddhism. This sparked Suzuki’s long held desire to teach Zen to Westerners, something he had thought about ever since an encounter he had had with a British woman in Japan as a young man.

He saw that Americans had a beginner’s mind, that they had little bias about Zen, that Americans were quite open and convinced that Zen would help them in life. He saw that their perception of Zen could give them a real Zen buddhist life. The first draft of this book was based on a transcript of conversations between Suzuki and his students, written over several years by Marien Derby, a close follower of Suzuki-rosi. For most readers, this book will be an example of how a Zen master speaks and teaches. It will be an instruction on the practice of Zen, living on the principles of Zen, the guidelines that enable the practice of Zen. This book will encourage any reader to understand their own nature, their own Zen consciousness.

In the forty years since its original publication, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind has become one of the great modern spiritual classics, much beloved, much reread, and much recommended as the best first book to read on Zen. Suzuki Roshi presents the basics—from the details of posture and breathing in zazen to the perception of nonduality—in a way that is not only remarkably clear, but that also resonates with the joy of insight from the first to the last page.