Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind Summary (Shunryu Suzuki)

zen mind beginner's mind summary shunryu suzuki

Written in 1970, this text is a classic introduction to Zen Buddhism.

If you want to discover a more peaceful way of living, one that allows you to overcome stress and anxiety through connection to the present moment, this book is for you.

More than just a set of meditative exercises, this wisdom distills a way of life that is profound in its simplicity.

Let’s take a look…

Ambition

Often we feel anxious through the sheer amount of obligations that fill our days.

Commitments and priorities overwhelm us.

But most of these prestige-earning activities may be misguided.

Instead, we can bring our attention back to the activities that fill our days and be content with them, with no external goals attached.

Posture

The meditation posture adopted by Zen Buddhists is much of what constitutes their practice and allows them to tune into the spiritual realm

  • Sit cross-legged, with right foot on left thigh and vice versa
  • Maintain a straight spine
  • Press chin slightly down towards the floor
  • Aim the point slightly below your belly button at the floor, which should assist with stability

The lotus position is the embodiment of non-duality, which states that everything in the universe possesses the same essence.

For example, whereas we had two legs, they become one, flowing into one another, with no distinction between left and right.

In the same way, the separation between concepts like life and death dissolves. In Zen philosophy, you die, but you don’t die.

Such contradictions are the essence of Zen.

Breathing

Many people remain unaware of their basic life giving processes.

Paying attention to our breathing permits insight into our true nature.

We discover that their are no boundaries between ‘us’ and the ‘external’ world. Rather, it’s a unified whole.

The breath become the bridge between what we perceive as internal and external, illuminating the recognition that there’s no ‘i’ or ‘other’.

Zen contends that all that exists is the flow of the breath, which comprises our Buddha, or true nature.

When focusing on the breath, time and space reveal themselves as arbitrary concepts, ceasing to exist.

The time on the clock and the place in which we meditate are illusory.

All that exists is the breath, here and now.

“Whatever it is, we should do it, even if it is not doing something. We should live in this moment.”

Observation

Many of us are control freaks, trying to order every aspect of our lives.

Along with ourselves, we even try to control other people.

This is bound for failure, however, when the Universe is inherently disordered and random.

Whereas in life, control creates problems, so too the same is true in meditation.

We often try to control or block the thoughts arising in meditation, which simply doesn’t work.

Instead, we must cultivate the ability to observe them impartially.

The only effort required is to bring our attention back to our breath.

Adversity

Many of us can grow discouraged by the perceived negative thoughts and emotions we experience.

But such thoughts are actually fuel for our practice.

When we don’t want to do something [like an early-morning meditation session], these feelings are like waves in the mind, arising and receding.

Observing these waves diminishes their power over time, feeding our meditation.

In this way, some effort must be made in meditation, because we all have incredibly active minds.

Rather than aiming for a calm mind, however, proper effort involves returning our attention to our breath, a lifelong process.

Over time, this process will become less strained.

Excellence

In modern society, we tend to value effortless excellence above all else…

Those naturally gifted to excel in their chosen domain.

The opposite is true in Zen, where patient perseverance is the aim, as opposed to excellence.

While many of us want everything to be effortless, the intention in Zen is to simply practice without worrying about how easy or difficult it is.

Those who start out more talented in a chosen domain are often unwilling to invest in their practice and apply the effort to further cultivate their abilities.

As a result, the worst Zen students normally become the best, because they are willing to overcome challenges and face greater adversity.

In this way, Zen teaches that failure is just as important as success.

Achievement

In today’s world, we’re often addicted to excitement. Our social lives are geared around reward and stimulation.

Zen cultivates a different mindset, forgoing the endless chase for excitement and focusing instead on bringing our attention back to our simple daily activities; like cleaning, eating and walking.

And we should not substitute our excitement for Zen as a replacement.

Rather than living on a mountain to meditate, it’s more effective to embrace our normal lives and practice meditation consistently for an hour a day.

In so doing, we can create a calm and happy mind, unreliant on external factors.

Another external trap we usually face is chasing success.

In contrast Zen should not be practiced for a certain result, but rather for it’s own sake.

The aim is to get rid of everything that isn’t the action you’re engaged in, whether that’s pride for having completed an activity or disappointment in the result.

Giving

Thinking often prevents us from being wholly in the moment, preventing us from living.

Zen is the antidote, as it focuses on pure activity, rather than their accompanying thoughts.

This is essential. When we attach ourselves to the results of our activity, judgement begins, creating subjectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thoughts and emotions.

Every time we start to worry about the result in this way, we detract from the purity of the activity.

Therefore Zen encourages us to be absolutely absorbed in what we’re doing, flowing from one activity to the next, with our attention directed on what we’re doing in the moment.

Zen emphasises that pure activity is the act of giving.

We are part of a larger divine consciousness, as are the products of our actions, absolving the need for personal recognition or reward.

When we engage in activities with this realisation, every act becomes an act of generosity.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind summary

  • Realise the non-dual essence of reality – everything contains the same nature and nothing is separate
  • Focus on breathing as a way to see our true nature and recognise the unified whole, free from abstract concepts
  • Do not try to control, but rather observe
  • Adversity is not to be avoided, but welcomes as fuel for our practice
  • Do not strive for excellence or be deterred by difficulty – simply focus on the practice
  • Practice Zen for it’s own sake, as opposed to external reward
  • Zen focuses on pure activity and it is an act of giving

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