Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki, 40th anniversary edition

Golly, how do to review such a classic… The book is like a koan itself. It’s a beginner’s guide to meditation as well as a whole new approach TO meditation.

Well, it was 40 years ago. Now it is, as I said, a classic. It was the first successful way to turn Western Buddhism into something practical, instead of something people studied.

And guess what, together with Beyond Happiness and Rebel Buddha, this book has convinced me to start meditating. The question is of course whether I’ll stick to it, but I did make a start and many of the excuses I’ve made for myself over the years are gone.

Let’s start this review with the basics: why was this a revolutionary book? It was revolutionary because it pulled meditation out of the Buddhist tradition and simultaneously defined Zen as something outside tradition. Zen Buddhism is, in practice, a form of Japanese Buddhism. However, this book started a trend in which Buddhist tradition is no longer seen as the necessary pre-requisite for meditation practice. This trend has built up momentum over the decades and has come to full fruition with the recent popularity of Mindfulness meditation as a practice to promote happiness.

However, this is still a basically Buddhist book. It’s non-traditional in the sense that it claims not to be specifically Zen Buddhist: we’re Buddhists first, not Zen Buddhists first, Suzuki says. (p. 119) (‘Actually we are not the Soto school at all. We are just Buddhists. We are not even Zen Buddhists; we are just Buddhists. If we understand this point we are truly Buddhists.’)

Of course that attitude helped make this book the classic that it is, but there’s more. He also redefined freedom, a concept that has huge implications for all Americans obviously, especially in the 70s when this book first boomed.

Physical practice and rules are not so easy to understand, maybe especially for Americans. You have an idea of freedom which concentrates on physical freedom, on freedom of activity. This idea causes you some mental suffering and loss of freedom. (p. 130)

I doubt many people who read that went on to actually practice what Suzuki preached. Enough did of course for Zen to become firmly established in the USA. However, the idea that physical freedom isn’t all there is, certainly became more widespread through this book. Even if people did probably ignore sentences like this one:

But once the rules have been decided, we should obey them completely until they are changed. It is not a matter of good or bad, convenient or inconvenient. You just do it without question. That way your mind is free. The important thing is to obey your rules without discrimination. This way you will know the pure Zen mind. To have your own way of life means to encourage people to have a more spiritual and adequate way of life as human beings. (p. 131)

Wow. However much this book has inspired me, that’s a tall order for me. I doubt I’ll live up to that in this life time. It’s hard enough to get myself to practice meditation for 15 minutes a day…

I have trouble defining my meditation. However, it does come close to the description by Shunryu on page 113:

When you practice zazen you should not try to attain anything. You should just sit in the complete calmness of your mind and not rely on anything. Just keep your body straight without leaning over or against something. To keep your body straight means not to rely on anything. In this way, physically and mentally, you will obtain complete calmness. But to rely on something or try to do something in zazen is dualistic and not complete calmness.

Here we have the attitude that has caused people to compare Jiddu Krishnamurti with Zen: don’t try, don’t strive, just observe. My words, but the words don’t get the thing. Of course calmness isn’t always there for me after a mere 2 months of meditation… However, I no longer feel the need to jump up after 5 minutes…

Comfortingly Shunryu ads:

Just this trying is already in itself an expression of our true nature. The meaning lies in the effort itself. (p. 113)

However, this isn’t just a meditation manual. It’s also a philosophical introduction to Zen. I can’t repeat everything of course, you’ll have to get the book. So instead here are some snippets:

I discovered it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to believe in nothing. That is, we have to believe in something which has no form and no color – something which exists before all forms and colors appear. This is a very important point. No matter what god or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief will be based more or less on a self-centered idea. (p. 106)

Sometimes people put stress on oneness, but this is not our understanding. We do not emphasize any point in particular, even oneness. Oneness is valuable, but variety is also wonderful. Ignoring variety, people emphasize the one absolute existence, but this is a one-sided understanding. In this understanding there is a gap between variety and oneness. But oneness and variety are the same thing, so oneness should be appreciated in each existence. That is why we emphasize everyday life rather than some particular state of mind. We should find the reality in each moment, and in each phenomenon. (p. 110)

In discussing meditation on my blog, I found that many people have preconceived ideas about meditation. The result was a difference between what was, and what was expected. My approach is, probably partly inspired by Shunryu:

If you want to study Zen, you should forget all your previous ideas and just practice zazen and see what kind of experience you have in your practice. That is naturalness. (p. 99)

Last but not least, a quote on persistence:

I have always said that you must be very patient if you want to understand Buddhism, but I have been seeking for a better word than patience. The usual translation of the Japanese word nin is “patience”, but perhaps “constancy” is a better word. You must force yourself to be patient, but in constancy there is no particular effort involved – there is only the unchanging ability to accept things as they are. (p. 74)

The word ‘koan’ has become well enough known these days that I need not explain it I think. As I said in the beginning of this review, the book is itself a sort of koan. That is: the only way to read it is to meditate on it. It’s not quite as abstruse and paradoxical as most koans are, but still  – the only understanding of it will come in practice.

This anniversary edition includes a few extras: a preface by Huston Smith, an introduction by Richard Baker and an afterword by Richard Chadwick. The latter was specifically written for this edition and is a history of the book. Given the books historical value, I thought it a most interesting read.

More quotes from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki

More Zen Buddhism Books