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Book Review: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is Short but Dense Read

Up Is Down; Down Is Up. The Book Makes Very Little Linear Sense. But I Love It.

I have been struggling with Shunryu Suzuki’s little gem of a book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, for 20 years, and I can’t make heads nor tails of it. Up is down; down is up. The book makes very little linear sense. But I love it. Somewhere in the spirals and underused tunnels of my brain, it makes perfect sense. The book takes me to parts of myself that I would otherwise seldom visit.

It’s short. Minus the introductions and epilogue, the actual text runs under one hundred pages. But, man, is it dense. You can, as I am doing, spend a lifetime deciphering what goes on in there.

I don’t remember how I first found Zen Mind, but I do remember reading it out loud to my new husband during long and rainy evenings in our first little apartment in Oregon. He couldn’t stand much of it, and at the time neither could I.  The text is cryptic and unyielding. It spun our heads.

The book is a compilation of talks given by the great Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki, in the late 1960s and early 70s at the San Francisco Zen Center, back in the days when Zen Buddhism, or Japanese Zen, was unheard of in the United States.

To the typical Western person, versed in logic and linear structure, Zen makes no sense. (Perhaps it makes no sense to the typical Eastern person either. I don’t know.) Zen’s logic, for lack of a better word, is circular. It delights in tripping you up. You think, “Yes, finally, I understand!” and then Zen pulls the rug out from under you. It is a way of thinking based on riddles, or koans, the most famous being, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

The idea, I think, is to stop thinking altogether (which may well be impossible) and then everything will make perfect sense. Suzuki says, “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

I must have read or listened to this book 50 times, maybe more. But the book makes me feel like a brainless wonder, a wide-eyed, gesticulating banshee spouting absolute nonsense.

To wit, I present you with the first paragraph of the book, which talks about the importance of taking the correct posture while sitting in zazen:

“Now I would like to talk about our zazen posture. When you sit in the full lotus position, your left foot is on your right thigh, and your right foot is on your left thigh. When we cross our legs like this, even though we have a right leg and a left leg, they have become one. The position expresses the oneness of duality: not two, and not one. This is the most important teaching: not two, and not one. Our body and mind are not two and not one. If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one. We usually think that if something is not one, it is more than one; if it is not singular; it is plural. But in actual experience, our life is not only plural, but also singular. Each one of us is both dependent and independent.”

Are you still with me?

I am beginning to think that this attraction to Zen may actually be a personality type, an attractive way of thinking to us Type B’s who really do not like to be in charge and who are not married to the idea of making sense. I love to let Suzuki’s words wash over me like poetry.

I like to listen to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind on my iPod during my morning runs. Every time I hear it I pick up something new. I find the sound of narrator Peter Coyote’s voice in my ears soothing as he spins out Suzuki’s mesmerizing little sermons. It’s enchanting way to start the day.

It’s interesting to note, as time goes by, which parts of the book speak to me. As a middle-aged parent almost twenty years removed from that reciting newlywed, I am struck by Suzuki’s, or perhaps Zen’s, insistence that if we remain steady within ourselves, everything outsides of ourselves will be steady as well. He offers what may well be the best parenting advice I have ever encountered.

“Even though you try to put people under some control, it is impossible. You cannot do it. The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in its wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.”

I think I find this passage so intriguing because, though I love being a parent, I do not relish the role of being the person in charge. I find that difficult and unnatural. I try to let my kids, as much as possible, make their own decisions, and then, with compassion and attention, watch what happens. It’s not (I don’t think) benign neglect. It’s deeper and more engaged than that.

It sounds so simple, yet it is very difficult to do. Everything in this book is like that. Living Zen Suzuki style takes a lifetime of practice. I don’t think I’ll ever be finished with this little book.

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