Sengai Gibon (1750–1837)

How to Go to the Place You Never Left

Exploring the classic ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’

As the hippie counterculture went mainstream in the 1960s, America grew an appetite for Eastern Philosophy. Writers like Alan Watts (The Way of Zen, 1957) and Jack Keruoac (Dharma Bums, 1958) explored the traditions and concepts of Zen Buddhism for American audiences. In the decades since, our interest has transferred largely to ‘mindfulness,’ which keeps millions of Americans meditating for hours every week.

Author Jack Kerouac (late 1950s) — definitely not meditating

In both mindfulness and Zen, heavy emphasis is placed on meditation. Zazen, a type of sitting meditation, is usually considered the crucial activity of Zen. But as a writer who spends a lot of time in my own head, I think we lose some of the power of Zen if we do not also consider it as a philosophy. In a way, the ideas of Zen Buddhism, at least as expressed by in books and lectures, are just as practical as meditation, because they have the potential to change the way we think about everything.

Considering Zen ideas pushes our inner life in surprising directions, as we struggle with paradoxical concepts, and engage in self-reflection that shifts our very identities. If we take the study seriously, we push beyond normal habits of thought into extraordinary revelations. And yet, as we will see, Zen is, in a way, not separate from our normal, everyday life. The paradox at the heart of Zen is that we come to see the world as both extraordinary and ordinary, simultaneously.

We should note that Zen, like Taoism and other forms of mysticism, is impossible to speak about with precision. But Zen practice can be pointed to. We look at the words of teachers and masters not as doctrines to be followed exactly, but as roadmaps — once we see the direction, we must walk the path alone.

Why should we think about Zen Buddhism?

We do not typically want to be challenged by confusing ideas, so why should we engage with the ideas of Zen Buddhism?

To use an analogy, the world outside our bedroom is both scary and exciting, presenting all kinds of opportunities for personal growth, new experiences, and meaningful relationships. So should we stay inside all day? Or should we go out and see the world, even though it is frightening at times? Exploring outside our comfort zone (our cozy bedroom) is a necessary part of growing as people.

In the same way, the concepts of Zen Buddhism beckon beyond our mental comfort zones. Considering them may make life more complex or profound. Who knows, Zen might even change our entire view of who are, if we are brave enough to embark on this adventure of ideas. On that note, the purpose of this essay is not to explain anything important, but rather to praise the beauty and thrill of this epic journey.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

It would be foolish to try to tackle too much in a blog post, so we will focus on one Zen classic, written in English (or spoken, actually) by Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki (1904–1971), a Soto Zen monk born in Japan. Suzuki came to California in 1959, later founding the San Francisco Zen Center, where he practiced zazen and gave the teishos (Zen talks) collected in the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki (1904–1971)

Zen Mind is a great starting point because it was spoken in English for American students, which may hopefully convince us that these ideas are for everyone, not just elite practitioners with years to spare and an extensive travel budget. Zen Mind is also interesting because of its deceptive simplicity. The first time we read it, we think we get the whole thing. We are even a bit disappointed! “That’s it? That’s all there is to it?” we think. But slowly Suzuki’s words gestate and deepen as we live with them until we come back and see profound truths stated in plain language. We come back to the pages again and again, receiving new wisdom with each revisit.

Zen in Modern Western Vernacular

Before we look at the words of Suzuki, let’s briefly discuss how we understand Zen in popular culture. What do we usually associate with the word ‘Zen,’ as in, “I was feeling very zen about the whole thing”? In popular vernacular, we mean blissed out, calm or relaxed. Or we may refer to a ‘moment of Zen’ — a realization — a phrase with which Jon Stewart ended each episode of The Daily Show, accompanied by a clip that broke through the manicured veneer of broadcast news with a glimpse of awkward yet relatable stupidity.

If we’re emotionally sensitive people, we probably want more of those ‘moments of zen.’ We want to feel less stressed about letting down our co-workers, or failing to achieve our goals, or looking like an idiot in front of our friends. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could face all of life’s tribulations with the cool, collected demeanor of a Zen master? Of course!


This leads us to something called ‘enlightenment.’ We have all heard of it — the state of pure bliss. Enlightenment is our incentive to meditate: the promise that we will realize a great inner truth, and life will magically become child’s play. Even if we try to suppress the back of our minds, most of us seek the future moment of release.

By Takeji Asano (1953)

Other terms for the same idea are ‘satori,’ ‘epiphany,’ ‘perfect freedom,’ or ‘Buddha nature,’ but ‘enlightenment’ does a nice job of capturing our mental image: an enlightened person is emotionally lighter than the rest of us. They are not burdened by everyday struggles like the rest of us. This is the goal: to become the serene Buddha, even-keeled, perfectly at peace with everything. How to get there is another story. Anyone who has meditated knows that it’s no picnic, and we never really seem to ‘arrive’ for very long. So what is the deal? Is enlightenment just a fantasy, a carrot dangling in front of us that we will never reach?

Suzuki’s answer is both yes and no. Buckle up — it’s time to dive into the paradox.

You Are Already There

Suzuki expresses two ideas in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind that seem to be contradictory, but when we think about them a bit more we discover that they are surprisingly compatible.

The first idea is: you are already enlightened. You are a Buddha, right now, just as you are! Pat yourself on the back, because you made it to the big time without even knowing it. Suzuki quotes Nányuè Huáiràng, an 8th century Chinese Zen (called Ch’an in China) teacher: “Do you want to attain Buddahood? There is no Buddhahood besides your ordinary mind.” There is no enlightenment beyond everyday life.

This idea is very encouraging. On the other hand, it means that we made a big mistake. Our interest is Zen arose because we wanted to attain something. Suzuki addresses this mistake on page 48:

In the Pari-nirvana Sutra, Buddha says: “Everything has Buddha nature,” but Dogen [the 13th-century Japanese Buddhist priest, philosopher, and founder of the Soto School] reads it in this way: “Everything is Buddha nature.” There is a difference. If you say, “Everything has Buddha nature,” it means Buddha nature is in each existence, so Buddha nature and each existence are different. But when you say, “Everything is Buddha nature,” it means everything is Buddha nature itself. When there is no Buddha nature, there is nothing at all. Something apart from Buddha nature is just a delusion. It may exist in your mind, but such things actually do not exist.
Dogen watching the moon, Hokyoji monastery (circa 1250)

We have this idea of wanting to become more ‘Zen,’ or of wanting to achieve enlightenment. That’s why we started meditating — to reap the benefits. But this notion, Suzuki points out, is wrong: according to Dogen and Suzuki, there is nothing apart from Buddha nature (enlightenment), so we do not have to find it. We have assumed that we are separate from enlightenment — that we do not already have it. But Suzuki says this is not so, and could not ever be so. “Something apart from Buddha nature is just a delusion,” Suzuki tells us.

You Must Practice Every Day

Immediately, we object to the idea that we are already enlightened. If we are Buddha nature right now, then why meditate? Why did Suzuki commit his entire life to silent sitting if he already was enlightened?

A-ha! We’ve arrived at the second idea — the one that seems to contradict the first. Suzuki says, on page 47 of Zen Mind: “If you continue this simple practice [meditation] every day you will obtain a wonderful power.”

Wait… what? Didn’t he just say that we already are enlightened? Is he talking about some other ‘wonderful power’? Even if he is, why does Suzuki place so much emphasis on discipline and perseverance, if we are already perfect? Why do we need to follow the ‘rules,’ as Suzuki says in this passage:

…perfect freedom is not found without some rules. People, especially young people, think that freedom is to do just what they want, that in Zen there is no need for rules. But it is absolutely necessary for us to have some rules… As long as you have rules, you have a chance for freedom. To try to obtain freedom without being aware of the rules means nothing. It is to acquire this perfect freedom that we practice zazen.
M. C. Escher’s ‘Drawing Hands’ (1948)

We have these two ideas:

  1. You already have Buddha nature. In fact, it is impossible to not have it.
  2. In order to realize Buddha nature, you must practice meditation.

How can these two ideas be compatible? They seem to be obvious contradictions. And yet, Suzuki places them right next to each other all throughout Zen Mind, as if taunting us with a riddle. How can we be both enlightened and in need of enlightenment at the same time?

Let There Be Light

The answer is a bit tricky. On page 47, Suzuki says:

Of course, whatever we do is the expression of our true nature, but without this practice [zazen] it is difficult to realize.

In other words, even when we are unaware of it, we are Buddha nature. This is always true. But Zen Buddhism is the art of becoming aware — it is the path of realization.

Imagine for a moment that you woke up one morning in a strange, dark room. For twenty years you pace in this strange room, wondering how to get back to your lovely home. Then, one day, your finger happens upon a light switch. With the room illuminated, you suddenly see: you were in your home all along! Trapped in the dark, you had no way of knowing that what you sought was all around you.

Zen Buddhism, and really whatever spiritual or artistic journey we pursue, is the practice of flipping on the lights. Although we are Buddha nature, to realize it is a transformative process. Simply speaking the words or professing belief is not enough — we have to walk the walk.

Nothing Special

As we take our first steps, our destination is cloaked in fog, and we feel the pull of mystery, the promise of a different life. But when we have been sitting for awhile, or deeply contemplating Zen ideas for a while, we realize that just our everyday life and thinking is where we wanted to be all along.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s ‘Ladder to the Moon’ (1958)

The function of zazen, and of Zen in general, is to help us realize that all our actions, and those of everyone else, are Buddha actions — that our nature, and the world’s nature, is perfect as it is, even though so often this seems completely incomprehensible to us. It is a practice of radical acceptance of whoever and wherever we are in the moment. To practice this acceptance honestly is the goal of Zen.

Through Suzuki we start to understand that the freedom we seek is not freedom from limitations; it is the freedom from thinking that we need freedom from limitations. Perfect freedom is unifying with the whole as it is, including all the rules, discomfort, and suffering — the whole complex phenomenon of being a human being.

Is it Practical?

Finally, we ask ourselves if there’s anything practical about Suzuki’s philosophy. I think there is, because it seeks to correct an error in thinking that could lead us further away from the peaceful life we seek if we’re not aware of it: Suzuki tells us that trying to get something out of meditating is not the point. There is no result forthcoming that will satisfy us. The carrot dangling on a stick will never be reached.

Instead, Suzuki points us to where we already are and says, “Look!” You are at your goal already. Enlightenment doesn’t lie ahead in the future — if it exists at all, it must exist now. With this in mind, we gradually change our attitude about discipline and practice: we shift from trying to achieve something, to doing it as well as we can for it’s own sake. The beauty of Zen, and also of art or writing or caring for others, is in the act of doing it. Just as a good deed is its own reward, so is practicing mindfulness, zazen, or contemplating Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

We have only scratched the surface of this great book, and we may come back to it again and again, for the simple enjoyment of its message.

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