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Cultivating a Beginner’s Mind
Cultivating a Beginner’s Mind

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Psychotherapist Fiona Gardner describes the idea of having a childlike or “beginner’s mind” in Eastern spirituality:   

Eastern thought has long understood the value of the child mind in the adult seeker for spiritual maturity. The child mind is seen as a place of surrender, alertness, and nakedness. It is seen as a space where there is little if any self-consciousness; there is no judgment of others. It is a time of humility. It involves an awareness of the person’s nothingness—where the person is no-thing. The child mind recognizes the person’s smallness and yet connection in the scheme of things, and in Eastern practices it is seen as a state that can be developed through silent meditation, and often in solitude. There can be glimpses or breakthroughs or longer periods of such awareness; it is experiential and not knowledge-based or a doctrine that can be learnt.… 

Buddhism teaches that there is a spark in each person that represents one’s true nature; this is sometimes called Buddha Nature or the Original Mind. This spark is the child mind, fresh and always curious about experience. The Zen Buddhist concept shoshin is sometimes called “beginner’s mind” and reflects the open and enthusiastic qualities of a child’s mind in the present moment. One Zen master called the beginner’s mind a child’s mind, a mind that is empty and ready for new things. [1] 

Zen monk Shunryū Suzuki (1904–1971) helped popularize Buddhism in the United States, and taught about “beginner’s mind”:  

In Japan we have the phrase shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind.”…  

Our “original mind” includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. 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.  

If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself. If you are too demanding or too greedy, your mind is not rich and self-sufficient. If we lose our original self-sufficient mind, we will lose all precepts. When your mind becomes demanding, when you long for something, you will end up violating your own precepts: not to tell lies, not to steal, not to kill, not to be immoral, and so forth. If you keep your original mind, the precepts will keep themselves.  

In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice. [2] 


[1] Fiona Gardner, The Only Mind Worth Having: Thomas Merton and the Child Mind (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 57, 58. 

[2] Shunryū Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 50th anniv. ed. (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2020), 1, 2.  

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Jenna Keiper, Winter Bird. Jenna Keiper, Mystic. Jenna Keiper, North Cascades Sunrise. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

There is humility in accepting how much we don’t know. 

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In the 1980s, I was living in Belen, New Mexico raising my family. I joined a weekly prayer group…. One day, a dear friend brought in a series of Fr. Richard’s tapes which we all listened to and discussed as a group. Fr. Richard’s words opened my mind and heart to a new view of Christianity. Now retired, I’m returning to New Mexico after 21 years away to be near my children. The Daily Meditations have put me back in touch with the spirituality of Love that I was first introduced to many years ago. Each day, they fill me with peace. —Michelle W. 

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