Many years ago, when my son was still in diapers and I was a new and inexperienced father, I spoke with a visiting poet about the challenges of fatherhood. Among them was the challenge of pushing a diaper pin through several layers of cloth without sticking it into my son.
Gray-haired and world-weary, the poet was himself the father of four grown children. “With our firstborn,” he reflected, “I used to worry about that. But by the time the fourth one came along, I just pushed the pin in and hoped for the best.”
I suspect that the poet was exaggerating, or tailoring his reflection for comic effect. But his remark has proved memorable, perhaps because it illustrates the degree to which second, third, and fourth experiences differ from the first. The first time around, we may be fully attentive, whether out of fear or wonder or concern. By the fourth, we may be indifferent or complacent. What once was fresh has become old hat.
To restore our initial wonder is a central aim of Zen practice. What Shunryu Suzuki Roshi famously called beginner’s mind is no other than the capacity to experience the world freely and openly, without prior judgments or self-centered agendas. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he puts it this way:
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 and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is 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.*
Meeting the world with “original mind,” we bring a receptive awareness to whatever we encounter, holding our memories and preconceptions in abeyance. Original mind, Suzuki goes on to say, is the mind of boundless compassion. To return to original mind is to open ourselves not only to our immediate surroundings but also to the interdependent, ever-changing web of life.
But how is one to do that? By what means are we to meet the fourth—or five hundredth—experience of a repeated action with “original mind”?
In her book Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck offers this advice:
A zendo is not a place for bliss and relaxation, but a furnace room for the combustion of our egoistic delusions. What tools do we need to use? Only one. We’ve all heard of it, yet we use it very seldom. It’s called attention.
Attention is the cutting, burning sword, and our practice is to use that sword as much as we can. None of us is very willing to use it; but when we do—even for a few minutes—some cutting and burning takes place. All practice aims to increase our ability to be attentive, not just in zazen but in every moment of our life. **
What the burning sword cuts through, Beck subsequently explains, is delusive conceptual thought. By paying close and continuous attention, we come to realize that “the conceptual process is a fantasy; and the more we grasp this the more our ability to pay attention to reality increases.”
Egoistic delusions are many, but few are more pervasive or potentially harmful than the illusion of sufficient expertise: of already knowing it all, or all that is relevant to the occasion. Whether the activity be pinning a diaper or chopping an onion, managing a portfolio or diagnosing an illness, the “expert’s mind” may well be closed to possibilities. It may also misperceive the facts, jump to conclusions, or ignore conflicting evidence. Cutting through the self-centered concept of expertise, the sword of attention clears a path to the unknown, unprecedented reality before us. Burning away conceptions and misconceptions, prejudices and expectations, it enables us to encounter the present moment on its own terms rather than impose our own. “Don’t-Know Mind,” the Korean master Seung Sahn liked to call it. “Only don’t know!” Difficult to cultivate and even more difficult to maintain, it is essential to the practice of Zen.
*Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill, 1970), 21.
**Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (HarperCollins, 1989), 32.
In the photo above, the glass artist Randi Solin is adding molten glass to the blow pipe. The glass is heated to a temperature of 2,120 degrees Fahrenheit. This image is being used with the kind permission of Michaela at http://www.thegardenerseden.com/?p=5763. Visit Solinglass at http://www.solinglass.com/