Think like a beginner…

In this video we talk about an Essay in the book “Manage Your Day-To-Day” by Steven Pressfield, an interview with Ian Leslie, and the Zen Buddhist idea of Beginner’s mind. Rough transcript below. Enjoy!

Hey I’m glad you’re here. One of the books I just finished reading is a book called Manage Your Day-To-Day. As I was thinking about that book and as I was weeding through some old articles I had clipped into my Evernote account I came across an article called “Why the Future Belongs to the Curious”. So as I was thinking about some of the passages in Manage Your Day-to-Day and as I was thinking “Why the Future Belongs to the Curious” I started thinking about this Zen Buddhist idea called ‘Beginner’s Mind’…again. If you follow this channel at all I’ve done a couple videos on beginners mind already, so let’s talk about it…again.

In one of the last essays towards the end of the book Manage You Day-To-Day, called “How Pro Can You Go?” Steven Pressfield says the following:
* “A professional is someone who can keep working at a high level of effort and ethics, no matter what is going on—for good or ill—around him or inside him.”* “A professional shows up every day.”
* “A professional plays hurt.”
* “A professional takes neither success nor failure personally.”
* Here’s the best part – “A pro gets younger and more innocent as he or she ascends through the levels. It’s a paradox. We get salty and cynical, but we creep closer, too, to the wonder. You have to or you can’t keep going.”

I love this idea of continually creeping closer and closer to wonder, despite the possibilities of being jaded and despite the possibilities of cynicism, and a persisting youthful innocence that actually continues to increase as we progress instead of decreasing as we move forward. This is what made me think about “Beginner’s Mind” …again…

In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind , Suzuki Roshi writes that “In the beginner’s mind there is no thought ‘I have attained something'” Beginner’s mind isn’t primarily concerned with achievement or attainment, it’s free of attachments, expectations, judgments, and prejudices. Suzuki Roshi goes on to say that “Because your attainment is always ahead you will always be sacrificing yourself now for some ideal in the future”. In other words, beginner’s mind is so concerned with the wonder and the curiosity of this present moment that it refuses to relinquish anything that exists within this present moment for something that may or may not be there in future.

In my opinion, I think there’s something actually kind of punk rock about beginner’s mind, there’s something kind of guerrilla about this approach. The Russian novelist, Vladimir Nabokov said that “Curiosity is the purest form of insubordination.” I love that! I think there is something very insubordinate about the wonder and curiosity found in Beginner’s Mind; it refuses to see anything as average, mediocre, or mundane. It refuses to let anything become routine. It refuses to let anything slip into the status quo. It finds an element of newness and freshness in everything it encounters. And that’s because everything in every moment is new, fresh, and different if you really think about it.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Everything is different. Everything is always different. The river is constantly changing. The man that steps into the river is constantly changing. Beginner’s mind recognizes the newness of every moment. I think this is why Suzuki Roshi says that the “real secret of the arts: always be a beginner.”

So, like I said earlier, I was going through some old articles that I had saved in Evernote and I came across an article called “Why the Future Belongs to the Curious“. It’s an interview with a writer named Ian Leslie. In the article Leslie explains that there are two different kinds of curiosity; Diversive Curiosity and Epistemic Curiosity. Leslie says that everyone is born with Diversive curiosity. It is curiosity at its most basic. Its a child like craving for bright shiny newness. But, he say that “The trouble with diversive curiosity is, unless it matures into something deeper, it just continues as a futile search for the next shiny thing.”

And, then there’s Epistemic Curiosity. “‘Epistemic curiosity’ is what happens when curiosity grows up.” Leslie say that “The more we learn, the easier it is to be curious, and the more powerful our sense of epistemic curiosity can become, because new knowledge hooks onto the networks of existing knowledge in our brains.” He goes on to say that “It’s all-too easy to fall back on old routines and habits and not to bother learning. Epistemic curiosity encourages you to work at it and learn new things.”

I think the way Leslie talks about Epistemic Curiosity is exactly what I mean when I talk about the Zen idea of Beginner’s Mind. Like I said this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about Beginner’s Mind. I’ve mentioned it in two previous videos; one is titled “Curiosity, Authenticity, & Beginner’s Mind” and the other is kind of a follow-up to that video called “Congruence“.

Maybe I keep thinking about beginner’s mind because I’m still a beginner on a lot of levels. Even though I’ve studied Buddhism academically, I’m still a beginner when it comes to Zen and Buddhism on a personal level. Even though I’ve been meditating for the past couple years, I’m still a beginner. i still have a lot to learn about it. When it comes to YouTube, and making videos – shooting, editing all that, I’m definitely still a beginner. I have no idea what I’m doing. But, If I’m being honest, over the past few weeks I’ve been going through something of a dry spell. I can feel myself getting a little dull, a little cynical, a little jaded. If nothing else maybe this video is a reminder for me to remember Beginner’s Mind, to remember to capture that attitude of thinking like a beginner, to remember to utilize that approach of Beginner’s Mind, and see the freshness and newness in everything, to keep my wonder and curiosity alive.

Maybe you needed to hear that too…

I want to encourage you to creep closer, and close, and ever closer to your curiosity, welcome home you’re wonder, and think like a beginner…

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Questioning Religion?

In this video, as a pretty skeptical dude studying Zen, I try to talk about ‘religion’, what it is and what it means. Transcript Below! Enjoy!

What is religion? Why do religions exist? What characteristically typifies religion? Every analytical study or examination of religion begins with such questions. Yet, in many ways, such questions implicitly, always-already, contain the answer within them. Perhaps, one could say that the question is, itself, the answer, or that the answer is, itself, the question. That sounded kinda deep and cryptic didn’t it? Pretty Zen right? Just me…Anyway, lets talk about it right now, come one let’s go!
As I’ve mentioned in a few of my other videos, even though I’m a Zen student, and even though I have Bachelors in religion, I still have a fairly tenuous relationship with religion, and even the word ‘religion’ still makes me a little uncomfortable. Jacques Derrida once said “I rightly pass for an atheist”. I love that quote because I think it describes me pretty well.

This isn’t my way of launching into the “I’m spiritual, not religious'” cliche, to be honest I think I’m probably even more uncomfortable with the word ‘spirituality’.

Hey, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problems with that “spiritual, not religious” stance. If that’s you, if that works for you – awesome – own it. I’m just saying its not me.

Regardless, the brute facticity of the matter is that Zen and Buddhism are considered religions, and meditation is considered a spiritual practice. I’m involved in all three and if you are too, well we’re going to have to deal with ‘religion’, we need to look at and talk about honestly, and, maybe even find a way to get comfortable with it.

I’m in the process of finishing my Master’s degree, and I just started a new class this semester on the History of Religion. Any good study of Religion, before it can get its hands dirty in the detailed particularities of each specific religion, has to begin with the type of questions raised in the intro of this video – ‘what religion is’? “what are its characteristics?’ etc. In other words, the study of religion begins with questions…

The study of religion begins with questions because religion and the religious life begins with questions, because to be human is to be full of questions. This is why most of my videos begin with a question, not because I have the answer, or because I’ve found the answer but, because I have questions, and usually in the process of researching and examining a question what I actually find are more questions.

In his book What is Zen? Norman Fischer explains that “Religion engages the large questions: Who are we? Why are we born? Why do we die? What is death? What is the good life?” (59). According to Fischer religion is the emergent result of existential questioning. As such, Fischer goes on to say that “Religion provides practices…that help us cement our hearts to such questions, giving our lives a sense of ultimate grounding” (59). Religion is what William James calls humanity’s “total reaction” to life’s big questions (James, 35). In other words, religion is the name given to the set of varying strategies systematically utilized in humanity’s phenomenological absorption with the large questions of existence.

Yet, Fischer makes another pivotal point to consider, he says that “Religion cannot actually give us answers to such questions; rather, it gives us ways to grapple with them together, in communities that include not only living friends, but practitioners from the past, whose words and deeds still inspire us” (59). Said another way, religion’s modus operandi is in providing one with techniques for living in engagement with the questions, strategies and practices for mindfully sitting with these questions. Here, the emphasis seems to be placed on the ‘question’ rather than on the ‘answer’, or, more specifically, the process of actively wrestling with the questions is of greater import than the answers.

In his book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, David Dark says:

I believe deliverance begins with questions. It begins with people who love questions, people who live with questions and by questions, people who feel a deep joy when good questions are asked…When we’re exposed to the liveliness of holding everything up to the light of good questions…we discover that redemption is creeping into the way we think, believe, and see the world…a redemption that perhaps begins with the insertion of a question mark beside whatever feels final and absolute and beyond questioning, gives our souls a bit of elbow room, a space in which to breathe again, as if for the first time (14).

What does it mean to study religion? What is it that one studies when one studies religion? In many ways, it seems that the study of religion is the anthropological and sociological study of the specific ways in which various cultures at various points in history have grappled with the big questions. And what does it mean to be religious? Maybe part of what it means to be religious is being devoted to the practice of mindfully asking and grappling with ever bigger questions…

Authority?

Hey I’m glad you’re here. So, last week I posted a video called “Tradition?“. In that video we tried to talk a little bit about what it means to be faithful to tradition, what it means to honor tradition, and what it means to betray tradition or to rebel against tradition.

We talked about how Buddhism is founded upon a kind of rejection of tradition, that it’s a tradition of rebelling against tradition, a tradition opposing tradition. And thus, one of the ways in which to faithfully honor the Buddhist tradition is to continue the work questioning tradition and rebelling against tradition when and where it’s necessary, even and especially when it’s in regards to the tradition of Buddhism itself.

With that in mind I can’t help but think about the question of ‘Authority’ in the same way – what does it mean to respect authority and what does it mean to reject authority? So let’s talk about it right now, come on let’s go.

So, to recap just little bit, as I mentioned in last week’s video I just finished reading Huston Smith’s book Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. In the book Smith highlights that “Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition” and thus “He encouraged his followers, therefore, to slip free from the past’s burden.” The Buddha said:

“Do not go by what is handed down, nor on the authority of your traditional teachings. When you know of yourselves: ‘These teachings are not good: these teachings when followed out and put in practice conduce to loss and suffering’—then reject them.” When it came to tradition and even when it came to his own teachings the Buddha seemed to emphasize a kind of provisional pragmatism rather than the staunch rigidity of traditionalism.

What’s interesting as that not only addresses the Buddha’s relationship to tradition but, it also implicitly addresses the Buddha’s relationship to authority. In other words, the Buddha not only said to Question tradition but, also to question authority. In this regard, Hustom Smith points out that, just as the Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition, in the same way “Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority.”

Smith goes on to say that “Buddha challenged each individual to do his or her own religious seeking and rational investigation.” He didn’t expect anyone to take him at his word. He didn’t want or expect to be viewed as a figure of absolute authority, nor did he want his teachings to be seen as unquestionably authoritative. He wanted to be questioned, he wanted his teachings to be probed, to be tested, to be investigated, and he encouraged his followers to do so based upon their own authority rather than anyone else’s.

Elsewhere the Buddha said, “When you yourself know [these teachings] lead to harm or ill, abandon them; when you yourself know [these teachings] lead to benefit and happiness, adopt them.” Do what works, throw away what doesn’t.

The Buddha said “Be lamps unto yourselves. Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall rely upon themselves only and not look for assistance to anyone besides themselves, it is they who shall reach the topmost height.”

A few weeks ago I posted I video called “Zen Teachers?” and in that video we talked about the role of a Zen teacher. We often think of Zen and/or Buddhist teachers as authoritative figures, yet, as my Zen teacher suggests “the role of a teacher is more about reflecting you back at yourself rather than being above you”. Similarly, Brad Warner writes that “A good Buddhist teacher can be your mirror.” Perhaps, then, you could say that if a Zen teacher is authoritative it is only to the extent that they are a reflection of your own authority, or that they reflect your authority back to you rather demonstrate their own.

In my opinion, what the Buddha taught and what I’ve learned from studying and practicing Zen is that, they provide us with guidelines not rules. In other words, the aim is guidance not indoctrination. They act out of advisement and aid rather than authoritarianism. They provide counsel rather than control, and direction rather than dominance. It’s so easy to get caught up in the supposed sovereignty and supremacy of teachers and teachings, to try and follow them to the letter, to try and do exactly what Bodhidharma said, or to try and do precisely what Dogen said to do but, as my Zen teacher recently pointed out to me “we aren’t pursuing Bodhidharma’s awakening or Dogen’s awakening. We’re each pursuing our own.” “Just do whatever works”

The Buddha, himself, said that “Buddhas only point the way. Work out your salvation with diligence.”

Perhaps, this is where my religious studies background is going to show itself some but, when I read the Buddha’s instruction to diligently work out your salvation for yourself, I can’t help but think of a passage from the New Testament that says to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

The Greek word phobos translated as ‘Fear’ doesn’t just mean terror or dread. It also means reverence and respect. But, what about “trembling?” This comes from the Greek word tromos which is used to describe the anxiety of one who distrusts. In this verse, the instruction is to Work out your salvation with Fear and trembling, with reverence and distrust. Perhaps one could say that here Reverence is demonstrated through distrust, respect is given through skepticism, and honor given through doubt.This salvation is worked out with a reverent distrust, a skeptical submission, a questioning surrender, and a doubting devotion. this seems to be that same kind of pragmatic provisionality that the Buddha advocated.

I’ve been reading a book called “Manage You Day-to-Day“, in one of the essays in that book, Scott Belsky writes “Listen to your gut as much as you listen to others…don’t let yourself be persuaded by the volume of the masses. Nothing should resonate more loudly than your own intuition.”

Perhaps the best way in which to faithfully honor tradition is to recognize that you are not strictly beholden to it, and perhaps the best way in which to respect authority is to realize that its ultimate source is your own.

Tradition?

Hey, I’m glad you’re here. So as I continue delve deeper into learning about Buddhism and the Zen tradition, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about ‘tradition’ – what it means to be faithful to tradition and what it means to betray tradition, what it means to be aligned with tradition and what it means to rebel against tradition. So let’s talk about that right now!

So, a couple of weeks ago I posted a video called “Zen Teachers?“. In that video I talked about the fact that every aspect of the world around us is shifting and changing. Whether its ecologically, environmentally, technologically, politically, socially, or culturally, everything changes and is changing. As a result its imperative that we ourselves continue to learn, grow, evolve, and innovate.

Since posting that video I’ve had some really interesting conversations with some of my online acquaintances regarding some of the subject matter presented there. Some really intriguing questions were raised about what it means to honor tradition and about what it means to be rooted to tradition.

Because of this constancy of change, our religious, philosophical, and spiritual traditions, values, and beliefs cannot be static. They must change and they must remain open to change and alteration if they are to continue to have any relevance or impact. If the ideas and traditions that we value are to continue to be of any value, we must constantly seek to reexamine, reevaluate, and reformulate them. Our traditions, beliefs, or ideals are alive only when they are listening, morphing, innovating, and letting go of whatever has gotten in the way, and embracing whatever will help us continue to learn and grow along the way.

I just finished reading Buddhism: A Concise Introduction by Huston Smith and Philip Novak. It’s really a great read, Smith explicates the various aspects of Buddhism with a nuanced clarity that is probably second to none. What’s interesting is that near the beginning of the book Smith explains that there are six aspects or constants of religion that “surface so regularly” that it seems to “suggest that their seeds are in the human makeup”. I won’t get into all six aspects here but, one of these fundamental aspects of religion that constantly surfaces is ‘tradition’.

Ok, as a side-note, I realize that there is still an ongoing debate as to whether Buddhism is actually a religion or not, I certainly don’t want to get into that debate here. I’m a bit conflicted about the question myself.

I read an article recently that said that a lot of people who get involved in the “Is Buddhism a religion?” are usually in one of three camps: there’s the people that just love to argue and debate over conceptual particularities and the minutia of linguistics. I have to admit sometimes I can be that guy.

There are also those who belong to a different religion who think that if Buddhism is, itself, a religion then they cannot participate in Buddhist practices without it somehow conflicting with their chosen religion.

The other camp of people who tend to engage with the debate surrounding Buddhism’s status as a religion are the “people that see value in Buddhism but also think religion is bad.” Well, I also have to admit that I have a foot in this camp as well. My relationship to religion is complicated.

On one hand, I have a Bachelors degree in religion and I know first hand that if you’re going to study Buddhism on an academic level its going to take place under the banner of religion, its going to happen in the religious studies department.

But, on the other hand, outside of academia, on a more personal level, as an atheistic skeptic I have to confess that I still have some trepidation around using the word ‘religion’ to describe my zen practice and my engaged affiliation with Zen and Buddhism. It probably sound strange to admit that given that I do belong to a Sangha, and I’ve taken the Refuge Vows and the Five Precepts – but, I guess that’s the paradox of me. Maybe you can relate.

Anyway, back to the actual topic at hand. While Smith highlights the fact that aspects of religion, such as Tradition, contribute importantly to religion, he also clearly notes that “equally each can clog its works”. Now, what’s even more interesting is that in outlining the details of these six individual constants of religion, Smith points out that the Buddha seemed to systematically undermine each of them, and this is especially true of his relationship to ‘tradition’.

Smith writes that “In large measure [Buddhism] was a religion of reaction”, specifically a reaction against the religious systems and traditions of time and culture in which it emerged.

Smith explains that Buddhism could be described as a kind of “an Indian protestantism not only in the original meaning of that word, which emphasized witnessing for…something, but equally in its latter-day connotations, which emphasize protesting against something. Buddhism drew its lifeblood from Hinduism, but against its prevailing corruptions Buddhism recoiled like a whiplash and hit back—hard.”

Smith goes on to say that the “Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition. He stood on top of the past and its peaks extended his vision enormously, but he saw his contemporaries as largely buried beneath those peaks. He encouraged his followers, therefore, to slip free from the past’s burden.”

The Buddha, himself, said “Do not go by what is handed down, nor on the authority of your traditional teachings. When you know of yourselves: ‘These teachings are not good: these teachings when followed out and put in practice conduce to loss and suffering’—then reject them.”

This is one of the things I find most interesting about Buddhism – it seems to have a kind of inbuilt irreverence for tradition, a built-in opposition to tradition, an inherent iconoclasm. It is a tradition against tradition. Perhaps one could say that Buddhism has a tradition of rejecting and reformulating tradition.

I think this kind of iconoclastic rebellion can be seen not only in the emergence of the Buddha’s original teachings as an external reaction to the spiritual and religious institutions of his time but, I think it can also be seen internally within and inside of the development of Buddhism, itself. In other words, I think Buddhism equally turns its critical gaze inward upon itself, and has reacted against itself, against even its own traditions.

For instance, take the development and emergence of Chan and Zen within the Mahayana school of Buddhism.

As Thomas Hoover points out in his book, The Zen Experience, “Chinese Ch’an grew out of Mahayana”. When Buddhism came to China and it began absorbing aspects of the Taoist tradition. When “Pure Chinese naturalism met Indian abstraction, and the result was Ch’an.” As such, “The school of Ch’an was in part the grafting of fragile foreign ideas (Buddhism) onto a sturdy native species of understanding (Taoism).

When Chan spread to Japan and became Zen it took on a different flavor yet again. It developed and reformulated itself in ways that increased its fitness to that cultural climate and social environment. As Roshi Philip Kapleau points out, through the centuries Zen continued to be further elaborated in Korea and Vietnam.

There is a very real level organicism to the way in which it has changed, morphed, and innovated. Entry into each new region and era naturally began a process of alteration, an adaption to new surroundings.

In fact, there are many who now debate as to whether Chan or Zen should actually be considered Buddhism at all.

I was just listening to an episode of the Angel City Zen Center Podcast. Towards the end of the episode Brad Warner commented that Zen is, in many ways, a slightly different sort of thing than Buddhism. Although Zen ‘derives’ from Buddhism, it is, perhaps, only tangentially related to Buddhism. Warner says the relationship of Zen to Buddhism is like the relationship of Sufism to Islam.

Regardless, its interesting to note that, as Thomas Hoover highlights, Chan’s or Zen’s “simplicity [is] in many ways a re-expression of the Buddha’s original insights.” In The Three Pillars of Zen Roshi Philip Kapleau similarly states that Zen is “Grounded in the highest teachings of the Buddha”.

If Buddhism began as a kind of Indian Protestantism, and if the Buddha was a kind of Indian reformer, Perhaps you could say that Chan and Zen developed as a kind of Buddhist Protestantism. Perhaps, Zen is a kind of Buddhist reformation.

In episode 137 of the Minimalists Podcast, T.K. Coleman says to “Prioritize discovery over dogma” I think this prioritization of discovery over dogma is something we can see not only in the figure of the historical Buddha but, I also think its something that has been implicitly present within the continual development of Buddhist. That’s one of the things that attracted me to Zen – I think the fluidity of discovery over and against the solidity of doctrinal concretization is something that seems to be is intrinsic to Zen.

My Zen teacher points out that “Traditionally in the East only monks did Zen practice. It was, for a long time, unheard of for laypeople to be serious about practice.” Yet, as Zen has moved into the West, serious practice is no longer limited to monastic practitioners, instead Zen practice is being increasingly taken on by every-day, ordinary people like you and me. As my Zen teacher goes to say “This has changed the tradition and that’s okay. The tradition always changes, that’s part of what’s good about it.”
I think there is a delicate balance required however, one shouldn’t grasp too firmly or rigidly to tradition. We should not seek to maintain tradition only for the sake of maintaining tradition, or only for tradition’s sake. This is how traditions stagnate and atrophy. Chris Cotty says in a dharma talk on the Against the Stream podcast that just “Because anything has been done for generations doesn’t mean it’s OK to do it now or in future generations”

But, I also think that one shouldn’t look to radically alter or change tradition simply for the sake of ‘change’, or simply for the sake of changing it. This can be how traditions lose veracity.

I do think that our faithfulness or commitment to our beliefs, ideals, and traditions is directly proportionate to our ability to question them, our ability to reevaluate them, and our ability to reformulate them. It’s about our ability to skillfully improvise.

There is a pragmatism and a provisionality here. When we engage with tradition we should take conscious and decisive action in a way that takes account of the core of the tradition, but also in a way that shows consideration for the current context of our time and place. We should realize that the tradition as it was formulated and handed-down was only ever provisional at best, and that any changes we make to the tradition will also only ever be provisional. The goal is to progress along the path. As Sensei Alex Kakuyo says “Progress is better than perfection“.

Congruence…

So a couple days ago I posted a video on my YouTube channel called ” Curiosity, Authenticity, & Beginner’s Mind.”

In that video I talk about how exploring your curiosities is an expression of authenticity and that this kind of authentic open-mindedness geared towards the exploration of wonder and discovery is synonymous with the Zen Buddhist idea of Beginner’s mind.

I won’t rehash the whole video here. I’ll include a link and you can check it out for yourself.

Anyway, sometimes after I release a video I read something or I hear something that connects to what I was trying to say in that already released video, and I wish I would have read it or heard it before I released the video so that I could have included that little nugget in the video.

Well, yesterday that happened. I was listening to an episode of the Office Hours podcast with T.K. Coleman and Isaac Morehouse. The episode was called “Results Matter More Than Status and Rules.” In the conversation between Morehouse and Coleman, Coleman says something that I think poignantly conveys what I was getting at in my recent YouTube Video.

Coleman says: “It doesn’t matter if I’m like everyone else, it doesn’t even matter if I’m different, what matters is that I’m congruent with what I’m doing.”

What Coleman’s getting at is that sometimes we wax and wane between two fearful poles when it comes to exploring our interests and curiosities.

Sometimes we’re afraid to explore an interest because its something that everyone else is doing, and we don’t want to be just like everyone else.

Sometimes, the opposite is true, and we’re afraid to explore our curiosities if they are dramatically different than everyone else’s.

Both positions are obstacles and obstructions blocking our authenticity and impeding exploration, innovation, and discovery.

It doesn’t matter if you’re congruent or in-congruent with what ever social or cultural group you may find yourself a part of. What matters is if you are congruent with yourself.

As I say towards the conclusion of my video “Curiosity, Authenticity, & Beginner’s Mind” –

Sometimes we get so rooted to a specific tradition,a particular school of thought, a particular way of being, or a particular way of doing things that we cease to examine anything at or outside the periphery of who or what we think we are or should be.

But, Beginner’s Mind is what beckons us to explore our curiosity no matter what it is. It calls us to give voice to these curiosities regardless of whether it is an interest shared by everyone else, or whether it is something directly related to whatever traditions or groups we belong to. In this regard, Beginner’s Mind calls us to explore these curiosities even and especially when it is starkly different. The most important thing to ask ourselves is, are we being authentically congruent with who we are, with what we’re doing, with what we believe, and with what we value?

The curiosity and wonder expressed within Beginner’s Mind is the active expression of one’s emerging congruence with one’s authentic nature.

Curiosity, Authenticity, & Beginner’s Mind

I’m an avid note-taker and I guess you could also call me a kind of content curator or maybe a content collector. I’m constantly taking notes as I’, reading books and blogs, as I’m listening to podcasts, and I’m also constantly capturing and collecting interesting social media posts from the people I follow on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc. As I was looking through some of my recent notes and some of the additions to my content collection, I started thinking about curiosity, authenticity, and an idea in Buddhism called Beginner’s Mind. So let’s talk about that right now.

Earlier this week I saw an Instagram post from Ty Phillips. Ty is one of the co-founders of the Tattooed Buddha Website and he regularly writes there, as well as bunch of other places. Here’s what he posted:

Tyinsta

This really struck me and I saved it immediately. What I love about this is quote is that its not just about originality of thought or trying to be an original thinker. It’s not just about avoiding mediocrity or falling into the trap of the status quo. Its about discovery. It’s about exploration, innovation, and curiosity. It’s also about authenticity.

With this in mind, what’s interesting is Ty’s background. He belongs to the Celtic Buddhism tradition, I didn’t even know there was such a thing. Ty explains that Celtic Buddhism is a merger of Tibetan Buddhism with Celtic history and mythology, and so what he tries to do in his own work is to “unite Anglican and Buddhist teachings”. I have to admit as someone kind of obsessed with the study of religion and culture, I’m fascinated!

Buddhism has a rich history, it is a rich tradition, culturally and philosophically. Yet, instead of treading the well-established or well-worn path of traditional Buddhism (not that there’s wrong with doing that), he’s uniting these two seemingly unrelated spiritual paths into something kind of new and unique, and he does so because it is an authentic expression of who he is. That’s pretty inspiring.

If you follow this channel or if you have seen any of my videos at all, you know I’m fairly deep in studying Buddhism, or more specifically Zen, and and even more specifically Chan but, that’s not the end-all, be-all of who I am or what I’m interested in. In the spare time I’m afforded I’m usually found juggling four to five books on a wide range of subjects – Philosophy, Ecology, Sociology, theology, Religion, psychology, and the list goes on and on. If I’m on my phone – I’m probably reading an ebook or a blog. If I have earbuds in – you can bet I’m listening to a podcast or an audiobook. If I’m just lounging – there is always either my kindle or a hard copy book in hand or at least close by. But, I don’t see any of these subjects or endeavors as separated or isolated from one another, and I don’t see them as being separate from my Zen practice. They all inform one another. Philosophy, ecology, sociology, etc. – that all forms the lens through which I see my Zen practice, and my Zen practice forms the lens through which I see these various topics and fields of thought.

There’s a great Tweet I recently captured from T.K. Coleman that says:

tktweet

Coleman, goes a little deeper into this idea in one his blog posts titled You Don’t Need to Make a Career out of Everything You Love. In the essay Coleman talks about having passions, interests, and pasttimes outside of your career. Coleman says that “the universe is bigger than your job. It’s bigger than your job plus all the other jobs that will ever exist. Hence, there will always be interesting, exciting, and inspiring possibilities to explore that are not directly connected to the work you receive paychecks for.” He goes on to say that “the sum total of all my coworkers, customers, company mission, compensation, and creative activities related to my job will never be big enough to capture and satisfy the full range of my diverse interests.” Coleman highlights that “being human means you’re bigger than all the jobs and all the passions you’ll ever have.” I know Coleman is talking about work and career but, I think what he’s saying still applies to what we’re talking about. No one thing, no one career, no one path, no one tradition, no one idea, no one school of thought, no one interest, can authentically summarize the totality of who you are.

Red Pine writes that “One of the hallmarks of Zen is that it’s teaching is not separated from our every day lives.” Zen is not separate from who we are, it isn’t separate from who you are. Nor is it separate from all the divergent things that make up your life. In his book The Zen Experience, Thomas Hoover writes that “in Zen the distinction between oneself and the world was the first thing to be dissolved…it resolves naturally into a love of all things.” There’s a sense of wonder and curiosity here. This is kind of what leads me to think about what Zen calls the ‘beginner’s mind’. There’s a great article I read on Dailyzen.org titled “Beginner’s Mind” by Charlie Ambler. In the article Ambler explains that “Zen practice is about everything…It’s all-encompassing,” not because Zen is one thing but because Zen is made up of everything. Zen is all the things.

Ambler goes on to say that “Over time, repeated experiences become routines, and we start to narrow our field of vision. With this narrowing comes a heightened acuity but also a neglect of periphery. We stop noticing details we used to pick up on. As we zero-in on our skills, goals, values and thoughts in this way, we both gain something and lose something at the same time.”

In other words, Beginner’s mind unlocks the purity of open-mindedness, the open-mindedness of exploration and discovery.

Ambler points out that “To approach any activity with a beginner’s mind is to remain open and curious. We remember what we don’t know, instead of focusing on stroking the ego. We become radically humble and honest with ourselves about what we’re doing. We find joy in simply doing and learning rather than trying to prove something to the world…And when we do this, a new sort of excellence emerges, one rooted in joy rather than zeal.” To me this is statement of authenticity, a call to the spirit of sincerity.

We express the authenticity of all of our passions and curiosities, the authenticity of all that we don’t know and all that we hunger to know more about.

My Zen teacher recently wrote an article called “This is the Reason Why I Am a Reluctant Monk“. There’s a great line in that essay, he says “The truth is our training is never complete.” It’s never over, we’re never done.

Sometimes we get so rooted to a specific tradition, a particular school of thought, a particular way of being or a particular way of doing things that we cease to examine anything at or outside the periphery of our tradition, outside the periphery of who or what we think we are or should be. Beginner’s mind beckons you to explore your curiosity, to give voice to it, to be your authentic self.

Suzuki Roshi once said, “When you become you, Zen becomes Zen.” When you become you, art becomes art. When you become you, literature becomes literature. When you become you, life becomes life. When you become you, the world becomes the world. Carl Sagan said that “we are the way for the universe to know itself.” In his book, The Great Work , Thomas Berry writes that “the human might be identified as that being in whom the universe celebrates itself”. As mystical and woo-woo as this idea may sound, maybe there is at least some metaphorical truth here, maybe we are that part of the universe that is coming to know itself as itself. Maybe, when you become authentic, everything in the entire universe becomes authentic, too.

Zen Teachers?

 

So, I’ve been doing a lot thinking about Zen teachers, about what it means to have a teacher, about what a zen teacher even is, and about what it means to be a zen student, especially in our particular, modern, Western context or situation. So, let’s talk about that right now!

I guess you could say I’ve predominantly been a kind of a self-taught Zen practitioner. I’ve gotten deeper into Buddhism and Zen from practicing meditation, reading various books, watching videos, listening to podcasts, dharma talks etc. It’s only been in the past several weeks that I’ve found a teacher, that I’ve joined a Sangha, and that I’ve taken the Refuge vows and the Five Precepts. In other words, my forays into Buddhism, and now Zen, has been something of a self-guided or self-directed multimedia production.

Yet, the more I continue to study Zen, the more I realize how much the role of a Zen teacher is emphasized. Zen literature is overwhelmingly littered with examples of would be zen students desperately searching for a teacher, often times doing so with great difficulty.

One of the more famous stories is the story of Huike (hwee-kay) trying to convince Bodhidhamra to take him on as a student. Huike stands in the snow all night, the snow piles up to his waist. Bodhidharma still refuses to accept him as a student, and so in an effort to prove his sincerity to Bodhidharma Huike cuts off his own arm and gives it to Bodhidharma. It’s only then that Bodhidhamra relents and takes Huike on as his student.

Now, don’t get me wrong I don’t think this story is literally true. I think its a highly mythologized tale. However, like all mythology, its purpose is not to convey a facticity of historical events but, to convey a deeper meaning. In this case, I think part of the purpose of this story is to suggest that becoming a zen student and finding a teacher is difficult, it isn’t easy, it will take some effort, and it will probably cost you something.

Dogen, himself, writes that “You may have to climb mountains and cross oceans when you look for a teacher to inquire about the way.” In other words, according to Dogen, seeking out a teacher, seeking out training, one must take on a perilous quest to find one. Dogen seems to suggest that its so vitally important to have a teacher that he even goes so far as to say that “If you cannot find a true teacher, it is better not to study (Buddhism) at all.” That seems like a rather bleak prescription.

Now, I can’t help but think about the fact that the world has changed dramatically since the time of these quasi-mythical tales of Buddhist seekers traversing to far-off distant lands, risking and limb (especially in the case of Huike), all in an effort to find someone to provide them information, guidance, and direction. This was not a world of high-speed data and an always-on internet connection. Their world was a world in which google searches had to be performed on foot, their search results could take years, if they came at all.

If there is anything I have learned throughout my academic studies of world religion, it is that religion can be extremely adaptive to cultural and contextual change. Religion seems to be constantly reevaluating itself and its orientation to its particular time and place as the social world continues to shift forward.

This is not to say that there is not always a fundamentalist, orthodox, or conservative element that remains. There will, perhaps, always be those who cling rigidly to the classically accepted and well-fortified demarcations of their religion’s ideologies, those who are unwilling to alter or expand the borders and boundaries of their religion.

Yet, it seems to be an undeniable truth of most religions, that within the changing contexts of each new age or era there is to be found some form of reformational endeavor (i.e. the emergence of varying denominations and expanding theologies in Christianity, the evolution of the different schools of Buddhist thought and their corresponding philosophies, etc.).

In each case, the devotee is tasked with answering the question of what it means to be devoted to their particular religion in their particular time and in their particular place. They must ask what their religion or philosophy means in the present moment. A Christian must grapple with what it means to be a Christian and what Christianity means in what whatever socio-cultural context it is present within. A Buddhist must come to a cognizant understanding of what it means to be a Buddhist and what Buddhism means here and now.

Ok, so I’m not totally sure that I think of Buddhism or Zen as a religion, although there are probably those who do, and clearly that is how they have been traditionally defined. Regardless, I think it remains true that whether we are talking about religion or philosophy, we must recognize that times change, people change, things change, everything changes, and if the ideas that we value are to continue to be of any value they must change as well.

Also, I’m not trying to downplay the significance of a zen teacher or the potential importance of having a zen teacher. Honestly, I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough to know whether or not a zen teacher is still so necessary in the this burgeoning world resplendent with readily available resources and information. What I am trying to do is mindfully recognize the significant ways in which the world we are all presently a part of has and continues to change.

For instance, Rob Bell is a Christian speaker, writer, and thinker, and in one of his books that I read years ago called Velvet Elvis he writes about the necessity of adapting and evolving our ideas:

“Times change… We learn and grow, and the world around us shifts, and the Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be.”

Full disclosure, I’m not a Christian or a theist but, I still think he’s making a really important point here, and one that can easily be applied to Buddhism, or any other tradition or idea for that matter.

Everything is impermanent. Nothing is static. Nothings stays the same.

Not only does everything change but, everything is in the constant and never-ending process of actively changing.

The world around us is constantly shifting and as such, we must continue to learn, grow, and evolve. Our traditions, beliefs, or ideals are alive only when they are listening, morphing, innovating, and letting go of whatever has gotten in the way, and embracing whatever will help us continue to learn and grow along the way.

In fact, my Zen teacher recently wrote an article about being a Reluctant Zen teacher, and he makes a very similar point.

“I think we should be re-evaluating our devotion to authority figures all the time and that we shouldn’t be accepting things on tradition alone. And, as teachers, I think we need to constantly be re-evaluating what we’re doing and making sure we aren’t doing things that drive a lot of people away or don’t work.”

“I wonder if we make a mistake when we think that models of practice that worked in India, China and Korea should be used here. Should we be making our own way instead?”

“I also wonder sometimes if we could reform Zen for the west, in the same way that a few organizations like Insight Meditation Society have been able to reform Theravada.”
So, if we’re going to explore this approach we have to begin to ask “what is a Zen teacher?”

In his book, What is Zen?, Norman Fischer explains that “A Zen teacher isn’t a person; a “Zen teacher” inevitably involves a world, a context.” On the one hand a “Zen teachers exist in the context of Zen teaching, Zen communities, a Zen practice environment, so finding a teacher means finding a community, a sangha, a teaching, a context.” But, I also can’t help but think there’s more to it than just that.

As I mentioned Earlier I now belong to the Morning Sky Zen Sangha. In our discussions there, we’ve been going through The Mirror of Zen. One of the verses that really sticks out to me is verse two which says the following:

“The appearance of all Buddha and Patriarchs in this world can be likened to waves arising suddenly on a windless ocean”.

One way to interpret this verse, as my teacher does, is to say that there is no separation between you and the teacher, both the teacher and student arise from the very same ocean of one-ness, and that “we tend to worship teachers or put them on a pedestal or something” and this is a bit of a mistake. But, also I think that you could read it another way.

Teachers, Buddhas, Patriarchs, arise suddenly, sometimes unexpectedly sometimes from unexpected places. What I mean to say is that because a Zen teacher “inevitably involves a world, a context” and because of this kind on inseparable oneness, anything and anyone that arises can potentially be your zen teacher.

A zen teacher is anyone and anything that you garner experiential wisdom and knowledge from.

I did a four part series on Montaigne and Buddhism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). Michel de Montaigne was a French Renaissance writer/philosopher, and certainly not a Buddhist but, while I was reading Montaigne’s essays, it felt as though he was teaching me about Zen and Buddhism, at that moment Montaigne became my Zen teacher.
Returning to my Zen teacher, Daniel Scharpenburg, he says that “the role of a teacher is more about reflecting you back at yourself rather than being above you”

In his book, Sit Down and Shut Up, Brad Warner makes the same kind of analogy when talking about a Zen teacher. He says that
“You need to have a mirror to be able to fix your hair or apply your lipstick properly. It’s certainly physically possible to do these things without a mirror and there are no laws against it. But you’d have no real idea what you actually looked like until you walked outside and everyone started giggling at you because you’ve got lipstick all over your nose. A good Buddhist teacher can be your mirror. The teacher, in turn, learns to use her students as a mirror in a similar way.”
Brad Warner explains the following in a post on his blog:

“If you’re serious about finding a teacher, you’re probably going to have to do some work looking for one.”

“There’s value to working for things that are important.”

You’re going to have to search. You’re going to have to keep your eyes and ears open, especially in unexpected places, and maybe with unexpected people. You’re going to have to cultivate a kind of open-awareness.

Perhaps, as Dogen says, we do need to climb mountains and cross oceans to find a teacher but, maybe that’s not so much an external journey any more. I think we all have mental mountains that we need to traverse, as well emotional and psychological oceans that we will have to cross if we ever hope to reach the other shore. And what if its the process itself, the journey itself, that is the teacher? What if its the effort and the act of scaling the internal mountainous terrain and sailing across these treacherous and tumultuous seas that teaches us the most?

Maybe its the search itself that is the teacher?

Dogen writes that “You should remember that how much you study and how fast you progress are secondary matters. The joyfully seeking mind is primary.” Dogen places special emphasis on the “Way-seeking mind” (doshin).

He says that “wisdom is seeking wisdom” – I think, in a way, he’s suggesting that the act of seeking wisdom is an indication of wisdom or wisdom is attained by the very process of aspiring to wisdom. There is no distance between the two – aspiration is itself a kind of attainment or maybe the aspiration is indicative that you have already attained it, its something you already have. So when he talks about the “Way-seeking mind” or when says that the “joyfully seeking mind” is primary – I think it is an emphasis on the eager openness of beginners mind.

There’s an article I read a few weeks ago by Norman Fisher called “No Teacher of Zen”. In it recounts another Zen story, in which Huangbo says “Don’t you know that in all of China, there are no teachers of Zen?” Imagine his students confusion, their teacher announcing that there are no teachers of Zen – obviously they had questions – if there are no Zen teachers why are they there? Why are there these places of Zen training and study? Why are there people like Huangbo who have set up these places of Zen training and study? Huangbo clarifies stating, “I don’t say there is no Zen, only that there are no teachers.”

“the teacher can’t teach you.”

“there are no Zen teachers because Zen isn’t a teachable subject matter or skill.”

“students are responsible for their own practice and their own awakening. No one can communicate a truth worth knowing; the only worthwhile truth is the one you find uniquely, for your own life.”

What does it mean to be a student? Perhaps, to be a student of zen it is not to be so fundamentally devoted to a particular ‘teacher’ but, instead to rooted to the practice, rooted to the quest, to search, to the study. Perhaps, it means constantly scanning the horizon in search of any person, place, or thing that can teach you.

Someone recently sent me a great quote from a book called The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out by The Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje. I think it summarizes what I’ve been trying to get at in this video and I think its a great place to end.

“The teachings and teachers are ubiquitous. Reality is your teacher. Everything that appears can become your teacher. The four seasons can teach you. Anything can be a teacher of Buddhist teachings. Anything.”