What is the Beginner’s Mind?

by Peter Hata

The path that our life takes often includes many unexpected twists and turns. Things often don’t turn out as we had hoped, forcing us to make a change of plans. For example, many of our young people, especially those in high school and college, probably have already made some career plans. If your dream is to become a successful doctor or a filthy-rich high-tech CEO, I certainly hope you attain it. But maybe you will fall short of your goal at some point. This essay is about what in Buddhism is called the "Beginner’s Mind." I believe having this kind of "mind" gives us the best chance of turning our disappointments into opportunities to learn and grow.

What is this "beginner’s mind?" You might know it better as the Japanese term "shinjin." Dr. Nobuo Haneda, a noted Shin teacher, has said that there are only two things we need as Shin Buddhists: Shinjin and Namu Amida Butsu. And he clarified further that Namu Amida Butsu is really the verbal expression of the experience of Shinjin. Therefore, this "Beginner’s mind" is central to our tradition. But it really isn’t a separate mind apart from our ordinary, everyday mind. I think it’s really an attitude or perhaps a spirit that can grow within us over our lifetime as we grow to appreciate the Buddhist teachings. And, specifically in terms of dealing with the disappointments and setbacks of our lives, I think the "Beginner’s mind," or shinjin, refers to an open attitude that allows us to honestly examine our strengths and especially our weaknesses. In the process of this self-examination, we come to a clearer understanding of who we really are and what we were really meant to be doing with our life.

However, it is not so easy to acquire this kind of attitude or mind. It isn’t automatic. In fact, our tendency as people is to have the opposite kind of mind, a closed mind, a mind that thinks it already has all the answers. I think this kind of "mind" is what our Buddhist teachers call the "ego-mind," or having an inflated sense of our own self-importance. And, as long as the ego is in control, we will experience life with a "skewed" focus, we will tend to look at things with an ever-present personal bias. Let me give you a kind of funny example of this "skewed focus."

As some of you may know, by profession, I’m a jazz guitarist and also a guitar teacher. Since last summer, I’ve also been the advisor of our West Covina Buddhist Temple's Lotus Band. But even though people refer to me as their "advisor," a recent experience I had made me wonder exactly who is advising whom. I had the Lotus band members vote on and select a new tune to possibly add to their songbook. The tune they selected was a song by the band N’Sync, called "This I Promise You." Now, since N’Sync is a "boy band," that means their primary following consists of teenage girls. Of course, being the "sophisticated" jazz musician that I am, I could not possibly like this song, right? Not only that, but I’m a "guy" and "guys" (or, as my son Kevin tells me, "real guys") are not supposed to like N’Sync. A few days later, I sat down and spent some time listening very closely to this song, since I had to figure out the chords for an upcoming rehearsal. There I was, busily transcribing the chords to the song when, at some point, I vaguely recall that I had stopped thinking about the chords and was instead, really into the music. Everything, the groove, the emotional melody and the heartfelt expression of love in the lyrics, all kind of got to me and "swept me away." And well—and this is the funny part—I began to notice I was actually getting a little teary-eyed. OK, the tears were not streaming down my cheek—this was a "manly" kind of crying, mind you—but nonetheless the song did move me. I guess, from a Buddhist viewpoint, I would say that I felt both embarrassed and humbled by this experience because it exposed to me my preconceived and narrow minded notions about music. It exposed my own "skewed focus." Later, as I reflected on this experience, I asked myself, "Aren’t there in fact many other times in the day when I’m not directly experiencing reality, but instead experiencing reality through the "skewed" filter or bias of my ego-mind?—like while driving in rush hour traffic, or impatiently waiting in line at the grocery store, post office and bank (and thinking really bad thoughts about the people in front of me).

Though the realization of the narrowness of my thinking about N’Sync kind of hurts to admit, the positive aspect is that I think it has made me hopefully a little more open to music in general. Also, despite my initially not wanting to like it (I definitely wanted to be a "real guy," not some "other kind of guy"), I was in fact able to really enjoy this song, and I’m now of course looking forward to hearing Lotus perform it at WCBT.

Of course, this is not to suggest that we "do away" with our ego—we need it in order to go about the everyday business of living. Rather, I believe Buddhism’s message is to get us to realize there is a rich and experientially fulfilling dimension that only exists beyond the ego. Another way of expressing this is to say our goal as Buddhists is to fully accept the limitations of our ego. Deeply seeing our limitations is what is called acquiring the "Beginner’s Mind." This negative insight into the true nature of the self is, I think, the content of the Buddhist awakening.

Let me go into a little more detail about the "Beginner’s Mind." Specifically, I’d like to talk about the kind of "practice" or effort that is necessary on our part in order to receive or acquire this kind of mind. For the past two years, I’ve been going up to Dr. Haneda’s 3-day Summer Retreats at his Maida Center in Berkeley, California. On the final day of last year’s seminar, Dr. Haneda gave a talk that really moved me. He was talking about the intimate relationship between tradition and creativity. This subject is of great interest to me, not only as a Shin Buddhist who is seeking creative ways of communicating our tradition to Americans, but also, since jazz is an improvisational music tradition, it has great interest to me as a jazz musician as well.

Dr. Haneda said that "tradition" means honoring past values, focusing on the past. It is essentially passive. "Creativity," on the other hand, means the destruction of the past values and creating new ones, focusing on the future. It is active. However, he pointed out that we cannot just "be creative"; ultimately, we need both. "A deep respect for tradition is the only true basis for creativity," he said. I think that what Dr. Haneda meant by "respecting the tradition," is to seriously study the masters of the tradition that have come before us. Then, from our deep appreciation of their greatness, our own creativity can flow naturally. He quoted his teacher, Shuichi Maida, who had said, "Deep learning can make us take a creative step forward." Creativity thus comes quite naturally out of learning. In our Shin Tradition, one of the greatest examples of this relationship between tradition and creativity is Shinran Shonin. Dr. Haneda pointed out for example, that Shinran's landmark work, the Kyo Gyo Shin Sho, is very long (about 300 pages), but the interesting fact is that 90% of it is quotes from his teachers. Thus it really represents Shinran's study notebook. Shinran seriously studied from his teachers and is of course credited with founding, about 800 years ago, our Jodo Shinshu tradition.

Dr. Haneda identified the creativity we see in Shinran, as nothing less than the "Buddha's Spirit." It is the learning and listening spirit itself. It is also the "Beginner’s Mind." Furthermore, he said, "Developing this spirit is the only issue in Buddhism." What then is the deciding factor that determines whether or not we ourselves can acquire this mind or spirit? Dr. Haneda said that the determining factor is not how smart one is, or even how much knowledge one has memorized. One factor is that we must first meet a teacher in whom we can directly experience this spirit or mind, and who can guide us and show us the way. In Dr. Haneda’s life, Shuichi Maida was such a person. But the teacher is not simply going to "hand" this "spirit" or "mind" to the student on a plate. Therefore, the real deciding factor, said Dr. Haneda, is that "The person must be ‘desperate.’ You have to really want it. Only then can you be a serious student. Only a person who feels a certain urgency will be sufficiently motivated to deeply study the tradition." Comparing the treasures contained within the Buddhist tradition to a big drum, Dr. Haneda said, "Hit the drum hard with serious, deep and urgent questions, and the tradition will be revealed."

Now, as I was listening to Dr. Haneda’s talk, I was reflecting on its relevance to my life. For sometime now, I’ve been working hard on mastering jazz guitar. Musicians call this kind of work, "woodsheding." The term refers to literally locking oneself in a shed and not stopping until one "gets it." After hearing Dr. Haneda’s talk, I realized the reason for my woodsheding was really my own desperation. Let me explain. After some early success in the music business, my career had taken a downturn for number of years. I simply wasn’t doing a whole lot and didn’t have much of a specific goal. During those years, I of course blamed the music business, bad luck, everyone who didn’t agree with me, and basically everything I could think of—except of course, the real cause of my problems, which was me. I now believe that if I had really been ready for success, it probably would have happened. But I wasn’t ready because my playing still needed some work. And frankly, my attitude needed even more work.

Of course, this realization was a frustrating and negative experience. Following this "self-examination," I went through a period of soul-searching. Deep down inside, I realized some kind of passion was missing in my life. But then, through a chance coincidence of several events, about 7 years ago, I suddenly found myself teaching guitar. Little did I know then that this would start a process in me of intense study and of rediscovering music all over again. Being a "professional musician," I thought I knew everything about music, but now, faced with teaching guitar, I had to admit I really didn’t have my act completely together. There were gaps in my technique, theory, knowledge of songs, etc.

The turning point for me came when some of my advanced students began to want to learn jazz guitar, which really put pressure on me, since it’s more demanding than teaching beginning guitar. Of course, as a boy, I had grown up listening to jazz because my dad was a jazz aficionado. Actually, I had even studied jazz extensively on my own. In fact, I really loved jazz, but I had not gone "all nine yards," and had not mastered it. But now, facing the requests of my students, I came to the harsh conclusion that I really had to throw out all my notions of what I knew and start all over again just like a "beginner." I began studying the great masters of jazz guitar again. Then, an interesting thing happened. As I started to listen to the great players I had grown up with some 30 years ago, but this time diligently transcribing their solos note-for-note, analyzing and internalizing them, I started to really appreciate, hear and understand what they were doing. It still wasn’t easy—for example, I once spent over two months straight just figuring out one particularly difficult solo—but the main difference now was that I really wanted to get it. I was, in fact, desperate.

The music I was studying the most were my old classic jazz albums dating back to when I was in high school and college. But because those albums had always been there in my record rack gathering dust, I realized that, all along, I had been asleep to the treasures that lay within them. I had tried to study them as a much younger guitarist, but, using Dr. Haneda’s metaphor, I just didn’t "hit the drum hard enough." From a Buddhist standpoint, before I could see the jazz masters as my teachers, I had to first accept my own shortcomings as a musician. Before they could teach me, I had to be made to bow before them. Thus, I am very grateful to my students because, through them, I was able to discover my own deep, long-dormant love of jazz. Through my students, I was able to discover the student in myself.

Fast forwarding to today, the positive aspect that has come out of my rediscovery of the jazz tradition is that I currently find myself actively rehearsing and performing with two different jazz combos. The music that I’m playing now is very challenging, and I have to practice hard every day, but it is an extremely pleasurable experience also. Of course, I’m not claiming to have mastered anything. But maybe I’ve started to understand that the real goal is not "mastery" per se, but acquiring the "Beginner’s Mind," acquiring the attitude of the true student. In this way, we can continue to grow, and lead dynamic and creative lives.

In this essay, I’ve been discussing dealing with disappointments and setbacks in life, and seeing how the Buddhist attitude or "Beginner’s mind," can help transform those setbacks into something positive, something from which we can learn and grow. I hope I’ve also shed some light on the profound effect our Buddhist teachers can have on our everyday lives. Finally, to our youth in particular, I’d like to add that I think Buddhism is really encouraging us to set our goals as high as we can, and to pursue our dreams with all our might. But, that when we encounter the inevitable disappointments, that we should try to accept responsibility for them, learn from them and go on with our life, but now with a clearer understanding of our true selves, and a more humble attitude. In this way, we become better students.

As Dr. Haneda put it, "Being a student is the only goal, the highest goal in Buddhism." If we have the "beginner’s mind"—if we can humbly and honestly take responsibility for our life, our failures can actually turn out to be great teachers. Eventually, we may come to realize that the ultimate goal in life is not "getting everything to always go our way"; it’s really to become a true student, to be able to learn from everything and everyone around us. I believe that such a person is able to deeply appreciate the beauty that life has to offer.

To close, I’d like to once again quote Dr. Haneda: "We are liberated, not by an external being or force, but by the bowing that is realized in us."

Peter Hata

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