A very short preface: This is book review #1. Since I'm now living in a larger city, the public library has much more to offer. I was there a week ago and checked out several books, and in the course of reading I decided that for any book that I enjoyed (any book that I actually finished), I would review it. As if the subject of my first review is a foreshadowing of my goals for this series, I want to state now that I have no goal, no intention. I'm simply going to write these for the experience itself. It may turn out to be a bit like homework, it may help me hone my critiquing skills, it may draw a larger audience to my blog, as my anxiety series did, or it may simply give me something to do while I give most of my creative attention to my novel. I'm fine with all of these, more, and nothing at all.
And at the risk of contradicting myself, I hope you enjoy what follows.
“Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki
I was thankful for having the opportunity to read Shunryu Suzuki's famous book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. It's almost silly to write a book review on it. It's just 133 pages long, and it is quite repetitive in his simple, yet effective style. And perhaps because it is simple, it is difficult for me to explain in words the text itself. It's much easier explaining what it is not...as is often the case with Eastern philosophy.
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is not your typical self-help book, or even your typical religious/philosophy book. It doesn't explain to you what you need to do to achieve a goal, but tells the Zen practitioner that he must have faith that he has already reached the goal—just by practicing.
It is not, as is Alan Watts' book “The Way of Zen,” an explanation of Zen Buddhism. It gives very little history, and that is anecdotal. It doesn't explain terminology, and in fact, Suzuki emphasizes that the philosophy behind Buddhism, though helpful, is far from the point of actually practicing Zen. In the end it can be helpful, but is not necessary. The most important thing is to sit, and to breathe.
It is one of the best books I've read on the topic of Buddhism. I have in the past shied away from Buddhism because articles and books I read tend to be very concept-heavy, and so rather dogmatic. The Buddha himself wrote nothing of his enlightenment, and what little he gave to his students would have been given by a notable silence, or a simple analogy. Yet volumes have been written on the nature and practice of Buddhism in the last 2,000 years. Suzuki cuts immediately back to the original idea behind Buddhism, ignoring the “truths” and the logic and the philosophy in order to emphasize the practice.
The book is repetitive, but this is no disadvantage to the reader. Suzuki repeats only a few concepts, or themes, but from different angles of inquiry. He is not explaining a broad subject which requires many ideas, but a very narrow one, and if he uses many ideas it is only to help the simplicity of it sink in. It's clear that his purpose isn't to give an outline of Zen, as so many others have done, but to give instead a very detailed exposition of its heart. He very nearly puts the heart of Zen Buddhism in the reader's hands.
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is not a book that you will be satisfied reading just once, then put on a shelf or return to the library. I read it in two sittings and knew by the time I was done I was missing a great deal of what Suzuki was saying. I came out of that first reading with only a couple favorite chapters, words that spoke to me on a deep level. In recent days I've gone back to cherry pick various chapters, taking the time to study them, and have found that with fresh eyes passages that I had initially thought nothing of now seem profound.
There is a wealth of information in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, and because it is presented the way it is, different people, at different stages of their practice, or of life, will likely find different chapters enlightening. That is the advantage of Suzuki's repetition, offering a variety of flavors of the same fruit. There is even a chapter on repetition, where he asks the reader not to lose the spirit of repetition. This theme is a perfect analogy for what Zen actually is.
All Zen is really is a practice of everyday living. It's a practice of finding joy in the ordinary and very repetitious (and often mundane) activities of our lives. It's doing the dishes for the sake of doing the dishes, with a smile, and with no mind for anything else.
“The most important things in our practice are our physical posture and our way of breathing. Instead of having a deep understanding of the teaching, we need a strong confidence in our teaching, which says originally we have Buddha nature. Our practice is based on this faith.” - Shunryu Suzuki