A few months ago, while doing an inventory for a report on the state of the Shunryu Suzuki archives, I was going through a closet in the library reading room at the City Center of the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC). Diana, who runs the bookstore, pointed to what looked like a box that I’d missed. It was in the shape of a book, like a large dictionary. On its orange edge was printed “Dandy File-Letters.” On the spine was written “ZMBM ms.” I undid the fastener. The box was filled with folders. To this unschooled yet eager archivist it was as if golden light emanated from inside that container. For here were the ingredients and the initial recipes for the little book created from Suzuki Roshi’s lectures and entitled Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The files included the early editings (including Trudy Dixon’s notes) and what were obviously verbatim transcripts of forty-eight Suzuki lectures—all but one or two of which were not in our archive and were, as far as I knew, the only remaining copies.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice (ZMBM) was published by Weatherhill in the summer of 1970. It’s one of those unpredictable events in publishing, or show biz. ZMBM went straight to the top echelon of spiritual books not only in sales but in reputation, and it has stayed there. Its appeal is universal, and it has been translated into many languages. It is almost always on any list of the most important spiritual books of the last century. Thirty-eight years after it first came out, it’s number two on Amazon.com’s “Zen” list and thirty-three on their “Eastern” list.
I like ZMBM trivia. For instance, I remember that Laurance Rockefeller said he kept a copy by his bed. Director Sam Peckinpah started reading it one evening and stayed up all night with it. Basketball coach Phil Jackson refers to it repeatedly in his book Sacred Hoops. It sits upright on a dresser at the end of the movie Flirting with Disaster.
In his introduction to the book Huston Smith pointed out that, in contrast to D. T. Suzuki, Shunryu never used the words satori or kensho. Probably because of that, Suzuki gained a reputation for not talking about enlightenment. It’s true that he emphasized practice—what we do, how we apply our understanding in daily life—especially zazen (zen meditation), and he emphasized that practice and enlightenment were one. But the word enlightenment does occur 104 times in this book. This is a book on enlightenment, a synonym for beginner’s mind or big mind or buddha mind and so forth.
No one at the San Francisco Zen Center, including myself, thought much about the book when it came out. We had Suzuki, so we didn’t think too much about reading his lectures even if he was somewhat difficult to understand, especially for newcomers. And even though all spiritual groups have some rating on the cult index, the SFZC just isn’t a guru-worship kind of place. People tend to relate to present teachers and know that the only Buddha they’re going to find is their own big mind, a term often used by Suzuki.
Picking up a copy of the book, I’m first struck by the calligraphy on the cover, brushed with the ragged end of a stiff yucca leaf. It says nyorai, tathagata (“Thus come one,” one of Buddha’s names). Its 138 pages contain thirty-six chapters. Sandwiched between the “Beginner’s Mind” prologue and the “Zen Mind” epilogue are three sections: “Right Practice,” “Right Attitude” and “Right Understanding.” The first chapter, the first informal talk, entitled “Posture,” hits us with Suzuki’s primary instruction: zazen, or Zen meditation. He begins with the body and gives us something physical to do. “Zazen practice is the direct expression of our true nature.” Suzuki’s noncerebral approach is further expressed: “These forms are not the means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this posture is itself to have the right state of mind. There is no need to obtain some special state of mind.”
Posture moves to “Breathing”: “What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and exhale.” In the chapter entitled “Control,” Suzuki encourages us to relate to ourselves and others without force: “To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him.” And what does he promise us if we follow this path? “To live in the realm of Buddha nature means to die as a small being, moment after moment.”
Through this book, Shunryu Suzuki’s way became more widely accessible. It added a balance to Buddhist teaching in the West, like a weight placed firmly on the side of “you are perfect as you are,” while encouraging us to adjust our physical and mental habits to accommodate an acceptance of “things as it is,” not seeking for mind outside of mind.
With apologies to independent bookstores everywhere, I suggest a visit to Amazon.com and other online bookstores and websites with reader reviews. Readers write something because they are moved by a book. Here’s one description of ZMBM: “a simple series of lectures that may help the reader to see reality a bit clearer (it did that for me) . . . built around the idea to accept nothing till you verify it for yourself.” I was at the City Center the other day and spent a little time asking folks there for anything they had to say about ZMBM. Here’s a sampling:
◆ It was the only Buddhist book we could find driving west back in ’72. Bought it in Iowa City. It was like Suzuki was talking to me. It was so available.
◆ The book didn’t explain things as most books do; it immersed me in Suzuki Roshi’s very interesting way of seeing. It changed my consciousness the way a novel does, by opening my imagination. Reading it was like sitting in a mountain stream.
◆ I found it incomprehensible. But I’m still here.
◆ I’ve never used it up, never worn it out. There’s always something fresh for me.
◆ After years of practice, I’m beginning to see what it’s about.
ZMBM was the product of the efforts of many. Four are notable. Suzuki, of course. Marian Derby recorded the lectures in Los Altos and created the first draft, called Beginner’s Mind. Trudy Dixon edited it with help from Richard Baker. When the finished book first arrived, Suzuki picked up a copy, looked it over. I happened to be there, and he said to me: “Good book. I didn’t write it, but it looks like a good book.” And later he said, “I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind to see what the understanding of my disciples is.”
Now I’m looking over a copy of a transcript of a lecture that Suzuki gave, dated November 10, 1965. A sentence in it reads, “In beginner’s mind we have many possibilities, but in expert mind there is not much possibility.” That carries over unchanged in the early editing. Only when Trudy polished it did it become, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Reads better. Thanks to Trudy, Richard, Marian and Shunryu.