For week 12 of the challenge, I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.
Here’s the thing; I come from such a strongly Christian background that I had learned to be distrustful of anything attempting to change my mind about anything spiritual whatsoever. There is no room in Christianity (at least, the version I grew up with) for anything else, especially Deceitful Eastern Mysticism, yet another Tool Of Satan to Confuse And Darken the hearts of the Faithful. Goodness knows I’d heard of people who worship wee statues of a fat man, which was totally the same kind I was doing to the cross, except everyone knew that We were Right and They were Wrong. Somewhere between high school and now, I fell out with the Church. Not necessarily Jesus, or the love, compassion and understanding inherent in his teachings, but the flawed human element of Christianity that is only famous these days for refusing to be loving, compassionate, or understanding to anyone, including their own people.
In that in-betweenness, I felt abandoned. I knew what the Church had told me, and what I read in the Bible, and frankly, they only jived occasionally. I wanted to know why all these other religions were so bad, why a purportedly forgiving, loving god would deny eternity to a whole slew of people who seemed, as far as I could tell, to uphold the same virtues and eschew the same vices that Christianity did, only using different words. It seemed to me that an omniscient, omnipresent, infallible being shouldn’t be petty enough to split hairs over what name we gave him, so long as we were kind, patient, compassionate, fair, just, unselfish, forgiving….you get the idea.
The problem was, I had been so indoctrinated against letting even the slightest hint of another religion taint my understanding that I was reluctant to actually dive in and even study anything else. What if I read this book assigned for a theater class, and found myself bald and handing out flowers at the airport? (I know, I know…not the same.) Or worse, sacrificing child virgins to the devil? Slippery slope, you see; one moment you’re learning about tarot, the next you’re in the middle of a goat orgy in California.
The first time I attempted to read this book, I wasn’t ready for it. Everything I read sounded like a trap to ensnare the gullible into flawed thinking. I didn’t make it past the first chapter before closing the book with a superior huff, pleased with myself for seeing through all that New Age nonsense. I wouldn’t be caught up in that pointless, empty jumble of contradiction. I didn’t get rid of it, however. I don’t care to get rid of books, no matter what they’re about.
Fast-forward to now. Mr. Cranky-Face is intrigued by Buddhism, though he currently has decided that he is, in fact, atheist. He still finds the lessons relevant and helpful, and when I’m wallowing in guilt-induced panic attacks, he tries to speak to me in the language of Buddhism, hoping it might help me find tools to combat whatever it is I’m fighting against. It always makes sense, what he says, and at the same time is a concept so utterly foreign to me that I struggle to understand it at all. And, to be fair, learning any sort of new philosophy is generally not ideal when in the midst of a particularly low point; it’s hard to make things stick long enough to be useful.
Anyway, as a result of all these things, I decided to give this book another try. I’m awfully glad I did. This will be one of those books I read over and over again, and each time something different will click in my brain, and each time I’ll be glad I read it. For Mr. Cranky-Face, The Art Of War is one of those kinds of books, and it’s on my short list as well.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is adapted from a series of short talks, or mini-lectures by Shunryu Suzuki, to members of his Buddhist group. The talks take place at different times, to different sorts of crowds, so they vary somewhat in tone and focus. That said, this is not an academic primer on Buddhism; it is specifically meant to be an informal explanation of the more practical bits of exploring zen and practicing it in one’s own daily life. A bit of the whys, a bit of the hows, and a bit of humor thrown in as well.
Ironically, I found myself having to take the reading very slowly, or else my brain would shut off and I’d discover that I didn’t absorb the last few pages. It made me think, something I’ve grown out of the habit of doing, and I had to re-read paragraphs over and over until I could understand what it was I was reading. This is not a reflection of the language, or even the content; it was easy to read, but not so easy to interpret on a personal level given my own special brand of baggage and ability to steer clear of anything that threatens to challenge my status quo. When one wants a challenge, all that automatic avoidance becomes an obstacle all of its own.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the basics of zen without having to wade through the dates, origin story, and dry academic and social commentary. It’s simple, it’s accessible, and it’s an easy way to slide an unaccustomed mind into the philosophy and practice of zen.