The beginner’s mind

25 January 2022

By Jubilith Moore

This article was originally published in ISTA’s Scene magazine in 2017.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

So begins this most beloved of all American Zen books. Seldom has such a small handful of words provided a teaching as rich as has this famous opening line.

In a single stroke, the simple sentence cuts through the pervasive tendency students have of getting so close to Zen as to completely miss what it’s all about. An instant teaching on the first page. And that’s just the beginning.

Beginner’s mind is a wonderful strategy that can help us to learn all this stuff – mysticism, spirituality, metaphysics–much, much more easily. The idea behind this strategy is that you take all of the things you know – all of your brilliant opinions, all of your reason and logic, even your cherished beliefs – and you put all this stuff on the shelf for awhile. (Now, mind you, it will all still be there safe and sound when you get back!)

The idea of beginner’s mind is that you temporarily set all this aside, on purpose, for a little while, and just go ahead and do the exercise that the teacher suggests – no matter how illogical, or insignificant, or meaningless it may seem to be – merely so that you can see what your experience is.

Being present

When you begin to explore experiential work, there are many little exercises that don’t seem to be important, or make sense. Many opinions about this may come up that get in your way. None of these little exercises is going to permanently change you in any way. Yet each of them is designed to show you one more little integer of experience, one more facet of a whole experience of being awake and experiencing “the totality of the here and now.”

Each of these little exercises gives you a little experience. These experiences are called awarenesses. From practicing these little awarenesses, gradually you can put together a more whole experience of being awareness itself.

Mits once said that “‘I don’t know” is the warrior’s wisdom. (A spiritual person can speak like that, you know. An altruistic Buddhist bhodisattva is a warrior, too–an “awakening warrior,” the term means–a warrior of the light.)

“I don’t know” is a good one! Whenever you happen to hear yourself saying or thinking this – whatever you are doing at the time – it is a very good sign that insights and understandings are going to be coming up. In the troubled times of my life, I find it a great relief of stress when I can remember this: “I don’t know.”

People don’t allow themselves this stance of “I don’t know” often enough. This is because we always know, or we always think we know. Most of the time when people think they know, they don’t really know at all. All they know are their past impressions of the situation that is happening now, the conclusions they came to on previous times, or judgments about similar events or circumstances that happened once upon a time.

Put aside beliefs

Living with “I know” is a tremendous handicap that keeps us out of the present, and living in the past. It doesn’t allow us anything new, no surprises, no insights, no discoveries. It doesn’t allow us to unlock and understand any of the mysteries of the present moment, and it keeps us frozen in the judgments of the past.

That is why beginner’s mind is a wonderful strategy for those who would like to learn about the deeper mysteries of life. It isn’t easy! There’s nothing people treasure as much as their brilliant opinions, unless it is their cherished beliefs. Yet these will not help us in finding these new dimensions of life that are to be found in schools like this.

Beginner’s mind doesn’t ask you to believe in anything in particular. It simply says put aside the beliefs you already have for a little while, and do the exercises the teachers suggest without beliefs or expectations, simply to see in your own direct experience whatever your experience of these exercises is.

And after the exercises are over, you can go right back to that shelf again. You can take back all of those opinions, all that reason and logic, all of those cherished beliefs – just the way you left them! You can put them right “back on” all over again. If there happen to have been some new insights, something new, never noticed before, something you’ve seen with your own eyes, or heard with your own ears, something you’ve smelled, or tasted, or felt with your own sensitive body, there is no problem about that. You can still leave with what you came in with. That choice is still up to you.

Beginner’s mind is simply recognising that this wonderful intellectual thinking mind that we all have may, at certain times, distort things very greatly and block things off from our view. If we consciously set aside this effect, on purpose–for convention’s sake, or for the fun of it will do – if we adopt “I don’t know” as a strategy, instead, then secrets begin to become known.

There are always a few surprises that come along this way. That is the value of beginner’s mind, when you realise you really haven’t known. If you’d like to, you may try this out in your own life some time, and see this on your own.

About Jubilith Moore

I’m a theatre performer, director, teacher and producer. Since 1993 I’ve devoted myself to the study of nōhgaku as well as to its infusion into contemporary American theatre. I’m a Japan Foundation Fellow and have been recognized by TCG, TBA and CCI. I’m a Founding Member of Theatre Nōhgaku (theatrenō and was with San Francisco’s Theatre of Yugen for 21 years.

A bridge-builder I believe the act of knowing another alters the self, opens doors, and cultivates empathy. My goal is for nōhgaku to cease to be seen as esoteric and/or exotic and for it to be recognized as the accessible and remarkable art form that it is.

I am one of a handful of English speaking nōhgaku practitioners trained by nōh and kyōgen masters who, in addition to performing works from the traditional repertoires in ancient Japanese and English, has created new English language nōh and kyōgen.