By Carol Russell
Delivered as a Dharma talk July 9, 2019
There is a well-known saying: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
We admire those who are experts, accomplished in their field, who have spent many years honing a skill or knowledge of their subject, who break new ground in creativity or research or scholarship or athletic ability or spiritual wisdom. And they deserve our admiration. We seek guidance and inspiration from such accomplished people.
Once, a long time ago, there was a wise Zen master. People from far and near would seek his counsel and ask for his wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them, enlighten them in the way of Zen. He seldom turned any away. One day an important man, a man used to command and obedience came to visit the master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was of one used to getting his own way. The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?” The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”
Clearly every one of us is pretty good at a few things, maybe even an expert. We began at the beginning, knowing nothing. ‘The steps to maturity are necessarily immature’, says Richard Rohr. And yet sometimes there is a resistance to being a beginner. Maybe resistance comes as we age. We are more willing to be a beginner when we are kids.
Maybe it’s cultural. There is a pressure in our society to know the answer. Stephen Jenkinson, in his book, Die Wise, writes that our culture suffers from an addiction to competence, and that this addiction is “part of the inheritance from our hard-scrabble immigrant beginnings on this continent, rooted in self-reliance, mastery over the environment around us, autonomy. It is the shadow side of our convictions about limitless possibility and ‘be all you can be.’”
Alvin Toffler said, The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.
Here is one definition of beginner’s mind, from the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities. It is the kind of mind which can see things as they are, which step by step and in a flash can realize the original nature of everything.
Such a juicy definition…such an intriguing collection of phrases: Empty, accepting, doubting, open to all the possibilities.
...to this resource for Prescott's spiritual community. Much gratitude goes out to our entire Sangha – and the numberless causes and conditions – for making this website and blog page possible, and for the joy I have experienced in creating it.
Detail of the Great Hall Mural
Courtesy Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Used with permission