One of the images often used to describe Dao, or a person who is aligned with Dao, is the Chinese character 朴 . It means simple, pure, in the original or basic state. It literally means an uncarved block of wood. In that uncarved block are many possible forms that might emerge under the carver’s hands. This is the infinite, undifferentiated potential of Dao, which manifests into the myriad forms of the ten thousand things, or the created universe.
To me, it also represents the Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind. As the saying goes, “In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities. In the experts mind are few.” It suggests an attitude of openness, curiosity, lack of prejudgment, a willingness to learn, to engage with what is, as it is, in the present moment. And then, as a friend is fond of saying, “Let’s see what happens.”
How can we live with beginner’s mind? As we mature, we make choices that set us on a certain path. We might have a career, settle down with a partner, raise children. Or not. As we age, we realize that certain choices are no longer open to us. Just as carving a block of wood reveals one form as it eliminates others, we develop skills and expertise in some areas of life while letting go of other paths.
So what does it mean to have beginner’s mind in the midst of life’s commitments and limitations and choices? Someone said recently that he didn’t want to start over all the time, abandoning the skills that his career and life experience brought him. I can relate to that. As we become experts in our lives, how do we maintain a freshness and wonder in the newness of each day, each moment?
To me, the focus of beginner’s mind is internal rather than external. After all, the term is beginner’s “mind,” not beginner’s “life.” It doesn’t mean ignoring the wisdom and knowledge we have gained, but it does encourage us to apply this wisdom and knowledge with a fresh perspective. It means pausing sometimes to view a situation without thinking that we know how things should be, to consider that we might not know what the best outcome is, to admit that we don’t know everything we think we do.
Above all, beginner’s mind is based in trust. When confronted with a challenge that upsets me or worries me, my instinct is to get in there and “fix” it, but if I can step back and settle down into beginner’s mind, I can listen and watch. I can trust that the way forward will become apparent to me like a form that emerges from the uncarved block of wood, or like murky water that clears when it is allowed to settle.
What I’ve learned most of all from living in beginner’s mind is that the way forward will always be one of love.
The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. ~Shunryu Suzuki