Finding Our Way

· Dharma Discourses, Open Access · ,

by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei

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The Zen tradition places a special emphasis on beginner’s mind because the mind of a beginner has qualities that are so important for dharma study. The beginner’s mind can be quite open and have a certain kind of innocence within the dharma. There can be a sense of eagerness to set out on a journey into unknown territory. And there’s no history with regards to practice and training, which means there’s not much accumulation, not much prejudice to cloud our view. The mind of the beginner has a kind of simple quality—simple as in open and tender, and also courageous, because embarking on anything new requires a certain amount of courage. For the practitioner, every step along the way is, in a sense, a new step. A beginning step. And each step takes us into terrain that we’re seeing for the first time. One of the great challenges of practice is to not only to maintain that beginner’s mind, but to deepen it, to realize its base.

Bringing forth these good qualities of the beginner’s mind, we also have to be honest about the actual mind with which each of us actually begins. That mind is not so pure and simple. All of us come into practice with quite a bit of accumulation, actually. And within that there is eagerness but there’s also wariness. There’s some faith but there’s also some mistrust. There’s openness and possibility but there is also hurt and protectiveness. There is some prejudice, because we’ve heard things, read things, and have some ideas about practice and enlightenment, which creates bias in our mind. We come in carrying desire and expectation. And so while the beginner’s mind is naturally open and pure, the everyday mind of the beginner is not necessarily so. That’s not a problem, it just where we begin.

In speaking about beginner’s mind, we should also examine beginning mind. This is our fundamental self-nature. It is the mind of vast emptiness that has no container. This beginning mind is the nature of all things: free of history and accumulation, without prejudice or bias, tender and gentle, and at the same time free to manifest as fierce or demanding in meeting delusion and discovering liberation from illusion. These qualities arise in order to bring us to awakening, to help us free ourselves from the tyranny of our grasping and self-centered views.

Beginning mind is our basic state. It’s always here, always present; it is always where we are though we don’t perceive it. Just as when we’re feeling sick or unhealthy, that experience of illness can preoccupy us in delusion, it’s our sense of dis-ease, that something is fundamentally wrong that preoccupies the mind. Sensing that something is wrong, we turn away and look for some form of heaven, some form of a promise fulfilled. As we do this, we convince others that something is wrong, in the same way that when one person suddenly looks anxious, other people become anxious. Before we know it, our whole world is convinced that something is wrong, and so it seems that the whole world furrows its brow and looks back at us with that anxiety.

Photo By Boris Thaser

Photo By Boris Thaser

From just such a place we enter into this path of primordial wisdom, a path of waking up to perfect health, to a perfect body and mind, a perfect spirit and emotion, a perfect thought, a perfect being. Perfection is just another way of referring to sacredness. Sacred not because it possesses some quality, but because it is thusness—the completeness of here and now. Within this sacredness, we see that nothing is excluded, nothing is not useful. This arises directly out of our understanding of reality. Nothing is not useful, but we have to know how to use it.

How do we practice beginning mind? Well, each of us came here and received some of the most important instruction we’ll ever get in our life; how to sit on the diamond seat and practice the way of all Buddhas. But the beginning mind doesn’t just automatically reveal itself. It has to be nurtured, it has to be discovered. So much of practice and realization is discovering this beginning mind and learning how to tend it.

In the Tibetan tradition there’s a core teaching called the Seven Branches, and these branches are practices. We don’t speak of it in the same way within the Zen tradition, but the essence of these practices are present—these are the practices that help us to bring beginning mind alive. We have to continuously prepare ourselves to receive the Dharma. It’s that simple. Because it is in receiving the Dharma that our lives are transformed, yet we cannot receive the dharma if we are preoccupied or filled to the brim with erroneous views. We have to become completely raw and exposed, inside and outside, to encounter the Dharma, because the Dharma has no body. It wears no clothes. We have to enter without passing through any door and without bringing anything with us. That’s not easy because we have accumulated so much: our desires, our attachments, our beliefs, a self. And so we have certain practices that are especially skillful in helping us to shed our accumulations. These practices are really states of mind.

Photo by Keith Chastain

Photo by Keith Chastain

The first of the Seven Branches is prostrations. When we perform an action or a gesture, it has an inherent intelligence that connects with a sense of knowing within us. That’s why the mudra of gassho is present in so many cultures—there’s a way in which the gesture of joining the palms is expressing something that we already understand. A prostration is not simply what you do with your body, although what you’re doing with your body is essential. It’s the mind that must bow, and prostrate as the whole universe.

Daido Roshi used to speak of his feeling that, as Americans, we needed to learn how to bow. In prostrating, something essential takes place. Something is awakened and he felt like we needed that. One aspect of this is that it heals our pride, the overbearing opinion we can have of our selves. Prostration is bowing to the Buddha. Bowing to enlightened masters: men, women, young, old, historical, mythical. Bowing to deep wisdom, to embodiments of authenticity, to ultimate examples of human nature, self-nature.

In that prostration there’s a trust that the ground is going to rise to meet you, perfectly. The ground rises to meet the body of sorrow, the body of heartbreak, the body of disappointment, the body of the Buddha, the body of aspiration, the body of trust. The ground holds our samsaric body; it supports it but it doesn’t allow sinking deeper into self-pity, into indulgence. It stops us so that we can then stand up on our own two legs and—upright—look straight ahead. The world awaits. And so, having dropped the body—our whole life, in a sense—in humility before the Buddha, we then raise our eyes to meet the Buddha, our enlightened nature, here and now.

We can think of a prostration as bowing within and to absolute nature—nothing outside. No high, no low. No dualities. Bowing is being in unity with all beings. In bowing, everyone is here—bowing with you, in you, and bowing to you. The practice of bowing can be experienced as bowing within meditation. Bowing within faith—this is beginning mind—open, reverent, trusting, not held back, not wary, not suspicious. If there is suspicion, doubt, or resistance, this too can be good if we examine it, if we turn toward the question so it helps illuminate the opening into a larger, more intimate world.

A prostration is the coming together of intention, mind and body. We are embodying a profound respect and reverence for the truth of the Buddha Way. This respect is profound because no one made it. It’s not the result of anyone’s efforts or cleverness. It’s original. It’s there to help you cross over.

The second branch is offering. To make an offering is to give, to counter our stinginess and greed. It is to manifest the great Paramita of Giving. We make an offering to the highest wisdom, the greatest compassion. Every period of zazen we make an offering to the Buddha when we offer incense. Every service we make multiple offerings: incense is an air offering, water from the mountain, flowers from the earth, the fire of candlelight, the space holding all of it—the five elements, which each one of us also contains. And so, as we offer those elements, we are offering the whole world, and the whole of each of us, which is the greatest offering of all.

How do we meet vastness? How do we meet perfection? How do we meet complete health? In wonder, in gratitude, in the desire to support, to be generous. Even when it’s the timekeeper who is offering the incense before zazen, or the officiant who is making the offering during service, we should understand that each of us is invited to make that offering to help us prepare to encounter the Dharma.

Photo By David Macnamera

Photo By David McNamara

Shantideva says, “I offer every fruit and flower, and every kind of healing medicine, all the precious things the world affords.” In other words, everything I could possibly give, I give. He continues, “To the Buddhas and their Bodhisattva children, I offer them myself throughout my lives. Please accept me totally, accept this offering, for with devotion I will be your servant. If you will accept me, I will be of benefit to all.” The most important thing we can give, of course, is ourselves. And in this giving of himself is Shantideva’s vow on behalf of all beings.

The third branch is atonement, which is an explicit part of some of our liturgy. When we really see our transgressions, acknowledge and take responsibility for our actions, we can release them and begin fresh. We atone as part of taking the Precepts and during the Renewal of Vows ceremony. At the Monastery, the residents chant the Gatha of Atonement at the start of each training week. Atonement is present any time we take responsibility for the harm we’ve caused and vow to do better.

Atonement is present any time we take responsibility for the harm we’ve caused and vow to do better.

The fourth branch is rejoicing in the good qualities and virtues of others. This is an excellent way to counter our tendency to judge, to compare, to be envious or jealous. Turning toward the other people and creatures in our life with a view of rejoicing in their good qualities changes what we see. When we speak about transformation, nothing fundamentally is being changed because Buddha nature has never been born and will never die. Our experience is what is transformed. And our experience is transformed by mind. These practices transform the mind, but to do so requires faith, and it demands that we enter completely. What is it to really enter into a bow? To really enter into an offering? To really enter into atonement? To genuinely rejoice in others? For many of us, this is new territory. It is not necessarily what we came looking for, but if we can enter sincerely, our state of mind is transformed into a state of mind that enables us to encounter the Dharma.

And so, practice develops. We become more tender, more trusting. We gain intimate contact with things that can’t be measured or known; our faith deepens. Out of this, the qualities of humility, reverence, devotion and sacredness begin to be revealed. These are such important virtues for a spiritual practitioner in any tradition. When there isn’t humility, there’s arrogance. When there isn’t reverence, then there is abuse and misuse. When there isn’t devotion, there’s disregard. When there isn’t sacredness, there’s desecration.

The fifth and sixth branches are requesting the Buddha to teach the Dharma and asking the Buddha to not abandon the world by entering nirvana. I see these as expressions of devotion. Devotion is love—and so within practice we can express this kind of love through vow. This is also an expression of loyalty, enthusiasm, and dedication. We might think of it as a kind of consecration—not to make something sacred, but to bring it into our awareness that it is sacred, from the beginning. In the Tibetan teachings, devotion means longing, wanting. It speaks to our hunger for truth, yearning for what is real from a place of deep humility and respect. It’s not demanding. It’s not, ‘I deserve to be free of suffering.’ It’s the deep hunger that is humble, without pretense, without contrivance. To lay ourselves bare, to simply be as we are. This is where we begin. If we’re not practicing there, we’re practicing pretense. To be our genuine self is a place of great confidence and great power because it is without contrivance. It is straight ahead. And we practice to meet others in the same place. Just as I am, I meet you—in your person, in your imperfections, with your history.

Photo By Hikinghillman

Photo By Hikinghillman

Bodhidharma said, “Worship means reverence and humility.” Normally, we think of worship in terms of a theistic tradition, and Buddhism is not theistic. The Buddha is not a god and the bodhisattvas and deities of Buddhism are not gods. They’re manifestations of your mind. They’re endowed with essential enlightened qualities and also with all of the wrathful, negative qualities, because those, too, are needed. Everything is useful. Bodhidharma says, “Worship means reverence and humility. It means revering your true self and humbling your delusions.” To dissolve harmful desires and strengthen beneficial thoughts is reverence and devotion.

The seventh and final branch is to offer the merit, the good karma, of our practice. So the first branches—of prostrating, offering, rejoicing, requesting the teachings, asking the Buddhas to stay in the world—culminate with dedicating all of this good karma and every benefit that we create in our lives to everyone. We can’t practice just for ourselves. That’s much too small. All that we do—our insights, our openings, our letting go, our loving kindness, our struggles, our moments of patience, our practice of the precepts, the very transformation of our lives—all of that is offered to all beings.

We do this physically and through our actions and words. We do this through our thoughts and our intentions. In this way, our motivation becomes great, our understanding becomes great. Our actions and their effects also become large. When we practice the Dharma this way, we’re offering medicine, but not in a self-righteous or self-congratulatory way. It’s not a big deal. When we see our heart open, when we find ourselves being more patient and generous, we can be encouraged by it, but we don’t need to make a big deal about it. That’s supposed to be happening. It’s not special, it’s not unique. Is it the result of your efforts? Of course. But this is simply the natural expression of beginning mind. Isn’t that what we should be doing with our lives?

Shantideva says, “I join my hands and beseech the Buddhas who reside in every quarter, kindle now the Dharma’s light for those who grow bewildered in the dark of suffering. I join my hands beseeching the enlightened ones to wish to pass beyond the bonds of sorrow; do not leave us in our delusion, remain among us for unnumbered ages. And through these actions now performed and by all virtue we amass, may all the pain of every living being be wholly scattered and extinguished.” That’s our devotion and reverence. This is the Great Vow. These practices are never separate from mind. They are real states of being. The life that they bring forth is the antidote to our arrogance, our greed, our deception, our jealousy—to all of those binding, afflicted states of mind.

As we continue of the path, let us reflect on the marvelous qualities of reverence and dedication, and on the reality of all that is sacred in this blessed life. We can allow this Dharma, this practice, to bring us into the heart of reality—to show us all that this life is, and all else that it is.

The rising sun:
in winter, its rays are cool
in summer, blazing hot,
yet it always radiates the same.
Observe the perfect moments
of time and seasons.
Align with the way.
This is the day of our fulfillment.


Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei is the Head of the Mountains and River Order and the Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of New York City.

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