Posted by: B Gourley | July 9, 2008


Those who have read Shunryu Suzuki’s book entitled “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” will be familiar with the concept of shoshin, or the “beginner’s mind”. For others it may seem odd that a beginner’s mind would be something to emulate. One may associate the characteristics of being inexperienced or unseasoned with being a beginner. However, there are a number of characteristics of novices and neophytes that are quite virtuous. Ironically, some of these virtues are among the hardest qualities for intermediate and advanced martial artists to master.

Such virtues are not necessarily difficult to understand conceptually. I think that this is among the key differences between wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge that is hard to put into action is typically complex. Wisdom can be quite elementary and still take years of practice to become engrained in action. “Turn the other cheek.” “Desire is the root of suffering.” “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” [i] These are all pieces of wisdom that most children could understand, but which many people spend their whole lives believing without embodying in action.

What is the wisdom of the beginner’s mind? First, beginners have no reason to be arrogant, and, therefore, must be able to shelve their egos. This is an important trait that many skilled martial artists do not display in their everyday lives. Why is it important for a martial artist to be able to eliminate the force of the ego? For one thing, if one has an attachment to self or to one’s self-image, one’s mind can become stuck in thought or emotion at the most inopportune times. One can get caught up in concern about being struck or thrown, and, when this occurs, one is particularly vulnerable. Often watching and waiting with a composed mind until the last instant is the key to avoiding an attack, and it is difficult to avoid “happy feet syndrome” if one is concerned about being struck. In a natural state of mind in which one is fully in the moment, one can be still or move as is appropriate because there is neither anticipation nor fear of consequence to obstruct the mind.

Another factor is that arrogance makes one vulnerable to manipulation. A vain person can be manipulated into attacks that are not ideally timed or conducted. One doesn’t want to be suckered into the wrong fight at the wrong time. I have seen martial artists become quite angered when the legitimacy of the linage they study is caste in doubt. Why not take advantage of being underestimated? Machiavelli said the following about whether it was better to be loved or feared: “…one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, [it] is much safer to be feared than loved…”. I think it would also be nice to be both respected and unflappable, but if they are ever mutually exclusive, it is better to have a composed mind than the deference of others.

Second, beginners are not subject to the primacy fallacy[ii], or other problems stemming from being unable to adjust to new lessons. That is, beginners do not suffer debilitating cognitive dissonance because they are shown something in a different manner than they were previously – because they haven’t seen anything previously. They are tabula rasa. Sometimes, teachers present things in different ways at different stages of the student’s development in order to speak to a particular deficiency or excess in the student’s nature. This often causes difficulties in the mind of the student who cannot reconcile the differences over time. As Suzuki said: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”[iii]

The reason for naming this blog “Shoshin Budo” is in recognition of the beginner’s mind as, ironically, a very high state of mind, and one that should be pursued by martial artists. It also reflects a recognition that embodiment of this concept is one of the lessons for which I am beginning to strive.

[i] The first and second quotes are fundamental to the Christian and Buddhist religions respectively. The final quote is attributable to Plato.
[ii] Thinking that the first way you experience something is the ultimate and insurmountable experience of that thing.
[iii] Suzuki, Shunryu. 2006. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Boston: Shambhala Press, p. 2


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