The Zen priests that I study with, Tony Patchell and Darlene Cohen, have asked me to start writing a blog affiliated with their Russian River Zendo in Guerneville, California. At first, I was at a loss as to how to respond to this request. I have been formally practicing Zen for only about three years. What could I possibly have to say that would be worth listening to?
But, Darlene quickly assured me that this is precisely why I should write. She said I have "beginner's mind," not because I have attained enlightenment, but because I truly am still a beginner. Shunryu Suzuki-roshi said in his classic book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, that the goal of practice in Zen is always to keep that fresh perspective. He said, "In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."
I first was exposed to Zen practice many years ago, when I studied aikido, a Japanese martial art, in Seattle. After we practiced, we would sit zazen together. I found it as challenging and invigorating as the martial art itself. It took me many years, and many twists in the road, to come back to this path. But I often reflect on that first experience, and remember my initial impressions.
In aikido, there is a similar concept of "beginner's mind," connected to the idea of attaining a black belt. When you begin practice, your belt is white. Over time, through sweat and use, the belt slowly becomes soiled. When it is completely black, indicating the years you have dedicated to the art, that is when others often recognize you as a master. But -- soon after that, if you continue to practice, the top layer of the belt will actually wear away, revealing once again the bright, new white cloth. In other words, when meeting a martial artist wearing a white belt, there is no way to tell -- is he or she a beginner or the head teacher at the dojo?
So, in the interest of full disclosure -- I am no Zen master. I am just one of many who practice, and search, make mistakes, and try again. I invite you along for the journey.