Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Reflective Zen Practice

Any “zennie” can list numerous quotes from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and each one would be as penetrating as the last but the depth of his teaching seems to always allude me.  In my early days of practice I came across a free copy of “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” online and attempted a reading.  I mean, this is Shunryu Suzuki, right?  Between he and D.T Suzuki, they defined Zen Buddhist practice for an entire generation of Buddhists in America.  But the book didn’t speak to me.  I didn’t feel it and I didn’t know why.

Now I do realize what wasn’t present when I first read Shunryu Suzuki … practice and experience.  You need to bare your neck to read and digest these teachings.  You need to be humbled before you pick it up and in order to be humbled you need to have practiced and have seen the wall.  Until that point you think the wall is your entire world.  Practice lets you peek over.

I originally thought that “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” was an instruction manual to Zen practice but it isn’t; it is a reflective journal of your practice up to this moment.  It isn’t meant to teach you how to practice but how to relate to your practice.  The goal of the book is to put you in the proper context in relation to your practice and your life.  Suzuki Roshi was just slowly and consistently nudging you away from your self in these lectures and pages.  Small, gentle prods that were meant to show you your self and let you laugh at it.

I’m picking it up again, this book.  And I have what was missing before – a practice.  Not failures or successes.  Not wisdom and compassion.  Not ignorance and greed.  Just practice.  Inherit in each of these aspects form the evolving whole of this practice and this life.  This fear and this joy.  These tears.

So if you haven’t read it in a while, try it again.  Below are some lectures from Shunryu Suzuki that are equally stirring.  But maybe you should sit first and then come back to them. I don’t know.  You can listen to Shunryu Suzuki but to hear him you need to relate to the words … then maybe we can empty them of any meaning whatsoever.




21 thoughts on “Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Reflective Zen Practice

  1. Dear John,
    Thank you for your thoughts on Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind. I read the book when I was 24 or 25. I picked it up at a bookstore in Boulder while visiting friends there. It was 1974 and I believe it had just been published.
    I couldn’t make any sense of the book, and I came to the conclusion that I was not smart enough to “get it”. At that time, most of the people I knew who studied Buddhism were very intelligent folks…grad students, scientists, and so forth. I was still smoking lots of marijuana, and truthfully, I don’t believe my mind was mature enough to grasp the concepts. But, I was a stream enterer, just the same…seeking seeking seeking.
    Over the years I picked up the book again and again, but it was Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Peace is Every Step, that really pulled me into practice.
    This, I think, is an example of skillful means. The Nhat Hanh book was what I could relate to at the time. Today, as a more mature human/practitioner, I read from Suzuki Roshi’s books and they are like water, flowers, mountains and sky.
    I am so grateful to the people who brought Buddhism to the Western World such as Suzuki Roshi, Maezumi Roshi, Robert Aiken, and Chogyam Trungpa. And I am grateful to you, John, for actively building this American Buddhism.
    OK, that is enough for now.
    Love, your friend, Christine

  2. I think the name, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, tricks a lot of people into thinking this is a book for beginners. It isn’t a book for beginners so much as a book that helps us to recover the fresh mind of a beginner. I’ve told many people that this book isn’t a good place to start if you want to begin learning about Zen practice.

    That said, like may others have, I did pick this book up, in the form of the audiobook ready by Peter Coyote, very early on in my practice. While there was certainly a lot in there that was beyond me at the time, I actually got a lot out of it. Maybe that’s because of the format, since I was able to listen to it out of the corner of my mind while driving, instead of trying to digest a series of mysterious written words that didn’t mean anything to me. Whatever the reason, things from this book have stuck with me over the years, and I’ve been able to access them over and over again from the perspective of experience. So often, I’ll encounter something in my practice and think, “Oh, that’s what Suzuki Roshi meant when he said …” For that reason, I’m grateful to have encountered it when I did. I really need to read it again one of these days. I bought a copy a few years ago, and haven’t cracked it since. Maybe I’ll borrow that audiobook from the library again.

  3. My teacher once said that in his view, sutras aren’t much good as roadmaps for practice, but they can be useful to validate a path already traveled. I relate to that, and I get the same from a good many books as well, this one included.

    • I’m not a huge fan of roadmaps (must be the Y chromosome) so I prefer the analogy of a compass. Sutras/books/teachers can provide the direction but we blaze the trail.

      I refered to my practice as a machete in the past (in response to the Diamond Sword comparison some like to use) because the machete is a tool and not a weapon and to keep it sharp aids as we cut down delusion and ego on our trail-blazing.

      Suzuki was always sneaky for me. My first book that I read that related directly to practice but it is more of a validation to the path rather than a guide on how to get on it. Better books to start with but none better to refer back to and whet your blade on.



  4. I just went and pulled that book off my bookshelf….I bought it in 1981 for the staggering sum of $4.50. It is heavily underlined and it was an intense read at the time….but one that moved me to explore further. On the back cover an amazing photo of

    Thanks for the reminder John.

  5. I recently was trying to explain to someone the difference between Buddhist books, especially Zen ones, and religious themed books from the Abrahamic religions. While Christian books, in particular, explicitly testify, give advice, or in some cases, rules to live by, Buddhists Books, including sutras, are more more like lamps on the dark highway of the Middle Road. They can provide a light in the dark but they aren’t street signs or atlas’s, Buddhist thought doesn’t flow like that. Each traveler of the Path must make his own way. Books and scripture can help, but first you have to start walking somewhere.

    Peace, my contemplative brother,


    • As much as I love Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, I don’t recommend it as a primer for just starting practice. John Daido Loori Roshi wrote what I consider the trifecta of Zen practice.

      The 8 Gates of Zen for bare-nuckles practice
      Bringing the Sacred to Life for an understanding of liturgy and ritual
      Invoking Reality for precepts and mindful living.

      But in the end, you are correct, they are just tools.


    • The externals may be different – Zen tends to seem stark and minimalist on the surface, while Vajrayana practice leans more toward more elaborate, mythopoeic expressions (and saying even that much is a crude oversimplification) – but the goal is the same. In all forms of Buddhism, we seek to see past the illusion of of a permanent, separate thing we call the “self.” Some seek to do that through the dropping away of body and mind in shikantaza or koan work, some do it through renouncing self-power and invoking the name of Amida Buddha, some do it through complex mudras and mandalas that help them to identify with personifications of pure wisdom or compassion, etc. What resonates for one person may seem strange and alienating to another, so all of these various forms developed as skillful means to help many different kinds of people wake up. Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks, as they say.

        • One of the largest differences between the schools of Zen and the Vajrayana (Tibetan, Shingon) is that of “secret teachings”. The Vajrayana thrives on a gradual exposition of the Dharma and its practice to students.

          Zen tends to stay more grounded in the simple and mundane.

          Personally, I am growing to be quite attracted to many aspects of Vajrayana practice but “secret teachings” is not one of them! I like tranparency in my practice and in my teachers. That being said, the more I communicate with Vajrayana practitioners the more I can understand another of the Dharma gates. 😀

          The same is true of yoga, Bob! I am not surprised at the amount of overlapping practice in the two traditions. I tend to see overlap of philosophy as well. While yoga tries to tap into the infinate that pervades all, Zen tries to overcome the delusions to see the True Nature.

          Love It!


        • I’m not drawn to “secret teachings,” either. Seems to me that even the simplest and most direct presentations of dharma are subtle enough to require years to really penetrate. But I can also understand the reason for the gradual unveiling of more esoteric practices. When you’re dealing with the dissolution of the self, too much too quickly could be shocking, even damaging, for someone who doesn’t understand what that means and isn’t prepared for it. I suspect a lot of psychological insight, if you can call it that, went into detailing the chronology for exploring the deeper forms of Vajrayana practice. Even Zennies who believe in “sudden enlightenment” admit that “it” mostly happens in the context of a dedicated practice. For my part, I’ve always liked Dogen’s analogy of one’s robes getting soaked through while walking through a fog. One moment you’re dry, and later you’re wet, but it’s impossible to point a finger at any one moment and say, “Right then, that moment is when I moved from being dry to being wet.”

  6. I’m much more attracted to the philosophy of how Zen and Yoga can be practiced in everyday life.

    Much of what I personally know about Zen comes from studying a book called “Zen Guitar”
    I don’t know how authentic the Zen is, but at least he references all the gentlemen you talk about on this site in his extensive bibliography.

    I found I was already playing guitar with a mind similar to what was described in the book, so it was very helpful in solidifying my guitar approach ( ), which, interestingly enough, I originally got from the live-in-the-moment Gypsies of Andalusia.

    Not hard to see why I’m a spiritual universalist.

    Bob Weisenberg

  7. “You need to bare your neck to read and digest these teachings. You need to be humbled before you pick it up and in order to be humbled you need to have practiced and have seen the wall. Until that point you think the wall is your entire world. Practice lets you peek over.”

    So true and very well put!

    I came across this book early on in my practice and it seemed to almost be like a distillation of teachings from my martial arts teacher. There was something really special and astonishing about coming across the book after years of physical practice and question and answer learning and then to see that what we had been learning was strikingly similar to what is in this book.

    “You can listen to Shunryu Suzuki but to hear him you need to relate to the words … then maybe we can empty them of any meaning whatsoever.”

    Not sure I completely understand this – think I do a little and having fun trying!

  8. I was fortunate to live and study with Suzuki Roshi for the last 5 years of his life. I appreciate very much your thoughtful consideration of Roshi’s work and your honesty about your personal journey and how it enabled you to find meaning and support in Roshi’s words.

    May you constantly arise in the fullness of your True Self.


  9. I too, like to talk about silence. When I have something to say, my lips are sealed. I like to read about music. The notes on the page make the prettiest pictures. I like to read about painting. The words are such brilliant colors, the light is so subtle. I like to read about dancing; the movements are hypnotic. I get breathless and sweat. Makes a lot of sense doesn’t it? I’m blind, so I read the world with my fingers. I’m deaf, so I read lips. I have no tongue, so I push keys on a board. Students of Zen are jerks, but I admire those who walk the 8-fold path. But they aren’t students, they’re goers. Gone, gone, gone beyond. Hail the goer! Does a Praying Mantis have Buddha-Nature? What is the difference between shit on a stick and a Buffalo?

  10. May you cease to give voice to trite cliches like a Turing device on automatic. The well is ever teeming. Draw water from the well. Water is but one secret of a verdant garden. Water your roots, while reaching towards the light. Cultivate your inherent phototropism. Suzuki Roshi’s words are like salt; a little adds flavor, too much is poison.

  11. Zen is not something that you ‘practice’. It is not separate from Being, itself. Zen is the pig at a Ham and Egg breakfast, not the chicken. It is all or nothing. Actually, it is all and nothing simultaneously, but that is another discussion. Beginner and Expert, these are ideological constructs that derive from Samsara. Zen is the simplicity of complexity, and the complexity of simplicity. It is not this or that. The Master is turning the key in your lock. He is flinging cold water into your sleeping eyes. He is shouting into your deaf ears. Thunder is impressive. But it is lightning that gets the work done.

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