The prominent mindfulness meditation teacher Jack Kornfield tells this story illustrating the freshness of what has been called beginner’s mind in one of his talks about a Western woman who ordained under Ajahn Chah in Thailand in the late 1970s.
She spent 10 years living the simple and austere life of a nun in the jungle, practicing meditation many hours a day. One day she informed her teacher she was done, and returned to the USA.
One year later, she returned to the forest monastery in Northeast Thailand as a recently born-again evangelical, and tried to convert her former acolytes to Christianity. This created quite a stir. People became upset, especially the Thai folks who supported the monastery.
So they went to see the wise abbot, Ajahn Chah, and asked him what they should do about this.
He just looked at them and said “Maybe she’s right.”
That one line took the wind out of their sails. They settled down. People relaxed.
I mean, who knows, really?
Curiously, for me, learning the Buddha’s teachings as a monk for three years helped me let go of Buddhism.
The Buddha encouraged people to find their way between the two fatal extremes of eternalism and nihilism (which plays out in the West today as fundamentalist theism versus radical atheism).
Being radically honest here, I neither believe nor disbelieve in rebirth, karma and enlightenment. I really can’t say whether there’s any such thing as complete freedom from stress in this life.
This is just me, of course. I am not advocating any position here, Just being honest about where I am.
It doesn’t matter that much to me, because for me, that’s not the main point. Opinions like these can consume lots of energy, and for me, don’t really lead anywhere.
Ah! – Beginner’s Mind!
For me the crucial question is — Here we are, what now?
Life is stressful; what can we do about it?
Intelligence and compassion are the two wings of practice. They help us deal with the uncertainty, pain and tragedy of life. They are what the Buddha taught.
Mindfulness brings the momentum of our mental patterns (karma) into focus. Reflecting on life with intelligence and compassion leads us to change those patterns for the better. Beginner’s mind keeps these insights fresh.
Ajahn Chah’s answer to his concerned community – maybe she’s right—is sigh of relief.
We can just get back to what we were going before we were so rudely interrupted: this breath, those sounds, these bills, taking out the garbage, talking to our kids.
The Zen traditions offer some keen insights here. Let’s have a peak into a talk by the contemporary Korean Zen teacher Bon Soeng:
This basic teaching we have is Don’t-Know Mind. We want to know, we think we know, we think we’re supposed to know … But we don’t really know. We have this radical teaching – how about admitting the truth that we don’t know and go from there. If we really live that, it changes everything.
It all comes down to this, (Zen Master hits the floor). Clear it away. Return to zero. What do we see, what do we smell, what do we taste, what do we touch? Everything is truth. What we know blocks the truth. Returning to not knowing opens us up.
Suzuki Roshi wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,
“With beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert mind there are few.”
Beginner’s mind is the essence of this not knowing, this opening to the truth.
When I feel in my heart that I truly don’t know, there is beginner’s mind, and there is an openness and curiosity there. I just feel lighter when I am free of having to know, I am more patient, and less stressed.
How about you?
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