Filed in Community, Zen (Chan)

Cultivating Beginner's Mind

Yvonne Rand offers two practices for bringing us into the Buddha space of Beginner's Mind.

Yvonne Rand

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© Hulton ArchiveI want to talk about practices that are conducive to cultivating Beginner’s Mind—the mind fresh and awake to many possibilities. This mind is different from the mind we often bring to habitual activities or habitual ways of thinking or responding. How can I be a beginner in each moment, even in those situations where I am doing something that I have done many times before?

I have found the practice of the half-smile conducive to cultivating Beginner’s Mind, as well as the practice of taking on several points of view in a particular situation. These are the two practices I want to consider here.

Like many other practices, the practice of the half-smile—for the space of three breaths—can bring us to the experience of what I call “Buddha space.” By this I mean the space I know from sitting every day over a long period of time. It is that space that is open to the most possibilities and to seeing most widely. Often, having a moment of “Buddha space” is enough to recall me to a wider mind than I normally have as I race around through the course of the day.

The practice of the half-smile has nothing to do with feeling like smiling. For those of you who have not done this practice before, you can think of it as “mouth yoga.” Just lift the corners of your mouth slightly—not a full smile or a grin—for the space of three full breaths. Let your attention be on the sensation of slightly lifted corners of the mouth and then with the three breaths.

This is a practice you can do when you first wake up in the morning. If you already do some daily meditation practice, the half-smile is a practice you can do when you first begin your regular meditation. When I first began doing the half-smile, I did it whenever I found myself waiting: standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, on hold on the telephone, waiting for an appointment in the doctor’s office.

I found that if I had some signal to remind me to do the half-smile when I first woke up, I could readily remember to do it. If not, I would think of it sometime around noon—or three days later. So I took a picture of Suzuki Roshi laughing and I put the picture by the side of the bed. Now, when I wake in the morning, it is usually the first thing I see. And the agreement that I made with myself was that whenever I see that picture I will stop and do the half-smile for three breaths. After a month or so, it occurred to me to do the practice also when I notice some feeling of anger or anxiety or tension arising; the half-smile is, in fact, traditionally used as an antidote to negative states of mind.

Most of all I find that the half-smile is a practice that brings me a sense of spaciousness, and in that spaciousness I notice more than when I am feeling crowded by my pace or my activity, or by the expectations I hold for myself.

Another practice I would like to consider is that of taking on different points of view. I think that I can suggest this practice best by telling you some stories that illustrate it.

When you came to this meditation hall this morning, you came into the outer hall through one of the two sliding doors. If the doors are not closed on a cold day, and if the stove in the back area is lit, all the heat from the stove escapes through those doors. If both doors are left open, a wind tunnel forms and a gale blows through. There has been a colloquy for some time about what we can do to get each of us to remember to close the doors. We have all kinds of discussions about rules and punishments.

Recently, people who live in the back area of the building were standing in a circle around the stove warming themselves and fussing together about this problem. In the middle of the discussion, Sierra, the golden retriever who lives here at Green Gulch, came wagging in. She pushed open the sliding door and joined the group. Suddenly everyone realized that it was Sierra who enters in the middle of the night, opening and not closing the door. She comes in to be warm and dry and near her friends. Suddenly there was a kind of opening about this problem with the unclosed doors. There may even have been some irritation with Sierra, but nothing like the irritation which some of us had felt toward each other.

Our minds are tricky. What happens in a situation where I am certain that Mary or Joe is the one who has left the door open? And what happens, by contrast, when I imagine that it is sweet old Sierra the dog, coming in from the cold and rain? A kind of generosity may arise in my mind.

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