Stephen O’Malley

Shoshin 初心

Posted: May 29, 2009

One of the most profound secrets of learning anything new is keeping what has been called a "Beginner's Mind".

What is Beginner's Mind? Well part of it is described very well by the famous Zen story known as:

Empty Your Cup

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "You are like this cup," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup."

So to begin, we must all empty our cups of all the preconceived ideas, concepts, techniques and methods that prevent us from receiving the new. This seems like a simple thing to do, but can be quite difficult in practice. At first we think we are emptying our cups but as we drink from the new knowledge we detect residual tastes of the "old". Sometimes this new mixture can be sweet, like adding honey to tea, but sometimes even a little residue can curdle the whole mix, like adding lemon juice to milk. We must not only empty our cups, but make sure we have a "clean receptacle" so we may taste the "true essence" of the new knowledge.

Another important part of developing the beginners mind concerns getting rid of the "Been There, Done That" concept that seems so prevalent in today's society. It may be true that you have been there, and you may have done that, but perhaps your conception of reality was not the whole concept, "the big picture" if you will. Here is a poetic version of another famous story that may help us in our quest for understanding the beginner's mind.

The Essence of an Elephant

It was six men of Indostan To learning much inclined, Who went to see the Elephant (Though all of them were blind), That each by observation Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant, And happening to fall Against his broad and sturdy side, At once began to bawl: "God bless me! but the Elephant Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk Cried, "Ho! what have we here, So very round and smooth and sharp? To me `tis mighty clear This wonder of an Elephant Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal, And happening to take The squirming trunk within his hands, Thus boldly up he spake: "I see," quoth he, "the Elephant Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out an eager hand, And felt about the knee: "What most this wondrous beast is like Is mighty plain," quoth he; "'Tis clear enough the Elephant Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, Said: "E'en the blindest man Can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can, This marvel of an Elephant Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun About the beast to grope, Than, seizing on the swinging tail That fell within his scope. "I see," quoth he, "the Elephant Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan Disputed loud and long, Each in his own opinion Exceeding stiff and strong, Though each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!

-John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887).

This story is full of insight, what if the above happened to One blind man on six different occasions? Each time his concept of an elephant would change, grow and be enhanced. Yet he still would have more to learn about the true essence of an elephant. But if our hypothetical blind man stopped after the first visit, "Been there - Done that", his concept would be stuck at a lower level of understanding. He would miss out on the "Big Picture".

I will touch on one final element of developing the "Beginner's Mind" and that is a developing a sense of awe, a feeling of excitement and wonder when approaching or re-approaching a subject of investigation. That you can learn something new even if it is a subject you have already explored. That if you keep looking your bound to see something new, this in itself can be very exciting, wonderful, and awesome.

There is a lot more to discover about the Beginner's Mind but I will have to return to this "elephant" in the future because my cup is full, and I prefer to empty it by drinking deeply, and savoring its wonderful taste.

In closing I would like to leave you with a quote from Grandmaster James Lacy: "The simplest is the most profound."

-The Neophyte.