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Painting of Maestoso II Catrina ridden by Shana Ritter. Painting by Janey Belozer.

Thomas and Shana Ritter perform a Pas-de-Deux to Music during the 2007 Open House Performance, aboard the Lipizzan stallions, Favory Toscana-18 and Conversano Mima. Photo by Amelia Gagliano.

The Circle of Learning
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter

©2000 - All Rights Reserved

In one of our Zen books (I can't find the reference right now), there is a Japanese proverb that says:

"At first, mountain is mountain. "Then mountain is not mountain. "Finally, mountain is mountain."

This is very interesting, because it describes the way of studying an art as a circle that is divided into three different sections, or phases. The novice takes everything he sees at face value. Everything seems to be straight forward and very simple. E.g. anybody who has never sat on a horse thinks riding is the easiest thing in the world. When the novice is starting to take lessons in whatever discipline he wants to study, he realizes the complexity and intricacy that is hidden beneath the smooth, pretty surface of a good performance. Things often become confusing at this stage, nothing is what it appears to be, and the student is struck with the realization that he knows nothing and understands nothing. This is a phase of struggle with oneself and the subject matter. Finally, the student begins to understand the principles and simply the Nature of the Art. At first, this understanding is of a purely intellectual nature, and the student is as yet unable to perform in practice what he knows in theory. Gradually, the abstract theoretical knowledge becomes practical knowledge and skill. A connection is made between the mind and the body. The theoretical knowledge takes on new meaning. We have probably all had experiences where our teacher told us something, and we thought: "Of course, I understand." Three years later, it hits us during a ride: "That's what the teacher was talking about. Now I Understand." The more connections the student establishes between abstract, theoretical knowledge and practical feel and skill, the simpler and clearer things become. The principles and rules take on new meaning again. The discipline we study appears less complex, easier to understand. Things really are what they appear to be again.

The same phenomenon is discussed in P.T.Sudo's book "Zen guitar" (which I can't find at the moment). Sudo talks about the concept of the different color belts in martial arts that show the level of accomplishment. The beginner wears a white belt. Over time, the belt slowly becomes soiled by practice, until it is black. If the student continues to practice and to wear the same belt, it slowly becomes frayed, until eventually it is white again. This describes the same circle from beginner through the various levels of apprenticeship to mastery.

What is interesting about this concept is that the master is likened to the beginner. In our Western civilization, we tend to see progress as a linear development, so that we would place the beginner and the master at opposite ends of the spectrum, whereas in Zen, they are right next to each other. The master is seen as sharing certain qualities with the novice. One of them is the open mindedness, the capacity for wonder and learning new things. Hence Suzuki's book title "Zen mind, beginner's mind". Throughout his life, the student should approach his art with the open mindedness of a beginner, even if he is already a master.

Suzuki explains it in the prologue of his book on pp. 21f.:

"For Zen students the most important thing is not to be dualistic. Our 'original mind' includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few. ...

"In the beginner's mind there is no thought, 'I have attained something'. All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner's mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice.

"So the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner's mind. There is no need to have a deep understanding of Zen. Even though you read much Zen literature, you must read each sentence with a fresh mind. You should not say, 'I know what Zen is', or 'I have attained enlightenment'. This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner's mind. It is the secret of Zen practice."

The exact same thing applies to riding as well. We can make a connection at this point to the discussion of mastery we had a few weeks ago on the Classical Dressage list. A true master has the beginner's mind, which finds its external expression in humility. A person who thinks of himself and portrays himself as a master is most certainly not, because his ego is inflated, and he has lost his beginner's mind. His mind is cluttered with self-centered thoughts and desires, which limits his possibilities. The master has let go of his ego, because it doesn't matter any more. The master has also attained a grasp of the vastness of how much there is to learn. Egon von Neindorff alluded to this in a lesson when he told us: "The more you learn the more you become humble as a church mouse."

The concept of the beginner's mind leads to another issue that was already addressed briefly in the last few paragraphs. It is the concept of ego. Someone who measures his self worth by his performance (and we probably all do to some extent) attaches too much importance to success and failure. The danger in this is that we get hung up on failures because they make us feel inferior. We feel ashamed, and consequently put pressure on ourselves to get it right. But the harder we try, the less we get it. The same thing applies to success. The better we become, the more praise we receive, the more we are tempted to overestimate our own ability. Our ego becomes inflated, which can again lead to pressure, because now we feel the need to prove ourselves. The harder we try to prove to ourselves or others how good we are, the more likely we are to prostitute ourselves and to betray our art. And in addition, we set ourselves up for failure.

If we let go of our ego, success and failure become integral, complementary aspects of life that are of limited significance in the greater scheme of things. Both will pass eventually. Both present learning opportunities on different levels, about the art, about the philosophy behind the art, and about ourselves. In the end, neither success or failure matter. What is important is that we practice for practice's sake with honest, good intentions. This removes all pressures and gives us great peace of mind. is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the art of Classical Dressage.
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