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. ...
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."
"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 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.