Original Mind
The Craft of Zen Practice in the West

FOR MY TEACHER

SHUNRYU SUZUKI ROSHI


An ancient said, “In the eyes it is called seeing, in the ears it’s called hearing – but tell me, what is it called in the eyebrows?” After a long silence, he said, “In sorrow we grieve together, in happiness we rejoice together.”

PROLOGUE


Zen Buddhism offers us teachings and practices that can transform our life. It can transform our way of being in the world with others and our way of being in the world of phenomena. Although it is not easy to transport fundamentally and subtly different ideas, practices, and experiences across cultural and civilizational divides, it is possible to discover both the similarities and the differences which open worlds to us that are different from our own.

Zen Buddhist practice is one of the most accessible of the interfaces between the West and the East. Even in Japan, Zen is seen both as a universal teaching and as a quintessential expression of Japanese culture.

What makes Zen Buddhist teachings and practices particularly accessible to the West is the Zen concept of an Original Mind – a fundamental, culturally free mind. A mind which functions the same way in any culture, past or present. Of course, once we are born and nurtured, there is no body and no mind entirely free of culture, but we can approach this freedom, we can move in this direction through Zen practice. We can create views and practices which work as antidotes to our particular cultural views and to our accumulated personal experience. Doing so opens us, opens our experience, to things as they actually exist in any mind in any circumstance, or at least proximations of this – dynamically open, if not perfectly open.

‘Original Mind’ is an important and useful view in practicing Zen, particularly as Zen comes into the West as both an individual, personal practice and as an institutional practice and teaching. The ‘view’ that an ‘Original Mind’ is a possibility is an organizational dynamic of Zen teaching, iconically contrasting a ‘true mind’ of Zen practice to the experiential fact of accumulated and sedimented views and experience.

However, looking at ‘Original Mind’ as a dynamic of present-moment practice, it is better termed ‘Originary Mind’, meaning the immediate, moment-by-moment experience of mind as a potentially content-free field-of-mind, a field-of-mind which is experienceable as content-free. It is important to differentiate between ‘original’ and ‘originary’ because ‘original’ has a general meaning of ‘prior, primordial, or innate’. Such an understanding of ‘original’ can create mistaken, misleading views in Zen, because Zen practice emphasizes understanding and viewing the world as a phenomenology of unique moments – the experience of uniqueness on each moment.

What is paramount and crucial is that we can discover, notice, and experience an ‘Originary Mind’: a mind which is continuously renewed by, from, and through circumstances. This ‘Originary Mind’, originating at this moment, can also be experienced and conceptualized as a mind which ‘stays’ as content changes, stays as a field-of-mind within, behind, and as the flow of appearances. These two ways of conceptualizing and experiencing mind – 1) a mind which arises simultaneously with each sensorial and mental appearance, and 2) a field-of-mind as a continuum within which appearances arise – are essential Zen practices.

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