Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Beginner’s Mind — Sermon by Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on January 20th, 2013

Meditative Reading

But we have only begun to love the earth.  We have only begun to imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?  So much is in bud.

How can desire fail? We have only begun to imagine justice and mercy.

Only begun to envision how it might be to live as siblings with beast and flower, not as oppressors.

Surely our river cannot already be hastening into the sea of nonbeing?

Surely it cannot drag, in the silt, all that is innocent?

Not yet, not yet—there is much broken that must be mended, too much hurt that we have done to each other that cannot yet be forgiven.

We have only begun to know the power that is in us if we would join our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding hat must complete its gesture, so much is in bud.    – Denise Levertov

Sermon     “Beginner’s Mind”                      Rev. David Pyle


Unitarian Universalist Minister

and Soto Zen Priest James Ishmael Ford

tells of the three most common reactions

that people have to beginning a study

of Zen Buddhism and Zazen meditation.

These three reactions come from

being told to let go of conscious thought,

to focus your awareness upon your breath,

upon counting, and upon the experience of the moment.


The most common reaction of a beginner,

as they first sit down on the cushion

after some basic instruction in meditation runs a little like this:


“I’m horrible at this!  I can’t focus.  What am I doing here?

What made me think that I could sit meditation,

could study this ancient tradition?

Is everyone staring at me?

I think the Zen teacher is getting mad at me.

Oh, and I’m not even counting, am I?


The second most common reaction,

and indeed the one that I had

the first time I sat down on a Zen cushion

and was told to let go of my thoughts, goes a bit like this:


“I am Great at this!  Wow, I’m a meditating fool.

I’ve been doing this just a few minutes

and already I’m as  good as they are.

I bet my posture is perfect!

Enlightenment, here I come!”


However, James Ford has identified a third reaction,

one it probably took someone who was

both a Unitarian Universalist Minister

and a Zen Priest to recognize was happening.

James calls it “The Unitarian Option”.  It goes a little like this:


“But what if it’s a good thought?

I don’t want to let it go if it’s a good thought.

It could be the kind of thought that could save the world!

I only agreed to try this meditation thing

so that I could think really good thoughts.

I know, next time I come to this meditation thing,

I will bring a pad of paper and a pen,

and if I think of a really good thought

I will just write it down before I let it go…


James says he confiscates pens and pads of paper

when they appear in his Zendo…


We Unitarian Universalists tend to be very Knowing people.

We tend to be people who know a lot of things.

I apply this as much to myself as I do anyone else…

I think this aspect of our faith tradition that knows things

is part of what attracted me

to Unitarian Universalism in the first place.


We name that there are some ultimate questions

that no one can ever fully know the answer to…

questions like what happens after we die,

or if there is a God and if so what is that God like?

We leave some of these questions open,

Or at least we claim we leave those questions open in public,

but about everything else we know

that we can always find someone who knows the answer.


A little over a decade ago, PEW research put out a study

of all the major religious traditions,

of what characterized each of them.

Which tradition was the largest,

which tradition was the wealthiest,

which tradition was the most rural.

It ranked American religious traditions

based upon a variety of demographic categories

on a percentage basis.


Unitarian Universalism ranked first in only one category.

No, we were not the wealthiest, and we were not the poorest.

We were neither the most urban nor the most rural.

Though we were majority Caucasian,

we were not even the most racially segregated

among the religious denominations of today.


What we were, according to this Pew Research Study,

was the most highly educated religious denomination in America.

We were the denomination with the most college graduates,

and with the most post-graduate degrees.

I remember looking at the membership list

of the first Unitarian Universalist Church

I served as a minster one day,

and after counting the number

of PHD’s and MD’s in the congregation,

I remember having a moment of crisis that I,

having just begun my study for my Master’s of Divinity,

was expected to get up and speak

to this highly educated congregation week after week.


I got over my reticence…


Admit it, we’re kinda proud of what that study found, right?

We’re kinda proud that the religious tradition we choose

is one that is chosen often by those with advanced educations.

We’re kinda proud that most Unitarian Universalist congregations

are located near to centers of academia or the study of science.


There is an old joke among UU Ministers,

that if you are lost looking for the church

you are going to guest preach at on a Sunday morning,

just drive to the closest University or Laboratory and look around.

You’re bound to find the Unitarian Universalist Church

in no time at all.


I remember a moment of pride like that for me.

I was a hospice chaplain,

and I was visiting with a Jewish family

whose patriarch had just passed away.

Our Jewish chaplain was away on vacation,

and it was my turn to cover.


After spending a few hours with the family,

the Jewish doctor that had been with the patient and I

were sitting in the dining room drinking coffee

while the family sat Shiva upstairs.

After some small talk, the Jewish doctor asked me

“So, you’re not too bad for a Christian.

You were great with the family.  What denomination are you?”


I told him I was studying to become a Unitarian minister,

and he smiled real big.  He took my hand and said,

“I knew it had to be something like that.

Unitarianism is the only other religion I would ever be.

A thinking man’s religion!”


Our society celebrates the expert.

It almost does not matter what you are the expert at,

so long as you are the expert at something.

So long as there is something that you know,

or can do, or can show that is better than anyone else.

I remember that at the University I attended,

there were many experts in our liberal arts college,

but there was one that stood out for me.

He was the world expert in the history of the Army Mule.

He annually produced a calendar with photos of him

posing with the 12 best mules he had selected

from around the world.


Our society celebrates expertise.

This is not a negative thing!  Our world needs expertise.

We need the people who are the best Chemists,

who are experts at studying the thought of Emmanuel Kant,

or who know more about the development

of Zen in America than anyone else.

We need such experts, because no human being can study

and understand and explore everything in complete fullness.

In essence, we need to divide up the labor of “knowing”.


And yet, within such expertise lies a trap.

Within our status as a highly educated denomination lies a trap.

Within our image of ourselves, sometimes stated

and sometimes not, as “The Church of the Academy”

lies a trap.  Within “knowing” lies a trap.


There is a concept that lies at the very heart

of Zen Buddhism that is hard to express.

It is sometimes called “not-knowing”.

Dogen-zenji, the founder of Zen in Japan

called it either “pure mind” or “original mind”.

Shunryu Suzuki, one of the first Zen teachers

to transfer Zen from Japan to the United States

framed it as “Beginner’s Mind”.


To show a little of my own expertise,

I believe this concept of Beginner’s Mind

finds an analogue in Western thought to the idea

proposed by John Rawls in his book “A Theory of Justice”

as “The imitrex no prescription needed Veil of Ignorance”…

and I think it captures some of the meaning

that Jesus of Nazareth was trying to express,

when he told his disciples that unless they were like children,

they would not enter the kingdom of heaven.


Beginner’s mind is the stance

of encountering something for the first time,

without any prior experience, knowledge, or forethought

to shade or change the authentic experience of the moment.

It is the moment that happens naturally

only rarely past our early childhood,

when we encounter something in our lives

for which nothing has prepared us,

for which we have no knowledge,

and which we can then encounter

with a completely open awareness and unformed perceptions.

One teacher framed Beginner’s Mind for me

as giving up on knowing Zen, and just allowing myself to be Zen.


In my experience,

Zen teachers often say annoying things like that.


Shunyru Suzuki claimed that this concept of Beginner’s Mind

was the core of Zen practice…

that all else arose from being able to encounter each experience,

each moment without pre-conception, prejudice, and knowledge.


Resting in this idea is that all of our knowledge

often gets in the way of encountering the world

and each moment in the fullness of what they truly are.


Now, I am not a Zen Buddhist, and I think it was my reaction

to this privileging of Beginner’s Mind

that began me moving away from focusing on Zen

as my primary spiritual path.

You see, I’m not ready to give up on knowing,

to let go of all of the pre-conceptions and knowledge

that we gain through our lives, through our studies,

and through our expertise.

To me, letting go of expert mind completely

is just as much a trap as not embodying beginner’s mind.


There is a story I have heard floating

around Zen communities for several years.

For all I know it could be completely made up,

but it captures my reticence to fully embrace

the concept of the primacy of Beginner’s Mind.

There once was a Zen school who wanted to do some outreach,

some evangelism into the community.

So, they contacted a local television news outlet

and invited them to come and interview

some of the students about the Zen Center

and about Zen practice.

When the story was aired, however,

it contained one of the students, a beginning student of Zen,

saying that “at the Zen Center, we learn how not to think,

and how not to know anything”.


The trap I see in focusing primarily on trying to capture

authentic experience through a practice of Beginner’s Mind

is that it leaves so much of what makes humanity

what we have become out of the equation.


Human civilization, science, literature and learning

are built upon what has come before,

and without each individual having perfect knowledge

and perfect recall of all things,

we could never hope to encounter

all that there is anew at all times.

If we are always beginning,

we are limited not only by the experience of the moment

but also by the loss of the past

and by the absence of our visions of the future.


Yet the trap that Shunyru Suzuki outlines

for the expert is just as valid.

“In the mind of the beginner there are many possibilities,

in the mind of the expert there are few.”

Much of human creativity finds its link

to the mind of the beginner…

to that authentic experience of each moment.

The more we “know”, the more we limit our possibilities.

The more we know, the less we are able to learn.


There is an old adage, probably as old as academia itself.

The first step to learning is admitting you do not already know.


Now, I’m the minister… right?

I’m supposed to be the subject matter expert

when it comes to such existential questions as this.

I’m the one who went to school and studied

in order to be able to at least guide people

to finding their own answers…

and I’m supposed to have a few of those answers myself.

I doubt even a UU congregation would let me

keep a pulpit very long if all I ever did was step into the pulpit

and tell you what I did not know.


Just as I doubt a UU congregation would let me

keep a pulpit very long if I always stepped into the pulpit

and always seemed to know everything…  right?


Earlier in this sermon, I made an off-hand reference

to an idea by an American political philosopher

named John Rawls, which he called “The Veil of Ignorance”.

It was a thought-experiment that Rawls used

to try and determine the morality of an issue,

in the case of the experiment in his book “A Theory of Justice”

it was used to determine the morality of slavery in America.

The theory of “the Veil of Ignorance” was controversial

when he wrote the book, and it remains so today.


At its core, the veil of ignorance means

to try and remove yourself, the thinker,

from all of your own prejudices,

all of your own foreknowledge and pre-conceptions,

all of your own social standing and place in human society…

and then consider the issue as dispassionately as possible

to determine its morality.


So, a white southerner,

in order to get behind the veil of ignorance,

had to let go of the knowledge and pre-conceptions

of being a white southerner,

and then consider the morality of slavery.

The same would be true of a Black Northerner.

Only behind the veil of ignorance

could the morality of an issue be truly encountered,

according to Rawls.


Now, you can guess what the most common critique

of Rawls’ theory was, can’t you?

That removing all of the influences

that have created one’s “self”…  our place in society,

our experiences in life, our prejudices and pre-conceptions…

removing all of those is flat out impossible…

and that pretending we can is a delusion.

The critique is that the veil of ignorance could never work,

because you can never get behind the veil in the first place.

While there are other critiques of Rawls’ theory,

the most common one is that it is flat out impossible.


But just because something is impossible to do perfectly,

does that mean we should never try?


I see a connection between Rawls’ theory

of the Veil of Ignorance,

and the Zen Buddhist concept of Beginner’s Mind.

What I see in each of them,

and perhaps also in Jesus’ admonition to his disciples

to be more like the children that were gathered around his feet,

is the importance of trying to encounter moments

with the attitude of a beginner… while not losing all of the

knowledge and expertise that make up who we are,

who we have been, and who we are becoming.


There is an idea I keep coming back to in my own life

and religious practice, and that is the idea

of having many different lenses to see through

and encounter life through…

and I wonder if both Beginner’s mind and Expert’s mind

are just two of these lenses.

If in order to encounter the fullness in each moment,

I need to be able to experience that moment, or that person

in more than one way at the same time.


Tomorrow our nation remembers Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King,

and we once again have the chance to look at ourselves,

and the racial and cultural prejudices

that exist within our society…

we once again have the chance to look

at our own relationship to all the things

we think we “know” about other people.

That’s really what pre-conceptions and prejudice is…

it is things we think we know.  It is a form of expertise.


The power of seeking to experience the world

through both the Beginner’s Mind Lens

and the Expert Mind Lens is that one allows you

to challenge the other.

Expert Mind allows me to bring all

of our past experience to each moment.


Beginner’s Mind allows us to allow the moment itself to teach us.

Beginner’s mind allows us to challenge our prejudices,

no matter what they are for we all have some,

and to allow us to be regularly open to transformation.

And that, I believe, is the beginning of the answer,

on both a personal and a societal level,

to the crisis of the human soul that Dr. King gave his life for.


I don’t know… and I think I know.


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.



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