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A powerful state of mind—or a paradox on the path to enlightenment?

Etymology: A combination of two Japanese characters: sho (“initial”) and shin (“mind”).

Meaning: For Zen Buddhists, the word shoshin (which in secular parlance means “innocence” or “inexperience”) refers to a beginner’s mind—a state of openness and wonder that allows a person to approach life unfettered by the preconceptions, biases or habits associated with knowledge and experience. Maintaining this condition through practices such as meditation is an essential step toward enlightenment.

The paradox of enlightenment is that a person cannot attain it if they seek to do so. Unlike Western philosophers like Descartes and Rawls, who cleared their minds of assumptions in an explicit effort to gain deeper insight, Zen practitioners strive toward shoshin for its own sake, not as a tool to achieve something greater; they reject personal ambition and the trappings of intellectualism. That’s not to say that shoshin equates to an embrace of ignorance: Rather, a beginner’s mind is ready for and open to new ideas.

Use: The word is used throughout Buddhist philosophy, but is particularly common in the Zen tradition, notably in the writing of Dōgen Zenji, founder of Japan’s Sōtō school of Zen in the 13th century. Its global usage today is attributed to another Sōtō monk, Shunryū Suzuki, who popularized Zen in California in the 1960s. The simplicity and clarity of his teachings struck a chord with many Americans and are neatly illustrated by the opening line of his seminal anthology Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Zen’s popularity continues unabated, with echoes of shoshin in the ubiquitous mindfulness movement and the “disruptive” thinking of the tech industry. Steve Jobs was a Zen devotee; some argue that the intuitive nature of Apple devices and its early slogan, “Think Different,” revealed his interest in shoshin. You might suggest that this commercial application of Buddhist philosophy appears to embrace the letter, rather than the spirit, of Zen—but that would reveal a failure to abandon your preconceptions.

"The paradox of enlightenment is that a person cannot attain it if they seek to do so"

  • Words:
    Debika Ray
  • Photography:
    Aaron Tilley
  • Set Design:
    Sandy Suffield
  • Words:
    Debika Ray
  • Photography:
    Aaron Tilley
  • Set Design:
    Sandy Suffield

"The paradox of enlightenment is that a person cannot attain it if they seek to do so"

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