Beginner's Mind

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is one of my favorite books. In it, Zen teacher (and perpetual student) Shunryu Suzuki discusses “shoshin”…literally “beginner’s mind” or having an attitude of “not knowing”…an openness to myriad possibilities and lacking any sense of preconceived notions about a particular subject…or about life. I often think about what it means to be a student and how scary, exhilarating, and ultimately life-affirming it can be to embrace the experience of being a student.

Shunryu Suzuki

Shunryu Suzuki


In over 35 years of teaching, I can honestly count on two hands the number of students I’ve taught who have, naturally and without being aware of it (of course) adopted a beginner’s mind, in terms of their musical studies (and, I suspect, in their broader lives…since music study is a microcosm of the greater whole and reveals who we are as people).

As a teacher, my responsibility is to meet the student where they are…and we begin, continue and renew our work constantly from that place. And those rare students who have brought that openness and willingness to entertain many possibilities in their musical work have in turn brought a special quality of beauty into this world. As Suzuki reminds us:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.
— Shunryu Suzuki

It seems to me that the art of musical composition, too, involves at least a certain degree of beginner’s mind. Creating structure and sound, texture, thought and emotional content out of innumerable possibilities goes to the very essence of Suzuki’s teachings.

Sticking with the Zen theme, let’s perhaps consider the sublime beauty of the Shakuhachi flute, played by Hi To Mi in a composition by Horii Kajro.


Or the Native American flute, as played by Guide Joseph in the Lower Antelope Canyon of Page, Arizona.


Or the creation of a ballet score on the Billy the Kid story/legend in 1938 by Aaron Copland and performed by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra (this is my favorite American ballet score!).


Or perhaps French composer Claude Debussy’s prelude for piano Footprints in the Snow as played by the wonderful Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli.


Beginner’s mind. As for me, I can only hope to be half the student that I wish to be…chasing the seemingly unattainable. It’s a state which simultaneously beckons to and eludes me. It’s a way of looking at the world which constantly renews itself…and me. For that, I’m grateful.

Rick Ferguson