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June 30, 2019: “Approach Brain”


The Secret Prayer of St. Phiaret is a prayer of not knowing, and trying to find comfort in not knowing.  The prayer is about being open to possibilities, and maybe even a little guidance from an outside source.  It begins “O Lord, I do not know what to ask of you.”

Here’s a variation on it, that I wrote, that I think we might be better prepared to hear and actually use:

I don’t know what to ask

I don’t even know what I need

There is more love in the world than I am capable of accepting


If I’m honest with myself

I am incapable of even loving myself completely


So much so that I don’t even know what I need or want

My hope is that I have what it is that I need

Even if I can’t articulate it 

I dare not ask for blessing 

I dare not even ask suffering, 

But I seek to approach 

With an open heart 

Whatever comes my way

May I be chastened and healed

May I fall and get up

May I be present to my own needs 

And the needs of others

With the ability to respond accordingly

May I know mercy

And may my heart be filled with loving kindness

Reading “Looking at Beginner’s Mind,” by Jason Poole     Scott Wise

Our reading this morning is by Jason Poole, a Buddhist practitioner and author who calls himself an “accidental Hawai’ian crooner.”  He writes:  

One of my favorite books is ZEN MIND, BEGINNER’S MIND.  I’ve read it a few times. And I read (and reread) snippets from it all the time. I keep a copy of it near my bed. A digital version lives on my Kindle so I can carry it with me. Every time I revisit it, it rings TRUE. Yes. Beginner’s Mind. Yes.

But then I close the book’s covers. Or I turn of my Kindle. And real life resumes.

And I forget.

I forget over and over and over.

[And I ask myself] What if…

What if we didn’t have to start from a completely clean slate? What if we start from right here, right now–bringing to the table all that we’ve experienced up to this point?

Can we still be beginners? Is Beginner’s Mind possible?


Because THIS MOMENT, the one that’s happening right now, has never happened before. I am sitting here with everything that that has brought me to this moment.  But THIS moment has never happened before.

No matter how many times I take out my zafu and set my timer, it IS the first time that I’m doing it in THIS MOMENT. With THIS BODY.  With all of the conditions that lead me to THIS moment.

And if I were to put the zafu away and then take it out again immediately after that, well, that moment would be brand new, too.

Every time I sit in meditation, I start new. Every time. And every moment of my life–every experience, no matter how familiar it may seem–is new again. Every time.

WHAT IF: Beginner’s Mind doesn’t mean erasing the past and coming to something from a place of complete ignorance.

WHAT IF: Beginner’s Mind honors all of the lessons you learned in the past, all of the things that brought you to this very moment.

WHAT IF: Beginner’s Mind wasn’t about unlearning, but rather holding a space open for curiosity and wonder for THIS MOMENT as it happens, as it occurs.

Sermon “Approach Brain”    Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi was undoubtedly one of the most influential spiritual teachers of the twentieth century, and to many Buddhists, is considered the founding father of Zen in the United States.   

His life began in Japan, where he became a priest of the Soto lineage, then he came here, to North America, and  taught from 1959 until his death in 1971. During that time, he founded the San Francisco Zen Center and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

His book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, is a seminal text for Buddhism on this continent, and it begins with the words we used to light our chalice this morning:

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” When Suzuki died, he was succeeded through dharma transmission by a new roshi, a new spiritual leader of the Zen community, Richard Baker, who wrote:

“The practice of Zen mind is beginner’s mind. The innocence of the first inquiry—what am I?—is needed throughout Zen practice. The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities. It is the kind of mind which can see things as they are, which step by step and in a flash can realize the original nature of everything. This is the practice of Zen mind.” (Baker, introduction Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.)

Suzuki Roshi did the calligraphy on the frontispiece of his book.  It reads shoshin,or beginner’s mind, in Japanese.  This is what it looks like:

I don’t know about you, but when I think of calligraphy, especially Japanese shodō,  I think of it as being very crisp and clean.  Concise.  Even the parts of it that fade away in a painterly brushstroke feel very studied and perfect to me, almost as if the calligrapher made the pictograph several times and chose the best one.  

But that’s not Zen, and you can see it in Suzuki Roshi’ s brushstrokes.

This feels structural to me, as if the ghost-like brushstrokes served as a study sketch for the finished product to be built on to.  There’s honesty there, the kind of honesty that this room has with its skeleton revealing the work of the craftsmen.  In his pictograph, Suzuki Roshi’s exploration feels more exuberant than the usual Kanji style, more efficient and edited.

The thing is that the Zen way of calligraphy, as Baker Roshi wrote, “is to write in the most straightforward, simple way as if you were a beginner, not trying to make something skillful or beautiful, but simply writing with full attention as if you were discovering what you were writing for the first time; then your full nature will be in your writing. This is the way of practice moment after moment.” (Baker, introduction Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.)

If you write with your full attention, then in the pictograph, your full nature will be revealed.

This feels very Eastern touchy-feely to many.  Some might even use the word Oriental, meaning not Asian so much as foreign and exotic.  And that’s how Suzuki Roshi’s text is, too.  He writes things like

“The [lotus] position expresses the oneness of duality: not two, and not one.”

“The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say ‘inner world’ or ‘outer world,’ but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door.”

Despite being in English, the concepts are so slippery to a Western mindset that  the language is still kind of foreign, even after all these decades of increasing familiarity with Buddhism.

But psychologists have a different way of looking at it that feels more scientific.  maybe even more tangible.

Psychologists have studied two different ways of approaching the unknown, using two different parts of our brains.  In studies with electrodes attached to the heads of participants, researchers can observe how different parts of the brain are lighting up in their subjects, depending on whether they are approaching a situation with curiosity or avoiding it with trepidation.  

My colleague Emily Wright-Magoon shared her reading on one study with hundreds of subjects, in which two separate groups of participants were given one sheet of paper with similar mazes and similar cartoon mice drawn on them.  The only difference was that one group had a maze with a big hunk of Swiss cheese in the center, at the end, and the other group’s maze instead had a big, menacing owl hovering above it.  

So, in one instance the mouse was approaching delicious cheese and in the other instance the mouse was avoiding attack by a predatory owl.  The participants were asked to figure out the best route to accomplish the goal of approaching or avoiding.

Immediately after both groups interacted with the maze, they were given creativity exercises that were verbal and visual. Those whose goal had been to approach the cheese achieved scores that were 50% higher in creativity than those whose goal had been to avoid the owl.   

Researchers concluded that participants tasked with protecting the mouse from the owl had the avoidance mechanism of their brains activated.  After that short exercise, which was just drawing lines on a cartoon for a minute or two, the result was that for a time afterward, they experienced residual caution, even vigilance.  The net result was diminished creativity, flexibility and curiosity.

The participants lucky enough to help the cartoon mouse to the cartoon cheese experienced just the opposite, with increased creativity, flexibility and curiosity.  They just had more fun.   

So using the avoidance part of our brains — for whatever reason — makes us tend to use the avoidance part of our brains more.  And using the approach part of our brains makes us tend to use the approach part of our brains more.  

I don’t know about you, but I know when I am open and curious, in any situation, I am almost always way more successful than if I am cautious and vigilant.  And if I am using the avoidance part of my brain, it’s really hard to get out of that rut.  It requires me to acknowledge I’m in that space, and commitment to getting out of it.

There’s a link for me between the ideas of Beginner’s Mind and Approach Brain.  

Beginner’s mind isn’t just about openness or curiosity or even child-like innocence and wonder.  It isn’t even just about letting go of the delusion that any of us  have all (or even ANY) of the answers or that our fate is somehow separate from the fate of everyone and everything else in the universe.

Beginner’s Mind is about having more possibilities, none of which are available to you if you are coming either from a place of scarcity or avoidance.  You can’t discover something new if you think you already have the one right answer, just like you can’t if you are afraid that something horrible is going to happen.  

In other words, Beginners Mind and Avoidance Brain can’t coexist.  

But let’s be honest.  Whether we call it approach brain or beginner’s mind it’s easy to adopt — at least in theory — when we’re talking about a cartoon mouse either searching for a big hunk of cheese or escaping a menacingly drawn owl.

And it’s certainly easier to be open-minded, open-hearted and kind when everything has gone your way, either through chance or hard work or some happily successful combination of the two.  

But what about when you are born into a rotten situation, and your whole life you can never get over the hurdles that keep appearing in your path, seemingly intent on ruining you?  And how do you get over those hurdles — with kindness — when people keep telling you that those hurdles have been placed there by an angry omnipotent being that created you but doesn’t like you?  Or worse.  That you placed those hurdles there because you didn’t work hard enough or didn’t make good choices, that you deserve the hurdles?

And what if you’re in one of those frustrating periods in your life when nothing…NOTHING … is going right, and the harder your try, the more you fail?  Because if we’re honest, we’ve all been there.  The easiest, and most cowardly thing to do is to lash out and blame everyone around you, but we all know how that works out.

How do you maintain beginners mind or approach brain when all you have is that owl hovering over you?  Your natural tendency, that human tendency, is to focus only on preserving safety, preserving your very being, and revert to avoidance mode.   What do you do?

An answer — not the only answer, but a good answer — lies with Bernie Glassman.   

Bernie Glassman was a model of curiosity.  He was born in Brooklyn in 1939.  His father was a construction foreman and his mother, who was from Poland, worked in a factory.  She lost most of her family in the concentration camps when Bernie was just a toddler, then she died, leaving him to be raised by his four sisters.  He went to college in Israel, and returned to the United States and worked in the aerospace industry.  He was introduced to Zen Buddhism in 1958 when he read The Religious Man, by Huston Smith, who later became a member of our UU congregation in Berkeley CA.  

But he and his wife and children observed Shabbat and the Holy Days in suburban New York.

In the late 1970’s he became intensely involved in social action, moved into the City, and and founded the Zen Community of New York.  Shortly thereafter he founded the Greyston Bakery, where the motto was “we don’t hire people to bake brownies.  We bake brownies to hire people.”  That led to the Greyston Foundation, with an expanded social justice and charitable mission serving 5,000 people a year. 

Now, you might think that for someone so accustomed to building service organizations from scratch and baking 3,500 pounds of brownies a day, that when he sat on the zafu, the dense little cushion Zen practitioners use, it was with the purpose of becoming deeply lost in calming meditation, to empty his mind, and free himself of his worries.  

You’d be partly right.  The stillness and the emptiness of his mind left space there creativity, and this is what brought him to the concept of what he called “engaged Buddhism.” He was driven to heal the world in the spirit of tikkun olam, the Jewish theological concept of being required to heal the world.

So, right from the beginning, Bernie wasn’t just saddened by the poverty and violence he witnessed in the inner city.  He was intrigued.  He wanted to know what it was like to be poor, homeless … desperate.  So he did what most people would be terrified of. He went out into the streets for a week at a time, and lived there, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a willingness to do what he called “bearing witness.”  

He didn’t go into the streets intending to fool anyone that he was destitute.  Nor did he expect to fix anything.  He went just to sit, with beginner’s mind — approach brain if you prefer — and pay attention to everything he encountered.  Not just the suffering and scarcity, but also the joy and abundance.  And there were a lot more joy and abundance than he ever expected.  

It didn’t take long before he was leading retreats — days-long retreats — at the sites of atrocities committed around the world, beginning with Birkenau concentration camp where most of his mother’s family had died.

Think about that.  If you’ve ever visited a somber site of an atrocity, like a concentration camp, Or the Oklahoma City Federal Building, or that grassy knoll in Dallas, you know.  It’s hard.  You make yourself go through because something – something internal or external — tells you it will be good for you to be there.  

But Bernie and the people in his group sat there for days,  in a place where his own family was executed, with intention of bearing witness to the whole thing, not just the experiences of the prisoners, but also the experiences and intentions of their jailers.  

There’s an irony in all of this for me.

Zen is about detachment.  Detachment from everything.  Detachment from the behaviors of other people.  Detachment from outcomes of your own behaviors.  Detachment even your own identity, in order to open yourself up to the endless possibility of life.

You’d think that that kind of detachment, when combined with a practice of sitting in silence, would detach you from the world. And I guess that could easily come to pass.

But not for Bernie.  

He used his beginners mind to bear witness, again and again, without knowing the answers, without fear or trepidation or scarcity, to meet every situation as creatively as possible.  And that gave him the kind of compassion I’ve rarely experienced in anyone else I’ve ever met.

Ultimately, having beginners mind/approach brain, is about finding ways to be kinder and less judgmental.

I would bet that most people here this morning have heard before most of what I’ve said — the concepts if not the exact details fo the stories.  But these ideas  bear repeating.  The repetition makes the practice fruitful.  The simplest ideas are also the slipperiest.  And potentially transformative.

Suzuki Roshi gave this example: suppose you recite a particular prayer or chant once.  It might be a good recitation, even a great one, recited with intense drama, and feeling that you experience down to your bones.  It might be such a great recitation that the neighbors feel its effect and relax.  But what would happen if your recited it more than once, three, ten, a hundred times.  It might lose its initial drama, you could lose your attitude toward it.  And the same can happen with any Zen practice.  Any practice at all, really.  It’s in the doing again and again that it becomes part of us.  The trick is to keep hearing it each time as if it is new, as if there is something to uncover for the first time.

We are approaching together a month of storytelling here at East Shore.  You may hear stories you’re already heard.  I would like to invite you to come to it with Beginners Mind, Approach Brain, open to the idea that with the latest telling, you might hear something that you’ve never heard before, and that could make all the difference.

May it be so.