World Haiku Review, August 2009



Beginner’s Mind

 What is a beginner’s mind, after all is said and done? What is it that we are meant to remember when we are told that we have lost the beginner’s mind? Does beginner’s mind matter in haiku? If so, what are we really talking about when we mention this magic term?

 As the term is normally taken for granted and no one asks such questions as mentioned above there is no ready-made answer. That is precisely why it is worth asking these questions. Let us then have an open-ended discussion on this open-ended question. All too often we have too many of those who pontificate on things they themselves are not yet so sure about but pretend they know all about it. Often they have to do it, let me hasten to add, to preserve the position they have appointed themselves to be in. That is the rub and trap. When it comes to questions as important and fundamental as this, i.e. what is a beginner’s mind, we might as well leave our expert’s mind and go straight back to the beginner’s mind.

 Suppose we are all born haiku poets? In other words, once upon a time, let’s assume, there was haiku in all of us, rather like the Buddha nature. This is in line with the school of thought that we all have within us potential capabilities and possibilities of everything under the Sun. So, the only question is how to realise them. All Japanese children are taught, “Shoshin wasuru bekarazu”, or one must not forget the beginner’s mind. Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959) emphasised the importance for all haijin of observing “shoshin ni kaeru” (to return to the beginner’s mind). So did Basho.

 If haiku is in us all, then there must be hindrances to its coming out of us when some of us cannot write it or what we actually write is nowhere near haiku in spite of our good intentions and efforts. Those hindrances could be straightforward misconceptions about haiku. They could also be the often-observed attitude of wanting to teach haiku prematurely and impatiently before learning it properly in the first place. Still they could be our predilection for intellectualisation, conceptualisation, knowledge-accumulation or for following received ideas and preconceptions about haiku, without listening to our inner poetic voice and sensibility.

 In the case of Japanese teaching of “shoshin” mentioned above, the meaning is crystal clear, it does not mean what it is perceived to mean in the West. “Shoshin” in this usage means the resolution one makes when one starts something new, be it university education, learning how to play the piano, or archery. So it should be translated as an ‘initial thoughts’, ‘initial resolutions’ or even ‘initial (self-)promises’ rather than a ‘beginner’s mind’. Do you remember telling your wife all those years ago when you got married to her that you would make her happy, or at least you promised yourself to do so?

 We are all, let us admit, prone to forget our ‘initial thoughts, resolutions or promises’ for all sorts of reasons. Do you remember what yours were when you started writing haiku? Applications for membership of the World Haiku Club are full of them, wishing ‘…to discipline myself in focused, tight and succinct writing capability by learning haiku which seems to require it…to improve my poetry by learning something completely different…to broaden my horizon by studying Japanese literature through haiku…to seek something different from how I have been taught about haiku, etc.’

 The second meaning of ‘shoshin’ is of course a beginner, or a state of being a beginner, when one knows little about the subject matter in question or has little experience of it. To put it the other way round, at this early stage one’s mind is not filled with knowledge or experience regarding what one has just embarked on. This is the meaning which is usually taken in the West when the term ‘shoshin’ is used, especially in the context of studying and/or practicing Zen.

 Clubs and circles of sports, hobbies and the like, or even businesses often mention in their recruitment literature that no experience is needed, or that training will be given. This is because they prefer to have someone without any prior experience or knowledge and to train him or her right from the very beginning. The quickest way to understand it is some men’s preference of a virgin to an experienced woman, as ‘shoshin’ also means ‘ubu’, or virgin. One extreme is to recruit totally inexperienced teenagers to join the army, or in the most sinister way to recruit child soldiers. In the areas of arts and music, those talented are spotted when very young and encouraged to start learning whatever branch of art they are good at as young as possible.

 An interesting anecdote overheard in an airplane seems to point to the same direction. It was a French man talking to a fellow passenger about his three sons who were brought up and educated in America, Britain and France respectively as he worked in these three countries. According to him, American education is banal until it reaches the post-graduate degree when it suddenly takes off and becomes highly sophisticated, producing super brains. Education system in France on the other hand, he went on, is sophisticated right from the start to higher education but regimented, producing people who are sophisticated but also moulded. British education is somewhere in between. All his sons have gone to computer industry; the eldest, educated in America, is actually working in the Silicon Valley. They are all successful in each of their own ways but it is this eldest son who has become a legendary innovator in the harsh environment of the American computer industry. Why? When he reached the post-graduate level his ‘banal’ brains were uncluttered and that was almost a prerequisite for innovation, invention and original thinking vital to important advances in computer. The other sons had their head overflowing with too much sophisticated knowledge and heavily loaded with too many preconceived ideas to do anything original or different.

 Let us see what lessons we can learn from these observations.


As a ‘shoshin’ person you are not yet set in any particular haiku way, style or rules. Such openness, responsiveness, flexibility and literary agility are one of the most important requisites of writing good haiku and should be maintained all through your haiku life;

 Akago-no-kokoro’ (a baby’s mind):

  ‘Innocence’ must be the right word for representing this quality. Though I do not that easily be persuaded about the innocence of babies or children as it can be just the façade hiding things beneath which are only waiting to be developed later, that is another story. Children are often genius haiku writers. It is well to set aside ample time to ponder upon why.

 Kokoro-wo-munashiku’ (Empty your mind; uncluttered mind): 

This is a Zen teaching but it can be applied to almost all other human endeavours. We tend to be busy gathering information, accumulating knowledge and taking others’ ideas and opinions. Thus our mind is normally over-cluttered, unable to think for ourselves. Our mind becomes saturated, cluttered, fuddled, clouded, muddled, dismayed and confused. No more needs to be said. However, let me quote a good account of this from Stanford M. Forrester’s paper read at the World Haiku Festival in India in 2008, “…Another obstacle to beginner’s mind and being on the haiku path, is a cluttered mind, as I’ve just mentioned.  In Zen there is the importance of seeing. Seeing clearly. This is so in haiku. Writing about what one sees can never be embellished. It must be true. You must see without obstacles.  How can one see directly if they have clutter blocking their view.  When the mind is cluttered it is like a bloated stomach during a large meal. You don’t really taste your food, you miss the simple intricacies of certain dishes, the conversation around the table, the lighting, the kindness of the host and hostess. Without a clear mind so much is missed. So a beginner’s mind is empty, and it is not filled with clutter…” (Beginner’s Mind and the Haiku Path )

 Listen rather than assert: At the ‘shoshin’ stage we are more likely to listen to others and learn from them than only blowing our own trumpet, though some people all too often begin to assert themselves at a stupendously early stage of their learning haiku. Also, at the same stage we are more liable to listen to more voices than one. It is healthier for us to be exposed to all sorts of different opinions, including or perhaps especially dissenting voices.

 ‘Genten’ (the starting point, essence or origin):  

This is an original point where something starts. Adam and Eve’s Paradise Lost is a genten. J. S. Bach is a genten for the Baroque music, or, more arguably, for all music. Das Kapital is a genten for modern economy and economics. For haiku haikai-no-renga is a genten. So we should always, or at least once in a while, go back to it. Humour, for instance, was originally an important feature of haikai. Now it is all but lost. We must therefore go back to all sorts of genten of haiku as often and as diligently as we can, rather than clinging in a blinkered fashion to a very narrow and small doctrine of today.

 Muga’ (absence of ‘self’):  

When you begin to learn haiku most of you have others (experienced haiku poets) and haiku itself as a subject matter and none of yourself which is at the moment nothing as far as haiku is concerned, or, to use Zen simile, an ‘empty cup’. Some of you, as has been observed, would push your non-haiku ‘ego’ nevertheless, essentially a sure sign that you will go nowhere in haiku. If good things are poured into the cup then you drink them and the cup will become empty again. If, on the other hand, bad things are poured into your cup they will soon fill up your cup and start overflowing. You cannot drink quickly enough and the bit you have drunk would work as haiku poison anyway.

 I have to profess at this point though that I have a great deal of reservations about this oft-mentioned dictum of losing ‘self’ in haiku. Firstly, those who preach it prove to be more often than not full of this hated and ostracised ‘self’. I know someone who by his own critical self-appraisal and by general esteem is one of the most well-established and accomplished ascetics seeking after Zen truth and enlightenment which, according to him and others, could only be achieved if or when the seeker loses ‘self’. The general view, including his own, is that he has achieved it. In my non-Zen, innocent and unclouded eyes he appears as the most selfish, self-centred and self-obsessed individual I have ever met. He is nothing but ‘self’. Except, that is, for what he says and writes about Zen and his Zen-induced haiku. It also appears most clearly that he himself is totally oblivious to this contradiction of all contradictions. Perhaps that is what Zen is all about.

 The second point is that I truly do not think it is possible for us to lose ‘self’. Little wonder then that we have all these contradictions, bewilderment and mysticism if what we are doing is trying to do the impossible. Writing good haiku is not at all impossible but we would not be able to do so if we get sidetracked by this sort of nonsense. Losing oneself, as in ‘She lost herself in playing a Mozart’s piano sonata.’ is another matter altogether. This of course is possible in haiku writing and the more often it does the better. I believed in a Zen roshi who has died recently. He said that there was nothing to seek, nothing to believe or not to believe, nothing in enlightenment except that he found nothing to be enlightened about, i.e. no enlightenment, nothing to do anything about losing or gaining ‘self’, nothing he got to know about Zen nor his wish to know it, nothing that taught him whether ‘mu’ was nothing or everything or whether or not it mattered, etc.

 The third reservation is the fact that we should be asking, “Is ‘self’ so bad as to be avoided?” It is most likely that this is the real question and the right one at that. It is because this question would cut across both the nebulous simplification about the question of ‘self’ and the mysticism which is nothing but a convenient veil to cover one’s intellectual laziness and the lack of critical search. The question would open up all sorts of serious enquiries into the nature and function of us humanity against the background of nature, world and the universe, of which Zen is a part.

 There are many more observations I wish to share with you about the beginner’s mind but I leave them for another day.