A beginner's mind, with the openness and modesty of a beginner, is a powerful state for the karateka.
Shoshin 初心 [pronounced “show-shin”] is the beginner’s mind — an incredibly powerful state of mind, and one that is challenging to maintain.
To have a beginner’s mind is to approach problems, situations, and everything else in our life with a blank slate. That means being open to possibilities, including ones that perhaps are unconventional, and putting aside as many preconceptions as possible.
An Open Mind is Infinite in Capacity
Shoshin is a state of awareness in which we keep our minds open to the infinite possibilities of learning and we adopt an attitude that there is much to learn.
“In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki, well-known Zen practitioner
We know that our karate must be based on ren ma – constant polishing, constant learning (read more about ren ma here). But we also know that many times our own ego, our own preconceptions, and our own closed minds and hearts may get in the way of that striving to constantly improve, and constantly polish, our karate and our selves.
Shoshin reminds us to be open to knowledge, experience, and wisdom in all parts of our day, in all parts of our lives, and perhaps most importantly, from all sources, all people in our circle of experience. As we become more experienced in our study of karatedō, it becomes easy to forget that many times wisdom may come from our juniors. And outside the dojo, we often forget that the simplest experiences and the youngest members of our communities may lead us to unexpected treasures of wisdom.
Shoshin at the Dojo
At the dojo, we are often graphically reminded that ultimately shoshin is what separates the junior student who is an empty vessel, passively (but eagerly) waiting for wisdom to be poured into his mind, and the senior student who knows that he must take the initiative and seek out wisdom in all the dojo has to offer.
The senior student that practices the true beginner’s mind knows that he is his own best teacher – but only if he is open to wisdom and learning from all around him. And of course, this is true outside the dojo as well, in all of life.
But consider all of the “layers” of knowledge that are all around us on the dojo floor. Looking at kata, for instance, with a beginner’s mind lets us see new bunkai (the application of technique in self-defense and in fighting) that we might not have considered before.
We are reminded of this so clearly when students at the dojo begin blackbelt promotion and put aside their most-senior color belt and once again take on the white belt – the rank of the most junior student. What an amazing opportunity this is to once again see the karatedō they have practiced for years through the eyes of the beginner.
Shoshin Outside the Dojo
Shoshin outside the dojo is even more powerful. Of course, keeping a beginner’s mind is an amazing secret-weapon for problem-solving.
But shoshin also serves as a helpful tool in resolving misunderstandings and arguments — keeping an open mind gives us the ability to understand the other side’s point-of-view. And of course, in negotiating, shoshin lets us both understand the other side and to consider and create possible solutions that are novel.
But the biggest benefit of shoshin has to be the ability to learn.
Whether we are learning something new or polishing our existing knowledge, keeping a beginner’s mind allows us to see new connections in the knowledge we are seeking and to gain new perspectives on what we study and seek to improve.
To fill out minds, we must not only empty them of preconceptions, but we also must approach learning with the modesty that shoshin gives us.
From that position of openness and modesty, we become knowledgeable and powerful.
Editor's Note: This lecture was first delivered by Sensei in Mill Valley, California on 20 February 2012, and then again at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo on 22 March 2023.