Roshi Shunryu Suzuki: When you feel the oneness of everything, you naturally don’t want to harm anything

When you feel the oneness of everything, you naturally don’t want to harm anything.

– Roshi Shunryu Suzuki

I love exploring quotes. What do I find when I look at this one?


First, why does he use the word “feel” in this quote?

After all, when our nature recognizes itself, it’s not a feeling. As they say in Zen, it’s the love of the left hand removing a splinter from the right. It’s a love that’s not dependent on shifting states and feelings.

I imagine he may phrase it so it’s more relatable. He knows it’s not a feeling, but it’s an easy shorthand even if it’s also a bit misleading. And quotes always come in a context where it may make more sense.

He could also refer to a sense of oneness, a kind of intuition of oneness. That’s something that can happen before there is a more clear and direct noticing. That too would make it more relatable to more people.


There can be feelings related to our nature recognizing itself. When it happened here, there were many, probably partly because this human self was an angsty teenager not at all prepared for it.

From what I remember, it was first mostly just recognition and a sense of finally coming home to the reality that’s always been and that I have always known even without consciously knowing it.

And then a little later a mix of amazement, wonder, awe, overwhelm, shock, enthusiasm, and more. These were my human reactions to it, the response from my human self. And they were very much colored by the personal situation and make-up of my human self.

There was also another feeling created by these responses and one that’s difficult to describe in words. It was a kind of very comfortable bliss, like a kind of blanket. And for a while, I got a bit attached to this feeling. (This particular feeling went away later.)

And there is also another kind of bliss inherent in this recognition, or in our nature. This is a quiet bliss that seems less related to my human response to it.


There is another side to this, and that is what happens when the recognition matures us into it. As we get more familiar with this new terrain, and as more parts of us align with it, we get it more viscerally. We get it more with our whole being. Our center of gravity shifts into it.

This too is not really a feeling in the way we typically use the word, but since it’s more visceral it also fits.


All of this is peripheral to what the quote really refers to.


In a conventional sense, we are a human being in the world. That’s an assumption that works for most practical purposes. Here, not wanting to harm anything depends on conditioning, empathy, feelings, and so on.

When we explore what we are in our own first-person experience, we may find something else.

I find I more fundamentally am capacity for what happens in my sense fields, my content of experience. I am more fundamentally capacity for the world, for any sight, sound, sensation, smell, taste, and mental image and word. I am more fundamentally capacity for anything any thought or sense may tell me I am.

I find I am what the world, to me, happens within and as. I am what any content of experience happens within and as.

Said with other words, I find I am what a thought may call consciousness, and the world to me happens within and as the consciousness I am.


Here, there is oneness. The world to me is one.

And when the oneness I am recognizes itself, and explores how it is to live from this recognition, it’s natural to not want to harm anything. It would be like harming myself. It wouldn’t make sense.

This is not dependent on any changing feeling or state. It’s just dependent on the recognition. (Which is, in a way, a state – a state of recognition.)


And yet, that’s not all that’s in play here.

Our nature may recognize itself, and doing harm may not make any sense.

And life is more complicated. In some situations, doing what seems the most right may bring some harm. For instance, right now, I have a family situation that requires me to be away from my cat. I know it brings her distress but something else takes priority. That’s just a simple example, but it’s the kind of situation we often find ourselves in.

Also, our human self may not be completely on board with oneness.

Our psyche and personality were typically formed within separation consciousness, and many parts of us may still operate from separation consciousness even after there is a more general recognition of oneness.

These parts of us inevitably color our perception and actions in the world. They sometimes get triggered more strongly. And we may even get caught up in them in some areas of life and at some times.

That’s part of the process too.


There is an interesting mirroring here.

When the oneness we are takes itself to most fundamentally be something within itself, a separate self, then not wanting to harm depends on conditioning, empathy, and so on.

And when it recognizes itself, then conditioning tends to interfere with living from and as oneness.

Of course, it’s not that black and white. In the first case, the oneness we are shines through often enough. And in the second case, much of our conditioning does support living from not wanting to harm ourselves or others.


Then there is something peripheral that I have been curious about from the first day of getting into Zen when I was twenty-four in Salt Lake City.

Why do we put the title after the name? Why do most say “Shunryu Suzuki Roshi”? It’s like saying “John Smith, priest” instead of “priest John Smith”.

Yes, they may do it in Japan, but that’s because several languages in Asia use a reverse order from us.

I like to put Roshi first.

And yes, I know this has to do with a few different parts of me. One that wants things to make sense to myself and others. A part of me that likes to investigate and look at things from different angles. And also a slightly contrarian part of me that ties into the two others.

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Beginner’s mind

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

– Shunryu Suzuki

Suzuki here talks about a beginner’s mindset, which all of us can benefit from in any area of life. In many ways, it’s our natural state of mind. It’s what we see in healthy children and adults. And yet, we sometimes leave the beginner’s mindset. Why? And what can we do about it?


What Shunryu Suzuki talks about is a beginner’s mindset of receptivity, curiosity, and a readiness for learning.

In a conventional sense, we are somewhere on the beginner-expert scale in any field. We may be more or less familiar with a field than others. We may have more or less knowledge. We may be more or less skilled. And we can still adopt and benefit from the mindset of a beginner.


The expert mindset comes in two forms.

One think it knows and closes itself off from new discoveries and learning. It’s immature. And, really, it’s caught up in scary stories about what it means to be receptive and more aligned with reality. This is the one Suzuki refers to in the quote.

The other is more mature and less caught up in fearful stories. It allows the natural receptivity and curiosity of the mind to come out, and it’s consciously more aligned with reality. This is the real expert’s mind. It’s the mind of the ones who are real experts.


Similarly, beginner’s mind comes in two forms. It can be more or less mature and skilled.

An immature beginner may think she knows more than she does. She may think she’ll learn what there is to learn quickly. She may think there is an endpoint and finishing line.

A more mature beginner knows how little she knows. She knows it takes time. She knows there is no endpoint and no finishing line. We can learn anywhere and from anyone. There is always more to learn, explore, and get to know about anything.


We can leave beginner’s mind in several different ways. In each case, we miss out on discovering or learning something – whether it’s about a topic, others, ourselves, the world, or reality.

For instance, we meet someone who is more skilled at something than we are, this trigger a sense of lack in us, and we react to that sense of lack by telling ourselves we are an expert. We go out of receptivity, curiosity, and interest in learning.

We may be more skilled than the ones around us, they tell us we are an expert, so we tell ourselves we know. We have arrived. And here too, we go out of receptivity, curiosity, and an interest in ongoing learning.

We find ourselves in a situation where something is presented at a basic level, we tell ourselves we know better and have nothing to learn from it, so we miss out.

We find we are naturally gifted at something, float on this for a while, and miss out on real progress.

We can leave beginner’s mind in yet another way.

We tell ourselves we are no good at something, so we don’t even try.

We tell ourselves “she or he won’t like me” so we don’t even try getting to know them.

In my case, I have a pattern of telling myself “it’s too obvious and boring” when it comes to my own insights or familiarity with what I write about here. I often do it with these articles (which is a reason one of three remains unpublished even if finished). Or when I consider sharing these things in another way.


If a beginner’s mind works so well, and it’s what we see in healthy children and adults, why don’t we adopt and function from it more often?

The main answer lies in our fears. We have unmet fears and unquestioned painful beliefs. Instead of befriending and exploring these, we react to them. And we react to them by telling ourselves we know and that there is safety in knowing.

We seek a sense of safety in tell ourselves we know. We feel we have something solid to rest on, even if it’s true in only a very limited sense. And this tends to close our minds. We are less open to continuing to learn.

Said another way, we take on a protective identity. Any time we identify with an identity, it’s for protection purposes. We tell ourselves that’s who we are. We find a sense of more solid footing, even if this identity may be painful. And we close down our mind by doing this. We are less receptive to what’s actually here and available to us.


Any time I notice I adopt the mindset of someone who knows, it’s a sign I go into a protective identity. I am reacting to my own fears and unquestioned beliefs. And when I notice this, I can explore it in any way that works for me.

For instance, I can use a version of the befriend & awaken process which includes elements from a range of approaches. I notice the contraction in me. Feel the physical sensations. Thank it for protecting me. Notice the painful beliefs and identities behind it, and find what’s more true for me. Explore what this part of me really needs (love, safety, being seen, support?) and give it to it. Notice that my nature is its nature. And so on. And rest in and take time with each of these.


I suspect Suzuki wasn’t only giving good life advice in the quote. He pointed to an essential orientation if we wish to explore what we are in our own first-person experience.

If we are to notice our nature, we need to set aside what we think we know about what we are. We need to set aside what we tell ourselves about what we are. And instead, notice.

And that requires beginner’s mind.


Why does the mindset of a beginner work? Why does it help us learn?

The surface answer is that receptivity, curiosity, and an open mind creates the conditions for real learning.

And the more basic reason is that it’s aligned with reality.

There is always more to learn. It’s an ongoing process.

What we think we know is always provisional and up for revision.

There is always someone else who knows more than us about a field or parts of a field.

Even beginners can know more about certain things than we do and we can learn from them.

What we humans collectively know is a drop in the ocean of what there is to know and get familiar with.

Any map – any mental representation – is a question about the world. It’s different in kind from what it refers to. It’s a simplification. And reality is always more than and different from our maps.

What we know and are familiar with is about the past. And what’s here now is fresh and different. (Even when a thought says otherwise.)

And when it comes to our nature, realizing what we are is something we can only do through direct noticing. We have to set aside what thoughts tell us and instead notice. Often guided by structured inquiry and a good guide familiar with the terrain.

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Shunryu Suzuki: Nothing comes from outside your mind

Nothing comes from outside your mind.

Usually we think of our mind
as receiving impressions
and experiences from outside,
but that is not a true understanding
of our mind.

The true understanding
is that the mind includes everything;
when you think something comes from outside

it means only that something
appears in your mind.
Nothing outside yourself
can cause any trouble.

You yourself make the waves in your mind.
If you leave your mind as it is,
it will become calm.

This mind is called big mind.

– Shunryu Suzuki Roshi