Shyoshin: Beginner’s Mind  剣水

Shyoshin literally means ‘the beginner’s mind’. There are many questions attached to this simple statement. I will look at three of the most important ones. What does it mean to be a beginner? Who is a beginner? When do you stop being a beginner?

What does it mean to be a beginner? Usually we think of a beginner as someone who is just starting something. They usually have no specific skills, knowledge, or experience in what they are doing. So it is up to the sensei to show the beginner the kihon, the basics, of the art they are beginning to learn. To do this well, the sensei must have a good practical and philosophical knowledge of their art. When teaching Iaido for example, the sensei must be able to know the technique perfectly, know the riai [reasoning] behind the movements, and be able to demonstrate the technique so that the student can understand it. The beginner must in turn put time and effort into what they are being taught. They must come to class, practice on their own, study, and be respectful toward their art, their teachers, and their fellow practitioners. The beginner is a vessel that must be emptied then filled. You just have to be careful what you fill it with. If students can learn the basics correctly in the first two years of practice, those basics will stay with them for life and help them learn the more complicated techniques more easily.

Who is a beginner? The short answer is the person who is in their first year of practice. However, this answer is not satisfactory. If we look at the beginner we can see that they become more advanced as their basic movements {kihon} and understanding of what they are doing improves. With any art and especially Iaido, we must practice the basics constantly under the guidance of a good sensei in order to “master” the basics. So, the long answer is that we are all beginners. When you see senior instructors practice, note that they tend to practice the basics before moving on to the upper level techniques. The kihon are the life-blood and guts of the art.

When do you stop being a beginner? Omori sensei says you must “practice until you die”. Iwata sensei says, “You begin to understand Iaido once you reach 70 years old” {of course he began practice when he was a child!}. The beauty of Iaido is that you are never perfect; always becoming better, understanding more, and showing parts of who you are.

Shyoshin, beginner’s mind, is the feeling of always doing something new. It is the enjoyment and excitement we feel when doing something for the first time. It is looking through fresh eyes at something we may have seen 1,000 times before. It is feeling a flower petal, smelling the spring trees, tasting a summer raspberry. Shyoshin is difficult to cultivate when you have done something many times before. However, it is necessary in order to not grow bored with repetition. It is better to do kirioroshi 10 times well and feeling the movement than 200 times poorly, just going through the motions. The first builds spirit and technique, the second builds muscle only. Cultivate the beginner’s mind; be here right now, in this place, doing this thing fully. Don’t compare yourself to others; rather continue to do your best with a fresh mind unhindered.

By Ken Maneker