The Beginner's Mind
By Sara Aoyama
When George Donahue* first broached the subject of writing a column
called "Shoshin" or "Beginner's Mind," I was hesitant.
Why would anyone want to read something written by a beginner in the martial
But, a beginner is in that blissful state of discovering everything for
the first time. This is a state that we may never recover in many cases,
but can only strive to maintain. Within my own experiences, I remember
stepping off the plane at Haneda Airport in Tokyo for the first time in
the summer of 1976 and the staggering impact of all those Japanese signs
around me. They were all beautiful to my eyes. There were many styles
of calligraphy in different sizes and colors. Everywhere I looked I saw
these wonderful works of art.
After I had been in Japan studying hard for about six months, there was
a certain day that I went out for a walk, and as I walked past a coffee
shop I saw a sign for cigarettes in the window. Bang! That sign had ceased
to be a work of art. All it did for me now was to tell me I could buy
some cigarettes. The next day I read a sign on a bus for a department
store. As my reading skills progressed I could navigate my way around
skillfully and my daily life became easier. Caught up in my daily successes,
I failed to realize that I was losing the ability to see the signs as
works of beauty and art. What was once art was now simply a sign for a
dentist, or the hours that a store was open. Never again will I recapture
that first view of Japan. But I was there to learn, and progress was both
essential and inevitable. Yet, I was losing my beginner's mind.
As a beginner in the martial arts I try to hold on to the freshness that
is so natural to me now. How do I do that? I have an exercise that I perform
each day to help me maintain a beginner's mind.
I live in a small town in Vermont. When I get in my car each morning,
I look up at the mountains. Early in the morning the mountains are usually
sheathed in clouds of mist. I often murmur out loud in the car to my kids
that "people pay to see this." They think that is pretty funny
and they wonder why I say it so much. But it's my way of trying to see
it afresh each day, and to keep my mind open and see it the same way that
I saw it the very first time. And failing that, at least acknowledging
to myself that my viewpoint is changing. I may not be able to see it with
the same appreciation as I did five years ago, but I still have to try
and hold on to that awareness and not take this beautiful scenery for
This is what I think a beginner has to offer. We're all on the path,
some further than others, but it is good to savor the journey and enjoy
the scenery just where we are.
About the author:
Sara Aoyama is a 1974 graduate of the University of Kansas, majoring
in Japanese Language and Literature. She spent over twelve years living
in Japan where she dabbled in a number of other Arts such as Ikebana (flower
arranging), Cooking, and Shamisen. While living in Kyoto, she was able
to see many hidden aspects of Japanese society. Currently she lives in
Brattleboro, Vermont where she started training in Shorin-ryu Karate at
the Brattleboro School of Budo in May, 1998 after watching her son train
for three years. She works asa free-lances as a Japanese-Englishtranslator.
Most recently, she is the translator of "The Art of Lying"
by Kazuo Sakai, MD.
* George Donahue is a member of FightingArts.com Board of Advisors. He
is Executive Editor, Tuttle Publishing, Boston and Editor, Tuttle Martial
Arts. A 6th dan Shorin Ryu Karatedo student of Kishaba Chokei and Shinzato
Katsuhiko, he is the director of both Kishaba Juku of New York City at
the Ken Zen Institute of Japanese Culture & Martial Arts and the Ryukyu
Kichigaikan of Medford, Mass.