Born in 1904, Shunryu Suzuki was a Japanese Zen master who settled in San Francisco in 1959 and was instrumental in introducing Zen practice to the western world. A phrase of his, ‘Not Always So’ became the title of a book, the publication of a series of his lectures that support Zen students in the true spirit of practice. The meaning of this phrase, ‘Not Always So’ is to not be caught in pre-conceived ideas. It is about not knowing.
In life, we tend to operate with a certain set of beliefs: beliefs about ourselves, about others, about the way the world ought to be. Often times our beliefs are strongly held perceptions from our upbringing, experiences, and societal and cultural norms and values. Our beliefs are so deeply formed in our mind (many times unconsciously so) that we are often unaware of how our actions are informed by these beliefs. How we relate to ourselves, to others, and to this world is an expression of our beliefs.
Zen practice provides a way to examine these beliefs and question their validity. We like to think that our understanding of things is fact — but is it? As long as we cling to any particular doctrine or thinking, our belief is based on a self-centred idea. This takes us further from realizing our Buddha nature. The spirit of Zen is to believe in nothing. But not completely nothing either: it is to believe in something which has no form — something which existed before all forms appeared.
Sitting zazen every day with this spirit and with a desire to experience not knowing, we develop insight into our thought patterns. Often we find that these cherished beliefs are actually groundless, and with persistence and courage in our practise, they tend to dissolve. And that is okay. In fact, that is freedom.