There is a Buddhist prayer that speaks of a human life as “the ocean of existence with its surging waves of birth, aging, illness, and death.” The last three are also the “signs” Siddhartha Gautama saw before he left his comfortable palace life and, spurred by a fourth sign—the sight of a wandering mendicant—went searching for liberation. For Venerable Jissai Prince-Cherry, a Zen Buddhist priest, it was three of these “waves”—the birth of her son, a painful illness, and a heartbreaking death—that firmly set her on the path to freedom.
“Once my son was born,” she said, “I realized I didn’t feel about my career in the Air Force the way I had before. The day would come when I would have to leave him for a military assignment, and I thought, I can’t do it. I won’t do it.”
In 1994, a year after finishing military service, Jissai needed minor surgery. As she lay at home recovering, she realized how miserable she was. Despite having a good job, a wonderful family, and all the money they needed, something was “off” that she couldn’t pinpoint. So she took it as a sign—a modern-day version of the fourth sign the Buddha encountered—when three talk shows she happened to be watching on TV featured segments on meditation. She went to her local public library, picked up a book and, convinced this was what she was seeking, started practicing secular meditation.
“I identified as Christian, but wasn’t practicing,” she said. “I had no reason to reject the Buddhist books in the library. I was looking for a reason to dismiss them, so I decided to read the most Buddhist-looking book I could find.”
That book was What the Buddha Taught, by Walpola Rahula. And, to her amazement, she found reflected in those pages her innermost truths. She checked out another book, and it, too, confirmed what she felt, so she started practicing with a local Zen group. The next year, Jissai’s husband was offered a promotion in Rochester, New York, and she jumped at the chance to practice with the Rochester Zen Center (RZC). An introductory workshop led to a retreat, then another, and before long she was practicing at the center as much as she could. Even when her family moved to Kentucky two years later, she continued with the RZC, and with the support of her teacher, Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede, she established a sitting group in Louisville.
Once again, the surging waves—this time the sudden death of her husband in 2011 while she was on retreat in New York. Caught between grief and the practice momentum she’d established, Jissai stepped up her Zen training. Her children were grown, and she had financial support, which allowed her to travel regularly between Rochester
“Stories speak in ways that explanations of Buddhist theory and doctrine cannot.”
In 2018, Jissai became a novice priest in the Three Jewels Order of the Cloud-Water Sangha (the association of Zen centers and sitting groups led by students of Roshi Kjolhede). Half of her training toward priest ordination occurred during COVID isolation. When in-person activities were restricted, the RZC, like other spiritual communities, conducted their activities online. “It was a real blessing in disguise,” she said. “There were twice-daily meditation sessions, Zen talks, and monthly sesshins. My training continued without skipping a beat.” In 2022, Jissai was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest of the Three Jewels Order.
In describing her teaching style, Ven. Jissai Prince-Cherry says, “I’m more of a storyteller. Like the Buddha’s use of Jataka tales, I tell stories to illustrate a point. It doesn’t matter if the ‘facts’ of the story are true or not. What’s most essential is what the story is pointing to. Stories speak in ways that explanations of Buddhist theory and doctrine cannot. Stories bring the teachings to life.”
To hear Ven. Jissai Prince-Cherry’s talks, visit the Rochester Zen Center podcast at rzc.org/library/archives-podcast
Q: What is “beginner’s mind” and why is it important to cultivate?
“Beginner’s mind” is a term popularized by Roshi Shunryu Suzuki of the San Francisco Zen Center in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. His famous quote says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.” Beginner’s mind is very open. It’s a childlike mind; we don’t cling to what we know or think we know. That’s how it frees up possibilities. It’s spacious and empty.
In the Zen tradition in which I practice, we use the term “not-knowing” interchangeably with beginner’s mind. In order to know, we need a subject and an object. There’s a knower knowing something—some “thing.” There are distinct lines around the thing, a box, and a label. But this kind of knowing creates distance. There’s a gap between the knower and the known. And yet, life isn’t that way. The lines between knower and known, between subject and object, are way more blurry than we imagine them to be. Beginner’s mind operates before subject and object have split in two. Not-knowing is intimate.
Despite how it sounds, beginner’s mind is neither anti-intellectual nor ignorant. It is setting aside knowledge to remain empty-handed, empty-headed. That’s not a bad thing—being empty-headed. During sesshin, for example, our silent retreats, we do around ten hours of meditation each day for two to seven days. For sesshin, it really helps to be empty-headed.
I recently led a sesshin at my spiritual home, at Rochester Zen Center’s Chapin Mill Retreat Center. People attended who had done many, many retreats, and there were folks that were brand new.
A few of the veterans were burdened by a head full of thoughts about their experiences in previous sesshins, whereas the beginners—they had no idea what they were getting into. They brought freshness to the retreat because they were empty of knowing. They’d certainly heard about what happens during sesshin, they’d read about it, they had the schedule—so they weren’t ignorant—but because they’d never done it before, they weren’t carrying the baggage of past experience. They were free.
The bloated, knowledge-filled expert’s mind isn’t free. It’s like a period at the end of a sentence. Done. The end. A not-knowing mind, on the other hand, embodies a question mark. It’s wide open and ready for anything.
What’s great is we don’t have to make a special project out of cultivating beginner’s mind; we access it by simply doing our practice. Through absorption in our breath, a koan, or shikantaza (“just sitting”), we recover the mind unclouded by knowing. As we return over and over again to not-knowing, we experience firsthand Socrates’ words: “Wisdom begins in wonder.” We directly realize that intimacy, boundlessness, and freedom are our true nature. Beginner’s mind is our birthright.
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