Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Hacker’s Mind

I recently finished Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (ZMBM).  I know I told everybody that I was supposed to be reading Liars and Outliers and taking a break from fiction, but L&O was a bit too dry, so I picked up ZMBM and subsequently, I’m reading The Handmaid’s Tale.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Admittedly, I have no idea how I choose books.  I’ve been using GoodReads, mainly to record when I finish a book, but a secondary motive is to deduce what kind of search I’m doing through bookspace.  It must be some sort of A* Search, but I don’t know what I’m using for a heuristic.  Hmm, it would be interesting to see the Markov chains on my book completions.  Bad AI jokes aside, this meta reasoning is a good segue back to ZMBM.

In the spirit of Zen, I freely admit I know nothing about it 😉  This book, which is a collection of talks from Shunryu Suzuki is a very powerful book.  Powerful in that I discovered that I share a lot of the core ideas of Zen.  These ideas are difficult to describe, which is why I think this book is written in a very simple, socratic style.  So, I’ll just list some of the key topics that resonated with me.

  • Beginner’s Mind.  This is the aspect of Zen I like the most, probably best explain with the following kōan.  To me, this is the way of constantly being a student and constantly learning.  Which, is even easier now that coursera is expanding!

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

  • Imperfection.  “We should find perfect existence through imperfect existence.” -ZMBM.  This concept should be readily accepted among mathematicians, computer scientists and fans of Kurt Gödel and his incompleteness theorem.  Very loosely stated, the theorem states that there are true statements in a system (number theory specifically) that are unprovable.  Like: “this sentence is not provable.”  It’s hard to understate the significance of Gödel’s work as it proved that mathematic number theory is incomplete, which was pretty much like Copernicus saying the Earth is round.  But I think Gödel’s theorem is a very Zen idea and I see no contradiction in perfect imperfection.
  •  Monkey Mind vs Simple Mindedness.  I find this funny expression of reverse personification very apt.  Again a quote from ZMBM, “You are just wandering around the goal with your monkey mind.  You are always looking for something without knowing what you are doing.”  With more and more demands for our attention, it’s nice to simply focus on one thing.  Whether it be writing, reading, sitting, eating or coding, that is the activity to focus on, right then.  It’s a sharp contrast to our multitasked society and again, this is consistent with the Unix way.

A Unix novice came to Master Foo and said: “I am confused. Is it not the Unix way that every program should concentrate on one thing and do it well?”

Master Foo nodded.

The novice continued: “Isn’t it also the Unix way that the wheel should not be reinvented?”

Master Foo nodded again.

“Why, then, are there several tools with similar capabilities in text processing: sed, awk and Perl? With which one can I best practice the Unix way?”

Master Foo asked the novice: “If you have a text file, what tool would you use to produce a copy with a few words in it replaced by strings of your choosing?”

The novice frowned and said: “Perl’s regexps would be excessive for so simple a task. I do not know awk, and I have been writing sed scripts in the last few weeks. As I have some experience with sed, at the moment I would prefer it. But if the job only needed to be done once rather than repeatedly, a text editor would suffice.”

Master Foo nodded and replied: “When you are hungry, eat; when you are thirsty, drink; when you are tired, sleep.”

Upon hearing this, the novice was enlightened.

Zen has always been a part of hacker culture and especially the use of kōans, but until ZMBM I’ve never read primarily on the topic.  However, I don’t think that you have to be hacker to enjoy the book, although it certainly helps.

Hacker Emblem made with Zen Brush. I think Zen is probably the most marketable religious moniker. Not surprisingly, there are no products called “Christian Brush” or “Brush of Zoroastrianism” even. The new God and Kings expansion of Civ5 has been increasing my religious exposure.