Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
A not in a piece of wood that looks like a heart

Woodworking, Beginner's Mind: A Zen Path


The practice of Zen isn’t limited to monasteries. It’s present in any human activity.

If, for a moment, we associate the practice of Zen Buddhism with Hollywood celebrities, we may think that the two have very little in common. But actor and carpenter, Nick Offerman, appears as an unlikely example that one needn’t be a monk to practice the Zen of everyday life.

Offerman’s has been a long and versatile career. He’s appeared in TV series like 24, Gilmore Girls, and Parks and Recreation, as well as in countless voice overs for movies, video games and television. But when he’s not on set, Offerman is also an accomplished carpenter. And it is not an eccentric pastime. Rather, it’s something that’s accompanied him throughout his life, a way to avoid losing his sanity and to stay focused.

“Wood,” explains Offerman, ‘is something we’re able to shape with hardened steel… rather than stone or glass, for my money, wood is so friendly to work with.”

In multiple interviews, Offerman has related that auditions for acting roles left him feeling stressed and worried for days. To alleviate the condition, he went into the carpentry shop and began to work on something: it may have been as simple as filing a piece of wood and joining it to another with nails or glue. After a while, “I would see the tangible result of this work that I had done. The thing is, there’s no way to describe the sensation. There’s magic in it.”

Offerman came to describe this magic as “An incredible meditative or Zen quality.” This gave him a “mellow demeanor to the point that I do not longer cared as much about the TV shows.”

This recalls one of D.T. Suzuki’s most powerful teachings in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Suzuki explains that shoshin (beginner’s mind) is the goal of all authentic spiritual practice, and specifically of Zen. Like carpentry, acting, or any activity that can takes place over a long period of time, the mind will lose its original freshness, or as Master Suzuki calls it, “the limitless meaning of the original mind.”

Spiritual practice isn’t limited to mechanical devotion that leads adepts to recite again and again sutras or prayers while neglecting to put all of their intention into them. Rather, beginning to build a wooden table, or a doghouse, with no other intention in mind except for this task which absorbs both body and concentration. Such a task put Offerman into a state very similar to that of shoshin, the mind of the apprentice.

The temptation to feel we’ve mastered something can cloud our perception and provoke unnecessary expectations, and this will ultimately lead to suffering. On the other hand, finding a pure, simple satisfaction in the activities we carry out in the present is a source of connection and an engine for learning much more powerful than any false sense of mastery.

No matter what we’re doing, regaining our original astonishment and sense of intention with our daily tasks through shoshin can be a goal for keeping, always, the mind fresh and the heart open.




Image: Udo Schönemann – flickr

Related Articles