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The Zen practice of “not-knowing,” or “don’t-know mind,” is one way of honoring the absolute dimension of our lives – even as we engage in “knowing,” as necessary, in the relative dimension. It involves centering ourselves in the here-and-now, and recognizing that all “knowing” is ultimately an abstraction and not reality itself. However, not-knowing isn’t a cop-out; it’s a tool or medicine we apply when we’re getting attached to our own opinions, caught in judgment or hatred, stressed, or overwhelmed. As long as we don’t simply attach to not-knowing instead of knowing, the practice can actually help us be more responsible, responsive, compassionate, and effective.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content
The Zen Practice of Not-Knowing
The Origins of Not-Knowing in Original Buddhism
Some Ancient Chan Teachings on Not-Knowing
Not-Knowing Reflects the Reality of Here-and-Now
Recognizing Versus Knowing
Relieving Stress with Not-Knowing
Moving Fluidly from Knowing to Not-Knowing, and Back
An Exercise in Not-Knowing and Greater Intimacy
The Near Enemy of Not-Knowing: Refusing to Know
The Ground of Not-Knowing
Sources

 

The Zen Practice of Not-Knowing

What do I mean by “the practice of not-knowing,” sometimes called “don’t-know mind?” This is an important discipline that involves stepping back from what we think we know about ourselves and the world around us, centering ourselves in the here-and-now, and opening up to the vast realm of possibilities. It’s recognizing that even our best attempt at knowing anything is something of an abstraction of reality – a generalization that allows us to take action and make decisions, but one that will always miss something.

If you’re unfamiliar with what Zen really means by “not-knowing,” it can sound like we’re recommending you retreat from taking responsibility for creating positive changes in the world, using the excuse, “You can’t know what to do, it’s all too complex and confusing.” Accessing your “don’t-know” mind may sound like settling into complacency. However, in this episode I’ll make the case that learning to apply the practice of “not-knowing” appropriately, and at the right time, can actually help you respond to the world more responsibly, compassionately, and effectively.

The Origins of Not-Knowing in Original Buddhism

The Zen teaching of “not-knowing” is a Zen take on the original Buddhist teaching of “freedom from views.” The Buddha counseled his students to avoid attaching to any views, but instead to know reality from their direct experience. In the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta[1] of the Pali Canon, the Buddha is quizzed by the wandering spiritual seeker Vacchagotta about what it is the Buddha teaches. Does the Buddha teach that the cosmos is eternal, or not eternal? Finite, or infinite? Are the soul and the body the same thing, or fundamentally different from each other? Does a fully enlightened and liberated person exist after death, or not?

Vacchagotta is quizzing the Buddha about the most salient spiritual questions of his time. His queries may seem kind of philosophical or abstract, but what he’s wondering about is essentially no different than the kinds of questions that trouble us: Are human beings fundamentally good, or not? Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice, or not? Is peace on earth possible? How do you change the habits of whole societies and nations so we can live sustainably on the earth? How can life be so exquisitely beautiful and so terrible at the same time? Imagine encountering someone like the Buddha, who’s supposed to be completely wise and enlightened, and asking him what his positions are on these subjects.

The Buddha replies to Vacchagotta in a surprising way. He denies holding a view that the cosmos is eternal, or a view the cosmos isn’t eternal. He denies holding a view that soul and body are different, or a view that they are one and the same. He denies holding a view on any of the subjects Vacchagotta brings up, saying any position, “is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, & fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding [liberation].”

So what does the Buddha teach, if he doesn’t take positions on various topics we may deeply care about? The Buddha teaches a practice. He explains to Vacchagotta that a “position” is something that an awakened one as done away with. Instead, an awakened one, or Tathagatha, simply observes, in her own direct experience, the nature of reality and causation, and recognizes what leads to suffering, and what leads to liberation – and then an awakened one abandons what leads to suffering, and practices what leads to liberation. In other words, Buddhism is not about adopting a set of views or positions, no matter how wise. Instead, it’s an utterly pragmatic way we engage with our life – which becomes possible only when we break free from our “thicket, wilderness, and fetter of views.”

Some Ancient Chan Teachings on Not-Knowing

The Zen-flavored version of freeing ourselves from a thicket of views, or “not-knowing,” seems to first appear centuries later, in early Zen, or Chan, Buddhism in China. Somewhere in the 5th or 6th century CE, the Indian Buddhist master Bodhidharma traveled to China. Upon his arrival, the emperor wanted to meet him and ask him about Buddhism. According to the second koan in the Book Equanimity,[2] the Bodhidharma invoked not-knowing in his response to the emperor of China:

“Emperor Wu of Ryo asked the great master Bodhidharma, ‘What is the ultimate meaning of the holy truth of Buddhism?’ Bodhidharma replied, ‘Vast emptiness. No holiness.’ The Emperor asked, ‘Who stands here before me?’ Bodhidharma replied, ‘I don’t know.’ The Emperor was baffled. Thereafter, Bodhidharma crossed the river, arrived at Shorin and faced the wall for nine years.”

On the surface, it may seem like the Emperor’s question stumped Bodhidharma, and he consequently had to go sit in meditation for a long time in order to deepen his understanding. However, this probably wasn’t the case. By the time he met the Emperor, Bodhidharma had already been practicing a long time, and he carried the lineage tradition. His “I don’t know” isn’t the same as our ordinary “I don’t know.” Our meaning would typically be: “I’ve been trying to figure that out but the answer eludes me,” or “Facing this question has made my mind go blank and I don’t have anything to say right now.” Or, even worse, “I feel alienated from who I really am and can’t really say who stand before you. Your question has exposed my inadequacy.”

If Bodhidharma didn’t mean these kinds of “don’t know,” what did he mean? And how could his response be a teaching, as opposed to an admission of insufficient understanding? Before I go into that, I’ll share another ancient story about not-knowing from the Book of Equanimity. This is Case 20, about a monk named Hogen who had spent years traveling around China, doing hard Zen practice but never quite finding what he was looking for:

“Master Jizo asked Hogen, ‘Where have you come from?’ ‘I pilgrimage aimlessly,’ replied Hogen. ‘What is the matter of your pilgrimage?’ asked Jizo. ‘I don’t know,” replied Hogen. ‘Not knowing is the most intimate,’ remarked Jizo. At that, Hogen experienced great enlightenment.”[3]

I believe Hogen awakens at Master Jizo’s comment not because he suddenly realizes why he’s been wandering so long and practicing hard, and not because he finally conceives of what he’s been searching for. Rather, for some reason, the interaction with Jizo prompts him to momentarily drop all of his preconceived notions, so at that moment there is only his body-mind, Master Jizo’s compassion, the Buddha Way, the sandals on his feet, the cicadas buzzing in the trees… There, in his direct experience of his life, the meaning of it all becomes clear – without conception, definition, description, or “knowing” of any kind.

As soon as Hogen thinks about it – as soon as we think about it – knowing creeps in again, creating a sense of separation. And yet, to always have the refuge of not-knowing, how wonderful!

Not-Knowing Reflects the Reality of Here-and-Now

To bring this discussion back to our time and place: the practice of don’t know mind, or of not-knowing, is immensely practical. It may not seem immediately obvious why, but not-knowing serves us well as we try to fulfill our impossible but central Mahayana bodhisattva vows to free all beings and end all delusion.

How? How can this kind of thoughtless, immediate, not-knowing be useful when you’re facing a neo-Nazi? When you need to decide how resist the environmental destruction and degradation that’s threatening all life on this planet? When you have to find a way to defend democracy, or truth, or compassion? Or when you need to claw your way out of a hole of suffering in your personal life?

The key is that not-knowing isn’t clinging to a state of indecision or ignorance. It’s not a fixed position you take. Instead, it’s a way you engage the next moment: fresh, open, unbiased. You let go of clinging to fixed views, of your sense of knowing. It’s grounded in reality, because in reality, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You don’t know for sure what’s going to work. You don’t know the person standing in front of you – at least, not completely, and maybe hardly at all. For that matter, you don’t even know who you are, as if you could sum yourself up in a sentence or paragraph, or even a book.

You practice of not-knowing happens in this very moment – not in the abstract. As soon as you make not-knowing into a position, it’s not actually “not-knowing” anymore, it’s refusing to know or decide. It becomes a position you hold for your own convenience, comfort, or ego, and lacks compassion.

Recognizing Versus Knowing

But – what about when you witness something and you know it’s wrong? Is this kind of “knowing” something you should let go of? Let’s say you read about a terrible injustice somewhere in the world – maybe not that far away. People are suffering and dying – and the worst thing is, they’re suffering and dying needlessly, because of exploitation, fear, and greed. (And if you read the papers, of course, this is more or less a daily experience.) When we read about such situations, we have reactions. We know this wrong. We know this suffering and injustice needs to be addressed.

Language is by nature limited, but I think it might help to use a different term for this kind of “knowing” – such seeing or recognizing. We recognize sadness, pain, empathy, grief, or frustration… we feel a basic empathetic response to the suffering of others. We recognize the contraction and darkness of greed, hate, fear, and delusion, just as we recognize warmth, coolness, ease, and pain. As the Buddha explained to Vacchagotta, even though an awakened person doesn’t cling to a position, they “see” or “recognize” from their direct experience what leads to suffering and what doesn’t. And once we see what’s going on, our concern, outrage, and sense of responsibility are all parts of a bodhisattva’s natural response. We don’t want to ignore, shut down, or dismiss the way we recognize what’s going on, or the feelings that arise in us in response.

And yet, very quickly, most of us take this basic recognition further, willfully crafting it into knowing. In our efforts to understand, and therefore exert some measure of control over our experience or over the world, we speculate on why this is happening, who is to blame, the systems that are to blame, what needs to change. If we figure out what our opinions are, we’ll know what kind of actions we should take – or, at the very least, what kind of attitude we should carry around. Then, even if we’re at a loss for how to help, we can take solace in the simple fact that we’re opposed to what’s going on.

We attach to knowing because it helps us predict and plan. We can imagine an alternative future, where things have been fixed according to our opinions, and suffering has decreased. When we start to feel overwhelmed or stressed, we can rely on our righteous stances and thereby insulate ourselves in some subtle way from what’s happening right now.

Of course, with new facts, complexity, arguments, and opposition from others, our knowing needs to be constantly revised and maintained. It can get quite stressful, establishing a moral world order in our minds!

Relieving Stress with Not-Knowing

Some of this thinking and knowing is good and necessary, of course. We should consider what’s happening, our opinions about it, and look for things we can do in response.

But at some point, our thoughts get repetitive, stressful, or simply not helpful. We may get preoccupied with judgement and hatred toward particular people, groups of people, or political parties. We may become obsessed with particular opinions we hold, and beat others over the head with them whenever we get the opportunity – even when doing so only ends up alienating people. We may get overwhelmed with feelings after a negative experience, or after we encounter a particularly sad or traumatic image or fact. We may spend too much of our time imagining the many forms in which doom could come…

Then it’s time for balance – a time for the medicine of not-knowing. This takes courage. We have to be willing to become intimate with our fears, our sorrows, and our sense of overwhelm – exactly the kinds of feelings we try to keep at bay with our knowing. (And note, even “negative knowing” has this effect. For example, you may be convinced the world is going to hell in a handbasket – but in some ways, it easier to be prepared for the devil you [think you] know, than to open up to the vast possibilities of reality.)

For a time, we let go of the stress of having to figure everything out, of maintaining our positions and opinions, of identifying everything we encounter as right or wrong. This helps our body-minds to settle, and become more relaxed, healthy, and clear. It gives us an essential break, or mental vacation, and restores our energy.

Moving Fluidly from Knowing to Not-Knowing, and Back

The point is not to be attached to anything – neither knowing, nor not-knowing. When it’s time to have a conversation with someone about what needs to happen, you take your best stab at knowing. When you have to make a decision or take an action, you make your best call, based on your best knowledge. But then, in the next moment, you let it go and take a breath in not-knowing – which completely and utterly changes your relationship to knowing. When you see that your best knowing comes and goes, that your “best calls” sometimes work out and sometimes they don’t, it actually frees you up to get more creative and take more risks with your knowing. There is no one, fixed, absolute truth you’re eventually going to arrive at; instead, it’s a crazy balancing act all along the way.

Part of the balancing act of our life and practice is recognizing there’s two sides to everything, and that sometimes the situation calls for one thing, while it other times it calls for something else. Real Buddhist practice is never a fixed position or a canned response, it’s constantly adapting to what we encounter.

It may be helpful to think of the reality of our experience as having two dimensions. Right here, right now, this very moment, is one dimension. In Buddhism, we call this the absolute dimension. In a sense, right here-and-now is the only reality there is. In the direct experience of this moment, things are just what they are, and distinctions and comparisons don’t exist. The second dimension, call the “relative” dimension, is the aspect of life that unfolds over space and time. While in the absolute sense past and future don’t exist and are only abstractions, in another very real sense the past is directly connected to the present, and the present to the future. Cause and effect are very real. We’re aware of things removed from us in time and space, and how they affect us, and how we affect them. In the relative dimension, everything is connected, and actions matter. A lot.

To skillfully live our lives, we have to be familiar with, and honor, both the absolute and relative dimensions of our reality. They’re both true, simultaneously and without conflict. It’s really quite remarkable.

In the case of knowing or not-knowing, we employ knowing in order to navigate and take care of the relative dimension of our lives. Even though any “knowing” – any view, any position – is an abstraction and generalization, in a relative sense there are more or less skillful and compassionate forms of knowing and subsequent action.

But… when we find ourselves getting lost in a thicket of views – getting stressed, judgmental, or despairing – we stop and touch the absolute dimension of our lives, where the reality of this moment is potent and luminous, regardless of what has come before or what will come after. In the absolute dimension, drawing this breath is something to be grateful for, no matter what situation we find ourselves in. As we touch the absolute, we recognize our knowing as relative and conditional instead of mistaking it for reality itself. We’re thereby freed from the compulsion to maintain a fiefdom of knowing, and we can be directly informed and touched by the world – which means our responses will be more on-point, in tune, and therefore more effective.

An Exercise in Not-Knowing and Greater Intimacy

What about how not-knowing is “most intimate?” This might be best expressed by leading you through a short exercise, which you can follow along with now or try later. You may want to put your hand over your heart as you do this.

Consider the question: How do we heal our country and our world? Lots of ideas may spring into your mind. But now is not the time for ideas. Momentarily let them go and say quietly, humbly, compassionately, “I don’t know…” Note how you feel. Is there sadness, even grief? Concern, sympathy? Do you feel your body, ironically, relax a little bit?

Consider the question: How do we end racism? Again, let go ideas, however good and important they might be. Now it’s time for being receptive. “I don’t know…” As you dwell in this space of not-knowing, do the struggles and sufferings of people of color, momentarily, come a little closer to your heart?

Finally, consider the question: How do we radically redirect the entire human way of life on this planet away from limitless exploitation toward long-term sustainability? Let go of ideas… “I don’t know.” Do you see how this practice of “I don’t know” includes, “I want to help. I love. I ache for suffering beings. I ache for myself. I’ll do my best. How? What?”

As we let go of our knowing, of our ideas about things, we’re able to experience reality more directly, more intimately. Doing so may open us up to some difficult feelings, but as long as we don’t try to struggle with them using our thinking mind, they can flow right through us. As they flow through they inform us, open us up, humble us, connect us, and motivate us.

Then, when we’re ready, we engage our discriminating mind again, and know when we need to.

The Near Enemy of Not-Knowing: Refusing to Know

Of course, sometimes we cling to not-knowing instead of knowing. For example, even though we’re aware that others are suffering and terrible things are happening in the world, we just take a breath and enjoy each day, one moment at a time. We know ideas are abstractions and you can ultimately only deal with what’s right in front of you, in your own direct experience. That’s what the Buddha recommended, right? We avoid getting caught in a thicket of views, because ultimately all views are relative and it’s fruitless trying to prove one view is better than another.

To be honest, the teaching of “not-knowing” can be easily misunderstood and therefore misused in this way. All potent spiritual teachings, like this one, are rather like knives: Very effective for certain purposes, but potentially dangerous if used recklessly, incorrectly, or in the wrong circumstances. Don’t-know mind can be easily twisted into a near-enemy – refusing to take a stand even when the situation calls for it.

When we refuse to take a stand because we’re clinging to not-knowing, we’re denying the fact that everyone and everything on the planet is interdependent and connected. We are, in some way, affected by – and responsible for – everything that goes on. A bodhisattva moves toward suffering with her sleeves rolled up, ready to dive in and help. She doesn’t turn away, using the excuse that it’s all just too complicated and messy to deal with. When necessary, he enters the thicket of views and just does his best not to get lost in there.

You can recognize when you’re clinging to not-knowing because the results aren’t intimate. To maintain a position of not-knowing, you need to turn away from suffering. It’s a cut-off, limited space that feels somewhat deadened or numb. It’s not an open, responsive, other-focused way of operating; when we cling to not knowing, our world becomes self-centered and small. This contrasts strongly with the intimacy I tried to evoke with our earlier “I don’t know” exercise.

You might argue that we shouldn’t teach something like “not-knowing” because of the chance it will be misunderstood and do great damage. However, that would be like saying we should never use knives because occasionally people cut themselves with them, or use them as weapons. It’s better if we learn how to properly use “not-knowing,” and to clearly identify when it’s being misused.

The Ground of Not-Knowing

When I thought about writing about the practice of not-knowing, I considered calling it the “refuge” of don’t-know mind, because of the relief it provides from stress… but the term “refuge” implies you can hide out there and avoid responsibility, so I didn’t want to use it.

Then I thought about the term “stance,” as in a posture or position which maximizes the effectiveness of your response to challenge, as in a martial art. This is a pretty good word, because although it may imply something static, in practice an effective stance is dynamic, open, and responsive. It also contains the truth that really employing don’t-know mind is complementary to taking a stand or being open to action. But “stance” does summon an oppositional image…

Perhaps it’s best to discuss the “ground” of not-knowing. This term points to the fact that don’t-know mind reflects an aspect of reality – it’s not just an attitude or view we adopt. In an absolute sense, we really, actually, don’t know. We have to decide and act within the relative dimension of our lives, but the absolute is always also there. This way of looking at how we function in our lives while honoring both the absolute and relative is described in the Prajna Paramita Sutra in 8,000 Lines:

“The Leader [Buddha] himself was not stationed in the realm which is free from conditions,
Nor in the things which are under conditions, but freely he wandered without a home:
Just so, without a support or a basis a Bodhisattva is standing.
A position devoid of a basis has that position been called by the Jina [Buddha].”[4]

So, a bodhisattva doesn’t hide out in the absolute – the “realm which is free from conditions” – or operate solely in the relative, “in the things which are under conditions.” Nevertheless, she is standing, and as a bodhisattva she is wholeheartedly devoted to the deliverance of all beings. But she stands without a support or a basis. How is that possible? Intellectually it makes no sense, but it describes the reality of our lives and our functioning. Grounded in the absolute – the realm of not-knowing – we engage wholeheartedly in the relative when the need arises. Surprisingly, the position without any basis at all is an incredibly powerful one! Without clinging to anything, we are free to move and respond as necessary.

The two sides – absolute and relative, not-knowing and knowing – are complementary. This complementary relationship is illustrated by the yin-yang symbol, which is half black and half white. Within the black section of the symbol, there’s a white dot, and within the white section, there’s a black dot. This reflects how, even when we’re engaged in thinking, knowing, decision-making, and activity, we ideally allow the absolute to inform and ground us so we don’t lose our way. And, even when we’re centered in the stillness of just-here-and-now, we allow concern and compassion for the world to keep our peace from becoming selfish and stale.

 


Sources

Conze, Edward, trans. The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines & its Verse Summary. San Francisco, CA: Four Season Foundation, 1973
Wick, Gerry Shishin. The Book of Equanimity: Illuminating Classic Zen Koans. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005.

 

Endnotes

[1] “Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta: To Vacchagotta on Fire” (MN 72), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.072.than.html.
[2] Wick, pg 13
[3] Wick, pg 63
[4] Conze, pg. 13

 

31 - Six Realms of Existence Part 3: Hungry Ghost and Human Realms
33 – Buddhist History 6: Life of Shakyamuni Buddha Part 4 - More Teachings and Stories
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