In Praise of Not Knowing

Cultivating Awe, part 3

A koan from the Book of Serenity – case number 20:
Master Dizang asked Fayan, “Where have you come from?”
“I pilgrimage aimlessly,” replied Fayan.
“What is the matter of your pilgrimage?” asked Dizang.
“I don't know'” replied Fayan.
“Not knowing is the most intimate,” remarked Dizang.
At that, Fayan experienced great enlightenment.
“Not knowing is most intimate.” Not that knowledge is a bad thing. Knowledge is great. Ignorance really is a big problem. Here's a story about that.

Many years ago when I was serving our congregation in Midland, Texas, the University of Texas of the Permian Basin -- UTPB -- was then a fairly new addition to the Texas University system. A colorful lawyer had been an important force in the creation of UTPB. During the planning and proposal stages there was concern that the region was too sparsely populated. At a public meeting for citizen input, someone asked, “Can west Texas support a four-year institution?”

The lawyer drew his breath, leaned forward, and said, “There’s enough ignorance in west Texas to support an eight-year institution.”

Yes, absolutely, ongoing continual learning and acquiring knowledge are essential to a full and engaged life. I’m just pointing out that you sometimes can deliberately set aside what you already know because it might be getting in the way of learning a new thing.

Knowledge is a tool – and it’s worth remembering that just because you have a really great wrench doesn’t mean you have to always use it. What we know – the story we have, the categories for putting things in – is very useful, but sometimes the story and categories distance us from the intimacy of a unique moment. So Dizang says, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Or, as the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn would repeatedly tell his students, “Only don’t know.”

And we can practice that – we can undertake to cultivate openness to awe: the not knowing that stretches us. One of the options for this month’s spiritual practice in the October issue of “On the Journey” – is “Take a Walk Until the World Lights Up.” Just start walking -- in the woods or along a beach or even just down a city sidewalk – opening yourself to see, smell, hear, touch something new – or something old in a new way. Instead of your usual way of sizing things up and moving on, look through that initial quick dismissal to find the incomprehensibility behind the familiar, the perceptual expansion behind your mental map that makes you draw a new mental map. Look for something that will knock you temporarily off-kilter, and you’ll probably find it.

Sometimes we’re so sure we know what to do that we miss the little something that’s calling us to do something different.

So there’s Jonah. He’s running a small prophecy business. He knows how to do it. He knows his clientele, he has a relationship with them – he knows how far he can go, as a prophet, in criticizing them to change their ways. He knows how to work with them and motivate them on social justice projects. And then he gets an invitation – a call from God, as the story goes – for a prophesying gig in Nineveh. He doesn’t want to go. He knows his business, and the people of Nineveh aren’t Jewish and won’t listen to him.

What he knows is getting in the way of being open to the freshness of his situation. In fact, he decides to get on a boat and go in the opposite direction. But then Jonah has an experience of awe and wonder: an awesome storm – he’s swallowed up by it, as if by a giant fish. Yet he survives – wonder of wonders. Now he’s had an experience of awe, which has pulled him into the present moment, out of his usual self concerns, and re-oriented him toward kindness and compassion. Maybe he can do something helpful for Nineveh after all.

You see, that part of the story about the storm and the fish – that wasn’t just a device to get Jonah to Nineveh. It was the awe-inspiring experience that was necessary to prepare him to serve as he was then able to do.

The invitation of Yom Kippur is to take this time of the year for forgiveness, reconciliation, atonement. Set aside how well you KNOW that guy’s a jerk, and see the relationship with fresh eyes. These are called the days of awe – because a little awe can slow us down, can pull us out of habitual assessments and orient us toward kindness. Then forgiveness can happen. The work of reconciliation and atonement can properly begin. Then we can, as the saying goes, meet each other again for the first time.

These are called the days of awe because a little awe can help that happen. And when it does happen, it’s awesome. It is the feast by which we time-starved become time-fed.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Cultivating Awe"
See also
Part 1: Too Busy? Maybe You Need Some Awe
Part 2: In Praise of Being Temporarily Off-Kilter

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