Most Intimate

Mystery, part 3

If the use of koans in Zen training seems rather silly, well, yeah, it is. There are many paths to learn authenticity, to learn acceptance, and compassion, and none of them work all that well. None of them offer any guarantees. The koan path happened to call to me – that’s the mystery that had my number.

There are many ways to learn to dwell in mystery. You don’t have to subject yourself repeatedly to being rung out of the room every time you try to explain, but that is one way to begin to grasp in your bones the limits of explanation. When I mentioned some of these koans, you may have found your mind thinking about them, trying to figure them out. That’s natural. That’s what I did, too. Even after doing several hundred, when I would first encounter the next one, my brain would start into “figure it out” mode.

You know what that’s like. You’re presented with a challenge. The brain starts looking through its memory files for concepts that would apply to this sort of situation. Crying baby. Is it hungry? Needs diaper change? Colic? Ascertain the concept that fits, and take the appropriate action. Complaining client. Apologize? Offer suggestions? Just listen? Stuck in traffic. Is there an alternate route?

The mind wants to KNOW what to do. My figure-it-out mind never stopped jumping on every new koan, but eventually it did start to jump more lightly. Instead of pouncing and clinging, it would jump on the koan, bounce a couple times, and rest there lightly, stepping off sometimes.

The mind’s job is to figure things out, and it is very dedicated to its job. But life is not for figuring out. There are times when it is good to know stuff, and apply the knowledge to figure things out and generate more knowledge. But that’s only one activity of living. Life as a whole is not for figuring out.

If you approach everything as if it were merely to be figured out, then you are bringing some idea of what a solution would look like, and you are focused only on the details relevant to that solution. “Don’t know mind” is the mind that can just let things be what they are, without need of figuring them out, categorizing them. “Don’t know mind” can also be called “beginner’s mind.” “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” said Shunryu Suzuki. “But in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Imagine an expert botanist strolling through the woods on one of our local trails. She knows every plant, its species and genus, the conditions it requires to thrive, what variations are normal and which are rare. She can rattle off several pages worth of information on every item of flora she encounters. She has expert’s mind. She can very quickly sift through the many possibilities and zero in on the one right one. I’m not suggesting she get rid of her expert mind, but along with her expert mind, she could also cultivate a beginner’s mind. She can open herself to the unknown.

In every sprout, every blossom, every twig, and every leaf, there is something about it that isn’t captured by all the categories of knowledge, all the concepts honed by thousands of botanists studying in classrooms and in the field and reading each other’s journal articles. There is something that the bark is, the blade of grass, the soil, that is not reached by those concepts. Whatever we learn about a thing, that thing also has it irreducible mystery. What is here? What is it?

After you say plant, and leaf, and oak, and white oak, and hydrated and photosynthesis and cellular respiration and everything else you know or think you know, there is still this fact in front of you – and the mystery of it is not diminished, not diminished even the tiniest amount – by all your knowledge.

Maybe our expert botanist takes a moment to set aside her knowledge. Or maybe she plunges into her knowledge and runs through every single thing she can think of about a leaf in her hand and comes at last to the end of it. Either way, she can arrive at don’t know mind – the mind that dwells with the mystery of that faded, once-flexible-now-brittle leaf. The mind of wonder opens up, the beginner’s mind in which there are many possibilities.

Creativity comes from mystery. When we know, we’re just applying familiar concepts. When we reach down to the mystery we do not know, new and creative responses to the thing, to the situation have the space to – flourish, to use a botanical concept. In the mystery, you can flourish. Only don’t know.

I’m not praising ignorance for ignorance’s sake. Reading, and studying, and learning are great goods. Learning is growth and growth is life. But when you have arrived at knowledge, that little twig of learning is at its end.

Only don’t know, so you can open yourself to the next thing to learn. But not only that. Only don’t know – not just for the sake of learning – but for the sake of being present. “Only don’t know” is the gateway to dwelling in the mystery that is all around you.

Here’s one more koan, specifically about that. I have mentioned this one before.
Fayan had studied and practiced Zen with his teacher Dizang for more than 10 years.
Fayan made ready to depart, sensing his time with Dizang had run its course.
Dizang asked Fayan, "Where are you going, senior monk?"
Fayan said, "I am on pilgrimage, following the wind."
Dizang said, "What are you on pilgrimage for?"
Fayan said, "I don't know."
Dizang said, "Not knowing is most intimate."
Fayan suddenly attained great enlightenment.
Not knowing is most intimate. Knowing, useful at it is, is like a screen of concepts between ourselves and the thing itself.

Not knowing is most intimate. Every moment offers us the chance to ask, “What is ineffable here?” This is an unanswerable question – because any answer would be effing it, and then it wouldn’t be ineffable. So ask the question, not for the sake of an answer, but for the sake of orienting yourself to the unspeakable. What is ineffable here? What is the mystery of this moment, this sight, this sound, this feel, this taste, this smell?

It is possible to go through life doing no more than responding to every situation with the knowledge we have, as best we can – bringing our concepts and purposes to bear on everything we encounter. This is a grave mistake. There is something else present. Call it the silence inside the sound, the darkness inside the light, the stillness inside the motion. Or call it the sound inside the silence, the light inside the darkness, the motion inside perfect stillness.

Call it the mystery. It surrounds us and holds us always.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Mystery"
See also
Part 1: Road to Not Knowing
Part 2: On the Koan Path

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