Road to Not Knowing

Mystery, part 1

From Stephen Palmer:
We desperately want to know. We need to know. We think we should or are supposed to know. But we don’t have a clue. It’s ironic: Uncertainty, not knowing, is the most fundamental component of our reality that we swim in, and yet it’s what scares us the most and what we reject the most vehemently. It’s like a fish being terrified of water. We simply don’t know how to orient ourselves to and deal with uncertainty and impermanence. To defend ourselves against the terror of uncertainty we develop rigid, fixed beliefs.

There’s so much we don’t know, so much we can’t know, and everything is constantly changing. But if we create fixed beliefs in our minds, those beliefs can give us a sense of permanence and knowing. Never mind whether or not those beliefs actually align with truth. We cling to our beliefs for all we’re worth; if we lose our beliefs, we lose our bearings. We’re free-falling into the gaping void of “I don’t know.” And so it is that we dig in our heels and argue with each other over our beliefs. In our desperate desire to know, we become dogmatic and fundamentalist.

Zen Buddhism offers a refreshing escape from the defensive and clinging fundamentalism of belief. They call it “Don’t Know Mind.” Zen Master Bon Soeng explains,
“There’s all of this bias toward knowing. But we don’t really know. We have this radical teaching: How about admitting the truth that we don’t know and go from there. If we really live that, it changes everything. Don’t Know Mind doesn’t mean stupid. It means What Is It? Suddenly our eyes are open, we’re vibrating with energy because we wonder, ‘What?’…rather than, ‘Oh yeah, I know that!’ So this Not-Knowing actually gives us life. It gives vibrancy and energy to the world we live in. This kind of I-Know shuts everything down and we get stuck…Not knowing is what opens us up and comes alive…Clear it away. Return to zero. What do we see, what do we smell, what do we taste, what do we touch? Everything is truth. What we know blocks the truth. Returning to not knowing opens us up.”
But we don’t need to “know” anything to enjoy the giggle of a child, to marvel at the awesome beauty of nature, to create art, to be honest with ourselves, to trust our intuition. We don’t need to “know” anything at all to smile at a stranger, to offer compassion to a friend, to feed a homeless person, to donate to an orphanage.

In fact, we function better when we drop all mind-induced beliefs and conceptualizations and simply be with what is. Rather than being terrifying, not knowing can be wondrous, magical, and peaceful. As we rest in “Don’t Know Mind,” the fear subsides, the hardness of fundamentalism relaxes. We become softer, more open, more relaxed, light-hearted, more curious, more teachable, kinder, and wiser.
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The mind does want to know. The pursuit of knowledge is often a good thing. Knowledge has lots of practical applications. It lets us do things, solve problems, prevent problems from arising. We advance our purposes. Sometimes that feels good. Size up a situation – like an action-movie hero who scans the room and instantly assesses everything in it as a possible tool or possible threat. That skill is admirable.

But do you really want to live that way all the time? Friendship and family and love are not about advancing your purpose, solving problems – not about opportunities and threats.

Let me tell you my story of venturing into mystery, and learning to dwell there, at least part of me. In 2002, I was studying for ministry and LoraKim, a couple years ahead of me in the process, was ready to begin ministering to a congregation. She got the call to serve our congregation in El Paso. Her fluency in Spanish helped make that a good fit. In between my studies, I was practicing Buddhist meditation.

In 2003, I was the ministerial intern at our congregation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On Thursday mornings in Albuquerque, I got up very early and bicycled a couple miles to a Zen center that had six a.m. morning practice. In August of that year, I took a week off from the internship and took a bus to Tucson, Arizona for my first week-long Zen retreat. Mostly silence. Each morning there was a dharma talk by the teacher. A couple times a day, one at a time, the students – there were about 20 of us -- went down the hall for a few minutes of one-on-one with the teacher. I said, give me a koan.

I had heard about these koans. They seemed like puzzles, but what I’d read was at pains to say, no, a koan is most definitely NOT a puzzle. And I get that now. A puzzle, you squeeze down to the right answer. When I do a Sudoku puzzle, I squeeze a cell until I wring out everything except the one number that has to go in it – or squeeze on a number until there’s only one cell for it to go into. Koans are the opposite.

They’re for unsqueezing your life, expanding rather than narrowing down, limitless possibility rather than a right answer. I asked him to give me a koan, and he did.

NEXT: The koan.
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This is part 1 of 3 of "Mystery"
See also
Part 2: On the Koan Path
Part 3: Most Intimate

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