Niet-weten is het meest nabij

Vertalingen van koan 20 van het Boek van Sereniteit en acht mooie toespraken daarover van Zoketsu Norman Fischer, James Ishmael Ford, Gil Fronsdal, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Joko Dave Haselwood, Misha Shungen Merrill en Malgosia Braunek Roshi.

Redactie Hans van Dam.

Dwaalgids > Zen > Niet-weten is het meest nabij

Tips: De Linji-lu, De Poortloze Poort, Niet-weten in koancollecties

Boek van Sereniteit

De Ts’ung-jung lu of Shoyoroku of het Book of serenity of het Boek van Sereniteit is een collectie van honderd koans, met inleidingen en commentaren van Wansong en gedichten van Tiantong, die op hun beurt weer van commentaar zijn voorzien door Wansong.

Deze webpagina is helemaal gewijd aan koan 20 van deze collectie: Niet-weten is het meest nabij. Hieronder eerst de vertaling van Thomas Cleary uit het Chinees in het Engels, dan mijn vertaling daarvan uit de losse pols. Vervolgens acht zentoespraken waartoe deze koan heeft geïnspireerd. Die van Zoketsu heb ik vast voor je vertaald, de rest volgt.

Bron: Book of Serenity, One hundred Zen Dialogues, vertaald uit het Chinees in het Engels door Thomas Cleary, Shambhala, Boston & London, 1988 / 2005.

Case 20: Dizang’s “Nearness”


The profound talk entering into noumenon decides three and weeds out four; the Great Way to the Capital goes seven ways across and eight ways up and down. Suddenly if you can open your mouth and explain fully, take steps and walk, then you can hang your bowl and bag up high and brreak your staff. But tell me, who is this?


Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”(Why frame the man?) Fayan said, “Around on pilgrimage.”(He goes looking for money to buy sandals.) Dizang said, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”(After all he doesn’t let him go.) Fayan said, “I don’t know.” (Why didn’t you say so earlier?) Dizang said, “Not knowing is nearest.” (He goes right up and bumps him off.)


Yang Wuwei asked Master Furong, “How long has it been since we last met?” Furong said, “Seven years.” Mr. Yang said, “Have you been studying the Way? Engrossed in meditation?” Furong said, “I don’t play that fife and durm.” Mr. Yang said, “Then you wander for nothing over mountains and rivers, incapable of anything.” Furong said, “While we haven’t been apart for long, you can sure reflect on high.” Mr. Yang laughed aloud. Nanquan said, “The Way is not in knowing or in not knowing. Knowing is false consciousness, not knowing is indifference.” Now when people hear it said that not knowing is nearest, and that this is where Fayan was enlightened, they immediately go over to just not knowing, not understanding–“Just this is it.” They hardly realize that a phrase of the ancients covers everywhere, like the sky, supports everywhere, like the earth. If not knowing is nearest, then what about Heze’s saying, “The one word ‘knowing’ is the gate of myriad wonders.” Just affirm totally when affirming, but don’t settle down in affirmation; deny totally when denying, but don’t settle down in denial. Passing through all the five ranks, absolute and relative, how could you die under a phrase? But this enlightenment of Fayan’s too just spontaneously creates a pattern. Master Dayin of Boshan said, “He is still making a fortune out of a disaster.” In Dizang’s method of guiding people, the hook is in an unsuspected place–suddenly he gives a yank, and Fayan has a powerful insight; after all it was right to begin with.Old Master Cizhou said, “In walking, in sitting, just hold to the moment before thought arises, look into it, and you’ll see not seeing–and then put it to one side. When you direct your effort like this, rest does not interfere with meditation study, meditation study does not interfere with rest.” Master Touzi Qing said, “Once the golden dragon strays from the water, the giant garuda bird quickly picks it up.” Dizang’s timing of cause and condictions had not a thread of gap. There is a tongue on Tiantong’s brush, to reiterate.


Now having studied to the full, it’s like before(I’m like the people of yore, not one of the people of yore.)–Having shed entirely the finest thread, he reaches not knowing.(There is still this?) Let it be short, let it be long–stop cutting and patching;(A waste of effort.) Going along with the high, along with the low, it levels itself.(Don’t bother to exert your mind.) The abundance or scarcity of the house is used according to the occasion;(Can’t lack salt and vinegar.) Roaming serenely in the land, he goes where his feet take him.(If you want to go, go.) The purpose of ten years’ pilgrimage(Inconceivable.)–Clearly he’d turned his back on one pair of eyebrows.(As before they’re above the eyes.)


The Source Mirror says, “Hitherto deluded about enlightenment, seeming deluded; now awakened form delusion, it’s not enlightenment. Therefore it is said, ‘After complete enlightenment one again is the same as someone who is not yet enlightened.” When Dizang asked the question, he wanted to know the reason for setting out. In Fayan’s answer he is not modestly deferring, either. Dizang then took advantage of the opportunity and all at once said, “Not knowing is nearest.” Fayan was greatly enlightened, that actually this not knowing is the nearest. Linji asked Luopu, “Where do you come from?” Luopu said, “From Luan city.” Linji said, “There is something I would ask about–may I?” Luopu said, “I don’t understand.” Linji said, “Even searching throughout the whole of China it’s hard to find one who doesn’t understand.” Linji always used the killing sword, and he also had the sword to give life, but was not comparable to Dizang’s seeing blood when he killed people, doing his ulmost to help people. This ‘I don’t know, don’t understand’ is entirely transcendent; you must be utterly free from the minutest obstacles before you will reach the point of not knowing and not understanding. Once when Guishan had requested everyone to work the fields, there Yangshan asked, “Here is so low, there is so high.” Guishan said, “Water can level things. Just level them with water.” Yangshan said, “Even water has nothing to depend on–Teacher, the high places are just high level, the low places are low level.” Guishan said, “So it is.” In Sengzhao’s treatise Wisdom Has No Knowledge it says, “The nondifference of all things doesn’t mean that you add to a duck’s legs and cut a crane’s legs, level mountains to fill valleys, thereafter considering them on different.” Thus it says, “Let it be long–stop cutting and patching; going along with the high, along with the low, it levels itself.” Zhang Wujin said, “Myriad kinds of preparations are a waste of time. Adapting to everything becomes a fine skill.” Thus one speaks freely and acts freely, goes where his legs go; in the spring moon the flowers bloom, in the autumn the leaves fall. If you can understand in this way, what donkey legs would you move? This is why Xuansha did not leave the mountains, Baoshou didn’t cross the river–without going outside the gate they knew everything in the world. Jiaofan’s verse said, One face, big as a slat; Eye, ear, nose, tongue, distinguish territories–Inside the skull, no knowledge at all. I leave to you the outside–how can you hoke up wonders? Mouth asked nose, “Eating is up to me, speaking is up to me–what good are you that you are above me?” Nose said, “Among the five mountains, the central one occupies the honored position.” Nose then asked eyes, “Why are you above?” Eyes said, “We are like the sun and moon–truly we have the accomplishment of illumination and reflection. We dare ask eyebrows, what virtue do they have to be above us?” Eyebrows said, “We really have no merit; we are ashamed to be in the higher position. If you let us be below, let the eyes look from above–what face-holes are you?” So Baoyue Ming the Chan master said in a lecture, “An ancient said, ‘In the eyes it’s called seeing, in the ears it’s called hearing’–but tell me, in the eyebrows what is it called?(a long silence). In sorrow we grieve together, in happiness we rejoice together. Everybody knows the useful function, but they don’t know the useles great function. But tell me, what was the meaning of Venerable Pindola’s brushing his eyebrows with both hands?” (Wansong brushed his eyebrows and said ‘Cat.’ )

Niet-weten is het meest nabij

Dizang: Waar ga je heen?
Fayan: Op bedevaart.
Dizang: Waar is dat goed voor?
Fayan: Dat weet ik eigenlijk niet.
Dizang: Niet-weten is het meest nabij.

Maar blijf er niet in hangen

Nanquan heeft gezegd: “De Weg bestaat niet in weten of niet-weten. Weten is vals bewustzijn, niet-weten is onverschilligheid.” Als mensen iemand horen zeggen dat niet-weten het meest nabij is, en dat dit is hoe Fayan tot verlichting kwam, gaan ze meteen over tot niet-weten, niet-begrijpen – “alleen maar dit”. Ze beseffen niet dat de uitspraken van weleer omvattend zijn als de hemel. Als niet-weten het meest nabij is, wat moeten we dan met het gezegde van Heze: “Dit ene woordje ‘weten’ opent de deur naar talloze wonderen”? Bevestig van harte wat je bevestigt, maar blijf er niet in hangen. Ontkent van harte wat je ontkent, maar blijf er niet in hangen.


Ook de verlichting van Fayan versteent al te gauw tot een fossiel. Meester Dayin van Boshan zei hierover: “Hij maakt nog steeds goede sier met rampspoed.”

Tussen gedachten in

De oude meester Cizhou heeft gezegd: “Als je loopt, als je zit, verblijf dan in het moment voordat er een gedachte opkomt, onderzoek het en je zult het niet-zien zien. Leg het dan weer naast je neer. Als je dat doet verstoort het gewone leven de meditatie niet en de meditatie niet het gewone leven.”

Het doel allang vergeten

Na een diepgaand onderzoek is alles eindelijk bij het het oude.
Nu zelfs de fijnste draden zijn gebroken, heeft hij het niet-weten bereikt.
Te lang of te kort – het is gedaan met knippen en oplappen.
Hij gaat mee met het lage en het hoge, en alles vereffent zichzelf.
Bij overdaad neemt hij het ervan, bij schaarste trekt hij de broekriem aan.
Rustig zwervend door het land, loopt hij alleen maar zijn neus achterna.
Een bedevaart van tien jaar – het doel allang vergeten.

Op grootse wijze

Toen Dizang zijn vraag stelde, wilde hij weten waar het Fayan om te doen was. Fayan antwoordde niet zoals hij deed om in Dizang zijn meerdere te erkennen. Dizang zei daarop: “Niet-weten is het meest nabij.” Het verlichtte Fayan op grootse wijze dat dit niet-weten werkelijk het meest nabij was.


Linji vroeg Luopu: “Waar kom jij vandaan?” Luopu zei: “Uit het stadje Luan.” Linji zei: “Er is iets dat ik je zou willen vragen, mag dat?” Luopu zei: “Ik begrijp niets.” Linji zei: “Opmerkelijk. Al zoek je stad en land af, je vindt haast nergens iemand die niets begrijpt.” Linji hanteerde graag het dodelijke zwaard, en wist ook wel raad met het zwaard dat leven geeft, maar hij kon niet op tegen de scherpte van Dizang als deze mensen doodde in een uiterste poging hen te helpen. Maar toch: “ik weet het niet” en “ik begrijp niets” zijn beide toereikend. Je moet je bevrijden van het kleinste obstakel voordat je het punt van niet-weten en niet-begrijpen hebt bereikt.

Geen poot

Op een keer verzocht Guishan iedereen om in het veld te komen werken. Daar aangekomen zei Yangshan: “Wat is het hier laag, wat is het daar hoog.” Guishan zei: “Water nivelleert alles. Breng hier en daar maar op gelijke hoogte met water.” Yangshan zei: “Zelfs water heeft geen poot om op te staan, meester, de hoge plaatsen zijn gewoon hoog en de lage gewoon laag.” Guishan zei: “Zo is het.”

Van eenden en kraanvogels

In Sengzhao’s verhandeling “Wijsheid bevat geen kennis” staat: “De non-dualiteit van alle dingen betekent niet dat je de poten van een eend langer maakt of die van een kraanvogel korter, dat je bergen afgraaft en valleien opvult zodat ze niet meer van elkaar te onderscheiden zijn. Vandaar: “Te lang of te kort – het is gedaan met knippen en oplappen / Hij gaat mee met het lage en het hoge, en alles vereffent zichzelf.”


Zhang Wujin zei: “Alle voorbereiding is tijdverlies. Het komt erop aan zich te voegen.” Dit is de wijze waarop men vrijuit spreekt en handelt, dit is hoe men zijn neus achterna gaat. In de lente bloeien de bloemen, in de herfst vallen de bladeren. Als je het zo bekijkt, wat valt er dan nog voor te bereiden? Vandaar dat Xuansha de bergen niet verliet en Baoshou de rivier niet overstak. Zonder hun turf te verlaten waren ze bekend met de hele wereld.

Een gedicht van Jiofan gaat zo:

Het gezicht een sorteermachine.
Oog, oor, neus en tong maken fijne onderscheidingen.
Binnenin de schedel geen enkele kennis.
U laat ik gaarne de buitenwereld – wat heb je nou aan wonderen?

Hoge posities

De mond vroeg de neus: Eten is aan mij, spreken is aan mij, waar bent u eigenlijk goed voor dat u zo pontificaal boven mij uitsteekt?
De neus zei: Van vijf bergen neemt de middelste nou eenmaal de belangrijkste positie in.
Toen vroeg de neus aan de ogen: En waaraan ontleent u beiden eigenlijk uw verheven positie?
De ogen zeiden: Wij zijn als de zon en de maan. Waarlijk, wij hebben de gave van verlichting en reflectie. Maar wij willen de wenkbrauwen weleens vragen: welke deugd rechtvaardigt in hemelsnaam uw positie boven de onze?
De wenkbrauwen zeiden: Niets pleit voor onze aanwezigheid op deze eenzame hoogte. Wij willen best naar beneden, dan kunt u voortaan van bovenaf toezien. Maar zeg eens, welke van de gaten in het gezicht behoort aan u?


Zo zei zenmeester Baoyue Ming tijdens een lezing: “Een van de ouden heeft gezegd, ‘Bij de ogen spreekt men van zien, bij de oren van horen’ – maar waarvan spreekt men bij de wenkbrauwen? (Een lange stilte.) Bij verdriet rouwen we, bij geluk verheugen we ons. Iedereen is bekend met de nuttige functies maar niemand kent de grootste, de enige, de overbodige functie. Maar hoe zit het, wat betekent het dat eerwaarde Pindola zijn wenkbrauwen met beide handen borstelde?” (Wanson borstelde zijn wenkbrauwen en zei: ‘Miauw’.)


Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Norman Zoketsu Fischer

Integrale tekst van de toespraak Not Knowing is Most Intimate.


Dizang zei: Waar ga je heen?
Fayan zei: Op bedevaart.
Dizang zei: Met welk doel?
Fayan zei: Dat weet ik niet.
Dizang zei: Niet-weten is het meest intiem.

Dit is een van de beroemdste koan uit de geschiedenis van het zenboeddhisme. Veel leraren hebben het zinnetje ‘niet-weten is het meest intiem’ tot de kern van hun onderricht gemaakt, en herhalen het keer op keer. Maar wat betekent het en hoe kunnen we het voor ons laten werken?

Laat ik eerst even een stapje terug doen en iets fundamenteels zeggen over het beoefenen van zen. Zoals een van mijn leraren altijd zei: zen is een praktijk van woorden. Het gebruik van woorden is natuurlijk niet voorbehouden aan zen, je ziet het in de meeste religieuze tradities. Wanneer Christenen lezen, leren en nadenken over de Schrift, wanneer joden of moslims hun dagelijkse gebeden opzeggen, die buiten de geest om rechtstreeks tot het hart spreken, gebruiken ze woorden.

In zen doen we het zo: we nemen een zinnetje, zoals ‘niet-weten is het meest intiem’, of gewoon ‘niet-weten’, en gaan ermee zitten. We ademen ermee tijdens het mediteren, herhalen het keer op keer, gewoonlijk op de uitademing, en laten de woorden van lieverlee los, voelen gewoon de adem zelf als de woorden. De hele dag door herhalen we ze in ons innerlijk en op een gegeven moment merken we dat ze ons af en toe vanzelf invallen. Het zinnetje wordt het thema van ons doen en laten, het begint ons te beïnvloeden, tilt alledaagse gebeurtenissen naar een hoger, mystieker niveau.

Het gaat er niet om over de woorden na te denken, uit te zoeken wat ze betekenen. Het gaat erom erop te kauwen, ze vast te houden als een talisman, totdat hun betekenis zich vanzelf, plotseling of geleidelijk, aan ons openbaart. Door op deze manier met woorden te werken groeien we uit boven ons normale begrip. We leggen de woorden niet op aan onze ervaring. Het is eerder alsof ze ons het diepste wezen van onze ervaring onthullen, dat we tot dan toe steeds over het hoofd hebben gezien. Ze laten ons zien waar het echt om gaat, datgene wat aldoor in ons leefde maar waarvoor we geen oog hadden. Het oefenen met woorden brengt ons nader tot onszelf, voorbij onze niet-onderzochte gewoonten en ideeën.

In deze koan vraagt Dizang Fayan niet alleen naar zijn bedevaart maar naar zijn spirituele praktijk, naar het leven zelf, want het leven is uiteindelijk alleen maar een pelgrimstocht. Met welk doel? Waarom worden we geboren, waarom sterven we, waarom is het leven zo moeilijk en waarom verlangen we altijd naar iets anders? Wat weten we nou echt over onze mysterieuze en vluchtige ervaringen?

Het antwoord van Fayan is recht voor zijn raap. Hij komt niet op de proppen met vrome boeddhistische prietpraat, ook al kunnen we ervan verzekerd zijn dat hij de leer door en door kent. ‘Dat weet ik niet’, zegt hij, eerlijk en bescheiden, misschien in de verwachting dat Dizang, zijn meester, hem wel verder kan helpen. Maar Dizang zegt, ‘dat weet ik niet’ is de spijker op z’n kop. Niet-weten is het meest nabij. Door dit antwoord komt Fayan tot realisatie; plotseling ziet hij in, zoals zo vaak in de spirituele praktijk, dat hij allang had wat hij zocht, alleen wist hij het nog niet. De weg bevindt zich pal onder je voeten. Hij zit in ieder grassprietje.

In zen is het woord intimiteit synoniem met ontwaken en verlichting. Voor mij is intimiteit een beter woord dan deze twee. Zenverlichting, realisatie, ontwaken – al deze woorden suggereren ten onrechte een speciale bewustzijnstoestand, bijzondere mystieke kennis of een transformerende ervaring die ons optilt naar een spiritueel niveau hoog boven de problemen van alledag. Het woord intimiteit is nauwkeuriger. Het geeft aan dat we dichter bij onze ervaring komen, er intiemer mee worden in plaats van erbovenuit te stijgen. Intimiteit drukt naar mijn mening beter uit wat verlichting in de praktijk inhoudt. Maar hoe kan het nou dat niet-weten het meest nabij is?

Een zenmeester heeft eens gezegd: De weg is onafzienbaar groot, hoe zou het ooit een kwestie van weten of niet-weten kunnen zijn? Weten is arrogant, niet-weten is dwaasheid, de weg ligt voorbij beide.’

Dit betekent dat het niet-weten van Dizang tegelijk meer en minder is dan gewoon iets niet weten, dat er iets is dat we kunnen weten maar nog niet weten. Jammer voor ons. Wij zijn kennelijk dom. Misschien zijn anderen slimmer dan wij en kunnen we het van hen leren. We kunnen een training doen, aan onze vaardigheden werken en zelf tot weten komen. Dan zijn wij de slimmeriken en kunnen we zelf les gaan geven. Dan kunnen we trots zijn op onszelf, wetend hoeveel verder we zijn dan anderen. Tot die tijd doen we gewoon alsof. Natúúrlijk weten we. We zijn volwassenen, mensen van de wereld, we weten heel wat!

Maar diep vanbinnen weten we dat we niet weten. Alles wat er echt toe doet ontgaat ons. Dit toegeven is teveel gevraagd, zeker tegen anderen, en soms ook tegenover onszelf. Dus doen we op ons werk en in onze relaties alsof we het allemaal wel doorhebben. We investeren in rollen, identiteiten, vaardigheden en standpunten en we verdedigen ze te vuur en te zwaard. En halen ons heel wat moeilijkheden op de hals.

Zo is het niet-weten van Dizang niet. Het is niet het tegenovergestelde van weten. Het is voorbij weten en niet-weten of, anders gezegd, het is het ware niet-weten.

Als we iets weten en in dat weten verblijven dan beperken we onze blik. We zien alleen maar wat ons weten ons laat zien. Op deze manier kan ervaring onze vijand zijn. Natuurlijk, ervaring heeft ons iets over onszelf en over het leven geleerd. Maar dit moment, de situatie waarmee we nu geconfronteerd worden – deze patiënt, deze persoon, deze familie, deze ziekte, deze opdracht, deze pijn, deze schoonheid – hebben we nooit eerder gezien. Hoe moeten we ermee omgaan? Ik weet het niet.

Ik buig voor de schoonheid en de eenmaligheid van het actuele. Niet-wetend ben ik bereid mij te laten verrassen, bereid om te luisteren en te begrijpen, bereid om te doen wat gedaan moet worden, om anderen te laten doen wat gedaan moet worden, om niets te doen als dat nodig is. Ik kan mij laten informeren door mijn ervaringen uit het verleden, maar ik ben liever in staat en bereid ze los te laten en gewoon aanwezig te zijn, gewoon te luisteren, gewoon niet te weten.

Ervaring, kennis, wijsheid – er is niets op tegen maar ze houden ons dikwijls bij het heden weg. Wanneer ik weet, treed ik naar voren, leg ik mijzelf en mijn ervaring op aan het moment. Als ik niet weet treedt de ervaring naar voren en onthult zichzelf op zijn eigen voorwaarden. Als ik mijn ervaring, kennis en wijsheid kan loslaten en mij nederig opstel dan durf ik intiem te zijn. Ik kan dit moment binnengaan, dat altijd nieuw is, en er een relatie mee aangaan. Ik kan mij laten leiden door wat er gebeurt, volledig in het moment zijn en openstaan voor wat de situatie mij wil laten zien.

Ach ja. We hebben het al zo vaak gehoord. Maar hoe doe je dat. Hoe wordt niet-weten een manier van leven in plaats van een goed idee dat we eindeloos najagen maar nooit inhalen, waardoor we er niets aan hebben en het gewoon de zoveelste aanleiding tot zelfkritiek wordt – ditmaal om spirituele redenen.

In zijn commentaar op de uitspraak van Dizang, ‘niet-weten is het meest intiem’, zegt ene Chizou: ‘Of je nou loopt of zit, hou je aandacht steeds gericht op het moment vóórdat gedachten opkomen. Kijk er goed naar, zie het niet-zien – en leg het dan weer naast je neer. Als je het zo aanpakt zal het dagelijks leven je meditatie niet verstoren en je meditatie het dagelijks leven niet.’

Zo simpel is het. Als we dit oefenen op onze kussentjes zal het vanzelf ons dagelijks leven binnendringen. We zitten met onze aandacht op het lichaam gericht, op de ademhaling. We laten gedachten en gevoelens opkomen maar proberen er niet iets van te maken. We laten ze opkomen, verwelkomen ze en laten ze weer gaan. We vatten ze niet persoonlijk op, we raken er niet in verstrikt – een gedachte die in ons opkomt is gewoon een gebeurtenis, net als het zingen van een vogel in een boom of het rijden van een vrachtwagen door de straat. Ervaring komt en gaat en die ervaring zijn wij, is ons leven.

Als we dit nou maar goed oefenen zal het oordelen geleidelijk wegvallen. We vergeven onszelf dat we zijn wie we zijn. Natuurlijk doen we dat. Alles is precies zoals het is. We hoeven geen onderscheid te maken tussen van mij en niet van mij. Tussen goed en slecht, wenselijk en onwenselijk. We weten, inderdaad, dit is een vogel, hij zit buiten, dit is een gedachte, hij zit in mijn hoofd, maar we weten ook, tegelijkertijd: buiten en binnen, het is allemaal gewoon dit ene leven. We zeggen misschien, deze neiging is goed en die is slecht, maar we weten ook dat alles vanzelf opkomt en weer ondergaat, op zijn eigen tijd – dus wat maakt allemaal het uit?

Een zenleraar heeft eens gezegd: ‘Als je ja zegt, zeg dan volmondig ja – maar blijf er niet in hangen; en als je nee zegt, zeg dan ook volmondig nee – maar blijf er niet in hangen.’ Oefenen in aanwezig zijn en laten gebeuren wat gebeurt is oefenen in niet-weten. Binnen het niet-weten stellen we vast en nemen we initiatief. Ieder moment doet een beroep op ons om te reageren en dat doen we ook, vrijmoedig en vol vertrouwen. Soms moeten we ja zeggen, soms nee. Er zijn geen regels. Maar wat we ook zeggen, we bijten ons er niet in vast. We identificeren ons er niet mee en we graven ons niet in. We verblijven in niet-weten en verwachten ieder moment het onverwachte.

‘Of je nou loopt of zit, hou je aandacht steeds gericht op het moment vóórdat gedachten opkomen. Kijk er goed naar, zie het niet-zien – en leg het dan weer naast je neer. Als je het zo aanpakt zal het dagelijks leven je meditatie niet verstoren en je meditatie het dagelijks leven niet.’

Alle gedachten, verlangens en handelingen komen voort uit niet-weten – of we het nou weten of niet. Anders gezegd, deze wereld wordt ieder moment opnieuw geboren uit stilte, bewustzijn, God of hoe je het ook maar noemen wilt. Wanneer we onze aandacht steeds opnieuw op ons lichaam richten, op onze ademhaling, op dit moment waarop het leven zich voltrekt, keren we terug naar het pre-reflectieve nu, dit moment voorbij weten en niet-weten, waaraan alle dingen ontspringen.

Niet-weten is eigenlijk niet iets wat je doet of nastreeft. We doen ons best, maar uiteindelijk gebeurt alles vanzelf: omdat we dat zijn, en omdat er geen alternatieven zijn. Al het zijnde is dat. Al het zijnde ontspringt aan de innerlijke stilte. Maar we vestigen ons er niet in – want dat kunnen we niet. Zodra we ons erin proberen te vestigen is er alweer sprake van een weten, een hebben, een identiteit – een springplank naar toekomstig leed.

Dus vieren we het bijna niet-bestaande moment vóórdat de dingen opkomen – en vervolgen onze weg. We leggen het naast ons neer. We laten het los. We keren terug naar de intimiteit van niet-weten, naar de bereidheid aanwezig te zijn bij wat is. Gewoon er-zijn, zonder vooringenomenheid. Als we op deze manier oefenen komen meditatie en niet-meditatie op hetzelfde neer. We maken ons geen zorgen over ons gedrag. We doen gewoon ons best en aanvaarden de gevolgen.

Er bestaat een gedicht over het niet-weten van Dizang:

Of het nou vloed wordt of eb – hou op met forten bouwen.
Drijf mee omhoog en weer omlaag; het getij regelt zichzelf.
Doe wat nodig is, laat na wat overbodig is
en loop je neus maar achterna.

Ik zei daarnet dat de terugkeer naar het prereflectieve moment niet iets is wat je doet of nastreeft. Daarom is het zowel doodeenvoudig als mateloos moeilijk. Doodeenvoudig omdat er niets te doen valt – gewoon blijven proberen, maar wel een ontspannen proberen. Wees vasthoudend in je oefeningen maar maak je nergens druk om. Vertrouw erop dat je krijgt wat je nodig hebt en dat de weg zich voor je zal ontvouwen. Mateloos moeilijk omdat we er zo stellig van overtuigd zijn dat we iets moeten doen, moeten weten, moeten zijn wat we niet zijn, dat we keer op keer met onze kop tegen de muur lopen. Hoe hard we er ook tegenaan lopen, die muur verschuift geen millimeter, terwijl wij er wel koppijn van krijgen. Maar ja, we kunnen niet anders dan onszelf blijven: slachtoffers van onze eigen gewoonten en ideeën. Dus schijnen we allemaal een tijdlang met onze kop tegen de muur te moeten lopen – net zolang tot we doorkrijgen dat dat helemaal niet hoeft en ook nooit nodig is geweest, en dat het gewoon stom is. Ooit zal het kwartje vallen: niet-weten is het meest nabij.

We kunnen iets weten of iets niet weten. We doen onderzoek om meer te weten te komen, maar vooral om vast te kunnen stellen wat we allemaal niet weten. Dat maakt ons bescheiden. Iedereen weet iets en iedereen weet iets niet – dat geldt net zozeer voor de wijzen en de machtigen onder ons als voor de eenvoudigen en ongeschoolden. Maar voorbij het alledaagse weten en niet weten vinden we het niet-weten dat het meest nabij is. Het niet-weten van Dizang. Dicht bij onze ervaring blijven, bereid zijn om er vol in te gaan, met lege handen, in iedere situatie, is iets waaraan we ons moeten leren overgeven. Soms kunnen we dat. Soms kunnen we het niet. Het doet er niet toe. Wat ertoe doet is het te blijven proberen, erop vertrouwend dat er gebeurt wat er moet gebeuren.

Er bestaat nog een commentaar op het niet-weten van Dizang, in de vorm van een grappig gesprek tussen de onderdelen van je gezicht. Zegt de mond tegen de neus: ‘Ik ben het die eet, ik ben het die praat. Wat kan er belangrijker zijn dan dat? Dus neus, waaraan dank jij je verheven positie?’ De neus citeert bij wijze van antwoord een oud Chinees spreekwoord en zegt: ‘Van vijf bergen is de middelste het belangrijkst. Dus ogen, waaraan danken jullie je verheven positie?’ En de ogen zeggen: ‘We zijn als de zon en de maan, wij verlichten en weerspiegelen. Maar wenkbrauwen, waaraan danken jullie je verheven positie?’ En de wenkbrauwen zwijgen. Ze kunnen niet eten, niet praten, niet ruiken, niet zien en niet horen. Ze kunnen niets. En toch zitten ze bovenin het gezicht. Dan zeggen ze: ‘We schamen ons dood en snappen niet waar we het aan te danken hebben.’

Weer een andere meester, die dit commentaar op het commentaar van Dizang becommentarieert, zegt kortweg: ‘In de ogen heet het zien, in de oren heet het horen, maar hoe heet het in de wenkbrauwen?’ En na een lange stilte voegt hij eraan toe: ‘Bij verlies rouwen we samen, bij geluk vieren we samen feest. Iedereen kent het nut van de dingen maar wie weet het nutteloze op waarde te schatten?’

Schitterend vind ik dat. Zo is het leven, denken jullie niet? Bij verlies rouwen we, maar dat doen we samen, heel intiem, zelfs de bomen laten hun takken hangen en de bloemen hangen slap, en deze intimiteit maakt het verlies behalve schrijnend ook mooi. Bij geluk vieren we feest, maar we hoeven ons er niet schuldig over te voelen of ons zorgen te maken dat we het geluk kwijtraken, want het is niet van ons, we delen het met alles en iedereen. Als we samen kunnen rouwen dan kunnen we ook samen feestvieren, zonder enige terughoudendheid.

We weten dat ons geluk niet blijvend is, dat het voorbijgaat, terugkeert, weer verdwijnt, opnieuw terugkeert. En dat is prima. Hoe kan het ook anders? Er is een tijd voor nut, voor weten, voor leren, voor vaardigheid. Zonder de ogen, de neus en de mond zou de wereld zoals wij die kennen niet verschijnen. Maar zonder het nutteloze, zonder niet-weten, zou de wereld helemaal niet zijn. De intimiteit van niet-weten in de praktijk brengen betekent op ieder moment terugkeren naar het hart van de wereld. De wenkbrauwen zijn heel nederig; ze weten niks en ze doen niks. Maar ze bekleden wel de hoogste plaats.

James Ishmael Ford (2)

James Ishmael Ford

Integrale tekst van de toespraak ‘Not knowing is most intimate; Reflecting on bowing as a way of life’.


Dizang asked Fayen, “Where are you going?” Fayen replied, “I am wandering about aimlessly.” Dizang asked, “So, what do you think of this wandering about?” Fayan said, “I don’t know.” Dizang replied, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

(Case Twenty, The Book of Serenity)

I don’t know about you with certainty, but most of the time in my life, I can trick myself into thinking I have some real say over what’s going on. I’m master of my fate, captain of my ship. For reasons that are almost unfathomable, I can do this even though at least once a week I repeat, out loud, the Five Remembrances from the Upajjhatthana Sutta, a traditional Buddhist text that points out in graphic detail just how little control any of us actually have over the course of our lives.

The version used in our Zen meditation group where I recite this text goes “I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old. I am the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.” It goes on, briefly, to address our actions and what our choices in our actions can actually mean, but what I just cited is the really hard part.

And it’s the part I don’t really believe, not deep down near the reptile brain. There’s something about the human mind that allows us to ignore the contingency of life. I suspect its origin is in how that ignorance helps us to make decisions that allow us to dodge a saber-toothed tiger. Whatever the evolutionary origin, we seem good at this. At least I’m good at ignoring how fragile life is.

At least, that is, under ordinary circumstances. When things are going normally I can tell myself the story I am in control. That what happens is in my hands, my future, my destiny; are all mine. Of course this story distracts me from the reality of things, that I really have very, very little control; the reality that life is in fact wild and unpredictable. Here in the West we have a saying about this, that the only certain things are death and taxes. Of course we can also count on sickness and old age. But here’s the truth: beyond sickness, old age and death, and maybe taxes, it’s Mr Toad’s Wild Ride all the way.

Now while I like the illusion of control, it really isn’t particularly helpful. Maybe it’s helpful for dodging that saber-toothed tiger. But it isn’t helpful if I want to be in touch with who I really am, and most importantly, who I can be when my eyes and heart are truly open. So, my thesis for today is pretty simple: I suggest that place of surrendering our fond delusion of control, as difficult as it might be, can also open doors to very important places.

Today I want to talk about that, about letting go; what it is we encounter when we do, and where it might take us. In sum I want to talk about letting go as a spiritual practice. Specifically, I want to address how it can be found in the spiritual discipline of bowing, whether literally, or simply in our hearts.

For no obvious reason I’ve found my thoughts floating to an old Superman comic book, something I read in my adolescence. I have no recollection of what the arc of the story was supposed to be. Only one image remains, lingering in my memory, but that image is quite strong, and I think, relevant. Several of the major characters, as I recall at least Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are ordered to kneel before some king of a distant planet or emperor of some out of the way galaxy. Whatever, it was some nasty power. And Lois and Jimmy refuse; proudly announcing Americans don’t bow to anyone.

If I were to put my finger on a single problem we suffer from as a culture it is that we Americans don’t bow. There are some notable exceptions, but as a people we don’t bow. I’ve long since noticed one can find direct analogies between our social organizations and our inner lives. So, while I think we could profitably spend our time together today simply reflecting on our current national policies through the lens of “not bowing,” I would rather take this reflection to the heart of the matter, to its most intimate, to our individual psycho-spiritual experiences of life as it actually is. I have a point to this. Whether our driving concern is social or individual, as we look into our own hearts and minds I suspect we can find useful pointers. A win-win, if you will.

I think it also important to notice how there is bowing and there is bowing. First, there are circumstances where the hurt that has been piled on us makes it feel too hard to bow, or even wrong. I can think how many women have felt the weight of patriarchal culture, and the relentless instance that one submit to the “natural order” as ordained in holy Scripture. I can think of African Americans being told now is not the time to push for basic human rights. Or, BGLT people being told don’t rock the boat; don’t demand marriage equality right now. The time isn’t right, just bow to the circumstances. I can think of a person who has spent a lifetime being told she or he is not good enough, bow to that. To be told bowing is essential when colored with these lies of power speaking to oppress is a real problem.

And that’s not the end of the list. I think it is important to notice what I’d call theatrical bowing. We seem to have no problem with at the end of the performance that self-assured, wide grin, arms thrown out, nod to the audience, accompanied by applause, preferably loud and sustained. There is little sincerity in this bow.

Life is complicated and we need to remember those things that make it complicated. And it’s important to note these kinds of bowing are what some people call a “near enemy.” The near enemy looks like the genuine article, but really is a counterfeit, brass passing as gold. We need always to be watchful, I’ve found, of those counterfeits of our spiritual lives. Speaking for myself I find these near enemies often the most seductive of the many traps on an authentic spiritual way. They take us in other directions than toward our true home, almost always toward destructive places.

But here’s the deal, what we find as we navigate the shoals, as we avoid the traps along the way, is worth the struggle. And as regards to bowing in its deepest sense, bottom line: we’re never really in control. It’s all tentative; all hesitant, everything can and will disappear in a beat of the heart. One day we have a job, the next day not. One day we’re healthy, the next day cancer. Sickness, old age and death (and maybe taxes) are the only things we can be sure of. Well, I guess we can’t even guarantee getting to old age. The certainties of our lives comprise a very short list and are not entirely pleasant.

So, what I’m talking about here is how we can engage the world as it really is. This is, I suggest, near the heart of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer that we find what we need that allows us to “accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Or, perhaps you might prefer it in the words of Don Schlitz as sung to us by Kenny Rogers. “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”

There are good reasons for us to tell ourselves stories of being in control. No doubt. But they have limited utility, and at some point, the fold is all we have. What the bow as a spiritual practice is, is a call to surrender whatever it is that we think makes us special. For some of us it is surrendering our idea of not being good enough; a twisted way of being special, but a real one. For many of us it is surrendering thinking we’re better than this or that. For most of us it is surrendering our great mix of emotions and feelings that we are sure of, that we feel right down to our bones and what makes us, we wish, who we are. Here it’s the litany of identity, engineer, lawyer, mother, good person, bad person, a person with more than a modicum of control over what happens next. We need to let go of our knowing, and at some point, actually, letting go of it all.

That’s the bow I’m thinking of. And what it looks like, and what it feels like, and where it takes us is what I’m trying to address. Mostly, I want to point to where this bowing can take us. Which brings us to today’s reading. It comes to us from a twelfth century Chinese anthology of spiritual stories called the Book of Serenity. It’s framed as a simple conversation between a pilgrim on the spiritual path and a sage. The sage Dizang asked Fayen, “Where are you going?” Fayen replied, “I am wandering about aimlessly.” Dizang asked, “So, what do you think of this wandering about?” Fayan said, “I don’t know.” Seizing the moment, Dizang replied, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

It doesn’t really matter for our purposes who the players in this story are, although I find it interesting that they’re real historical people. Still, we can, and I believe it very helpful, to think of them as the part of our minds that believes it is in control and the part that knows better. “How are you doing?” I can ask myself. “Oh, wandering about,” I might reply. Particularly, right now. Interestingly, some versions of the text say “wandering about on pilgrimage.” Others, however, say “wandering about aimlessly.” These days, wrapped in not knowing, I prefer the second. Then pushed to respond to how I feel about this, I really, really understand that line “I don’t know.”

Don’t know. Not knowing. That is the ancient spiritual practice of bowing in a nutshell. It’s the moment we find, whether consciously done as a discipline reciting things like the “Five Remembrances,” or the Korean practice of physically bowing one hundred and eight times a day; or when we just find ourselves cast into it through divorce or job loss or dramatic illness.

The bow, I suggest, can open our hearts, can take us places we never dreamed of, to a palpable, transformative, endless world of possibility called not knowing. This is what I really want to underscore: this not knowing has endless creative possibilities, to throw in another metaphor, one or two simply aren’t enough for this place, this moment when we surrender to not knowing, when we bow to life: we discover a well that apparently is bottomless, bubbling with life-giving waters.

Right now, I’ve decided the rhythms of my personal life and those of the life of our congregation made it clear I should leave my place as minister without a certain next step in place. It’s a bow, a voluntary bow, and a surrender into a place of not knowing.

And this is what it looks like. In my own experience, it means that while I like to plan and analyze, sometimes, sometimes in the most important places, I have to surrender my dreams of control, and let what is, be. For me it means shifting a bit, and letting my body guide me, rather more than my head. Right now, living within the bow, within the not knowing, I discover things. My dreams hint at things, and I need to notice. My body’s aches and joys tell me things, and I need to notice. Chance encounters and fragments of conversation take on new and luminescent qualities, and I need to notice. Here the water bubbling up out of the well reveals itself, flowing freely, informing, nurturing, opening new ways. It’s something glorious, as well, of course, as unsettling, and occasionally even frightening.

This not knowing is most intimate. It reveals who I really am, it loosens my sense of boundaries, shakes off stories of control and certainty, and, and in all that; reveals a wide and wild world as my true home. I suggest this also may be where your true home is. And here’s the point: the key to the door to our greatest liberty, to our truest home, is found in not knowing, within the arc of a bow.


Integrale tekst van de toespraak ‘Not Knowing Is Most Intimate; Thomas Huxley, Deep Agnosticism & an Emergent Liberal Spirituality’.


A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on November 30, 2008

The monk Fayan visited Master Dizang who asked the young student of the way, “Where have you come from?” Fayen replied, “I wander from here to there on my pilgrimage.” The master asked, “What is the point of your pilgrimage?” Fayan answered, “I don’t know.” Master Dizang replied, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

—Case 20, The Book of Serenity

Ages ago my colleague in the Unitarian Universalist ministry, Fred Muir, sent me a note saying he was making a book proposal to Skinner House, our denominational press, for a book on liberal religion and Darwin. And he wanted me to contribute a chapter regarding the nexus of evolutionary thought, Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism. Now, I really admire Fred. His other writings have touched on areas of concern to most UUs, and the thought of doing something with him sounded great. Also, I have to admit when someone asks me to do something far enough out in the calendar that I don’t actually have to do anything right at the moment, it’s pretty easy to say yes. So, I said, sure. Of course time passes and now the chickens have come home to roost. Fred has sent a note saying the proposal had been approved and to please provide copy.

Well, here we are…

Near as I can tell we moderns have taken the fact that the Buddha himself wasn’t particularly concerned with questions of deity or cosmology as evidence he had a generally skeptical attitude about these matters. I go along with that. Now, some have also pointed to the Agganna Sutta, which uniquely among texts that claim to relate what the historic Buddha actually said, does have him making some cosmological assertions. In the Agganna Sutta if someone squints hard and tilts her head, it is just possible to see a form of Big Bang cosmology. And if while continuing to squint, one stands on his head, it is just possible to discern a rough version of evolution. But you really, really have to want to find it, to do so. I don’t. So, I’ve never felt that Buddhist thought anticipated anything especially relevant to contemporary science, in any particular given field.

That said, I do think there are some connecting points to evolutionary thought, Buddhist spiritual disciplines, and what I see as our emergent liberal spirituality. Really important connections, that speak to our spiritual style, how we might best consciously engage our interior lives, and to something more, a pearl of great price. I want to explore that here, today. However, I suggest rather than Darwin, it is Thomas Huxley who provides the nexus point for this enterprise.

My introduction to Huxley as anything more than a name associated closely with Charles Darwin or as Aldous Huxley’s grandfather, comes through the controversial contemporary Western Buddhist Stephen Batchelor, author of the seminal study Buddhism Without Beliefs. I consider this book, in fact the entirety of Batchelor’s work of enormous importance for contemporary liberal spirituality. I personally embrace a considerable part of his perspective on my own spiritual way.

Batchelor makes much of the term “agnostic,” which Thomas Huxley coined in the late nineteenth century. In an essay titled “the Agnostic Buddhist” Batchelor writes how Huxley coined agnostic “as a joke. Huxley belonged to a small philosophical circle in London in which he increasingly felt out of place. While everybody else in the group could readily identify themselves as a Christian or a Rationalist or a Schopenhaurian, or whatever, he felt perplexed that no such term seemed applicable to him. So he decided to call himself an ‘agnostic’ in order that he too could ‘have a tail like all the other foxes.’”

Agnostic means without knowledge, or not knowing. However, not in the sense we commonly find today, “I don’t know and I don’t particularly care.” Rather Huxley’s agnosticism had a lot of heart about it. “Huxley even described his view as ‘the agnostic faith,’ thus giving it the kind of seriousness that one might otherwise expect only amongst religious people.” He followed this way with great passion.

As Batchelor explained, Huxley “saw agnosticism as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed.” Well, maybe not creed. Actually he seemed to have much the same reservations about formal creeds contemporary Unitarian Universalists usually feel. Because, Huxley wasn’t seeking pat answers. For him agnosticism was first and foremost, a method. The method he had in mind is broadly the same as which underpins scientific inquiry. And for him this method led to a naturalistic, and what we might call today a humanistic spirituality.

Not knowing allows us to see things in new light, to discern much about the human heart. And Huxley’s rigorous observations within the spirit of not knowing led to some basic principles. And these are principles that can inform us, and take us deep into the ways of wisdom.

Actually whether God exists was not a primary concern although he saw no reason to postulate a deity. Huxley’s real challenge for most of us cut much closer to the bone. He challenged how we see ourselves. He was adamant that human beings did not exist outside the flow of events and their intimate interrelatedness. He wrote, “In the whole universe there is nothing permanent, no eternal substance either of mind or of matter.” He felt any idea of an abiding self, an eternal individual “personality is a metaphysical fancy; and in very truth not only we, but all things in the worlds without end of the cosmic phantasmagoria, are such stuff as dreams are made of.” As we go forward I will suggest understanding this viscerally becomes a key to authentic wisdom.

Unitarian Universalist theologian and minister Forrest Church observed the work of religion flows out of our knowledge we are alive and that we are going to die. I would add to that religion, spirituality addresses the hurt, fear and anxiety that seems to haunt the human condition. I find much of that hurt and fear in our lives arises out of a fundamental cognitive error. The error is that we are isolated beings.

Certainly, as I look at myself honestly, relentlessly, in the spirit of not knowing, frankly I find it impossible to discern any part of me that isn’t formed by conditions ranging from my genetic makeup to my ongoing encounters with events and people. I am this because of that. And the “that” which makes “this,” changes in a heartbeat. Who I am changes sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically with the very next addition of experience.

There are all sorts of reasons why we see ourselves as separate from each other. To me it seems obvious it is an unfortunate side effect of our amazing ability to divide the universe, to find the information that allows us to survive. And there certainly is a truth that in any given moment, we are in fact separate. You are you and I am I, at least in the moment. And at the very same time there is a larger sense in which we are totally wrapped up together in a very real web of mutuality. The intuition of the spiritual enterprise is that we can reconcile these apparent contradictions, our separateness in the moment, and our essential connectedness. This is sometimes called the nondual perspective

Through his commitment to not knowing, Huxley found the nondual perspective. While he was writing before the discovery of genes, like the Buddha, he got the principle that we are all moments in the great rush of time and space, verbs rather than nouns, notes in a symphony.

The spiritual enterprise as I see it, is to find how this is in fact our truth, yours and mine. And it is discovered when we open our hearts and minds, as we embrace a way of deep agnosticism, of truly not knowing. Susan Blackmore in her delightful book Consciousness: An Introduction reflects on these assertions and asks.

“Have these people really seen nonduality, directly, in their own experience? If they have, could we all see it? Might the psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists working on the problem of consciousness see nonduality directly for themselves? If so, it seems possible that they might bring together two apparently totally different disciplines: the third-person discipline of science and the first-person discipline of self-transformation. If they did so, might they then understand exactly what had happened in their own brains when all the illusions fell away and the distinction between first and third person was gone? This way the direct experience of nonduality might be integrated into a neuroscience that only knows, intellectually, that dualism must be false.”

Deep agnosticism, not turning away, remaining present, heals many wounds. As to what this really looks like there’s a story from Blackmore’s book. “John Wren-Lewis was a physics professor with decidedly anti-mystical views when in 1983, at the age of sixty, he was poisoned while traveling on a bus in Thailand. A would-be thief gave him some sweets laced with what was probably a mixture of morphine and cocaine, and the next thing he knew was waking up in a dilapidated and dirty hospital.

“At first he noticed nothing special, but gradually it dawned on him that it was as if he had emerged freshly made, completely with the memories that made up his personal self, from a radiant vast blackness beyond space and time. There was no sense at all of personal continuity. Moreover, the ‘dazzling darkness’ was still there. It seemed to be behind his head, continually re-creating his entire consciousness afresh, instant by instant, now! And now! And now! He even put his hand up to feel the back of his head only to find it perfectly normal. He felt only gratitude toward everything around him, all of which seemed perfectly right and as it should be.”

Now I’m very taken that Blackmore didn’t chose an example from the traditional spiritual literature. This wasn’t a thirty-year practitioner of an austere spiritual discipline. This was someone drugged and robbed. This experience is accessible to all of us because it is a natural part of how our brains naturally work. Meditation and other disciplines help, a lot. But in the last analysis all we need do, is let go of our certainties. As the lady said, “It’s all in your head.” We, if you will, evolved to be able to do this. Why I don’t know. But that we can, that I’ve experienced. As have endless others.

By the bye, some sense of this experience never abandoned Wren-Lewis for the rest of his life. In his own words Wren-Lewis described the place of not knowing. “I feel as if the back of my head has been sawn off so that it is no longer the sixty-year-old John who looks out at the world, but the shining dark infinite void that in some extraordinary way is also, ‘I.’” Only don’t know.

This is where not knowing takes us, each following our own trajectory, each with our own moments, and all joined. For me I found it sitting in a Buddhist monastery, eating a thin cabbage soup. For you, perhaps playing with a child. For another, perhaps listening to Mozart. Another, perhaps just noticing that is is possible for this moment only, to not have that drink. For another, well, who knows? The secret is only not knowing. As the master Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

I suggest a deep agnosticism; truly engaging not knowing is the universal solvent. It will release us from our hurt and fears by showing us, not in some abstract cognitive therapy sort of way, but in the deepest, most visceral way, who we really are.

Open, wide as the sky. And at the very same time intimate, more intimate than any word can ever convey. And the way to this wisdom is simple. Just don’t know. Only don’t know. That’s all it takes.


Gil Fronsdal

Gil Fronsdal



Verslag van de toespraak ‘Not knowing’.

Buddhist practice involves an interplay between knowing and not-knowing. In Vipassana we often emphasize knowing and seeing deeply into our lived experience. However, just as our capacity to know can be developed, so can we cultivate a wise practice of not-knowing.

“Not-knowing” is emphasized in Zen practice, where it is sometimes called “beginner’s mind.” An expert may know a subject deeply, yet be blinded to new possibilities by his or her preconceived ideas. In contrast, a beginner may see with fresh, unbiased eyes. The practice of beginner’s mind is to cultivate an ability to meet life without preconceived ideas, interpretations, or judgments.

I can recall many situations in my life where preconceived ideas obscured my seeing clearly. Once, working as a restaurant cook, I was leaving my shift just as a co-worker started his. When I began joking with him as usual, he quickly interrupted me to say that one of his best friends had just died. If I had practiced beginner’s mind, I would have taken the time to discover who he was at that moment. Instead, I felt regret for being insensitive.

I once attended a weekend “Death and Dying” workshop with Stephen Levine. When the workshop started I was stunned by the amount of suffering in the room. Some were dying. Others had recently lost a child, a partner, or a parent. Some had witnessed tragic deaths. One had nearly died herself. The weekend taught me to not to assume I know people from my first impressions. Now I try to remember that they have depths that I might not know about.

This experience points out another kind of not-knowing as well. How would you live your life if you had a clear sense of the uncertainty of the time and place of death-your own and others’? Most people don’t know when death will come. We often live as if we were certain about things that are inherently uncertain. How would we live if we acknowledged our uncertainty?

What is it like to be aware that we don’t know the answers to some of the life’s big questions? People often ask Buddhist teachers about what happens when we die, or the meaning of life. I have been inspired by those who answer that they don’t know, and seem very comfortable with not-knowing. Perhaps these questions are irrelevant to their spiritual life.

Often people are anxious to find the ultimate meaning of life or understand what happens in death because they are afraid of the unknown. They may look to religion for answers. Buddhism, at its heart, is not about answering these questions but about resolving the fear that motivates the questions. Rather than providing security through religious knowing, Buddhist practice calls on us to become free from attachment to security, free from the need to know.

A simple but profound way to practice not-knowing is to add “I don’t know” to every thought. This is most effective in meditation when the mind has quieted down. So, for example, if the judgment arises, “This is a good meditation session” or “this is a bad meditation session,” respond with “I don’t know.” Follow the thought “I can’t manage this,” “I need…,” or “I am…” with “I don’t know.” Like the bumper sticker that says “Question authority,” the phrase “I don’t know” questions the authority of everything we think.

Repeating the words “I don’t know” allows us to question tightly-held ideas. Done thoroughly, “I don’t know” can pull the rug out from under our most cherished beliefs. All too often we don’t question our beliefs. And, since virtually every train of thought has some implicit belief, when we question our thoughts, we question these beliefs.

“Don’t know” can also be directed at motivations that lead us to act. Before adjusting your posture in meditation or quitting walking meditation early, notice what belief is operating in the motivation. Then direct “don’t know” to that belief and see what happens.

When I was kitchen manager in a monastery, I saw how much I was driven by the need to be liked. The way I talked and behaved with the crew was often influenced by this desire. To ensure that what I did or said did not trigger their reactivity and dislike, I felt I had to tiptoe around their (and my) egos. But during that year I began to question my need to be liked. Upon what authority was I basing this need? Did I really know if it was important to have people like me? Don’t know.

Don’t know. Don’t know. Repeated regularly, it almost becomes a mantra in response to what we think or believe. This phrase can open up a space in the mind, helping it to relax and rest. The little phrase, “I don’t know,” is very, very powerful.

One Zen story proclaims, “Not knowing is most intimate.” I understand this to mean that what is most essential is not understood through the filter of our judgments, past knowledge, or memories. When not-knowing helps these to drop away, the result can be a greater immediacy-what some might call being intimate.

The practice of not-knowing needs to be distinguished from confusion and debilitating doubt. Confusion is not a virtue: the confused person is somewhat lost and removed from life. With doubt, the mind is agitated or contracted with hesitation and indecision. These mind states tend to obscure rather than clarify. Furthermore, confusion and doubt are generally involuntary. Not-knowing, as a practice, is a choice meant to bring greater peace.

But lest we take the not-knowing practice too far, Suzuki Roshi said, “Not-knowing does not mean you don’t know.” It doesn’t require us to forget everything we have known or to suspend all interpretations of a situation. Not-knowing means not being limited by what we know, holding what we know lightly so that we are ready for it to be different. Maybe things are this way. But maybe they are not.

As a Buddhist practice, not-knowing leads to more than an intimacy and open mind. It can be used as a sword to cut through all the ways that the mind clings. If we can wield this sword until the mind lets go of itself and finally knows ultimate freedom, then-not knowing has served its ultimate purpose.

Zenkei Blanche Hartman

Zenkei Blanche Hartman

Integrale tekst van ‘Beginner’s mind’.


I want to talk today about beginner’s mind. The first book of Suzuki Roshi’s teaching was named Zen Mind, Beginners’ Mind. He founded two temples. One of them is named “Zen Mind Temple” (Zen Shin Ji, Tassajara) and the other is named “Beginner’s Mind Temple” (Ho Shin Ji, the City Center in San Francisco). In that presentation, Zen mind and beginner’s mind seem to be equated. Suzuki Roshi highly esteemed beginner’s mind. What is it?

A few years ago, I went with a group of people to Eiheiji monastery in Japan. We were sitting in the guest meditation hall, and Matsunaga Roshi came in and sat with us. He’s head of the international department at Eiheiji now, but he was in Los Angeles for a number of years. We sat together for a while, and then he started to talk. He said, “When I visited San Francisco thirty years ago,” (that was at the very beginning, over at Sokoji temple) “I could not understand Suzuki Roshi’s meaning. But now, sitting in this zendo with you, I can feel beginner’s mind. Now I understand his meaning.” What is this beginner’s mind?

Beginner’s mind is Zen practice in action. It is the mind that is innocent of preconceptions and expectations, judgements and prejudices. Beginner’s mind is just present to explore and observe and see “things as-it-is.” I think of beginner’s mind as the mind that faces life like a small child, full of curiosity and wonder and amazement. “I wonder what this is? I wonder what that is? I wonder what this means?” Without approaching things with a fixed point of view or a prior judgement, just asking “what is it?”
Earlier this week I was having lunch with Indigo, our small child at City Center. He saw an object on the table and got very interested in it. He picked it up and started fooling with it: looking at it, putting it in his mouth, and banging on the table with it—just engaging with it without any previous idea of what it was. For Indigo, it was just an interesting thing, and it was a delight to him to see what he could do with this thing. You and I would see it and say, “It’s a spoon. It sits there and you use it for soup.” It doesn’t have all the possibilities that he finds in it.

Watching Indigo, you can see the innocence of “What is it?”

Can we look at our lives in such a way? Can we look at all of the aspects of our lives with this mind, just open to see what there is to see? I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time doing that. I have a lot of habits of mind—I think most of us do. Children begin to lose that innocent quality after a while, and soon they want to be “the one who knows.” We all want to be the one who knows. But if we decide we “know” something, we are not open to other possibilities anymore. And that’s a shame. We lose something very vital in our life when it’s more important to us to be “one who knows” than it is to be awake to what’s happening. We get disappointed because we expect one thing, and it doesn’t happen quite like that. Or we think something ought to be like this, and it turns out different. Instead of saying, “Oh, isn’t that interesting,” we say, “Yuck, not what I thought it would be.” Pity. The very nature of beginner’s mind is not knowing in a certain way, not being an expert. As Suzuki Roshi said in the prologue to Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” As an expert, you’ve already got it figured out, so you don’t need to pay attention to what’s happening. Pity.

How can we cultivate this mind that is free to just be awake? In zazen, in just sitting, in sitting and noticing the busyness of our mind and all of the fixed views that we carry. Once we noticed the fixed views that we are carrying around with us, the preconceptions that we are carrying around with us, then it is possible for us to let them go and say, “Well, maybe so, maybe not.” Suzuki Roshi once said, “The essence of Zen is ‘Not Always So’.” “Not always so.” It’s a good little phrase to carry around when you’re sure. It gives you an opportunity to look again more carefully and see what other possibilities there might be in the situation.

In China, there was a teacher named Dizang (J.: Rakan) who had a student named Fayan (J.: Hogen). Dizang saw Fayan all dressed in his traveling clothes, with his straw sandals and his staff, and a pack on his back, and Dizang said, “Where are you going?” Fayan answered, “Around on pilgrimage.” Dizang said, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?” Fayan said, “I don’t know.” Dizang said, “Not knowing is nearest.” Sometimes it’s translated as “Not knowing is most intimate.” Not knowing is nearest or most intimate.

So what is this “not knowing”? This is not the same “not knowing” as when Zhaozhou (J: Joshu) asked his teacher Nanquan (J.: Nansen), “What is the way?” Nanquan answered, “Ordinary mind is the way.” Just your mind, the way it is right here and right now. Zhaozhou asked, “Well, shall I seek after it or not?” Nanquan said, “If you seek after it, you’ll miss it.” Zhaozhou said, “If I don’t seek after it, how will I know the way?” Nanquan said, “The way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion, and not knowing is dullness. When you reach the Way beyond all doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. What can that have to do with right or wrong?”

Nanquan’s “not knowing” is paired up with knowing. It’s a dualistic pair—not knowing as opposed to knowing. But Fayan’s “not knowing” is just “I don’t know, I’m going to go see. I’m just going to set out and trust what occurs.” That not knowing is non-dualistic. It’s not set up against knowing. It’s just “I’m going to set out on pilgrimage and see what happens. Just this is it. Just each moment. Just this is it. Each moment I’ll see what happens.” With that kind of openness and readiness, when Dizang said “not knowing is nearest,” Fayan opened up completely.

When he spoke of “beginner’s mind,” I think Suzuki Roshi was pointing to that kind of mind that’s not already made up. The mind that’s just investigating, open to whatever occurs, curious. Seeking, but not with expectation or grasping. Just being there and observing and seeing what occurs. Being ready for whatever experience arises in this moment.

Returning to Fayan’s story, we need to remember that pilgrimage was an arduous undertaking in China fifteen hundred years ago. It meant walking long distances in straw sandals, depending on alms for food, visiting teachers, and trying to settle the “great matter”: What is this? Who am I? What am I? What is this? How do I live a life that is impermanent? Given that life is impermanent, how do I live? What is this? These are very urgent questions when we come to actually have a strong sense of our beingness in the world. When our mind is somehow turned from its preoccupation with acquisition which is so prevalent in our society these days. Acquiring material goods, acquiring knowledge–being one who knows. Getting. It’s endless. As Stephen Batchelor says in Alone with Others, this horizontal dimension of having or getting or acquiring just goes on and on; there’s always more. It’s insatiable. There’s never enough. But sometime, something will turn or transform our attention from this dimension of having and accumulating and acquiring to the dimension of being. What is that? What is it to be human? What is this life? What am I? How shall I manifest this life now? This becomes the great matter.

Fayan knew, in himself, that he had to undertake this arduous effort of pilgrimage to settle the great matter. But when the teacher said, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?” he said, “I don’t know.” It’s just seeking. When I first started to sit zazen, I knew I had to sit zazen but I did not know why. Still, to this day, I know I have to sit zazen. If you say “Why?” I don’t know. But I know I must. This is not the same as the “expert’s” knowing.

There’s another story about intimacy that I want to share with you. It’s wonderful how all of these stories of all these monks who practiced over a thousand years ago are relevant to us right now, and are all related in a certain way. The forty-second ancestor (Liangshan Yuanguan, J.: Ryozan Enkan) was the attendant to the forty-first ancestor (Tongan Guanzhi, J.: Doan Kanshi), and as such he carried his robe for him. There was a moment in which his teacher needed to put on his robe, so he handed the robe to him. Doan Kanshi said to his disciple: “What is the business under the patched robe?” His student, Ryozan Enkan, had no answer. The teacher said, “To wear this robe and not understand the great matter is the greatest suffering. You ask me.” So the student asked the teacher, “What is the business under the patched robe?” The teacher said, “Intimacy. Intimacy.” This was the moment when the forty-second ancestor broke through. He bowed to his teacher in great gratitude, and tears were flowing. The teacher asked, “What have you understood? Can you express it?” He said, “What is the matter under this robe? Intimacy.” His teacher said, “Intimacy and even greater intimacy.”

What is this intimacy? This becoming intimate with yourself? No gap. No ideas about who this is or what this is, but just being one, right here, complete, whole, undivided. Just this. This is the work of Zen practice. To come to know your own original nature intimately and to be able to live from that place and express that in the world. Kobun Chino said, “Zazen is the first formulation of Buddha existing in the world.” Each one of us has the nature of awakening. Each one of us is Buddha. How do we meet it? How do we become intimate with it and bring it into the world? How do we bring this wisdom and compassion and vision of Buddha into the world with this very body and mind? This is what our practice is about. This is why we must practice.

I don’t know about you, but when I started to sit I really began to see how many fixed ideas and fixed views I had. How much judgment was ready right on the tip of my tongue. How much expectation, how much preconception I was carrying around with me all the time, and how much it got in the way of actually noticing what was happening. I don’t want to tell you that after thirty years I’m free of all that, but at least I notice it sooner and I sometimes don’t get caught in believing it.

First, before you can let go of preconceptions and expectations and prejudices, you have to notice them; otherwise, they’re just carrying on unconsciously and affecting everything you do. But as you sit, you begin to recognize the really persistent ones: “Oh my gosh…You again! Didn’t I just deal with you yesterday?” And again. And again. Pretty soon, you can’t take them seriously. They just keep popping up, and popping up, and popping up, and after a while you become really familiar with them. And you can’t get so buried under something once you realize that it’s just a habitual state of mind and doesn’t have much to do with what’s right in front of you. It’s just something that you haul around with you all the time and bring out for every occasion. It hasn’t much to do with the present situation. Sometimes you can actually say, “Oh, I think I’m just hauling that around with me. I don’t think it has anything to do with this.”

One day about twenty years ago, when I was Secretary of Zen Center, Head of the front office, ordained as a priest, on the Board of Directors, and a practice leader here, I opened the door to let someone in. The thought occurred to me: “I bet this person thinks I’m on the inside.” I had carried around with me all my life the feeling of being on the outside, wanting in. But at that moment, it somehow occurred to me: “That person thinks I’m on the inside.” I realized that any way you might look at it, it looked like I was on the inside of Zen Center. And I was still feeling like I was on the outside, like I wasn’t where the real juice was. It was very interesting. I thought, “Oh, that’s a feeling I’ve been carrying around with me all my life.” My husband, Lou, noticed it when he met me, when I was in college up at Davis—wanting to be in the in-group. I decided that that notion had probably been with me since I was born. I had an older sister. There were my mother and father and older sister, and I thought there must have been something juicy going on over there that I was outside of. I didn’t know how to get it, but I carried that feeling with me—being outside, left out, or not included—with great pain for a long time. It was just the way I thought of myself, just a habitual thought. And suddenly it popped. Suddenly it became apparent to me that it really had nothing to do with my life, it had to do with a fixed idea that I had acquired some time in the past and hauled around with me.

It’s often the case that when people begin practicing here at Zen Center, first they’ll be curious about all of these forms we have. Then they’ll get kind of interested in practice, and they’ll really get into it. They’ll start to learn the forms, and then they’re experts. They know the forms, and they’re looking around: “He didn’t do it right…She didn’t do it right!” The Form Police. Suzuki Roshi used to say that you should just take care of your own practice; don’t concern yourself with other people’s practice. But there is that stage in almost every student who is here for a while, where they “know,” where they feel like they know, and the new people don’t know. Don’t be concerned with people like that—they’ll learn after a while. Not knowing is nearest. They’ll learn that if they want to help someone learn the forms, it’s altogether different from judging someone about whether they are doing them right or wrong, or correcting someone so that they’ll be right instead of wrong. So you’ll notice that after someone has been here a little longer, if you’re not sure of what to do, they’ll be quite different in the way they help you figure out the appropriate formality for the situation.

These forms may seem rather cumbersome and burdensome, but they are just ways of bringing us back to the present moment all the time. We step into the zendo with our left foot, the foot nearest the outside edge of the doorway. There is no religious significance to that. If you step in with the other foot, nothing awful is going to happen. Really. But it’s a way for you, at that moment, to notice where you are. You can see if your mind is where you are, or if your mind is somewhere else. All of these little formalities function that way. They’re aids to help you bring your mind back here, like following your breath or checking your posture during zazen. You turn toward what’s happening right now to bring your mind and body together so that you’re wholly present. When you’re passing someone in the hall, bowing. Just Buddha bowing to Buddha. Just bringing yourself back here, back here, back here, so that you can actually experience your life.

Baofu (J.: Hofuku) and Changqing (J.: Chokei) were out walking and Baofu stopped and pointed to the ground and said, “Right here is the peak of the mystic mountain.” Changqing looked and said, “So it is, what a pity.” Right here. Where else would it be? Where else could it be except right here? Can you find the vitality of your life wherever you are, under whatever circumstances?

Both Baofu and Chanqing were disciples of Xuefeng (J.: Seppo). I have a very great fondness for Xuefeng. He practiced long and hard. He struggled and had a very hard time coming to some resolution of the great matter. He had a dharma brother, Yantou (J.: Ganto), who was very quick and had a sharp mind—he always had the last word. They were out on pilgrimage together once, and they got snowed in on Turtle Mountain. Yantou was just lying around resting—they were snowed in, they were going to be there a while. Xuefeng was sitting zazen and sitting zazen and sitting zazen, and he said to Yantou, “How come I’m stuck with you just lying around like that? How can you do that?” Yantou said, “What are you doing? We’re going to be here for weeks stuck in the snow. What’s the matter with you, sitting there like a stone Buddha?” Xuefeng answered, “I’m not yet at ease in my mind. I have to practice.” Yantou said, “I’m surprised to hear you say that. Why don’t you tell me what you’ve learned and maybe I can help you.” Xuefeng said, “Well, when we were with Dongshan and he said this, I got a little opening. And when we were with Deshan and he said this….” He started reciting the various teachers they had been with and the things they had said that had been very important to him. Yantou finally said, “No, no, what comes in through the gate is not the family treasure. Hereafter, if you want to help beings, let it flow forth from your heart to cover heaven and earth.” This was the great opening for Xuefeng. He jumped up and danced around and said, “Oh brother Yantou, today Turtle Mountain woke up!” He was so delighted. He always gave his brother Yantou credit for helping him break through. In future years, Xuefeng was said to be a very compassionate teacher. He had many many developed disciples, and I think it was because of his own hard practice, and how difficult it was for him, that he was able to be so patient and so compassionate with his disciples. He would meet them with a question: “What is it?”

There is a great story of a couple of monks who came to his gate. He came out to meet them and said, “What is it?” One of the monks responded, “What is it?” And Xuefeng sort of hung his head and went back inside. They went on around the mountain and they found Yantou in his temple. They told him the story. He said, “Too bad. If only I had told him the last word, nobody could have gotten the better of him like that.” So they practiced there with Yantou all summer. Toward the end of the summer, they came to him and said, “Remember that story about Xuefeng? What is your last word?” He said “Why didn’t you ask me about this earlier? Xuefeng and I were born of the same lineage, but we will not die in the same lineage. And if you want to know my last word, it is ‘just this is it’.” So those two brothers on opposite sides of the mountain worked in tandem with each other with the students. “Just this is it.” And as for this not dying in the same lineage, Suzuki Roshi said, “Xuefeng was completely Xuefeng. Yantou was completely Yantou.” They were born in the same lineage because they had the same teacher, but then they each became completely themselves, and each had their own lineage from there. This is what our work is: to become completely who we are right here.

“Right here is the peak of the mystic mountain.” “Just this is it.” How will you bring forth this Buddha that you are and manifest it in the world? You must approach everything with beginner’s mind, with an open mind, the mind that is questioning and looking and listening and hearing and seeing and feeling and smelling without prejudgment, without preconception, without fixed views. Open. Ready to see what is right here. Open. Ready to see “What is this?” and ready to let it flower, ready to let it bloom in the world. When I first had zazen instruction, Katagiri Roshi said, “We sit to settle the self on the self and let the flower of the life force bloom.” That’s intimacy: to settle the self on the self. Then this Buddha can bloom in all it’s particularity, as you being totally you. Suzuki Roshi used to say, “When you are you, Zen is Zen.” But what is this? Who is this? Will the authentic “you” please come forward and bloom? How will we open up this authentic “you” in the midst of all the accumulated fixed views that we carry about? We just have to notice them and let them go, and let them go, and let them go, and let them go, and let them go. Dongshan (J.: Tozan) visited his teacher Yunyan (J.: Ungan) and his teacher said, “What have you been studying?” “I haven’t even been studying.” “Well, what have you been practicing?” “I haven’t even been practicing the four noble truths.” “Are you joyful yet?” Joy is one of the stages of a bodhisattva. Dongshan said, “It would not be right to say that I’m not joyful …it’s as if I’ve found a pearl in a pile of shit.” And that’s what it’s like, you know. There’s all this stuff that we drag around with us, but the pearl is right there. What we need to do is free the pearl and let it gleam.

In her poem “When Death Comes,” Mary Oliver has a few lines that say, “When it’s over, I want to say I have been a bride married to amazement, I’ve been a bridegroom taking the world into my arms.” This is beginner’s mind: “I’ve been a bride married to amazement.” Just how amazing the world is, how amazing our life is. How amazing that the sun comes up in the morning, or that the wisteria blooms in the spring. “A bride married to amazement, a bridegroom taking the world into my arms.” Can you live your life with that kind of wholeheartedness, with that kind of thoroughness? This is the beginner’s mind that Suzuki Roshi is pointing to, is encouraging us to cultivate. He is encouraging us to see where we are stuck with fixed views, and see if we can, as Uchiyama Roshi says, “open the hand of thought” and let the fixed view go. This is our effort. This is our work. Just to be here, ready to meet whatever is next without expectation or prejudice or preconceptions. Just “What is it?” “What is this, I wonder?”

So please, cultivate your beginner’s mind. Be willing to not be an expert. Be willing to not know. Not knowing is nearest. Not knowing is most intimate. Fayan was going on pilgrimage. Dizang said, “Where are you going?” Fayan said, “Around on pilgrimage.” Dizang said, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?” Fayan said: “I don’t know.” Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Joko Dave Haselwood

Joko Dave Haselwood

Integrale tekst van de toespraak ‘Not Knowing is Most Intimate’ voor de
Empty Bowl Sangha. (bron niet langer beschikbaar)

Very early on in our childhood we are taught that there are only two acceptable answers to any question: yes or no, it is this or it is not this, it is right or it is wrong, and so forth. Any kind of what adults call waffling can get you a whack on your fannyor a lecture on being truthful. This is not a sensible teaching the child is receiving; it is a response coming from the adult’s anxiety, impatience, narrow mind or just plain ignorance. It teaches the child to close his mind to all the possibilities inherent in each moment and to reduce the richness of life to “safe” formulae.

We have all been deeply effected by this conditioning, if not from our parents then by our teachers or peers. There is no escaping it. An important aspect of Zen training is freeing ourselves from the cage this conditioning has trapped us in. For instance, most koans are directed at liberating us from our mind trammels and from our bodies’ enchainment in rigid “correct” responses to conditions.

When the adult responds to the child with anxiety, impatience, and so forth, he communicates his insecurity and fearfulness along with his narrow mind. This is, in effect, setting us up for an inability to experience the intimacy of relationship with all beings which is the natural condition of life.

The koan I want us to consider tonight is one of my favorites. I’ve talked about it a couple of times in the past but it seems that every time I look into it I find a deeper resonance with it in my life. That is true of most koans but it is especially true of this one. It is Case #20 from The Book of Serenity, Dizang’s Not Knowing:

Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”
Fayan said, “Around on pilgrimage.
“Dizang asked, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”
Fayan said, “Don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Why do you do what you do? Why do you say what you say? Why do you think what you think? If you assume that, of course, you can give a definitive answer to any of those questions, you need to do a lot more shikantaza. On the other hand, of course there is a sense that you do know what you are up to, but that is a very superficial kind of knowing.

Wansong, the teacher who wrote the commentaries for each of the koans in The Book of Serenity reminds us that what Dizang means by not knowing is beyond knowing or not knowing as we usually understand those expressions. He quotes these famous lines spoken by Joshu’s teacher, Nanquan, “The Way is not in knowing or in not knowing. Knowing is false consciousness, not knowing is indifference,” and then comments that you must, “just affirm totally when affirming, but don’t settle down inaffirmation; deny totally when denying, but don’t settle down in denial.”

Now, that is the kind of “Not Knowing” we are talking about here. The moment you settle down in either knowing or not knowing you cut yourself off from the truth of this moment in the ever changing, ever flowing phenomena that express the truth moment by moment.

But what did Dizang intend when he said, “Not knowing is most intimate”?

Intimate has a very special connotation in Zen parlance. It signifies the direct, unmediated experience of just what IS. There is no I and no independent phenomenon: there is just, as Joko Beck put it, “experiencing, experiencing, experiencing” moment by moment of the flow that is reality. It is not, most definitely, the processed, dualistic concoction that passes for reality in our conditioned discriminating mentation. There is no separation of experiencer and experienced. The minute we “know”, we have separated ourselves from this flow of experiencing andare living in our imagination of the past. That is what Nanchuan meant when he said that “knowing is false consciousness.” Why then did he say that “not knowing is indifference”? Here he is referring to our failure to establish intimacy with what is by retreating into our ignorance, our “comfy nest” that is, indeed, our prison.

The “Not Knowing” that opened Fayan to a deep realization of his true nature is a stepping into the universe of all possibilities, of infinite meaning, infinite activities, the doorway to freedom. It is the fearlessness of accepting that there is no place for man to rest his head, and furthermore, that there is no need for that imagined place of security. It is the place from which we always step forth on our pilgrimage through life, the place that is “no place.”

The poem that Hongzhi wrote to accompany this koan throws more light on this matter.

“Now having studied to the full, it’s like before
Having shed entirely the finest thread, he reaches not knowing.
Let it be short, let it be long stop, cutting and patching;
Going along with the high, along with the low, it levels itself.
The abundance or scarcity of the house is used according to the occasion;
Roaming serenely in the land, he goes where his feet take him.
The purpose of ten years’ pilgrimage
Clearly he’d turned his back on one pair of eyebrows.”

I don’t want to try to “explain away” this poem; it is for you to wrestle with it. But I can clarify a few of the references to old Zen lore.

Sengzhao wrote, “The non differentiation of all things doesn’t mean that you add to a duck’s legs and cut a crane’s legs, level mountains to fill valleys, thereafter considering them no different.”

And as for eyebrows, Wansong relates this amusing story,

“Mouth asked nose, “Eating is up to me, speaking is up to me—what good are you that you are above me?” Nose said, “Among the five mountains, the central one occupies the honored position.” Nose then asked eyes, “Why are you above? Eyes said, “We are like the sun and moon truly we have the accomplishment of illumination and reflection. We dare ask eyebrows, what virtue do they have to be above us?” Eyebrows said, “We really have no merit; we are ashamed to be in the higher position. If you let us be below, let the eyes look from above what face holes are you?” Everybody knows the useful function, but they don’t know the useless great function.”

Misha Shungen Merrill

Misha Shungen Merrill

Integrale tekst van de toespraak ‘Not knowing is Most Initimate; Deinventing the Self’. (bron niet langer beschikbaar)

Misha was ordained a Zen priest in 1988 by Les Kaye Roshi in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi of the San Francisco Zen Center. She received Dharma Transmission from him in 1998 and has been leading a meditation group in Redwood City since 1993. She also teaches young children at the Peninsula School of Menlo Park.

I.”Not knowing is most intimate”

In the Book of Serenity, Case 20:

Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”
Fayan said, “Around on pilgrimage.”
Dizang said, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”
Fayan said, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said,”Not knowing is most intimate.”

For the purpose of the pilgrimage, Fayan could have said anything—for perspective, tolerance, excitement, restlessness, desire for the new, desire for change-but says, “I don’t know.”

“Not knowing is most intimate.” What does that mean? What is intimacy? Intimacy means no separation.

Once you know something, you tend to be locked into what you know. Going with ‘not knowing’ means that everything can then be known.

Beginner’s Mind

People say, “To study Zen is difficult,” but there is some misunderstanding why it is difficult. It is not difficult because to sit in cross-legged position is hard, or to attain enlightenment is hard, but it is hard to keep our mind pure, and to keep our practice pure in original way. …, but why I say I want to talk about why it is difficult is because just you came here this morning, getting up early is very valuable experience for you. Just you want to come is very valuable. We say, “Sho shin.” “Sho shin” means “Beginner’s mind.” If we can keep beginner’s mind always, that is the goal of our practice. We recited Prajna Paramita Sutra this morning only once. I think we recited very well, but what will happen to us if we recite twice, three times, four time, and more? Then we will easily lose our attitude in reciting — original attitude in reciting — the sutra. Same thing will happen to us. For awhile we will keep our beginner’s mind in your Zen practice but if we continue to practice one year, two years, three years, or more, we will have some improvement, and we will lose the limitless meaning of the original mind. In beginner’s mind we have many possibilities, but in expert mind there is not much possibility. So in our practice it is important to resume to our original mind, or inmost mind, which we, ourselves — even we, ourselves do not know what it is. This is the most important thing for us. The founder of our school emphasized this point. We have to remain always beginner’s mind. This is the secret of Zen, and secret of various practices — practice of flower arrangement, ractice of Japanese singing, and various art. If we keep our beginner’s mind we keep our precepts. When we lose our beginner’s mind we will lose all the precepts.

– Suzuki Roshi

No separation means understanding that everything-good, bad, and indifferent — is your life, is enlightenment; even on a vacation there are always ups and downs because of one single fact: you never leave yourself behind!

According to tradition, around 520, Bodhidharma came to visit Emperor Wu in hopes of converting him. Hearing that the emperor was already a Buddhist, there was no need to do so.

During the patriarch’s time with the emperor, he started to talk about his building of temples and giving financial support to monastics. He then asked Bodhidharma how much merit he accumulated in the process. Emperor Wu felt that the patriarch might not
know about of the good deeds that he made, so he pointed them out to the patriarch. The patriarch felt that Emperor Wu was providing his own promotion campaign rather than seeking the Dharma; instead, he wanted to boast of his own merit and virtue. Thinking that the emperor might have been attached to his own ego, Bodhidharma replied,

“Actually, you have no merit and virtue. In truth, no merit and virtue at all.”
The Emperor asked, “Well then. What is the main point of this sacred teaching?”
“Vast emptiness, nothing sacred,” said Bodhidharma.
“Who are you, standing in front of me?” asked the emperor.
“I do not know,” said Bodhidharma.

Bodhidharma originally went to Emperor Wu with the idea of saving him. To the patriarch’s dismay, he realized that the emperor was too conceited; he had too high an opinion of himself. Being an emperor was already something, he thought. He had built many temples, enabled people to leave home, given away a lot of money, and made a lot of offerings to the Triple Gem. He thought that he had created a tremendous amount of merit and virtue. Bodhidharma, wanting to shatter the emperor’s attachment, replied that he had no merit and virtue at all.

One time, early in my training my teacher asked me something and I replied, “I don’t know.” He told me that my “I don’t know” was not the “I don’t know” of a Zen master. What is the difference? Of what is this intimacy made?

II. Shantaram (by Gregory David Roberts)

Shantaram is a novel influenced by real events in the life of the author, Gregory David Roberts. In 1978, Roberts was sentenced to nineteen years’ imprisonment in Australia after being convicted of a series of armed robberies which he had committed to feed a heroin addiction. He escaped from prison in broad daylight, thereby becoming one of Australia’s most wanted men for the next ten years.

The protagonist arrives in Bombay carrying a false passport in the name of Lindsay Ford. Mumbai was only a stopover on a on the way to Germany, he decides to stay in the city. Lin soon meets a local man named Prabaker, whom he hires as a guide but soon becomes his best friend. Both men visit Prabaker’s native village, Sunder, where Prabaker’s mother christens Lin with the name Shantaram, meaning Man of God’s Peace.

“I was thinking about another kind of river, one that runs through every one of us, no matter where we come from, all over the world. It’s the river of the heart, and the heart’s desire. It’s the pure, essential truth of what each one of us is, and can achieve. All my life I’d been a fighter. I was always ready, too ready, to fight for what I loved, and against what I deplored. In the end, I became the expression of that fight, and my real nature was concealed behind a mask of menace and hostility. The message of my face and my body’s movement was, like that of a lot of other hard men, don’tfuck with me. In the end, I became so good at expressing the sentiment that the whole of my life became the message.

It didn’t work in the village. No one could read my body language. They knew no other foreigners, and had no point of reference. If I was grim or even stern, they laughed, and patted my back encouragingly. They took me as a peaceful man, no matter what expression I wore. I was a joker, someone who worked hard, played the fool for the children, sang with them, danced with them, and laughed with an open heart … I was given a chance to reinvent myself, to follow that river within, and become the man I’d always wanted to be … Prabaker’s mother had told me that she’d called a meeting of the women in the village: she’d decided to give me a new name, a Maharashtrian name, like her own … And because they judged my nature to be blessed with peaceful happiness, Rukhmabai concluded, the women had agreed with her choice for my first name. It was Shantaram, which means man of peace, or man of God’s peace … I don’t know if they found that name in the heart of the man they believed me to be, or if they planted it there, like a wishing tree, to bloom and grow. Whatever the case, whether they discovered that peace or created it, the truth is that the man I am was born in those moments … the better man that, slowly, and much too late, I began to be.”

On their way back to Bombay and after a night out, Lin and Prabaker are robbed. With all his possessions gone, Lin is forced to live in the slums, giving him shelter from the authorities and free rent in Bombay. After a massive fire on the day of his arrival in the slum, he sets up a free health clinic as a way to contribute to the community. He learns about the local culture and customs in this crammed environment, gets to know and love the people he encounters, and even becomes fluent in the local language.

Who are we really? Are we the ‘constructed self’ (constructed by ourselves and others), or is there also a non-constructed self that may more truly be who we are?

Practice asks us to come to each moment, each person, each situation in a fresh way. Roberts speaks of ‘reinventing the self’ but from a practice point of view, he actually has the opportunity to ‘deinvent the self’, allowing no-self to appear in order the be “the better man” that he knew in his heart he was.

Do we discover the peace / love in each other and each situation, or do we plant it there to bloom and grow? Do we concretize each other and every situation or do we allow emptiness to arise and be seen?

III. Poem by Rumi

“All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.
This drunkenness began in some other tavern. When I get back around to that place, I’ll be completely sober.
Meanwhile, I’m like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary.
The day is coming when I fly off, but who is it now in my ear, who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth? Who looks out with my eyes?
What is the soul? I cannot stop asking. If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks. I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way.
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.”

“Where did I come from, and. What I am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea:” This is the same as the Zen Master’s, “I don’t know.”

Meditation allows for deep self-reflection; this in turn gives rise to scrupulous self-honesty and investigation. This investigation reveals the impermanent nature of self-no-self-which is the meaning of Dizang’s comment, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Usually we are stuck in a ‘prison for drunks’, captive either to either our own beliefs about ourselves or those of others; if we could ‘taste one sip of an answer’ about who this one is, we could break out of the prison.

What is this prison? Delusion– the belief in a separate and permanently abiding self, independent of everything else and without change.

Mara was a demon who was The Tempter. He is best known for his part in the historical Buddha’s enlightenment. This story came to be mythologized as a great battle with Mara, whose name means “destruction” and who represents the passions that snare and delude us.

As the about-to-be Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, sat in meditation, Mara brought his
most beautiful daughters to seduce Siddhartha. Siddhartha, however, remained in
meditation. Then Mara sent vast armies of monsters to attack him. Yet Siddhartha sat still and untouched.

Siddhartha said “I see you Mara, and you will never imprison me again.” Mara claimed that the seat of enlightenment rightfully belonged to him and not to the mortal Siddhartha. Mara’s monstrous soldiers cried out together, “I am his witness!” Mara challenged Siddhartha, who will speak for you?

Then Siddhartha reached out his right hand to touch the earth, and the earth itself spoke: “I bear you witness!” Mara disappeared. And as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha Gautama realized enlightenment and became a Buddha.

Suzuki Roshi in Branching Streams lectures: “Buddha’s way is the study and teaching of
human nature, including how foolish we are, what kinds of desires we have, our preferences and tendencies. Without sticking to something, I try to remember to use the
expression “liable to.” We are liable to, or we have a tendency to do something. ”

IV. Deinventing the Self: no-self
Tendencies are not a permanent part of the self; they are merely what we are ‘liable’ to do and, without self-reflection, often what we habitually do.

These tendencies (seeds) may have some biological component, but causes and conditions either water the seeds or allow them to die; if watered, they become habitual to the point that they become ‘concretized’ in our minds (and the minds of others) until we believe these tendencies to be our actual nature.

If we believe these tendencies to be who we are and beyond our control, we will not exert effort to do something else; our belief in a permanent, independently abiding self then becomes the very obstacle that keeps us from liberation: “it is so and therefore cannot be changed”

Sometimes we are fortunate to be in a new/different environment (like ‘Shantaram‘) where this belief of permanence is shown to be the delusion that it is: we are unknown and our external attributes are not seen in the same way; when others see us differently, we can see ourselves differently (the value of a teacher!).

For most of us, this unusual ‘new environment’ is only found in meditation practice where– through intimacy with the self–we can shed our tendencies in the middle of our own belief systems and that of others until we experience no-self.

One difficulty that arises: we may feel resistance from others when we begin to change because when we change, all of our relationships have to change.

Rumi understands that nature of this delusion of separation, however: “I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way. Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.”

We do not ‘come here of our own accord’, but enter on the river that runs through each of us and the universe …

Suzuki Roshi visited Yosemite, and wrote of the waterfall in Zen Mind Beginner Mind.

“…the water comes down like a curtain thrown from the top of the mountain. It does not seem to come down swiftly, as you might expect; it seems to come down very slowly because of the distance. And the water does not come down as one stream, but is separated into many tiny streams. From a distance it looks like a curtain. And I thought it must be very difficult for each drop of water to come down from the top of such a high mountain. It takes time, you know, a long time, for the water finally to reach the bottom of the waterfall. And it seems to me, that our human life may be like this. We have many difficult experiences in our life. But at the same time, I thought, the water was not originally separated, but was one whole river. Only when it is separated does it have
some difficulty in falling. …after we are separated by birth from this oneness, as the water falling from the waterfall is separated by the wind and rocks, then we have feeling. You have difficulty because you have feeling, you attach to the feeling you have without knowing just how this kind of feeling is created. When you do not realize that you are one with the river, or one with the universe, you have fear. Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water. Our life and death are the same thing. When we realize this fact we have no fear of death anymore, and we have no actual difficulty in our life.”

‘Whoever’-or whatever-brought me here, will have to take me home. Home is the place where “I don’t know” feels perfectly at ease.

Malgosia Braunek Roshi

Malgosia Braunek is in 2014 gestorven aan kanker; dit is haar laatste dharmatoespraakje:

Meester Shizan zei tegen een leerling dat niet-weten het meest intiem is.

Sinds ruim een jaar beoefen ik deze meest intieme praktijk onafgebroken. Ik hoef mezelf er inmiddels niet meer aan te herinneren. Zeker, in het begin was het een worsteling en soms een regelrechte veldslag toen alles maar bleef veranderen en mijn plannen maar in duigen bleven vallen en mijn gedachten maar bleven aandringen dat ik er toch minstens recht op had te weten hoe lang dit allemaal nog moest duren, want dit was toch zeker geen leven! Kan best wezen, maar ik leef nog steeds, dus dit is ook leven.

Onvoorwaardelijk accepteren dat ik niet weet valt ook na jaren van oefenen nog steeds niet mee. Maar als ik dan toch een keertje onder ogen zie dat ik niet weet, laat ik al mijn gedachten, voorstellingen en verwachtingen los, waarop mijn angsten en mentale frustraties plaatsmaken voor stilte en vrede. Het blijkt dat we allemaal een vrijplaats in ons hebben, en de sleutel daartoe, waar we te allen tijde in kunnen. Het hangt alleen van onszelf af of we er gebruik van willen maken.

NIET WETEN geeft ons kracht en vertrouwen in alles wat zich maar voordoet. Het is het ware tegengif voor onze eeuwige verwachtingen, die altijd afwijken van de werkelijkheid.

Moge iedere dag net zo grenzeloos zijn als de blauwe lucht, die alles omvat ook al weet hij van niets.

Ik ben bij jullie en ik ben heel dankbaar voor alles wat jullie voor me hebben gedaan. Woorden schieten tekort om mijn ontroering uit te drukken.

Ik hoop jullie gauw weer in de zendo te zien!