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January 5, 2022

The Benefit of having a Buddhist’s “Don’t Know” Mind.

Author’s note: this is the text of a talk given on February 23, 2020, before Community Dharma in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico. The talk was partly inspired by the late dharma teacher Robert Hall, who once said, “Nobody knows!”


Knowing about not knowing.

All human knowledge is like a drop of water thrown into a deep ravine.” ~ Zen Master Tokusan

This talk concerns knowing about not knowing.

In English, we have only one word for knowing. For example, I know the town of Todos Santos.

In Spanish, there are two verbs for knowing: yo sé Todos Santos, and yo conosco Todos Santos. Yo sé Todos Santos might mean: I have heard of the town; I know that it is in Baja California Sur, Mexico; my daughter visited there. Yo conosco Todos Santos is a much more intimate kind of knowing. It may mean that I have had coffee at La Esquina; I have watched pelicans glide the Pacific wave tops at its beach; I have attended dharma talks with friends at Cuatro Vientos.

In Buddhism, there is an even more intimate kind knowing than yo conosco. Paradoxically, it is called “not knowing.” There is a saying in Zen, “Not knowing is most intimate.” There is no word for this kind of knowing in either English or Spanish, but the word in Sanskrit is prajna, or prajna wisdom.

Why is “not knowing” called wisdom?

From kindergarten to grad school, we have been stuffed with knowledge, only a faction of which has been useful and correct. For example, I was taught that Columbus was a wonderful hero who discovered the “New World.” Such an upbringing has covered the world with a veneer of words, facts, opinions, and thoughts of good and bad and right and wrong—words that make it difficult for us now to simply hear the sound of wind through palm trees without thoughts getting in the way. We know the words “winds through the palms,” but can we appreciate the sound directly, be freshly aware of the sound itself, without intervening knowledge? Covering the world with such knowledge about the world is like taking a shower in a raincoat.

We were warned about our predicament in The Book of Genesis by none other than God Himself. “Do not eat from the Tree of Knowledge or you will die!”

Why would God warn us so? Isn’t knowledge a good thing? The Bible says that a serpent tempted Adam and Eve to eat the fruit, and that they thereby gained knowledge of good and evil. Some Christians interpret this knowledge of good and evil to be about sex. After all, both Adam and Eve were good looking, naked, and had lots of time. But from a Buddhist perspective, we can extend the meaning of good and evil to mean a knowledge of good and bad, of right and wrong, a knowledge of preferences and opinions: I like dogs but not cats; that person is ugly; this feeling is awful; this rock is a granite, not a basalt; I am not meditating correctly.

We live in a world of duality formed of thoughts and opinions, rather than in the world itself. We identify ourselves and our world with the thoughts in our heads. Adam and Eve could have lived in the Garden of Eden alongside the Tree of Knowledge and enjoyed the tree, rested in its shade, and climbed its branches. But when they ate its apple, the Tree of Knowledge became a means of sustenance. They were expelled from the Garden of Eden, the garden being a metaphor for peace of mind. In other words, they were expelled from the garden because they identified with their thoughts and feelings. It was then that they experienced separation, desire, fear, depression, jealousy, duality. It was then that they experienced the first noble truth, the truth of suffering, of dukkha, of unsatisfactoriness.

I had an unusual Garden of Eden-type experience during meditation, but with a bird rather than with a snake. I was having a hard time at a retreat because I wanted to know if I was meditating correctly. The teacher said to put your mind in your hara. How can I put my head in my abdomen? How do I know where my mind is? How will I know when I am enlightened?

One morning, I decided that if the Buddha was correct, that we are already perfectly endowed with Buddha nature right from the beginning, then I shouldn’t have to do or know anything during meditation. I decided to just sit on my cushion and do nothing, letting my Buddha nature express itself as it liked. Then I had a weird experience. There was a fluttering in my right forehead, and out flew a filthy black bird, leaving an empty space behind in my head where it had nested. The bird was greasy and awful looking, like a disgusting old crow. It looked at me and I knew from its evil stare that this was the bird of “wanting to know.” It looked so unsettled that I sent it a compassionate feeling, which surprised it, and off it flew. After the retreat, I wanted to know more about this bird—evidently I hadn’t learned my not-knowing lesson.

I looked online at pictures of gargoyles to see if this bird had been depicted as a daemon in Christian cathedrals, but without luck. I asked Zen teachers about it and they didn’t know, although one said that sometimes incidents like this happen when one goes through a life change. I asked a Dzogchen teacher, and he said that I had had a vision. So now I had a name for the experience, but that was all. Later, at a Zen retreat in New Mexico, I met a student of Carlos Castaneda. Castaneda was an anthropologist at UCLA who wrote a series of books about his apprenticeship with a Mexican sorcerer named Don Juan. I told Castaneda’s student about the bird, and he said, “Oh yes, we know the bird. We call him Fred.”

Later, I read a book by Carlos Castaneda called The Active Side of Infinity. In the book, the sorcerer, Don Juan, describes “flyers,” which are a type of predator that comes from the depths of the cosmos and takes over human minds. They come to feed on our energy. According to the sorcerer Don Juan:

“Sorcerers believe that the predators have given us our systems of beliefs; our ideas of good and evil; our social mores. The predators are the ones who set up our hopes and expectations, and dreams of success or failure. They have given us covetousness, greed, and cowardice. It is the predators who make us complacent, and egomaniacal. When it proposes something, it agrees with its own proposition, and it makes you believe that you’ve done something of worth. The flyers’ mind will say to you that whatever Don Juan is telling you is pure nonsense, and then the same mind will agree with its own proposition, ‘Yes, of course, it is nonsense,’ you will say. That’s the way they overcome us.”

So according to Don Juan’s tradition, which comes from the Yaqui sorcerers of Mexico, our thoughts are not our own. In other words, what we think we know is not us. Author Dan Harris said it another way. He said that we are listening to the asshole who lives in our head. Perhaps my disgusting crow was a predator, a flyer, feeding on the energy of my discontent caused by not knowing. Whatever cosmology we choose, Buddhist, that of the sorcerers of Mexico, that of psychologists, or that of the gnostic Christians who call such predators archons, the way to defeat this problem of constant mental and emotional activity is not by attacking or suppressing the thoughts. It is by developing a disciplined awareness in meditation and in daily life. Thoughts will self-liberate when left alone. They will fly away on their own accord, like my dirty bird, Fred.

I studied geology in college. My grandma Hazel had a rock that she had treasured since she was a little girl. It was jet black and sparkled in the sun. She handed it to me and asked what it was. I said, “Oh, that’s just a mica schist.” She grabbed it back and said, “No it isn’t!” Of course, she was right. It was not just a mica schist. It was not just an academic definition of a rock.

When I was hunting for a university position in geology, I interviewed with a professor from Bowdoin College. He said, “We have our students sample well water, measure its temperature, pH, salinity, and so on. By the time they are though studying it, we have taken the mystery out of it.” I told him that if I joined his faculty I would try to put the mystery back in it. Here was a scientist trying to take the mystery out of nature for the benefit of his students. I didn’t get the job.

I taught geology for a number of years in the University of Illinois system. When I was a wide-eyed, lowly assistant professor at Northern Illinois University, one of the professors gave me this advice: “Never admit that you don’t know something.” Later, when I taught geology at Champaign Urbana, I found that this advice was driving faculty members neurotic. They believed that they were supposed to know everything, and were afraid that they would be found out. Really, we hardly knew anything, and what we did know was probably mostly wrong. I remember a famous geology teacher who at one time taught that the ocean bottom was a vast, featureless plain. We have since discovered that the ocean basins contain Earth’s greatest mountain ranges. It was almost impossible to talk science with other faculty members at the U of I because of this fear of being exposed for not knowing.

Later, when I joined the United States Geological Survey in Colorado, I gave a talk at UC Davis on crystal growth. After the talk, someone asked a long and complicated question that concerned applying eigenvalues to the problem of crystal growth. I said, “I don’t know what an eigenvalue is, so I can’t answer your question.” The questioner looked chagrined. Later, someone on the faculty said that that was the best answer. Little did they know that my answer came from a Zen monk who taught “not knowing” in sixth century China.

That monk was Bodhidharma, who brought Zen Buddhism to China. At that time, Buddhism in China was intellectual, emphasizing study and memorization of the sutras. Bodhidharma brought the practice of Zen meditation to China so that people could experience the Buddha’s mind directly rather than simply learn about his teaching.

Here is a story about Bodhidharma in the form of a koan. This is the first case in the Blue Cliff Record, which is a compilation of 100 koans dating from 12th century China:

Bodhidharma’s “I don’t know”
Emperor Wu of Liang asked the Great Master Bodhidharma, “What is the first principle of the holy teachings?”

Bodhidharma said, “Emptiness without holiness.”
The Emperor said, “Who is standing before me?”
Bodhidharma replied, “I don’t know.”

Can we feel the drama of this moment? The great bodhisattva, who as a holy man is supposed to know something, is asked by the ruler of all of China, “Who are you?” He doesn’t answer, “I am an award-winning monk from Persia who has come to teach meditation and kung fu at Shaolin Temple.” No! Instead, when asked who he is, he answers with a profoundly true answer, an answer that comes from the gut rather than from the head, an answer that we all deeply understand: “I don’t know who I am.”

The don’t know mind is the empty, open, and spacious mind that is known in Buddhist teaching as the dharmakaya. This aspect of mind may be first recognized as the space between thoughts, or the space between feelings and emotions. Then this spaciousness is recognized everywhere. Spaciousness comes from intuition that experiences the world directly and freshly, without the obscuration of intervening opinions, without fear, without the raincoat.

The don’t know mind is the road of freedom promised by the fourth noble truth, the path that leads from suffering. This spacious aspect of mind, which is always present, is discovered through meditation and other contemplative practices. Can we live in this world of the beginner’s mind?

In meditation, we can experience this mind by being aware of our inhalations and exhalations, realizing that during this practice there is nothing else to know, that in this practice there is no knowledge beyond being aware of the breath.

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