Monday, June 30, 2014

Don't Know Mind? I Don't Know....

First off, I hope the respective titles of last week's post (Beginner's Mind? I Don't Think So...) at my other blog, and this week's give some clue to what I'm doing here...  Some may criticize me for "quibbling over semantics," but I could never understand this somewhat facile dismissal of a branch of linguistics and logic that is concerned with MEANING, for goodness sake! Semantics focuses on the relation between signifiers, like wordsphrasessigns, and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotation. And consider me pedantic if you wish, but I think it relatively important to get as clear and precise as we can about what we are really saying when we say something and try to work toward having a clear relationship between the signifier and the signified.


According to the Oracle at Delphi, Socrates was the wisest person in Athens. When Athenians asked Socrates why the Oracle declared him to be so, Socrates set out to see for himself by engaging with others, questioning and investigating myriad life issues. What he discovered, he said, was that he must be the wisest man in Athens because he knew he did not know, while others all presumed to know about things they did not actually know.

Almost a thousand years later, in China, when Bodhidharma was asked by Emperor Wu, “Who are you who stands before me?” Bodhidharma famously answered, “I don’t know.”

When zen master Poep An (Fa-yen; Hogen) was an itinerant monk, he arrived one day at Ti Tsang Monastery and met with the abbot there, who asked Poep An, “What is the meaning of your traveling?” Poep An replied, “I don’t know.” The abbot then said, “Don’t know is closest to it. Not knowing is most intimate.”

A monk asked zen master Yun-men, “What is the straight way to Yun-men Mountain?” Yun-men responded immediately, “Intimacy” (in Chinese, chin). This tells us that intimacy is the straight way; it is the path and the fruition of the path. In light of the exchange between Poep An and the abbot of Ti Tsang monastery, we see that don’t know mind is the mind of intimacy. Or as my teacher, Samu Sunim would often say, “don’t know mind is most intimate.” Whenever I was struggling with anything, especially a major life decision, he would encourage me to “go to don’t know mind.”

In Case 44 of The Blue Cliff Record, we see a monk ask Ho-shan:
“What is true passing?”
Ho-shan says, “Knowing how to hit the drum.”
Again the monk asks, “And what is real truth?”
And Ho-shan replied, “Knowing how to hit the drum.”
The monk persists, “’Mind is buddha,’ I’m not asking about this. What is no mind, no buddha?”
Ho-shan says, “Knowing how to hit the drum.”
Once more, the monk asks, “And when a fully realized person comes, how do you receive her?”
Ho-shan answers, “Knowing how to hit the drum.”

Ho-shan replies with what is often called “flavorless speech” in that he is not offering anything deeply philosophical or esoteric. It is just Ho-shan, revealing himself intimately, “knowing how to hit the drum.” We might ask, “Why does he keep repeating himself?” But if we think this, perhaps it’s because we’ve failed to see that he’s actually not repeating himself at all. Isn’t it true, after all, that the last “knowing how to hit the drum” is not the same as the one before that, nor is that the same as the one before that and so on. And this is just as true for anything. The downward-facing dog we do this morning is not the same we did yesterday. Who we are today has yet to do downward dog. Our sitting meditation today is not the same as our sitting practice yesterday, nor is it the same as the day before that, nor is it the same as our sitting practice we did last week or last year. And yet, everyday we take the “same” asana, sitting on our cushion, crossing our legs just so, placing our hands just so, our tongue just so, and our eyes and mind just so. We do this practice the same way everyday and yet it is not the same. We don’t know what it is. And that is intimacy.

I believe that much of what is signified by the term “beginner’s mind” is pointing to this “don’t know mind.” Yet, as I argued in my previous post, beginners rarely come to practice – or any endeavor – with a blank slate, but rather they generally hold a mind full of expectations and pre-conceptions. Rather than seeing many possibilities, they often grasp after one simple understanding, and it is those with expertise, holding a deeper understanding, that can often see possible causal chains that would escape any beginner.

However, what the most successful experts maintain – if they don’t fall into hubris and arrogance – is the knowledge that they “don’t know.” For instance, the great physicist, Richard Fynman, in response to an interviewer said, "I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar."

This is what Bodhidharma was pointing to when he said, “I don’t know” when asked who he was. When we begin dating someone, we hang on every word they say. We know we don’t know, so we remain close, intimately engaged. Live with that person for five years, and we may find ourselves deaf to his or her voice, taking their presence for granted, thinking we know them. And the truth is, we’ve gathered a lot of knowledge about them, about their habits, their proclivities, preferences and foibles. And yet, we can never fully, “really” know them. And if we remember that, and keep “don’t know mind,” we’ll avoid taking them for granted and thus remain truly intimate with them.

Bodhidharma's "I don't know" reminds us that what is true in terms of our lover, is also true of "ourselves." As we are constantly changing, as it is not quite the same person who sits in meditation today that sat yesterday, if we remember that we don't know who or what we are, we will stay intimate, engaged, awake to what reveals itself now... and now.... and now...

Beginner’s mind implies a mind wide open, not caught in already held knowledge, and that would be fine if real people who were actually beginners (including beginners in meditation or zen practice) truly had such a mind. But rarely, if ever, is this so. For instance, one reason Robert Buswell wrote “The Zen Monastic Experience” was because of the rampant misconceptions people have about zen practice.

Someone with experience and knowledge may fall into arrogantly thinking they know everything, but if one has truly been paying attention along the way to gaining experience, and if they remain honest, and maintain integrity, they, like Socrates and Richard Feynman and Bodhidharma, will also know they don’t know. That is the wisdom of intimacy; the intimacy of wisdom.

Now, I’ve often heard over the 40 years that I've been practicing, that buddhism encourages questioning, but I’ve seen repeatedly that large areas of practice, teaching and culture are off-limits to any real questioning. Stephen Batchelor reports the same experience with his Tibetan Buddhist teachers, where the debate training was clearly designed to lead to pre-ordained authorized results; the debate was “rigged” in a sense and any authentic questioning was disallowed.

In a forum published in Shambhala Sun back in Janurary, 2008 on the theme of atheism, Ajahn Amaro showed either a perplexing confusion or down-right ignorance about science, by saying that  "what makes scientific materialism, which would aptly describe the atheist view, unrealistic and therefore unappealing is the incredible conceit that sooner or later we'll have the whole thing figured out." I find such a statement by a Theravadin monk quite ironic! I have found many Buddhists who feel that the Buddha “figured it all out” long ago, and though we are told to “see for ourself,” there's always the caveat behind the invitation that if what we find doesn’t jibe with a particular teacher or sect's doctrine then we’re just wrong! Elsewhere in the same article, Ajahn Amaro says that the Buddha encourages inquiry, and that we don’t need to figure it all out, yet the unspoken assumption continues to be that the buddha did it for us! The Ajahn's assertion that "Scientific materialists are often frightened of uncertainty and not knowing" is absurd. In fact, as the quote above from Richard Feynman shows, scientists work happily with the understanding that all claims to any validity for both data and theory are provisional. I would like to see more of this attitude among buddhist practitioners.

Ann Druyan speaking of Carl Sagan wrote: "Sciences's permanently revolutionary conviction that the search for truth never ends seemed to him the only approach with sufficient humility to be worthy of the universe it revealed. The methodology of science, with its error-correcting mechanism for keeping us honest in spite of our chronic tendencies to project, to misunderstand, to deceive ourselves and others, seemed to him the height of spiritual discipline. If you are searching for sacred knowledge and not just a palliative for your fears, then you will train yourself to be a good sceptic."

I think it’s a sad commentary on our culture that this noble word, “sceptic,” has become something of a pejorative. It simply means "thoughtful" from the Greek skepscepticus and its Latin derivative, scepticus means "inquiring" and "reflective."

Carl Sagan's Gifford Lectures, published (in a nod to William James), as Varieties of Scientific Experience, states the position of naturalism: "I think this search does not lead to complacent satisfaction that we know the answer, not an arrogant sense that the answer is before us and we need do only one more experiment to find it out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us."

This is the kind of dharma to which I can go for refuge.