Only Don’t Know

Whatever answers you think you have, says Judy Roitman, you don’t—and in that not knowing, we find the heart of Buddhist practice.

By Judy Roitman

“Bodhidharma in meditation,” 17th century, China. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I prostrate to Gautama
Who through compassion
Taught the true doctrine,
Which leads to the relinquishing of all views.

— Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Wisdom
of the Middle Way)
, translated by Jay Garfield

Not knowing is most intimate.
— Luohan Guichen, Case 20 of The Book of Equanimity, translated by Gerry Shishin Wick

If even one thought appears, that is already a mistake.
— Zen Master So Sahn, The Mirror of Zen, translated by Hyon Gak

I do not teach Buddhism. I only teach don’t know.
—Zen Master Seung Sahn, The Compass of Zen

Almost exactly forty-four years ago, I went to a talk by the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn at the Cambridge Zen Center. As a very new Zen student, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but whatever it was, it didn’t happen. He held up a cup and asked, “Is this a cup or is this not a cup?” He took a sip. And I thought, he didn’t answer the question! He held up a watch and asked, “Is this a watch or is this not a watch?” He looked at it. And I thought he didn’t answer the question!

He went on like this, hinting at one thing or another but never exactly pinning anything down, and I kept thinking he didn’t answer the question! I so thoroughly and completely did not understand what was going on that everything I knew seemed irrelevant. It suddenly hit me, with my PhD and bloated test scores and skipped grades in school, that nothing I knew was worth knowing.

I was so freaked out that I couldn’t drive home. I used the Zen center phone (cell phones were decades away) to call a friend who luckily answered and, recognizing an emergency when she heard one, showed up and walked me around the neighborhood. “I don’t know anything,” I said over and over, slashing the air with my hands. I don’t know anything. She looked at me with a bemused expression and said, “I had a friend once who was hospitalized in Tangiers for existential anxiety.” Then she took me to a deli and bought me a pastrami sandwich to calm me down. I calmed down, went home, and was determined to eventually know whatever it was that I didn’t know; what I didn’t know had become the only thing worth knowing. What I didn’t realize was that what I was looking for was not knowing, but rather not knowing.

Here’s the thing: we actually don’t know anything. Sure, we know that 2+2 = 4, that water freezes at 32° F. We might know how to drive a car or speak French or play the drums. We might even know that Pierre is the capital of South Dakota. But that’s just the surface of things. Dig down deep enough and it turns out that we don’t know anything. Really, we don’t. And yes, I am aware of the seeming circularity of knowing that we don’t know. But still, we don’t know anything.

Whatever philosophical framework the Buddha and his henchmen/women used, they still knew that however we thought things were, they weren’t.

Take a stick. Maybe we’re on a boat and we see a stick floating in the ocean. A fish in the ocean doesn’t see a stick. I don’t know what it thinks it sees, but it doesn’t have the category stick. For that matter, it doesn’t have the category ocean, even though it perceives the medium in which it swims. No matter how frantically a fish’s brain grasps at what the hell is happening when it is pulled out of the water, it does not know ocean.

We are so superior to the fish! We know what a stick is! We know what an ocean is! We are so smart!

But are we? We made up the concept stick. We made up the concept ocean. We make distinctions: this is a stick; this is a pole; this is a cudgel. Or distinctions within one concept: this is the Indian Ocean, this is the Pacific Ocean, this is the Atlantic Ocean. We can’t possibly distinguish where one ocean begins and another ends. And the sky! Where does the sky begin? Where does it end? What exactly is it? The formal scientific definition says the sky is coterminous with the atmosphere and hence begins at the surface of ground or water. But everyone looks up at the sky, nobody looks down at it, not even from an airplane.

Yes, we need conventional knowledge to function. Let me say that again, to be absolutely clear: we need conventional knowledge to function. We need to know things so we can build houses, set tax rates, wash dishes, stop polluting the earth. But we get trapped in this knowledge. We think that’s the whole of it. We think, I know how to build a house! I know exactly what the tax rates should be! I know how to wash dishes! I know what everyone should do to stop polluting the earth!

We slam the door shut prematurely. And the base of that knowledge remains inherently unstable.

The ancient Buddhist teachers knew that we don’t know anything and never will. Consider the Theravadin Abhidharma, obsessed as it is by the process by which we construct our awareness of the world; it explains in detail why there is not a simple correspondence between how we think things are and how they actually are. Consider all the many Mahayana sutras and commentaries that chip away at any notion of intellectual certainty we might have. Consider the way Zen koan (Korean, kong-an) compilations cut through linguistic categories. The journalist Robert Wright published a book in 2017 titled Why Buddhism is True, which marshals evidence from neuroscience on the unreliability of the mind to establish the, ahem, truth of Buddhism. But you don’t have to rely on neuroscience. Whoever wrote the Diamond Sutra was already quite aware of the trap of thinking things are as we think they are: “And how should they explain it? By not explaining. Thus it is called ‘explaining’” (translator, Red Pine).

The whole cognitive mechanism is a setup, bound for, at best, approximation. Consider nouns and verbs—what kind of straightjacket is that? There are a few languages without them—a quick Google search turned up Tongan and Riau Indonesian—but all of the languages in which Buddhism was written have nouns and verbs. You can read much of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika as trying to break the distinction down; three of its chapter headings are: agent and action, fire and fuel, action and fruits. And there is Mumon’s wonderful poem from Case 37 of the Mumonkan (the case where Zhaozhou, asked why Bodhidharma came to China, responds, “The cypress tree in the garden”):

Words cannot speak truth.
Speech cannot point into nature.
One who holds words is dead.
One who attaches to sentences is lost.

(translated by Zen Master Seung Sahn)

With or without speech, living creatures on earth are, perceptually, screwed. There is that pioneering 1940 study by Jerome Lettvin et al., What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain—you can find the pdf online—in which Lettvin et al. wired up a frog and discovered that the frog perceives movement, not objects. If a fly could hold really really still, the frog wouldn’t see it.

Humans are so superior! We perceive objects even if they aren’t moving! Sorry to tell you this, but the reason we perceive objects when they’re not moving is because our eyes are moving, little itty-bitty movements called saccades. Without them we can’t see.

I don’t want to go down the neurophysiology rabbit hole—there’s a huge body of literature by people far more qualified than I am—but the fact is that we construct our world out of all these electrical impulses and chemical reactions and cellular processes and imperceptible (to us) movements constrained by perceptual limitations (infrared, ultraviolet, infrasound, ultrasound, and so on), not to mention the basic mental categories we fit everything into—object/action, time/space, life/death, and so on. And guess what? The Buddha and his henchmen/women were quite aware of all this, even though they didn’t have the cognitive categories of electrical impulses and chemical reactions and cellular processes. Whatever philosophical framework they used, they still knew that however we thought things were, they weren’t. They knew that we are always making everything up.

So, if our perceptions are invented, what about our opinions, our theories, our beliefs? We think we know what’s going to happen, yet we almost never do. We think we know why people (including ourselves) do things, but usually we are wrong. We lie awake at night agonizing over our job, our family, someone else’s politics—and yet our solutions rarely work. We create these tight little narratives, these worlds inside our heads. That’s where we live. Our frontal lobes keep churning away trying to figure things out, pin things down, like someone shouting into a tunnel and having a conversation with her own echo.

Consider again that Case 37. A monk asks Zhaozhou, “Why did Bodhidharma come to China?” This monk is not an idiot. He knew that Bodhidharma came to China to establish Zen. He isn’t really asking about Bodhidharma and China. He’s setting a trap. And how does Zhaozhou get out of it? By saying, “The cypress tree in the garden.” No echo here.

Many years ago I sat in on a seminar on Zen Buddhism taught by a scholar of Zen Buddhism who did not practice. He was well respected, so a number of faculty sat in on the seminar. Sometimes he would present kong-ans and people would talk about the symbolism. Oh, the cypress tree represents truth. No, the cypress tree represents determination. It took all my effort not to yell at everybody, there are no metaphors here! But it would have been rude. They were playing a different game, so with great difficulty, I kept my mouth shut.

My teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, was fond of saying, “Understanding cannot help you.” The great sixteenth-century Korean master So Sahn wrote, “Do not give rise to conceptual thinking.” The sixth ancestor Hui-Neng awakened when his teacher cited the Diamond Sutra: “One should use one’s mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment.” Consider this citation from the Maha Sunyata Sutra cited in So Sahn’s Mirror of Zen:

Words on a page are demon-karma, names and forms are demon-karma, and even the Buddha’s own speech is demon-karma.

We are being warned not to rely on our understanding, our conceptual thinking, our words, our speech. What, then, is left?

In Case 10 of the Mumonkan, a monk comes to Shushan Kuangren and begs for help: “I am poor and destitute!” And Shushan replies (free translation here), “You just had three glasses of Dom Pérignon and you’re complaining that you haven’t had a drop!” The whole universe is out there, all of it. But we are trained to stay trapped in our thinking, unable to see what is actually in front of us. We continually slam shut the doors of perception: I know what this is! I know what that is! I know what’s going on! Every time we do this, another door slams shut.

Consider my blue jeans. They are—spoiler alert—blue. But I just took a photo with my iPhone and swiped to enlarge it, and guess what? There are white threads and black threads along with the indigo blue threads. Every artist knows that to paint blue jeans accurately you need many different colors. With the possible exception of the sky on a sunny day, blue is never exactly blue.

The world is irredeemably complex, and yet we insist on nailing the doors shut: blue jeans are blue! If we do this—and we do it all the time—we cannot see clearly. Oh, you use a wheelchair, I know what you are like! Oh, you are a plumber; I know what you are like! We don’t know how to look. We don’t know how to listen. We don’t know how to perceive. Oh, I know what I am doing tomorrow! But I fell and broke my hip and guess what, I’m not doing whatever I was going to do tomorrow after all.

We project our ideas and call that knowledge. And then we argue about it.

In imitation of the method of the Diamond Sutra: What is true knowing? It is not knowing. That is why it is called true knowing.

My meditation practice is called huatou (“word head”), which arose in China and is widely practiced in Korea. Huatou practice can be associated with kong-ans, but the form I’m considering here is liberated from that association. A basic question—such as What are you? or What is this?—is the object of meditation, but any “answer” that appears dissolves instantly.

Ask someone what their essence is and chances are they’ll give essentialist answers (race, gender, nationality, societal role) or particularist ones (I’m a happy person, I like to help others) or universalist ones (child of God, energy of light). Nope, nope, nope. Any answer slams a door shut. We have to go deeper, like enlarging the photo of my jeans, and then enlarging it again, and again, until the threads disappear, and keep going deeper still, to where language no longer operates, and certainty dissolves. Does this sound mystical? It’s not. It is quite literally our birthright.

A long time ago I helped a friend give birth. You know that myth of how human babies can’t see when they are born? It’s false. The baby’s head came out and the rest of her took a little bit longer, so for a few minutes just the head was out there in the air and she looked and looked and looked around: whoa. Or maybe: okay. Just taking it all in, absorbing this new world in which part of her had landed. No fear, no excitement, just looking: what’s this? That mind, taking it all in, no preconceptions, no doors slamming shut—that is don’t know mind. We were born with it. We still have it. We can learn to trust it.

We can remember, when we get stuck, that’s not how it works. However we thought it was, that’s not how it is. Instead of contorting our brain in yet another effort to pin things down, we can rest in this don’t know, we can be supported by it, this mind that is so much bigger than the mind we think we inhabit. To quote Shodo Harada Roshi’s version of the line from the Diamond Sutra cited by Hui-Neng: Abiding nowhere, awakened mind arises.

Abiding nowhere, don’t know is exactly don’t know.

And, in case we forget why this matters, I’d like to close with the way my teacher ended all of his letters: I hope you only go straight don’t know, which is clear like space, try try try for ten thousand years nonstop, soon get enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.

Judy Roitman

Judy Roitman

Judy Roitman (Zen Master Bon Hae) began practicing Zen in 1976 with Zen Master Seung Sahn at the Cambridge Zen Center. Two years later, she helped found the Kansas Zen Center with, among others, her husband Stan Lombardo. She was granted authorization as a teacher (inka) in the Kwan Um School of Zen in 1998 and received dharma transmission in 2013. She has also had a long and distinguished career as a professor of mathematics (although now retired from academic life) and as a poet.