Not Knowing Is Most Intimate

02 Sep 2012 8:36 PM | Gareth Young (Administrator)

"Not Knowing Is Most Intimate" is a koan from the Chinese Buddhist collection, "The Book of Equanimity." (It is number twenty in that collection.)  The koan is as follows:


A Profound talk of entering the Principle derides the three and rends the four.  The Broad way to the capital runs seven vertically and eight horizontally.  Suddenly opening your mouth to speak decisively, and lifting your foot to tread firmly, you should hang up your travelling bag and howl and break your staff.  Tell me, who is such a person?

The Case


Master Jizo asked Hogen, “Where have you come from?”

“I pilgrimage aimlessly” replied Hogen.

“What is the nature of your pilgrimage,” asked Jizo.

“I don’t know,” replied Hogen.

“Not knowing is the most intimate,” replied Jizo.

At that Hogen experienced great enlightenment. 

Capping Verse

Right now, investigation replete, it’s the same as before

Utterly free from minute obstacles, one comes not to know

Short’s short, long’s long.  Cease pruning and grafting.

According with high, according with low, each is even and content.

A family’s manner of abundance or thrift is used freely according to circumstances.

Fields and lands excellent, sportive, one’s feet go where they will.

The manner of thirty years’ pilgrimageundefined

A clear transgression against one’s pair of eyebrows.

This koan has come to mind a lot recently, I think because it brings together two ideas that have been coming to mind a lot: the first is, “I’ll allow the old Barbarian knows but not that he understands,” and the second the importance in my practice, my life, and my happiness of intimacy.  So it was time for me to return to the study of, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

The superficial point of the case is that as soon as we know something it becomes separate.  Not knowing comes before knowing, and not knowing is closest, most intimate.  When we fall in love, when we are a father or a mother, when our hair stands on end as we watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon, that is before we start thinking and “knowing.”  If we start to think, to analyze, to come to know, then we start to let ideas and mental constructs replace the reality and create separation.

But to “grok” the koan – to pass it – we need to go deeper  and apply it to our lives and our world.

We are all human beings and it is in our nature to try to survive, to seek safety, to seek comfort.  Learning how things work, putting labels on them and correlating patterns and relationships and predictability allow us to function more effectively in the world.  But we take from these behaviors more than that.  When we know answers we feel safe, and so we fool ourselves into thinking that if we know more answers we will be safer.   

But ultimately we are not safe – we are all going to suffer, to get old, to die.

We go through life accumulating knowledge and letting “knowing” sink deeper and deeper into us until it has become habit.  We “know” without even realizing anymore that that we know.  We mistake the instinctual knowledge that is ingrained in our mental and muscle memory as being the way things are, rather than a representation of the way things are.  This is knowledge that will help us put food on the table, to follow the behavioral rules of our society and to not crash the car, but it is not knowledge that will help us with the things that really matter in life: it won’t help us avoid suffering; it won’t prevent us growing old; and it won’t help us avoid death.  And it won’t, to relate this to the book we are currently reading on Tuesday night, help us be happy.

Happiness is a big one – maybe the big one – but I will leave that topic for a few weeks and return to it when we explore metta practice.  Instead there are two other spaces I want to focus on where our entrenched knowing is a problem.  The first of these relates to the lines from the verse, “Let it be short, let it be long.”  

There is an idea in Zen that we variously label the absolute, darkness, and one-ness.  And many more things besides.  It is a really important idea and a representation of a truth, but it is just an idea.  And like all ideas, we tend to look at them and turn them into knowledge.  We can accept - maybe with our own modifications and tweaks to personalize the truth - and let it become knowledge, destined, like all knowledge, to sink into the subconscious library on which we draw every day.  Alternatively we can resist or reject this idea, as some do.  But in reality this resistance is no different, for it simply creates a different idea.  And actually the mental processes that accompany rejection and formation of a rebellious idea can be even more powerful than acceptance and can create tenacious ideas of their own that often wrap in a lot of self-identity. 

The line “Short’s short, long’s long,” in the verse points to the reality that this oneness is not sameness.  As an ancient said, “we do not add to the legs of a duck and cut down the legs of a crane.”  This oneness has nothing to do with eliminating differences.  Rather it is about connectedness, interdependence, recognizing that one cannot exist without the other.  It relates to the story I like to tell that if a knife were slammed through the back of my left hand, my right hand would naturally come over to remove it, recognizing its innate oneness with the left hand.

In my own practice this currently relates to equality in society. 

We all have ideas from childhood, from our environment, and from the media that establish what we “think” equality means, and we build stories rationalizing our beliefs.  My parents were both in some measure racists and misogynists, and so those are influences in my life that I can’t avoid forming ingrained beliefs that I have rationalized.  No amount of unlearning will ever eradicate fully what I learned.  My Dad covered up his racism with humor and with the stories he wove that it was important to be able to talk openly, though he never recognized he was not listening.  A typical recent story that springs to mind is a politician who got into trouble for using the word “niggardly” which means “picky.”  Dad defended the right of the individual to use a word that has been around “forever,” but was blind to the other side of the story and the people who had never heard the word in the context he learned it and therefore found it offensive.  His misogyny he denied completely, citing practical reasons for me riding in the front of the car with him from age 13 while my mother and sisters rode in the back. 

I will be working on these prejudices in my practice for the rest of my life and will never fully eradicate them.  Hopefully they will become, in the language of the verse, my “minute obstacles,” but I will never be totally free of them.  The person who says they are without obstacle is a fool or a liar.  But as I work on them, I will hopefully be moving towards a state of more intimacy with the people of the world.  I will be moving to seeing people of all colors, sizes, races, genders, and sexual orientations as just people.  All totally different and yet still people, and in their individuality and uniqueness part of oneness.  

In personal relationships I am also working on showing up without first judging what is good or bad about me, what I should or should not bring to the table.  I am working hard on showing up completely without barriers and without reservations.  This showing up without self- judgment is the other side of intimacy.

Oneness to me points at equality and at the mess we have made of equality in a society ridden with prejudice and hate.  Whether it manifests on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or whatever other arbitrary basis of “knowing” we choose to impose, prejudice is a violation of oneness.  It is important to me, though, that we do not, as a society, fall into the trap of the Zennie who wrestles with the idea of the absolute, affirming or denying oneness, but that we recognize oneness for what it really is.  This is, of course, beyond words, but since words are all I have for today, I will do the best I can with them.  For me oneness in humanity is embedded in the golden rule, in the admonition of all of the world’s spiritual traditions to see the basic humanity of every person and to treat them all with equal respect, a respect that is no more and no less than your own self-respect as a human being. 

But to bring this back to the koan, “Not knowing is most intimate.”  The reality is that what is really happening is deeper than the ideas that I have just articulated.  As I attend jumma at mosques and Shabbat at synagogues, as I interact with people of all races and colors and creeds, I am finding that I am unlearning more every day and am more aware of each person I meet as a beautiful , radiant manifestation of the same reality that manifests me, not different and not the same.

The second way I want to look at this koan draws from the first line of the verse and informs the idea of equality in humanity.  The line reads:  “Right now, investigation replete, it’s the same as before.”  This idea comes from the same place as “Before enlightenment mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; after enlightenment mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.”  Only they are not the same mountains and rivers.  Everything is the same, but it shines and shimmers, analogous to the cascading digits of Neo’s insight in the matrix.

A quote from the commentary on the koan runs, ‘Nansen said, “The way is not in knowing or in non-knowing.  Knowing is false consciousness, not knowing is indifference.” Now when people hear it said that not knowing is most intimate, and that this is where Fayan was enlightened, they immediately go over to just not knowing, not understandingundefined“just this is it.”’  We need to go beyond not knowing to non-knowing.  When we affirm, we should totally affirm but not settle down in affirmation; when we deny, we should totally deny but not settle down in denial.  

Another quote runs, ‘Master Cizhou said, “In walking, is sitting, just hold to the moment before thought arises, look in to it, and you’ll see not seeingundefinedand then put it to one side.”’  As human beings we are given the gift of our senses and of our minds, and there is nothing wrong with using them.  But we can learn to use them more sensibly, and the training that Master Cizhou offers allows us to do just this.

In going beyond not knowing, in seeing not seeing and putting it aside, we are interacting with the world as it always was, as we always knew it was, but doing so without our categories and labels.  We are seeing a mountain not as a “mountain,” but just as it is.  And in doing so judgments of better or worse, useful or harmful are not so much put aside, but they don’t even arise.  It can be this way too in our interactions with people.

An ancient said, “In the eyes it is called seeing, in the ears it is called hearing, but tell me, in the eyebrows what is it called?”  After a long silence he said, “Everybody knows the useful function, but they don’t know the useless great function.”

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