Not Knowing Is Most Intimate - Part 1
This week’s koan comes from a story beloved by all seasoned Zen practitioners:
Master Dizang asked the visiting Buddhist philosopher Fayan, “Where are you going now?
Fayan answered, “I am resuming my pilgrimage.
Dizang asked, “Why do you go on pilgrimage?”
Fayan said, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
Hearing these words, Fayan had an opening experience.
Here the koan student must demonstrate that they understand why “not knowing” is called “most intimate”, and why these words, taken together, allowed Fayan to get a glimpse of his true nature. The answer obviously depends of the meanings of “intimate” and “not knowing”.
This koan is especially appropriate for Westerners because our culture regards not knowing as ignorance, i.e. a negative state to be avoided at all costs. In this koan, however, “most intimate” clearly implies that not knowing is a positive state.
This koan illustrates par excellence the difference between the Western view of “objective knowledge” – including scientific learning – and the Zen view that wisdom is quite unlike such knowledge.
In a previous post, I admitted having a personal interest in how Zen might rejuvenate Western philosophy. In that regard, it might help to recall that the word “philosophy” comes from the Greek, “love of wisdom” (sophia), not “love of knowledge”.
A Chinese Buddhist scholar, Fayan (Jap. Hogen), who had made a name for himself among the intelligentsia of the dynastic capital, decided to tour the imperial hinterlands in order to bring the monks of remote monasteries up to date on Buddhist philosophy. He was joined by several other Buddhist scholars who set out together on a pilgrimage to visit a specific list of provincial temples.
At a certain point in their pilgrimage, snow, rain and flooding forced them to seek shelter in a small temple that was not on their itinerary. The temple’s Abbott came to greet them as they warmed their hands over a glowing brazier just inside the gate. The scholars barely acknowledged him. After hearing a description of their mission, the Abbott asked if he might pose a question to them. One of Fayan’s colleagues assented without lifting his gaze from the red-hot coals.
The Abbot, whose name was Dizang, asked, “Are the mountains, rivers, and earth identical with, or separate from, you scholars?” Fayan’s colleague tersely replied, “Separate”. At this, Dizang held up two fingers. The scholar, perhaps interpreting this as a criticism for dividing the world between inside and outside, quickly said, “Identical! Identical!” Dizang again held up two fingers, and left them.
Fayan asked the other scholar what he thought the Abbot meant by raising two fingers both times. His colleague, perhaps embarrassed by his own loss of composure, replied that there was no meaning other than contrariness on the Abbot’s part. Fayan protested there was no need to insult the Abbott. (I believe Fayan understood the Abbott was signaling in response to both answers that his colleague still hadn’t overcome the dualism of “the Many” and “the One”.)
In any case, Fayan had come to see that the Abbott was no country bumpkin. He also suspected that Dizang knew more than he did. This suspicion must have completely undermined his self-confidence. How could he present himself as an expert to numerous monasteries when he knew there was much he still didn’t understand?
Perhaps this was why, in a later conversation with Dizang, Fayan candidly admitted that he no longer knew why he persisted in his mission to bring the latest philosophical developments to remote monasteries.
Recognizing that Fayan was in what I have called an existential crisis, Dizang uttered the turning words, “Not knowing is most intimate”. This was enough to give Fayan an initial insight, or kensho. (This was not to be his final enlightenment experience under Dizang. In Part 2 on this koan, I will describe the conversations that led to a deeper awakening.)
Meanwhile, we must ask, “Why did Dizang’s use of the word “intimate” cause Fayan to have an initial insight?”
To give you a sense of what Dizang realized, I can think of no better prompt than a poem cited by Zenkei Shibayama Roshi, the revered twentieth century Rinzai master in his book, Zen Comments on the Mumonkan. (For what it’s worth, if I could take only one book with me into solitary confinement, it would be this one.)
There, in commenting on Case 10 about a monk who brags that he is "poverty-stricken" because he has rid himself of all conceptual understandings, Shibayama recites a poem by another Zen Master on how such poverty is actually a blessing:
Do not light a lamp: in the house is no oil.
How pitiable it is if you want a light
I myself have a means to bless poverty:
I will let you feel your way along the wall.
This poem imagines a host telling a guest that he must find his guest room for the night in the dark. He has no oil with which to provide him a lamp. The guest must proceed by feeling his way along the hall until he finds his destination.
The poem is a metaphor for Zen practice; we must feel our way forward as if blind – no conceptual understanding will get us to our destination. Instead, the host says he is providing his guest a priceless gift by letting him feel his way along the wall with his hands.
Here we get a hint of what “intimacy” means. When we are lost in the dark, we are forced become intimate with the wall through our hands. We learn much about the contours of the wall that we would have missed in daylight.
Now, how does this notion of intimacy apply to our koan about not knowing? Here, we can perhaps see how “not knowing” loses its negative connotation of ignorance and becomes a blessing in disguise. Ignorance, from a Buddhist point of view, is being stubbornly stuck in delusions about our true nature despite mounting evidence that those beliefs are not sustainable. For a person with enough meditation experience, this dissonance between our “common sense” assumptions, and our intuitions that there is something more we don’t yet understand will eventually result in an existential crisis.
Such a crisis occurs often in ordinary human lives, as when we feel that a friend or loved one has betrayed or abandoned us. At such a time, all of one’s longstanding assumptions are in question. A change in those assumptions is called for, but we find ourselves not knowing what to do.
Whether in ordinary life or in koan practice, not knowing what to do forces us to suspend our past assumptions and look for a solution “outside the box” of those beliefs. Luckily, we are blessed with an innate freedom that we call creativity. As with fine art painters, this search for a solution proceeds by intuitive means. Painters “feel their way along the wall” by applying a daub of color here or there. If it doesn’t “look right”, they apply other colors until it does. The point is, this process proceeds intuitively through feelings, not through a rigid set of written rules.
It is only in such a state that Zen practitioners, having newly discovered a willingness to consider new possibilities, realize that “not knowing what to do” is precisely the state where they are freed to discover those possibilities through trial and error guided by intuition. It is only in such a state that practitioners come nearest, or become “most intimate” with their true nature, which is one of inherent freedom guided by compassion.
Fayan reached such a state when he admitted he didn’t know what to do next. With Dizang’s turning words, he suddenly realized he was not imprisoned by not knowing, but freed by it. He was free to “feel his way along the wall” until he found his own authentic response.
Now, how will you choose to demonstrate this “intimacy of not knowing?” If you are still bewildered, don't despair. Part 2 will add a few more hints.
“A Course on Koans” is the delusion-riddled work of Chris Kufu (“Wind in the Void”) Wilson, who began practicing Zen in 1967. He regards Taizan Maezumi, Robert Aitken, and David Weinstein as his root teachers. Each of them pecked at his shell until he “completed” the never-ending koan curriculum of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
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