Not Knowing Part 2
Here are comments on the koan, “Not Knowing Is Most Intimate” that are meant especially for newcomers to Zen.
As I have said, this group includes many who will never pursue koan practice and may not even practice meditation. Still, many of them are sincere seekers who scour the world’s spiritual traditions in hopes of synthesizing a “personal philosophy” that will make them more resilient in the face of life’s insults.
To just such people, the suggestion that “not knowing” is a powerful tool in achieving that resiliency may strike them as outlandish or at least counterintuitive. To make our koan less outlandish, I feel I should say something about an element of koan practice that we have largely skirted so far: it is the whole notion of Buddhist enlightenment.
For non-Buddhists who follow this blog, Buddhist enlightenment may seem too “religious”, or at least more than they are willing to take on. Yet it always lurks in the background of any koan. After all, many, if not most, koans culminate in the disciple experiencing some transformative experience that remains undescribed. As I have said, newcomers can feel some resentment that they experience nothing transformative at all when they hear what, for the disciple, were “turning words”.
Here, I ask only that non-Buddhist readers keep an open mind on the topic of Buddhist enlightenment. Part of their resistance to the topic is because they have inflated ideas of what it is to be “enlightened”. They may regard it as gaining super powers that protect a person from ever having a bad day. In coming posts I will try to properly deflate the notion of enlightenment. For now, just know that the great Chinese Master Linji (Jap. Rinzai) commented when he suddenly experienced deep enlightenment, “Oh, there’s not much to it!”
I will start by discussing how the Western philosophical concept of “enlightenment” (as in, “The Enlightenment”) differs from the Buddhist conception of enlightenment. Now, the reason for comparing European with Buddhist enlightenment is to show that whereas the former produces knowledge, that latter is designed to produce wisdom. (Please excuse the following detour into Western intellectual history.)
The European Enlightenment marked the emergence of “modern” philosophy in the early seventeenth century. That “modernity” consisted of the emancipation of philosophy from the stagnant Aristotelian scholasticism of the Catholic Church. In general, The Enlightenment was a transition away from religious dogma, and arced slowly over the next two-plus centuries toward the scientific method as the sole means of establishing knowledge.
The Promethean power of science has intoxicated us ever since. Technologies enabled by science have benefited us so much that we forgive science’s failure so far to place the “human sciences” of psychology, sociology, and political science, on the same “covering law model” that underlies physics and chemistry.
One key difference, then, between The Enlightenment and Buddhist enlightenment, is that the former restricted itself to the material realm (i.e. the realm of objective, not subjective, “things”). In contrast, wisdom belongs to the subjective realm and represents the ability to decide what to do when knowledge fails to provide certainty.
Buddhist enlightenment is rigorous in calling for a new account of the subjective realm that does not depend on elusive linguistic constructs like “the self” and “objects”. Buddhism asks us to drop such concepts in favor of “Buddha Nature”, a name that implies no boundaries between inside and outside, or between self and other. Indeed, even the term “Buddha Nature” is misleading if it implies an unchanging “something”.
Perhaps it would be less confusing to newcomers if I said the Buddhist enlightenment is realizing Buddha Nature and that that realization is very aptly described as “total intimacy” between “you” and “your world” so that any opposition between them disappears.
To illustrate “total intimacy”, I will tell you how Fayan’s study under Dizang after his initial opening resulted in an even deeper enlightenment experience.
First, though, I should explain that initial opening experiences are usually not complete. Nevertheless, this partial insight starts the dominoes falling as it subconsciously erodes deeper and deeper layers of assumptions about “reality”. This slow process depends on meditation experience and skillful midwifery by the teacher. Wisdom may take a decade or so after the initial opening to reach critical mass.
When Fayan decided to stay with Dizang to learn more, what ensued was a long series of conversations. I can do no better than quote Katsuki Sekida’s summary of those conversations in his Two Zen Classics (another must-have for koan fans):
“In his interviews with Jizo [Dizang], Hogen [Fayan] often quoted from the Avatamsaka [Flower Garland] Sutra, or the philosophy of the Consciousness Only school [that I have elsewhere called the Imagination Only school]. Jizo always rejected Hogen’s answers, saying, ‘Buddhism is not that sort of thing’. Finally, Hogen broke down and said, ‘I can have no words, no reasoning’. Jizo said, ‘Speaking from the point of view of Buddhism, everything directly presents itself.’ At this, Hogen had a realization.”
What was this realization? It has to do with directness. Knowledge is about things; explanations are about things. They are indirect because they are not the things themselves.
Directness is “total intimacy” in which things directly present themselves and we respond reflexively. At that moment we are one with the thing that presents itself. There is not even time for an “I-Thou” moment in between. The I-Thou moment is a shamanic facsimile of true intimacy. It is a facsimile because it relies on viewing the thing presenting itself to us as having a soul. It is an effort to prolong an afterglow that has already faded. As such, it is only a halfway station to directness, because there is still an “I” and a “Thou”.
So what is “total intimacy” and what are the reflexive responses I’m referring to? The response is always the same. It is not an overt action, although it exhibits outward signs depending on context. It is simply alertness, or keen attention to what is happening. Total intimacy is just complete openness. It is signaled by a wariness indicating that, at that moment, all ideas and assumptions have disappeared in order to attend to the event. Dogen calls this “dropping body and mind”, because all awareness of body and mind drop away at that moment. If there were an outward sign, it might be an utterance like, “Hmmm, what is happening?” – yet leaving that question unanswered.
That is why Lao-tzu said the ancient Daoist masters were, “Alert as a winter way-farer crossing a snow bridge over a stream” or “Wary as a man in ambush”. In those situations there is no time for analysis. There is only open-minded alertness. There is only “feeling one’s way along the wall”.
That is why one ancient Master gave a lecture to his assembly that consisted only of the words, “Attention! Attention! Attention!”
And that is why Dogen tells us, “To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That the myriad things come forth and experience themselves is your awakening.”
Enlightenment is the union of you and all “things”, a union in which your body-mind accords instantly by opening up completely. This is your awakening. It is happening constantly, but that doesn’t mean we notice it before it gets papered over with our afterthoughts. It becomes total intimacy or enlightenment only when we reflexively drop all barriers and just “not know”.
“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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