NOT KNOWING PART 3
In Part 3 we return to the question of what constitutes an adequate response to our koan.
In Part 2, I provided few suggestions about how to respond to this koan, except by proposing a description of Buddhist enlightenment that would help readers understand the transformative effect that Dizang’s turning words had on Fayan.
There I offered “total intimacy” as a useful metaphor for describing enlightenment. I chose “totally intimate” because “being intimate” has so many positive emotional overtones; we don’t feel intimate with someone unless we feel safe in letting down our guard. “Total intimacy” implies that we have let down our guard completely. This “guard” is our perpetual battle to protect our egos. The fragility of our ego is revealed by our ceaseless and often compulsive efforts to shore up our ego by the pursuit of fame and gain.
Our not knowing koan worked its magic on Fayan in a before-and-after fashion. After Dizang’s turning words, Fayan had an insight. Before those turning words he felt lost. This implies that if we are to merge with Fayan in the flesh, eliminating the time and space between him and us, we must somehow present him in both his “before” state of confusion and his “after” state of relief. Anything else would be one-sided and therefore incomplete.
In other words, I am suggesting that you try to imagine what it would be like to be on the cusp of this transformation. You should embody that moment in your presentation to the teacher.
To do this, you must be at the point where “not knowing” changes from a negative to a positive. I marvel at the number of idioms American English supplies for the negative state of confusion. “Clueless” is one, “Up the creek without a paddle” is another, as is “Twisting in the wind”. And there is always the venerable, “being at my wit’s end” (which I have used several times already), not to mention “being on the horns of a dilemma" (ouch!)
Zen has its own evocative metaphors for this state. One such is, “Facing towering iron cliffs”. Another – to be treated later – is [Needing to] “step off the top of a hundred-foot pole”
How will you show the teacher that you understand this state! It is a state of being so overwhelmed that you can only throw up your hands in surrender. If there is something to utter in emphasis, it may be something akin to “I give up!” Calling on your own most formative experiences, you must find the gestures authentic to you.
Perhaps you can find the cusp between confusion and liberation by the way you throw up you hands. We also have idioms for reaching a positive sense of surrender, including “Starting over from scratch”, or “Turning the page”. These idioms express a sense that the current situation offers the chance of a new beginning.
Under this positive view of surrender, we can better understand Dizang’s turning words. We can now hear him telling Fayan, “In your state of not knowing, you have no idea how close you are to self-liberation. Don’t you see that you are in the perfect position to take the leap that closes the gap?” In other words, Dizang’s words are deeply encouraging.
Accordingly, when I spoke earlier about Fayan’s “before state” being one of surrender or “giving up”, you should not infer that Fayan’s state was one of defeat or despair. Instead, he was in the most propitious state for having an insight, which Zen has forever described as a state of “Great Doubt, Great Faith, and Great Effort”.
Fayan’s Great Doubt was his fear of a spiritual failure from which he might never recover. His Great Faith was his intuitive trust that something within him would rally. His Great Effort came in response to Dizang telling him he was very close to breaking the stranglehold of Doubt.
This is when Fayan rediscovered his fighting spirit. In Chinese mythology, this is the moment when a carp at the bottom of towering falls becomes a dragon and ascends effortlessly into the heavens to cause rain, renewing the life of water.
To conjure up a sense of being on the brink of rebirth, it might help to remember a bitter experience in your own life. Perhaps it was a divorce, or a deep disappointment with a friend or business partner. These can be overwhelming and you may remain in mourning for a considerable period. This is entirely human and accords with Zen unless one becomes permanently fixated on grief. In most cases, however, we reach a stage where we will begin to pick up the pieces and move on. This is also completely human and completely Zen.
At that point, it is a necessary part of the cycle that you admit you don’t know what to do. You are clueless. And yet something is stirring, and green shoots are appearing out of the scorched earth. Precisely because you don’t know what to do, you are open to any sign or hint of a way forward. A creative urge animates you. Hope with no apparent basis returns as if by magic.
To test this for yourself, I recommend that whenever you find circumstances threatening to overwhelm you, you should find a broad vista point over the mountains, ocean, or cityscape and declare sincerely to yourself that you are overwhelmed and have no idea what to do. Curiously, you should feel a palpable lightening of your burden, even if only faintly. I assure you, if you make this a regular practice in crises great or small, you will slowly feel more relief each time. Why? As one of my teachers said, quoting a maxim from Alcoholics Anonymous, “You should fake it until you make it!”
Any koan practitioner with even a faint glimmering of how not knowing frees them to start afresh will be tempted to think this “I don’t know” is the answer to every koan. It is not, but it is the prologue to every koan. You must relinquish all your common sense beliefs and approach the koan empty-handed.
I should quickly add that sometimes “I don’t know” is the perfect answer to the deepest questions human beings can ask. When Emperor Wu demanded of Bodhidharma who it was that stood before him, Bodhidharma answered, “I don’t know”. When Bodhidharma said he didn’t know, he meant none of us know. This is not a negative judgment. Rather, he meant we have no idea what we are capable of. Hopefully, you will gain a sense of the freedom these turning words can produce.
In conclusion, your presentation to the teacher should reveal an incipient understanding that not knowing frees you to start over on your own terms. Even though you have been stripped of all your certainties, show that you trust that something good will arise from returning empty-handed to sincere practice.
In the holiday spirit that comes with the winter solstice, let me wish you the very best in the coming year. I hope that this discussion of the intimacy of not knowing will help you sense how uttering the words “I don’t know”, is the ultimate tribute that the universe can make to itself.
“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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