Saturday, May 28, 2011

Dependent Origination and the Teaching of No Self (Part 2 of 5)

My previous post closed with a story that I hope conveys reasonably well a couple of things: that truth is accessible to all of us every moment of every day, and that we often need to step out of our respective comfort zones and habitual ways of seeing in order to recognize it. I suspect that each of you can relate similar circumstances under which you found yourself spontaneously experiencing a state of wonder, transcendence, and unity – where you felt most deeply your connection with the earth, your sense of kinship with all life, and your absolute certainty of being an integral part of a vast and mysterious universe. Such experiences – ineffable as, in large part, they are – often leave us grasping for words borrowed from whatever religious tradition that we are most familiar with. Thus, an experience that one person might consider marked by the unmistakable presence of God, another might describe as an instance of finally seeing the world through the eyes of their true self. While one person might look for context within the teachings of dependent origination, another might site the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow and conclude that they’d had a peak experience – one whose richness will help guide them along their unique path of self-actualization. Such experiences, whether described in religious or psychological terms, are periods of transcendence – of going beyond conventional ideas of reality and moving toward a more deeply realized truth. But why – if these experiences are indeed glimpses of truth – are they so very, very fleeting? Why don’t we just stay there in that place of more deeply realized truth? Well, from the Buddhist standpoint we say that it is our karma that draws us back again and again into our mundane way of looking at the world. Our karma, our habit energy, is like a massive gyroscope spinning and moving us along on our conditioned path – not amenable to redirection without appreciable effort.

Religious Roadmaps

The purest and (in my opinion) most important function of religion is to provide a template of sorts with which to make sense of such ineffable experiences as I’ve described. So, as you read on and things get a little more wordy and theoretical, please realize that what the Buddha and his disciples did in formulating the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination, and what every teacher since the Buddha has done, is try to make the roadmap of ultimate reality as accurate as it can be made with the imperfect tools of pictures and language. Ultimately, though, it is up to us to pay attention to our experiences and use them as landmarks that we synch up with our chosen roadmap. For a Buddhist, this means following the Path – often referred to as The Noble Eight-Fold Path. Keep in mind, however, that after we’ve really gotten to know the terrain we can dispense with the map. You don’t use a map to find your way around your home, do you? No, you’ve internalized every square centimeter of it such that no matter where you might need to go you start moving without a moment’s contemplation. Finding our way out in the broader world can be likewise. Before delving further into dependent origination, then, let’s orient ourselves with the roadmap that the Buddha left behind.

The Four Noble Truths

The most common and succinct restatement of The Four Noble Truths can be found in, for instance, the Dalai Lama’s 1997 book The Four Noble Truths:
  1. The Truth of Suffering
  2. The Truth of the Origin of Suffering
  3. The Truth of Cessation
  4. The Truth of the Path
Consider this our large-scale map.

The Nature of Suffering

So, let’s not lose track of our destination. The Buddhist roadmap does not direct us to some omniscient state wherein we know all the answers to all of our questions; the Buddhist roadmap does, however, lead to the cessation of suffering. More precisely the roadmap leads to the cessation of dukkhadukkha being a Pali word that, according to Rahula (1959), carries with it “deeper ideas such as ‘imperfection’, ‘impermanence’, ‘emptiness’, [and] ‘insubstantiality’” (p. 17). The Dalai Lama (1997) says that “dukkha is the ground or basis of painful experience, and refers generally to our state of existence as conditioned by karma, delusions and afflictive emotions” (p. 43). The rich meaning of this word dukkha leads us to consider three different aspects of suffering: 1) the suffering of pain itself; 2) the suffering related to impermanence; and 3) the suffering brought on by our conditioning. Now, as long as we are living beings with working sense organs we will not be able to escape the pain of existence. Whether due to accident, childbirth, disease, or just plain growing old we will have our share of this type of pain. Likewise, we will not be able to escape the reality that everything is changing all of the time, that everyone we love will eventually pass away, and that everything that we love will eventually cease to be. These are quite simply the cold, hard facts of existence. The other type of suffering, however – the suffering brought on by our conditioning – is indeed within our power to alleviate.

Dependent Origination, Suffering, and the Self

The key to remember is that most of the suffering that we will ever experience stems from our conditioning. I am even willing to defer to those who will say that all of our suffering stems from our conditioning. Pain, after all, does not so much cause our suffering as does our reaction to the pain: our wishing that it would end, our worrying that it won’t, our concern that it will get worse, our longing for how things were before the pain began, our ‘why me’ sort of wonderment about our circumstances and the ‘woe is me’ lamentation that follows close behind. These are all conditioned responses.

The twelve-fold chain of dependent origination gives us a more finely detailed roadmap of the process by which our conditioning causes suffering. If we understand this process, if we become intimately aware of it as it unfolds from moment to moment, then we can begin to redirect our karma away from the suffering that is so easy to find and toward a deeper truth that – while accessible to us all every moment of every day – often seems so very elusive. And what is the most deeply entrenched conditioning of all? Well, that would be our belief in a self that is separate, distinct, independent, and permanent.

No Self
Suffering is ultimately rooted in our sense of self as separate, distinct, independent, and permanent. You may have heard this referred to as the ‘small self’ – the self that is attached to its own ideas and self-importance. Understanding the falseness of this self (and then acting on that understanding) is the key to the cessation of suffering – your own and that of all other beings inhabiting this universe.

Let me try to make this more concrete. A few years ago when I was going through a divorce I felt all of the suffering that I mentioned above: the wishing that it would end, the worrying that it wouldn’t, the concern that it would get worse, the longing for how things were, the ‘why me’ and the ‘woe is me’ and on and on and on. And that is why I made the statement in an earlier post related to hanging onto practice for dear life. Sometimes during zazen we can be so besieged with our small-self concerns that it’s like we’re sitting in the middle of a tornado with the imagined debris of our life swirling all around us. What helped me, though, was the conscious practice of looking beyond the concerns of my small self to the reality of the broader world. And so, when the cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar, I realized that their uprootedness was mine as well. And when the economy came crashing down, I felt even more deeply the fear of everyone around me. And whenever I'd see lovers sitting in cafes or enjoying a sunny day in the park together, I felt their happiness and sense of connectedness along with them. And when I went out into the garden or to the park or into the woods, I felt that sense that everything is connected and unified at a level far deeper than my fleeting pain. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I'm not talking about dismissing your own suffering because it pales in the face of the suffering of others. I'm not talking about repression, either. I'm not talking about stuffing your emotions under your mattress and going through life with a ‘la la la la la’ everything-is-just-fine sort of attitude. No, it’s not an either/or proposition. We can feel our pain and feel the beauty of existence. We can feel the pain of others and the wondrous beauty of the world around us. We just have to be willing to have our hard shells cracked wide open.

Yoshida roshi often speaks of ultimate reality in terms of it being like a great ocean – and we are like bubbles in that ocean. When we cling to our small selves we are clinging to our “bubblehood” – fearing that we will burst, doing anything to protect ourselves from bursting. But if we would just let all of that go we would realize that we are part of a seamless and unified whole; we would begin orienting our thoughts and actions toward the wellbeing of that unified whole. The unified whole, after all, is what we really are. Bubbles come and go – rising up and bursting, rising up and bursting. While clinging to our small selves we die over and over again. By realizing our oneness with the unified whole of the universe, however, we never have to die. And on that note, let’s unfold our more finely detailed roadmap and begin exploring the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination.

The Twelve-Fold Chain of Dependent Origination

Okay, perhaps I only have enough time and space right now to introduce the links of the chain and point out some issues relating to them.  Please get a feel for the Pali words and their translations and begin to reflect, if you will, on how the various links might relate to one another.

  1. avijja – nescience, ignorance, delusion.
  2. sankhara – formation, volition, will. Yoshida (1994) points out that in an earlier sutra, the Theragatha, this link was actually kamma (karma) and not sankhara. The import of this will be explored.
  3. vinnana – consciousness.
  4. nama-rupa – name and form. Yoshida (1994) points out that nama-rupa is sometimes taken to mean mind-body instead of name-form. The ramifications of such an interpretation will, likewise, be explored.
  5. salayatana – the six sense bases.
  6. phassa – contact between the six sense bases and associated sense objects.
  7. vedana – feeling.
  8. tanha – craving.
  9. upadana – appropriation, taking to be the self.
  10. bhava – becoming.
  11. jati – birth.
  12. jaramarana – aging and death.

Some questions for consideration:
  1. Should we interpret these links as one following the other or should we consider a more integrated and systemic relationship amongst them?
  2. Does this chain describe a single lifetime, does it encompass multiple lifetimes, or does this chain get cycled through multiple times in a single lifetime?
  3. What are we to make of such issues as ignorance and volition arising before there is even a mind-body to contain them or give rise to them?
  4. Why is birth so far down in the chain?
  5. How exactly did the twelve-fold chain come to exist in this form? Did the Buddha actually teach it in this form or was it cobbled together from various teachings?
Thank you! See you in a week or so!


Dalai Lama (1997) The Four Noble Truths – Fundamentals of the Buddhist teachings. Thorsons, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.
Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Friday, May 20, 2011

Dependent Origination - An Introduction (Part 1 of 5)

With so much being written about Buddhism these days, it would seem difficult to find someone who doesn’t have at least a passing familiarity with such concepts as impermanence and emptiness. The teaching that undergirds these two, however – namely, dependent origination – is far less well known and almost certainly less well understood. In the most general sense, dependent origination conveys the reality that absolutely every “thing” that comes into being owes its existence to myriad causes and conditions, constantly in flux, that form the ground from which and the environment into which that “thing” arises. A number of Buddhist teachings expound upon this reality within the context of helping us understand the process by which suffering arises – thereby helping us understand its cessation. The so-called twelve-fold chain of dependent origination is a detailed description of this process. I’ll be exploring this chain in greater detail in a future post. For now, though, I’m merely aiming to whet your appetite. Dependent origination can make for quite a heavy meal. Consider this the appetizer, then!

 Dependent Origination in a Nutshell

As dense as the teachings related to dependent origination might be, it can be communicated (with varying success depending upon the depth of insight of the reader) with a surprising modicum of words:
            When this is, that is.
            From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
            When this isn’t, that isn’t.
            From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that. (Anguttara Nikaya 10.92)
Even in the space of these four lines one can infer those Buddhist teachings about which volumes have been written: 1) that all things are impermanent; i.e., things come into existence when certain other conditions arise and they change or cease to exist when those conditions change or cease to be; and 2) that all things are empty of independent existence; i.e., if everything owes its very existence to something else, then it is arbitrary (and incorrect in the ultimate sense) to think of that thing as being separate or distinct or independent in the first place. If something depends so completely on something else, then why not consider the two together to be separate, distinct, and independent? Well, because there are other things upon which those “two” depend, and other things upon which those things depend, and so on, ad infinitum. Thus, the very concept of things being separate and distinct is just that, a concept. Indeed, it is a concept upon which our entire conventional world is structured, but that need not stand in the way of our understanding of ultimate truth. All things are impermanent and empty of independent identity and existence. Now, at the risk of making this appetizer a little heavier than you might expect one to be, that means you.

Statement of Gratitude

At this point I’d like to take a moment to convey my indebtedness to my teacher, Rosan Yoshida roshi, whose reflection, scholarship, and teaching on matters of dependent origination, and Buddhism in general, have allowed me to attain whatever level of understanding I might have on such matters. Specifically, Yoshida roshi’s 1994 text, No Self – A New Systematic Interpretation of Buddhism, has formed the basis of and provided guidance for my own exploration of the subject of dependent origination. For instance, it was Yoshida roshi’s book that pointed me to the source material from which the above four line quote came. It is also Yoshida roshi’s scholarship that allows me to realize that I risk leading readers astray in the very first paragraph of this post by referring to things ‘coming into being.’

Becoming vs. Being

To speak of things ‘coming into being’ tends to imply the attainment of or arrival into some stable state wherein – voila! – independent existence has arisen. Being implies a static situation, whereas becoming implies a continuous process. The Pali word pertinent to the discussion here is bhava – becoming – one of the links in the aforementioned twelve-fold chain. Says Yoshida (1994): “Existence is understood in terms of becoming (bhava) through incessant dynamic ‘dependent origination or becoming’ (paticca-sam-bhava), and not static ‘being’ (sat) or ‘non-being’ (asat)” (p. 26). Well, I’m certainly guilty of an overreliance on the word ‘being.’ Please don’t feel the need to go back and count all the times that I’ve used it, though! And, yes, I’m sure to use it again for the sake of expediency. I suppose it’s just the nature of my being. Oops! I suppose it’s just a pattern of communication temporarily persisting in conjunction with the process of “my” becoming. Seriously, this distinction between being and becoming really does take us to the very heart of dependent origination – and all of Buddhism for that matter. Perhaps that is a good lesson right there as to how our choice of a single word can have drastic ramifications for whatever discussion might ensue.

Understanding Dependent Origination with Your Heart

There will be plenty of time (and necessity) for the introduction of additional Pali words as this series of posts proceeds. For now, though, I’d like to veer away from a more intellectual discussion of dependent origination in order to tell a story that I hope will allow you to feel its truth in your heart, or your gut, as the case may be. If you read my second post, What’s in a Name, you know that much of the inspiration for this blog comes from a cross-country bicycle journey that I embarked upon some years ago. After making my way across Oregon, with its many mountain ranges and gorgeous valleys in between, I rolled into Boise, Idaho with a decision to make. Should I continue heading eastward along the dry, flat Snake River plain or should I detour up into the Boise Mountains and head for the heart of the rugged Sawtooth Range? Now, if your goal is simply to ride across the country, then meandering up into the Sawtooth Range is certainly not the most efficient route to take. Looking back, though, I can see that my journey wasn’t about riding across the country at all. It was about crossing Nebraska; and you just can’t cross Nebraska without first having your fill of the mountains.

It took three days of climbing to make it up into the Sawtooth Range. The first one actually wasn’t that tough – inspired as I was by the beauty of the mountains. The second one, however, with its relentlessly steep switchbacks, pretty much broke me in every way that a human can be broken. Ah, but being broken really isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, it has many advantages. Being broken forces us to jettison all of those inane expectations that we carry around with us most of the time. Being broken pushes us toward an economy of existence that we probably wouldn’t choose to experience otherwise. Being broken, by its very nature, pries loose our grip on all of our petty conceits. After all, what is there to be conceited about when you’re broken? Hmmm. Perhaps that ride was a little like sitting sesshin! And as I crested the ridge separating the valley from whence I’d come and the valley of my evening destination…, well…, that was just a little bit like that last period of zazen after a whole day of being broken down by zazen after zazen after zazen. Things get very still when you’re up that high – especially after being broken. The sounds of chirping birds and rippling streams are far below, and nobody builds much of anything way up there – least of all any silly ideas. There’s just this kind of sound that the wind makes when there’s not a whole lot of anything for it to blow against. It’s kind of a peaceful, steady, yawning sound that let’s you know that you’re getting really, really close to absolute and utter stillness.

The valley of my destination was still recovering from a massive forest fire that had swept through in the late 1980s, and after cresting that final rise I was soon afforded unobstructed views of its fire-ravaged expanse. Down and down I sped through the destruction – dodging rocks that had washed across the road now that little of the forest remained to hold them in place – coasting nearly all the way to my destination along the banks of the South Fork of the Payette River. It was there beside the river absolutely gushing with roiling white water that I pitched my tent in a little campground adjoining a natural hot spring. The water gurgles up out of the hillside there and trickles down over the rocks – steaming in the cool mountain air for a time before cascading into a little pool sitting right next to the rushing river. And, oh, how sublime that hot spring felt after two solid days of climbing! Time and time again I soaked in that steaming water and then emerged to recover in the cool evening air. I even dunked myself in the roiling white water – ice cold and swift enough to sweep me away should my handhold fail or my toehold falter for even an instant. And as the sun sank low – painting the fuzzy new pine growth on the eastern wall of the valley in glowing shades of emerald and jade – I realized in my gut the truth of dependent origination.

This tiny pool of water rests briefly in the cupped hands of the earth – one reaching up from its fiery bowels, the other reaching down from the snowmelt of mountain valleys high above. If anything at all were different it would simply cease to be. The intensity of the fire burning down below and the abundance of water seeping down from above – together they give rise to a calm eddy in a raging river – a place of refuge balanced between two opposing forces, each with its own innate power to destroy. And the deep, dark forest of countless trees that once filled this valley from one end to the other – it, too, existed like a calm eddy in a raging river. For years the trees here rose into existence and fell away again to become the soil of their offspring. And for years bear and elk and owls and eagles and countless other beings found refuge in this valley. But then a lightning bolt and an abundance of dry, dead wood accumulated after years of fire suppression combined in an instant to send forth the inferno that swept away everything in its path – caring not a whit for all that had made that valley its home. And this glorious earth, spinning, spinning, spinning – just far enough away from an exploding ball of fire, but not too far, not too far. And me, an endless string of beads rising out of it all – out of every nook and cranny – from the depths of space and the molten core of the earth; me, an endless string of beads of life after life after life rising up from some warm tidal basin to swim and then crawl and then climb into the trees, only to descend again and rise up on my hind legs and stay there – to look around, and peer over the horizon, and out into space, and wonder – What am I? Why am I here? – and not know, and not ever, ever know. Because when this is, that is; and from the arising of this comes the arising of that; and when this isn’t, that isn’t; and from the cessation of this comes the cessation of that, and on and on and on. Yes, I’m just a tiny pool of water cupped for a fleeting instant of time within the tissue of this body – this body that draws in one leg and then the other to sit in a position called zazen, that I might let this thing called mind become as still as a raging forest fire – as still as a bolt of lightning finding its way across the heavens – as still as the sun exploding into the blackness of empty space – as still as all the universe from which it has arisen.


Anguttara Nikaya 10.92. Vera sutta: animosity (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 4 July 2010,
Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Saturday, May 14, 2011

On Not Knowing, Part 3 of 3

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, a friend sent me a link the other day to Kathryn Schulz’s TED Conference monologue, On Being Wrong. I think it complements well what I’ve been writing about in this latest series – in addition to being quite entertaining – so I’ve posted a link to it in the links section here. Please check it out… after reading this post, of course.

If you’ve read Part 1 of this series you know that all this past winter I’ve wondered about the fate of my little toad friend – the one who has dwelt (or whose remains have rested, as the case may be) beneath a carefully constructed shrine to not knowing. Was he down there in the darkness patiently waiting, calmly abiding, or was he gradually turning into a leathery sack full of the remains of a being that once hopped across the lawn or sat quietly in the shade of a giant hosta forest waiting for a cricket the size of a Welsh Corgi (relatively speaking) to happen by? Yes, and all this past winter I imagined myself one day dismantling that shrine and finally coming to know his fate. I pictured it being on a bright spring day after a spate of warm weather had coaxed enough insects into their next stage of life so as to provide a steady food source for a toad – if, indeed, that was even necessary. And how would I respond to finally knowing? Would I rejoice at seeing those calm eyes looking back at me once more, or would I shed a tear for that tiny being who by mere happenstance had touched my heart so deeply? I didn’t know.

Well, a week ago this past Saturday was the fateful day. I knelt down on the ground and with absolutely no expectation whatsoever I set about carefully dismantling the shrine. A nest of ants had made their home amongst the leaf litter. A good sign, I reckoned, thinking that my toad friend might appreciate a handy breakfast upon awakening. But then it occurred to me that perhaps it was the ants who were feasting mightily on my toad friend. Hmmm. I scraped away the litter until I’d made it down to the bare earth, but there was nothing. Could it be that the ants had consumed him so completely that not a trace remained? One by one, I removed the rest of the stones until there, beneath the very last rock that I removed, was a little hole burrowed into the earth – a nice, smooth hole precisely the size and shape that a toad would make by wriggling down into the moist soil. He lives! No, I didn’t actually see him, but I just know he’s out there in the garden somewhere – actualizing his toad nature with the fullest measure of his being.

Not knowing is difficult, isn’t it? How do you experience it? Does it sit in your belly like a stone? Does it pester you – draining away your psychic energy? Maybe it whispers in your ear when you least expect it: “you don’t know…, you don’t know…, you don’t know.” Perhaps it hovers in the background of your life like a storm cloud. No matter how bright the day, no matter how pleasant your circumstances, no matter all the other things that you think that you might know, it’s always there.

It’s a good thing we’ve got religion, right? Indeed, it’s hard to concentrate on the matter at hand – our daily tasks of living, our very survival for that matter – when there’s this constant sense of not knowing gnawing away at us. Religion, at least in part, provides us with all the comfort of knowing – without the actual knowing, that is. Now, mind you, I say that without any sense of disparagement. Religion was almost certainly an inevitable human development in response to our brains growing larger and larger, and more and more of us stepping out of the realm of animal existence and into the realm of knowing that we just don’t know. Somebody must know, we surely reasoned, and whoever they are they must have power over our very existence.

Not knowing compelled all the great spiritual leaders to search for answers; and whatever it was that Muhammad or Jesus or Buddha actually experienced, we are inclined to think that they found them – answers, that is. We’re inclined to think that they went from a state of not knowing to one of knowing. Either God spoke to them, or entered into them, or else the workings of the universe opened up to them by virtue of their supreme powers of observation.

The vast majority of us are more than willing to take comfort in the belief that superior beings came before us long ago and revealed to us the metaphysical reality of all that exists. The vast majority of us are willing to nibble about on the desiccated scraps of someone else’s feast of truth rather than strike out on their own in search of the fruit that even now hangs on the vine as ripe as the day that Jesus or Muhammad or Buddha first tasted it. So, will someone else’s scraps really satisfy your hunger? Will someone else’s answers to the great questions provide you nourishment for a lifetime, or will ‘what am I?’ and ‘why am I here?’ come to haunt you in your dotage when precious little time will remain for you alone to answer them?

There is a story of Malunkyaputta, a follower of the Buddha, who assumed that a great teacher such as the Buddha must know everything that there was to know. He longed for the Buddha to answer for him all the great questions that he was pondering: Is the universe eternal or not, finite or infinite? Is the soul the same as the body or separate? Does it live on after the death of the body or not? Malunkyaputta eventually confronted the Buddha with these questions, and this was the Buddha’s response:
And why [Malunkyaputta] are they [the answers to these questions] undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undeclared by me. (Majjhima Nikaya 63)
The Buddha went on to explain to Malunkyaputta that his teaching related to suffering, its arising, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation. Knowledge of such matters as Malunkyaputta was concerned with would not lead to the cessation of suffering.

Now, are you inclined to think that the Buddha really did know the answers to these metaphysical questions but did not divulge them so as to keep from distracting us from the path leading to the cessation of suffering, or are you inclined to think that the Buddha didn’t really know the answers to those questions himself? Perhaps your answer to that question depends on whether you think that the Buddha was a divine figure of some sort, who attained God-like knowledge when he became enlightened under the bodhi tree, or whether you think he was simply a man of unprecedented wisdom – a man who taught what he knew and refrained from speculating about that which he did not know – which he could not know. Regardless, the ball is back in your court. How does it feel to not know?

Included in this dialogue between the Buddha and Malunkyaputta is the story of the man shot with a poisoned arrow who, before he will allow it to be removed, feels the need to have an abundance of questions answered. From what clan was his assailant? What was his status and what were his physical attributes? What was the nature of the weapon used and what was the construction of the arrow that had pierced him? Of course, the Buddha noted, the man would die and still those questions would remain unanswered. And so it is with most of what we want to know; not because we aren’t smart enough, not because we’re not dedicated enough in our practice, not because some teacher has refused to reveal to us the answer, but because it is our very nature as humans not to know.

Me? I’m still wondering. I’m still questioning. I can no more stop such metaphysical ponderings as I can will my heart to stop beating. I am human after all. And yet, my relationship to these questions has changed over the course of my lifetime. No longer do I think that I’ll find the answers to such questions in the words of any teacher or in the pages of any book or even while in the depths of meditation. Such questions are unanswerable. Not knowing is the very nature of our human existence. Rather than this not knowing being a source of suffering, however, not knowing can be, at turns, a refuge, a guide, and a way of seeing. Not knowing need not hang over us like a storm, for we can become the storm itself and thereby remain free of its ravages. Not knowing, rather than being an acceptance of a state of ignorance, can be the wisest of states to be in, for it is the truest and purest state of being. Not knowing, by keeping everything that we think we know from clouding our vision, can allow us to really see. And so I will close this series as it began – with a quote from the Korean Zen Master, Seung Sahn: “The most important thing you can do is to learn to keep a great question very strongly: ‘What am I?’ By keeping this question with great determination, what appears is only ‘don’t know’” (p. 10).

Majjhima Nikaya 63. Cula-Malunkyovada sutta: the shorter instructions to Malunkya (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 14 June 2010,
Sahn, S. (1997). The compass of Zen (Hyon Gak Sunim, Ed.). Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Thursday, May 5, 2011

On Not Knowing, Part 2 of 3

Part 1 closed with the suggestion that our becoming familiar with this state of not knowing is an important aspect of being human. Perhaps I should go a step further, however, and suggest that our not knowing actually defines what it means to be human. Now, that might have some of you wondering about my choice of focus. Why choose to focus on the negative when we humans are the most technologically advanced animal on the planet – the one that knows more than any other animal? Why not characterize our human existence in terms of our knowing instead of our not knowing?

Actually, I would say that the difference between our level of knowledge and that of any other animal is merely a quantitative one. We just know more stuff. Mice know how to forage for seeds and crumbs; cats know how to catch mice; homo sapiens know how to protect themselves from man-eating cats; and homo sapiens sapiens know how to put cats in sealed boxes equipped with cyanide capsules that break open when and if some radioactive isotope contained therein ever “decides” to decay. Okay, I haven’t lost it. I’m merely trying to bring to mind the infamous Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment – one intended to reveal how bizarre it is to try to think about quantum mechanical events in terms of our ordinary ways of looking at the world. Our brains have evolved to process events taking place at the macroscopic as opposed to the subatomic level of reality. Our system of logic, as well, has arisen in response to our experience of this macro level reality. In other words, we have an inherent inability to understand the workings of our world at its most basic level – or at least the most basic level of which we currently have knowledge.

Readers unfamiliar with Schrodinger’s Cat might be interested in knowing that it is essentially the same as Maku’s Toad (see Part 1) – the exception being that Maku’s Toad isn’t subject to the vagaries of any quantum mechanical trigger poised to deliver its coup de grace whenever the universe, in all of its probabilistic uncertainty, might “want” it to be so. Just as Maku’s Toad exists (for me) in a state of being both alive and dead until I decide to dismantle my 'shrine to not knowing' and look inside, so Schrodinger’s Cat exists in an indeterminate state (for us) until the box is opened. By the way, if such issues of modern physics viewed through the lens of Eastern Philosophy are of interest to you then you might enjoy such groundbreaking books as The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra, or The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav.

Now, you might be saying to yourself that, ultimately, it’s entirely within our power to open up the box (or dismantle the shrine) and know. You might also be saying to yourself that, while we might presently be incapable of comprehending our subatomic reality, it is not beyond the realm of comprehension that we could actually evolve the ability to understand it over time as we expand our powers of observation and experience. Well, I would simply respond by saying that advancements in human knowledge have taken us through paradigm shift after paradigm shift with respect to how we view the world, and yet we still haven’t put a scratch in either of those diamond-like queries: ‘What am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?’ Yes, science advances in leaps and bounds, accumulating knowledge in such quantity and at such a rate that no single person can even comprehend it all; and yet, with respect to these fundamental questions, we remain trapped inside this state of not knowing like insects fossilized in amber.

It’s not that I’m anti-science. I’m not. I actually think that the world would be better off if we humans would all start to think a little bit more logically, rationally, and scientifically about how we behave. Perhaps what we really need is to begin valuing science more for its process than for its products. After all, if we take a step back and look at the net effect of all of the “progress” afforded humankind by the products of scientific discovery, it’s actually quite debatable how much better off we and the world have become. The industrial revolution, for instance, was going to provide us with jobs and the products necessary for a civilized life, and yet it took people out of more healthy and natural rural environments and left them laboring long hours in unhealthy and dangerous conditions – conditions that people then had to fight to overcome. Yes, and then the chemical revolution, with its motto of “better living through chemistry,” was going to drastically improve the quality of our lives by allowing us to manipulate the molecules of our world to suit our needs. Since then, however, we’ve had to deal with one unforeseen consequence after another, from disease to environmental pollution to birth defects to all of the casualties caused by errant chemical releases. The nuclear age, likewise, was supposed to usher in a world where electricity would be “too cheap to even meter,” but that was before it ushered in the specter of global annihilation instead. Oh yeah, and then computers and robotics were going to create a world of such leisure that most of us would end up being paid not to work because so few living beings would be required to actually produce anything. But, instead, we’ve ended up with a world in which computer skills are increasingly necessary in order to work at all. And, yes, you’d still better find yourself a job. Hmmm, for some reason I find the words to John Prine’s Living in the Future going through my head. The chorus goes like this:

We are living in the future.
I'll tell you how I know.
I read it in the paper
Fifteen years ago.
We're all driving rocket ships,
And talking with our minds,
And wearing turquoise jewelry,
And standing in soup lines.

So, it seems fairly clear to me that virtually every advancement in human knowledge has walked into our lives in lock-step with a cadre of unforeseen consequences. And yet that doesn’t stop us from jumping on each and every technological bandwagon that promises to absolutely, positively change the world for the better. Genetic engineering, anyone? Yikes! I know, I know, we need it in order to help feed the world’s ever-increasing population, right? Hmmm.

Once again, I’m not anti-science. It’s just that our supercharged, hyper-technological culture has become more a celebration of our knowing than a realization of our humanity. We’ve gotten so distracted by all that we can do and invent and manipulate and subjugate that we’ve virtually forgotten (or maybe we’ve repressed) the fact that we don’t know. We’ve got a wealth of knowledge, but we’re living at the poverty level when it comes to wisdom. What is wisdom, after all, without a healthy helping of ‘I don’t know’? In this regard, perhaps the world would be better served if science were to be coupled with something akin to the Native American philosophy that, prior to a decision being made, due consideration should be given to the impact on those living seven generations in the future. In other words, decisions related to whether or not to incorporate new technology into our lives (like genetic engineering) would be guided by reflection and analysis rather than the speed-to-market approach that we presently have. Of course, the underlying wisdom of such a philosophy is that we don’t know – that we need to reflect deeply prior to acting. What may seem like a good idea now might actually lead to suffering later on. We just don’t know.

I’d better stop here and catch my breath for a moment. All this ranting is wearing me out. And besides, I suspect that some of you are patiently waiting to get a word in edgewise on this issue. Perhaps you’re simply dying to interject that, notwithstanding my previous comments, it is neither the knowing nor the not knowing that lies at the heart of human experience. Rather, it is the ‘knowing that we know’ and the ‘knowing that we don’t know.’ Indeed, our capacity for metacognition – thinking about thinking – may be unique to our species. However, I would respond by saying that, true as that statement might be, it only describes the functionality of our hardware, so to speak – the fact that we have a complex enough brain to be able to actually monitor our thought processes. But that’s like describing the functionality of a two-seater sports car in terms of its horsepower and torque and turning radius without ever getting into what it’s like to drive with the wind in your hair along a twisting and turning seacoast highway! In other words, it is the experience of driving that sports car that is important to us. Thus, I must downshift and ease this conversation back to the matter at hand. The metacognition made possible by the grand complexity of our brains invariably brings us back to the realization that we just don’t know. The experience of not knowing, the state of not knowing, indeed, defines what it means to be human.

In an earlier post I spoke of karma as Rosan Yoshida speaks of it – as habit energy. You can see this habit energy playing out each day as world events unfold. We know that we need to wean ourselves off of oil consumption, but this juggernaut of an economy has an insatiable thirst for cheap fossil fuel. We know that nuclear war is sheer madness, and yet our fear of each other compels us to prepare to wage it anyway. We know that our world population has grown too large to be sustainable, and yet we can’t even bring ourselves to discuss the issue anymore. We know that, with China and India growing in affluence and aspiring to the consumer lifestyle of the West, an unprecedented level of industrialization will be required with commensurate energy consumption and pollution and global warming, and yet we just keep watching as the juggernaut chugs onward into oblivion. This is the global problematique - the interconnected web of problems faced by our species and the world. This is our shared human karma. And we just don’t know what to do. We just don’t know. And yet, for some reason, I am still hopeful. Why? Because within the realization of our not knowing resides our humanity, as well as our salvation.

Living in the Future, written by John Prine, appears on

Bruised Orange – his 1980 release on Asylum Records.

The images on this page were created by the author. The raw images are photographs of huge coils of rusting reinforcing steel taken in the bright sunlight of a clear autumn day. Developed images were then copied and pieced together into something resembling mirror images of each other. These composite images were then scanned into a digital format and manipulated with Adobe Photoshop. There, now you know!

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank