On Not Knowing, Part 1 of 3

I first learned of Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn’s “don’t know” teaching when I was studying with a monk by the name of Sungak Sunim. She loaned me a book entitled The Compass of Zen in which Seung Sahn says: “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).

Not knowing is a state of being that we humans are not very comfortable with. We only have to reflect upon recent disasters to realize just how painful it can be. It’s difficult to return to anything resembling a state of normalcy when we don’t know whether a loved one is alive or dead, or when we don’t know when or if we’ll ever be able to go back home. Likewise, we intimately experience this ‘don’t know’ state of mind whenever we have to wait for the results of a medical test that might reveal a major health problem or sit tight as news of a layoff begins to ripple through our place of employment. Yes, not knowing can be one of the most torturous and tumultuous things we ever face.

The suffering of not knowing isn’t only confined to such daunting life events as those described above, however. It visits us on a fairly regular basis. Do me a favor, please. Think back to those times when you’ve been at work or at school or perhaps involved in something out in the community where it was expected that you’d have some level of knowledge about whatever project it was that you were engaged in. Now, think back to what if felt like to be asked a question – a very good question, a pertinent question, a question that had never occurred to you before – and one that you didn’t know the answer to.

Have you had enough time for reflection? Well, perhaps I’m about to reveal something unique to my own personal karma. Perhaps you’re all very self-secure and unencumbered by expectations – whether they be internally or externally imposed upon you. Maybe you haven’t the slightest difficulty responding to such a question with a sincere and unrepentant: “I don’t know.” If so, congratulations! However, I suspect that I’m not all that unique when I say that my gut tightens up a little bit when I’m in such a situation, and then my mind begins to go down a path of introspection that goes something like this: Oh, man, I should know the answer to this. How did such an obvious question escape me? Apparently I didn’t become as familiar with such-and-such as I should have. Gosh, I hope this person doesn’t think that I’m incompetent, etc.

Does that sound familiar? I’m actually fairly confident that there’s a whole lot of shared human karma going into such a situation. After all, we grow up desiring to be competent. We grow up amidst expectations that we become competent. We take on various roles and we adopt various personas throughout the course of our lives and each time that we do we’re expected to do so with proficiency. Sure, some of us might be more or less conscientious; some of us might put more or less pressure on ourselves, but I think this ‘I don’t know’ scenario is one that we can all relate to.

I was generally a pretty good student. However, I do recall being a schoolboy sitting somewhat uncomfortably in my seat as the teacher’s eyes scanned the room looking for someone to call on. She’d hardly even got the question out of her mouth before hands began shooting up to the ceiling. Some kids waved their hands, almost pleading to be called on. Others were more somber and stoic, holding their arms ramrod straight and still, as if to say: “I know that I know it; you know that I know it; just say the word and I’ll prove it to you.” Still others almost certainly knew, but perhaps they weren’t as confidant in their knowledge, or comfortable with speaking in front of the class. If need be they would answer the question, but they had nothing to prove. Me, I was just trying hard not to give face to my terror that the truth might come out that, in fact, I didn’t know. Yes, this was something of a daily ritual – ten seconds of hell during which the teacher would scan the entire room looking for someone to call on – long enough for the tension in the room to build to a crescendo. You see, only some of the time did the ritual end with someone who actually knew the answer being called on. Much of the time the ritual was intended to ferret out someone that didn’t know. The lesson was a simple one: always know.

All winter long I’ve been thinking about this subtle expectation that we know given the reality that there is so much in life that we can’t possibly know. I actually built a little shrine in my backyard to this ‘don’t know’ state of being. Now, every time I look out the back windows I see it and I’m reminded that I don’t know. I just don’t know. Alright, that probably sounds just a little bit crazy so allow me to explain! We had a warm spell in December of this past year – warm enough that I was feeling very industrious and ready to work outside preparing the vegetable garden for the eventual arrival of spring. I spread out some compost and began spading it into the soil so that it would be nicely decomposed come springtime. I was really enjoying the work by the time I got to the corner of the garden that I’d left to get weedier than elsewhere because something that I’d planted there had not done well. Suddenly, a strange sort of squeak pierced the bubble of my garden-work samadhi and I looked down to see that I’d just sunk my spade into the very spot that a toad had chosen for its winter hibernation. He pulled one leg free from the surrounding earth as if to push himself out of the dirt and hop away. Apparently, though, his other leg was still held tightly in place by the soil that I’d just compacted with my spade. I got down on my knees to inspect more closely the damage that I might have caused and it was then that I noticed him slowly opening and closing his mouth – causing bubbles of blood to begin forming around the edges.

Needless to say I was horrified, and in those first few seconds during which I realized what I’d done my mind began to race. I thought about the toad, and how it had been peacefully resting in its cool, dark, winter quarters before being thrust unceremoniously back into the daylight by this strange intruder now standing over him. I thought about how he was almost certainly going to die an agonizing death from whatever internal injuries I’d just caused him. I cursed my industriousness – mindless busyness, it was – frenetic fumbling about in the darkness. I thought about climate change and how everything is out of kilter now with some animals thinking that it should be winter and others thinking that it’s a good time to work the soil. The birds don’t know which direction to fly off to and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing anymore. It’s a sign of the suffering yet to come, I concluded – suffering on a scale as yet unimagined. I began to think that the most compassionate thing to do would be to deal the poor toad a swift death blow with my spade in order to bring its needless suffering to an end. And I thought about how I should have known. I should have known that toads would be hibernating and that this was not a good time to be spading. I should have known that the unseasonable warmth would have everything out of kilter. I should have known.

I was just a split second away from dealing that toad a coup de grace when something convinced me to reconsider the situation. Was I certain that the toad was going to die? Was I certain that he was suffering? And so, to the extent that a human is able to communicate with a toad, I tried to figure out what it was that he really needed right then and there. I looked for signs as to whether he was suffering or not. To the contrary, there was calm in his eyes, certainly more than in mine, and after his initial attempt to get away he was no longer even struggling. It didn’t even seem that he was afraid. Perhaps he recognized me from our interactions over the summer when I’d moved him from one place where I was working to another place where I was not. Certainly he must be in some kind of pain, but the suffering in the situation was mine. The toad was not worried about his future or the future of the planet. The toad was not in a quandary about what to do next. The toad was not filled with self-blame for having made such a poor choice of places in which to hibernate. No, such suffering was all mine; such suffering lies in the realm of our human existence.

I realized then that my quickness to assume that a mercy killing was warranted was related more to my desire to alleviate my own suffering – to wrap the entire incident into a neat little package and know that it was over – than it was to be of assistance to the toad. I began to wonder whether perhaps the blood that I’d seen was not indicative of a mortal internal injury at all. Maybe it was just a “flesh wound,” so to speak, one that would heal over the course of the winter and be as good as new by spring. I didn’t know. So I tried to think about what a toad in such a predicament would need in order to make it through the winter. I eased the dirt back into place – trying to be mindful not to put too much pressure on his body. I figured that I’d end up suffocating him if I buried him without adequate ventilation. After all, he wouldn’t have the opportunity anymore to create his own air hole. So I covered him with leaves, and I covered the leaves with a rag in order to keep them in place. I held the rag in place with some stones, and I tried to leave enough spaces between the stones so that he’d be able to find a way out when it was time for him to do so.

It’s been over four months, now, that that little pile of earth and leaves and fabric and stones has been a shrine – a shrine to not knowing. I don’t know whether that toad is alive or dead. I don’t know whether I should have dealt him a death blow or not. I don’t know whether I ended up killing him by burying him alive even after my spade had managed to spare him. I don’t know whether digging in the garden in December is the wrong thing to do or not. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that this state of not knowing – and how we respond to it or behave when we’re in it – is getting very, very close to what it means to be human.

Sahn, S. (1997). The compass of Zen (Hyon Gak Sunim, Ed.). Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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


  1. I'm actually okay with saying that I don't know something. I'm only 24 - there's so much that I don't know. Although, I think sometimes saying "I don't know" can be used as a defense mechanism. I know I've done that to protect myself from seeming less intelligent than I actually am. In regards to competence, I think it's related to credibility. How can we as people make ourselves seem competent in our work? That seems to be the key, doesn't it?

    Here's something you might find interesting:

    Hope you're well!

  2. As always, a very intelligent,thoughtful post. Uncertainty does seem to be the human lot, so why fight it?

  3. K, you're light years ahead of me. I thought I knew everything at age 24!

    I think you raise a good point about using "I don't know" as a shield of sorts - to keep others from getting to know us.

    Regarding competence and work: Yes, in the context of playing our various roles in life, having a comfort level with saying "I don't know" just may not cut it. It may get us fired (if we don't know how to do our job) or it may get us all alone on a Saturday night (if we don't know whether or not we love our girlfriend or boyfriend)! Hopefully we can face our work and our relationships (and life) with what is referred to in the counseling field as congruence, i.e. our inner reality is in synch with our outer reality. I think credibility follows from the existence of congruence. Sorry if that's just so much jargon right now. (I'll explore it in greater depth soon.) Suffice to say that I hope for all of our sakes that we will be allowed an occasional "I don't know" as long as we are conscientious and honest and reasonably diligent about becoming/remaining competent in our work. However, you'll have to ask your girlfriend/boyfriend what an occasional "I don't know" will mean to them! :D

    Thanks Robert! Yes, uncertainty does seem to be our lot. We humans also seem to have a strong propensity to fight "noble" lost causes, though!

  4. Oh, by the way, K, I did enjoy your zenmoments link. I think the author must be wise beyond his 21 years.


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