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, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html
Sahn, S. (1997). The compass of Zen (Hyon Gak Sunim, Ed.). Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank