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Not Knowing is Most Intimate

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 05/21/2006
Location: Headlands Institute
In Topics: Zen Koans

Many teachers have made this one phrase, ‘not knowing is most intimate,’ the heart of their teaching, repeating it over and over again. But what does it mean and how can we make use of it for our lives?

Dizang asked Fayan, "Where are you going?"

Fayan said, "Around on pilgrimage."

Dizang said, "What is the purpose of pilgrimage?"

Fayan said, "I don't know."

Dizang said, "Not knowing is most intimate."

This is one of the greatest teaching stories in all of Zen. Many teachers have made this one phrase, "not knowing is most intimate," the heart of their teaching, repeating it over and over again. But what does it mean and how can we make use of it for our lives?

First of all, let me back up and say something basic about Zen practice: as one of my teachers used to put it, "Zen is a practice of phrases." The practice of phrases isn't limited to Zen, it's common in almost all religious traditions. When Christians read, memorize, and reflect on scripture, when Jews or Muslims sing daily prayers, whose words affect their hearts beyond their thinking minds, they are practicing phrases. In Zen, we practice with phrases like this: we take a phrase, like, "not knowing is most intimate," or just "not knowing," and we bring it into our sitting. We breathe with it in meditation practice, repeating it again and again, usually on the exhale, eventually letting go of the words and just feeling the breath as the phrase. We repeat the phrase to ourselves during the day, and begin to notice it coming up spontaneously from time to time. The phrase becomes a theme of our daily activity; it begins to influence us, bringing ordinary daily occurrences to a deeper and more mysterious level. The point is not to think about the phrase, to figure out what it means. The point is to keep chewing on it, holding as a talisman, until suddenly or gradually it reveals itself to us. Working with a phrase in this way we go beyond our usual understanding of things. We do not impose the phrase as something extra added on to our experience. Rather it is as if the phrase reveals to us the inner essence of our experience, which we might have been taking for granted for a long time; the phrase opens us to what matters most, to what was there all along within us, but we hadn't noticed it before. The practice of phrases brings us closer, deeper, to our lives, beyond our unexamined habits and notions.

In our story, Dizang is asking Fayan not just about pilgrimage but about spiritual practice, about life itself, for life is, after all, nothing but a pilgrimage. What's the purpose? Why are we born, why do we die, why is life so difficult, what are we always longing for something else? What do we really know of our mysterious and fleeting experience? And Fayan's response is pretty honest. He doesn't just come out with some pious Buddhist answer, though we can be sure he knows many such answers. "I don't know," he says, honestly and humbly, perhaps expecting Dizang, his teacher, to shed some light on the question. But Dizang says, I don't know is just right. I don't know is most intimate. Fayan is awakened by Dizang's response; he suddenly recognizes, as one often does in spiritual practice, that he had what he needed all along, only he didn't know it. The way is right beneath your feet, and in every blade of grass.

In Zen the word intimacy is a synonym for awakening or enlightenment. And for me intimacy is a much better word than these others. Zen enlightenment, realization, or awakening – all these words seem to imply some special state of mind or spirit, some kind of transformative mystical knowledge or experience that somehow will bring us beyond life's day to day problems to a more spiritual plane. The word intimacy is better. It sounds like we are getting closer, deeper, more loving with our experience rather than somehow beyond it. Intimacy better expresses what enlightenment really feels like I think. So how is it that not knowing is most intimate?

Another Zen Master once said, "The way is vast and wide, how could it ever be a matter of knowing or not knowing? Knowing is arrogant; not knowing is stupidity; the way is far beyond both of these." This tells us that Dizang's not knowing is something more and less than the conventional idea of not knowing, which implies that there is something to be known, only we don't know it. Too bad for us. We are stupid. Probably someone else smarter than us knows and maybe we can learn from them. We can take a training course, improve our skills, and maybe eventually we too will know. And when we know we will be the smart ones and we can start our own training course, and teach other people. Then we can feel good about ourselves, knowing how much smarter we are than the others. Meanwhile, we pretend that we know. Of course we know. We are mature people of the world, we know plenty. But deep down we know that we don't know. The things that matter most escape us entirely. But it's too much for us to admit this- certainly not to another person, and sometimes not even to ourselves. So we show up to work or to our relationships as if we know. We stake out roles, identities, skills, viewpoints, and we defend them. We get into plenty of trouble this way.

Dizang's not knowing isn't like this. It's not the opposite of knowing. It's beyond both knowing and not knowing- or, to put it another way, it's the real not knowing. When we know something and rest in that knowing we limit our vision. We will only see what our knowing will allow us to see. In this way our experience can be our enemy. True, our experience has shown us something about ourselves and about life. But this moment, this situation that faces us right now- this patient, this person, this family, this illness, this task, this pain or beauty- we have never seen it before. What is it? How do we respond? I don't know. I bow before the beauty and uniqueness of what I am facing. Not knowing, I am ready to be surprised, ready to listen and understand, ready to respond as needed, ready to let others respond, ready to do nothing at all, if that is what is called for. I can be informed by my past experience but it is much better if I am ready and able to let that go, and just be present, just listen, just not know. Experience, knowledge, wisdom – these are good, but when I examine things closely I can see that they remove me from what's in front of me. When I know, I bring myself forward, imposing myself and my experience on this moment. When I don't know, I let experience come forward and reveal itself. When I can let go of my experience, knowledge, and wisdom I can be humble in the face of what is, and when I am humble I am ready to be truly fearless and intimate. I can enter into this moment, which is always a new relationship, always fresh. I can be moved by what happens, fully engaged and open to what the situation will show me.

Good idea. Probably we have all heard about it before. But how we do practice it, how do we make it a way we live rather than a good idea we aspire to and never achieve, so that instead of something useful to us it becomes yet another way, a more spiritual way, for us to berate ourselves.

In commenting on Dizang's phrase, Chizou said, "In walking, in sitting, just hold to the moment before thought arises, look into it, and you'll see not seeing – and then put it to one side. When you direct your effort like this, rest does not interfere with meditation study, meditation study does not interfere with rest."

This is the simplest thing. It's the way we practice meditation, and when we train ourselves this way on our cushions it spills over into our daily life. We sit with awareness of the body, the breath. We let thought and feeling arise but we don't make something out of it. We let it come, we appreciate it, we let it go. We don't take it personally, we don't get tangled up in it- a thought arising in the mind is just something happening, the way a bird singing in a tree or a truck rumbling by on the street are things happening. All experience comes and goes, all experience is us, our life. When we practice this way judgments begin to fall away. We forgive ourselves for being who we are. Naturally we are that. Everything just is as it is. We don't have to divide things into me and not me. Into good and bad, desirable and undesirable. We know, yes, this is a bird, it is outside, this is a thought, it is inside, but also at the same time we know, outside and inside, it is all just life. We might say, this impulse is good, this impulse is bad, but also we know, all things rise and pass away so it's ok, everything has its place. Another teacher said, "Just affirm totally when affirming, but don't settle down in affirmation; just deny totally when denying, but don't settle down in denial." When you train in being present and letting things comes and go you are training in not knowing. Within not knowing we make determinations and take actions. Every moment calls on us to respond and we do, freely and with full confidence. Sometimes affirmation is called for, sometimes denial. There are no rules. But whichever it is, we don't settle down there. We don't identify and dig in. We stand in not knowing, ready for the next moment to be different.

"In walking, in sitting, just hold to the moment before thought arises, look into it, and you'll see not seeing – and then put it to one side. When you direct your effort like this rest does not interfere with meditation study, meditation study does not interfere with rest."

All thought impulse and action comes from not knowing- whether we know it or not. In other words, this world arises moment after moment out of silence, consciousness, God, or whatever you want to call it. When we return over and over again to awareness of body, of breath, to the present moment of being alive, we are returning to this prereflective moment, this moment beyond knowing and not knowing from which all things spring. This is not something we can exactly do or even intend. We make an effort, but in the end it happens by itself: because we are that, and there is no other way. All being is that. All being arises from the silence within. But we don't settle down in that- because we can't. As soon as we try to settle down in it, we've created another moment of knowing, another moment of possession and identity- which is guaranteed to cause us and others suffering down the line. So we appreciate the almost nonexistent moment before things arise – and then we move on. We put it to one side. We let it go. We return to intimacy, to not knowing, to the simple willingness to be present with what is. Just to be there, without preconceptions. When we practice like this, meditation and non meditation are the same thing. We don't have to worry about our performance. We just do our best and accept the consequences.

A poem on Dizang's not knowing says,

Let it be short or let it be long- stop cutting and patching;

Going along with the high, along with the low, it levels itself.

The abundance or scarcity of the house is used according to the occasion;

Roaming serenely in the land, she goes where her feet take her.

I said that returning to the prereflective moment is not something we can do or intend. So it is both very easy and impossibly difficult. Easy because there is nothing to do- just keep on making effort, but an easeful effort; be persistent in your practice but don't worry about anything. Rest assured that you will get what you need and that the way will unfold before you. And difficult because we are so convinced that we need to do something, know something, be something that we are not, that we keep beating our head against a wall. But no matter how hard we beat, the wall remains, and we have a headache. Because we can't help going on being ourselves, victims of our habits and concepts. It's possible we need to beat our heads against this wall for a while – long enough to understand that this particular brand of pain is not and never was necessary, and that it is very stupid. Eventually we get it. Not knowing is most intimate. We can know something or not know something. We ought to study and learn so that we can know more, and, especially, so that we can know what we don't know, and be humble about that. Everyone knows something and doesn't know something- this is as true of the wise and the powerful as it is of the simple and unschooled. But beyond what we know and don't know is Dizang's "not knowing is most intimate." Being close to our experience, willing to enter completely, with empty hands, into every moment of encounter is something we must surrender ourselves to. Sometimes we can do this. Sometimes we can't. It doesn't matter. What matters is that we keep on trying, trusting that what happens is what needs to happen.

There's another funny commentary to Dizang's not knowing that takes the form of a conversation between the parts of the face. The mouth says to the nose, "I do the eating. I do the talking. What could be more important than that? So why are you above me?" And the nose says, quoting an old Chinese proverb, "Among the five mountains the central one occupies the honorable position. So why," the nose goes on, addressing the eyes, "are you above me?" And the eyes reply, "We are like the sun and moon, we have the power of illumination and reflection. But the question is, eyebrows, why are you above us?" The eyebrows don't know anything. They have no powers whatsoever. They can't eat, speak, smell, see, hear. And yet they are highest. They reply, "We are embarrassed to be above all of you, and we have no idea why." Another master, commenting on this commentary, said, "In the eyes it's called seeing, in the ears it's called hearing- but what is it called in the eyebrows?" Then after a long silence he said, "In sorrow we grieve together, in happiness we rejoice together. Everyone knows the useful function, but no one appreciates the supreme power of the useless."

To me this is very beautiful. Life's just like that, don't you think? When sorrow comes we grieve, but it's not so bad, because we grieve together, intimately, even the trees hang low and the flowers droop, and this intimacy makes the sorrow poignant and beautiful. When happiness comes we rejoice, but we don't need to feel guilty or worried that somehow we will lose our happiness, because it isn't ours, we are happy intimately together with everyone and everything. If we are willing to grieve together with everything then we can be happy together with everything without holding back. We know the happiness won't last, that it will go, come back, go again, come back again. But that's Ok. How could it be otherwise? There's a place for the useful function, for knowing, for learning, for skill. Without the eyes, the nose, and the mouth the world as we know it wouldn't appear. But without the useless function, without not knowing, the world would never be. To practice "not knowing is nearer" is to return to the heart of the world, moment after moment. The eyebrows are very humble; they don't know anything and they don't do anything. But they are the highest of all.

® 2006, Norman Fischer