Blog,  Zen

Blog 5.22.24

This evening I have the opportunity to lead our koan meditation group, and I spent some time yesterday selecting a koan for us to consider. After reading several, I decided upon Jizo’s “Not Knowing is Most Intimate” as translated in The Book of Equanimity by Gerry Shishin Wick:

Attention! Master Jizo asked Hogen, “Where have you come from?”

“I pilgrimage aimlessly,” replied Hogen.

“What is the matter of your pilgrimage?” asked Jizo.

“I don’t know,” replied Hogen.

“Not knowing is the most intimate,” remarked Jizo.

At that, Hogen experienced great enlightenment.

As someone who spends entirely too much time in my own head, I’m convicted by this story. There’s no doubt that my thinking has been a way to distance myself from the realities that terrify or depress me. I see it in others all the time, too. We all do it – intellectualize the human experience – not to gain understanding, but to prevent ourselves from true empathy, compassion, and the reality of our own limited abilities to fix or change things. It’s probably why we’re all so insistent that sitting on the internet rehashing information ad nauseam is somehow useful or productive.

The moment we ‘know’ anything, we create a separation between that thing and ourselves. Even the concept of knowing ourselves, when pursued through the intellect, does this. It’s the ego in full force.

I saw this hilarious post today online:

It’s funny, because it’s true! And the reason for this – as with all other things in the universe (that we know of) besides humans – is that cats don’t need to know themselves, because they are themselves. In every moment, without exception, fully embodied and living their authentic selves.

We humans, on the other hand, treat our consciousness as a separate state of being, exploring our world and our own selves with a detached intellect, assigning the idea of self more weight than our actual selves. We think this is what makes us superior, and in some ways, it does allow for an enormous advantage. Rather than living as other animals, our unique type of ego-consciousness allows us to command our physical selves to go against our instincts. We can use the intellect to control our bodies and our surroundings, create and discover, share and build – as individuals and as collectives.

But we can never mistake our intellect for our true, full selves. That we’ve done so has proved to be detrimental to our species and the rest of the world. We’ve made gods in our image, and we play god with the natural world because we’re convinced we’re something we’re not (individually and collectively).

I think this is why so many people are deeply unhappy. We’ve identified with our intellect exclusively, ignoring the intricate fullness of our humanity that includes the physical and emotional, as well as many parts of ourselves that we don’t even understand. That we can’t understand with the mind. This is the realm I refer to as the spiritual. Spirituality isn’t about attaching ourselves to system of beliefs that satisfy our intellectual needs, existential angst, and emotional cravings. It’s about recognizing that we simply can’t know our true selves, one another, or our world through the intellect alone.

We’re caught by our ego-minds, unable to fully experience our lives, filtering everything through the intellect – and in so doing, we never really know ourselves or others. This is probably why some of the “smartest” and “most educated” people in the world can do such terrible things to themselves and others. If we really knew – if we really understood the nature of our humanity and our interconnectedness – we’d give up on the rational lies that help us rationalize hate, violence, greed, and other destructive forces that work through us.

Enter: Zazen

The Zen form of meditation, zazen, is a practice that many people find excruciating. It’s about being here, now, without thinking. Simply experiencing the moment as would a cat or a dog or a dandelion or a star. The moment we sit down on the cushion, we begin to encounter the bully that is our thinking mind. It wants to tell us stories – constantly – that maintain our egos and reinforce our views of the world. That is, it wants to help us justify our idea of separateness – that we are exceptional, different, and right. We go on living partial lives, cutting ourselves off from our natural state of interconnectedness, of belonging to all other things. And we wonder why we suffer.

In the beginning, sitting like this is almost impossible. The strength of the ego-mind is so great that any attempt to silence it and simply exist in the moment evokes thoughts and feelings ranging from fear to rage to loathing.

But to live – to really live – means removing the ‘knowing’ we are so addicted to, and opening ourselves up to the infinite possibilities of each moment. It means allowing the world to present itself to us without forcing our interpretations upon it. It means being with ourselves and all other things without feeling like we have to know what’s going on and why.

The truth is, we know very little. Even about the things and people closest to us. It’s not even possible. The universe is an entropic environment, and we are complex beings living with infinite variables each day. The idea that we can somehow “know” anything is hilarious! We can’t even know our own bodies, and feel betrayed by them constantly. What makes us think we can know the hearts and minds of billions of other people?

Not knowing, then, is the most intimate way for us to be in the world. Because it removes the pretense of knowledge, and lets us exist in our true state of wonder, and with our true selves, as humans who have infinitely more in common than our minds want us to believe we do.

p.s. There’s a reason we like to say ‘knowledge is power’. I think it’s a good idea to reflect on why we think knowledge is the ultimate virtue in that light.