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Zen and the Art of Not Knowing

Ed Mushin Russell

We humans think we’re pretty smart, and in many ways we are. For a furless, fangless and clawless primate, we haven’t done so badly for ourselves. We couldn’t fly or run fast and our sense of smell, hearing and sight are pitiful compared to many other creatures. Yet, look what we have done in and to the world in which we live. Brain power is our thing and not just our cranial capacity but the unique way that our neurological system has evolved. Our brain knows itself. Not only that, it can communicate with itself in abstract symbols. Have you ever had a thought like, “I wonder what’s for dinner”? Who said that and who heard it? This is a silly example but it reveals a very powerful tool that has allowed us to conquer the Earth (at least we believe we have, anyway). We can create models of the world around us in our head and manipulate those models. We can then communicate the models to others. That’s why we can build a sprawling metropolis and go to the moon. It’s the power to produce relativity theory and Oreo cookies. With such strength comes a weakness, however. With us it’s the tendency to believe the stories we tell ourselves. We can be convinced that our model of the world, which includes our image of ourselves, is accurate and act out of that conviction, thus creating suffering for ourselves and others. In fact, we seldom realize that we are doing this because it is so ingrained and habitual. Stress and upset are good clues that there is a discrepancy between what we believe and reality, especially when it comes to what we believe about ourselves in relationship to others. We just don’t like not knowing. We would rather invent a bad answer than have no answer at all. I don’t know what you are thinking so I make up a story based on what I believe or what I wish. “She must not like me. Look at the face she is making. Well the heck with her!” What I didn’t know was she did not sleep well last night and has a headache. But, I just started an argument and we are off to the races. One aspect of continued Zen practice is a growing awareness of this feature of human nature. We begin to see our beliefs and attachments for what they are and, within this expanded perspective, their effect on our functioning diminishes. Anger or upset may still arise, but we can be the bigger container of this moment awareness and not be led by the nose by every emotion-thought that comes along. In Zen we have a phrase, “Not knowing is most intimate”. Zen practice is about shining a light on ourselves and embracing the human nature/Buddha nature that we manifest in all of its shades and variations. Can we be just who and what we are without trying to figure it out? Can we joyously embrace our life with all its trials and tribulations? I don’t know. The Buddha said we can. It’s worth a try, don’t you think?

Ed Mushin Russel is the first Dharma heir of Genmyo Smith and resident teacher of Prairie Zen Center. For more information visit: http://www.prairiezen.org/


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