Not Knowing

In Buddhism, we say that the root of sufferings is our fundamental ignorance or avidya, a fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world, as I wrote in the last post, not knowing the true nature of reality.

There is a flip side to “not knowing” and that is the wisdom of knowing that you know nothing. Both Zen Buddhism and Taoism place a great deal of emphasis on the value of not knowing.

There’s the famous Zen story about the student who asked a teacher, “What is the essence of Buddha-dharma?” The teacher replied, “Not attaining, not knowing.”

The Taoist sage, Lao Tzu wrote in Chapter 71 of the Tao Te Ching, “It is beneficial to know nothing. Pretending to know is a disease.”

schultzNot-knowing is not the exclusive providence of Eastern philosophy, even Western philosophers such as Rudolph Steiner have weighed in on the subject. He once said, “You are right to think you know nothing; but this is not because you are incapable but because the whole world is unable to know anything.” *

I can’t speak for Steiner but as far as Buddhism and Taoism are concerned, the purpose of a teaching like not knowing is to help us unlearn, for developing wisdom is partially a process of disabusing ourselves from the many false notions we have held all our lives. It’s letting go of our preconceived ideas and awakening to a more natural and direct understanding of how things are. Lao Tzu called this “illumination” (Ch. ming).

Of course, there is always some wiseacre who comes along, like the Tang dynasty poet Po Chu-i:

“Those who speak don’t know,
Those who know don’t speak.”
It is said that these words
Were written by Lao Tzu.
Now, if we are to accept
That Lao Tzu was one who knew,
Then why did he compose a book
Of five thousand words?

– – – – – – – – – –

* Rudolf Steiner, From Beetroot to Buddhism: Answers to Questions : Sixteen Discussions with Workers at the Goetheanum in Dornach Between 1 March and 25 June 1924, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999, 188

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