Monday, August 3, 2015

Knowing not.

Our hidden roots
Knowing not? Why not say “not knowing?” The first suggests it is possible to fathom nothing, whereas the second implies we don’t have clue.

If we were to conjure up a list of Buddhist giants, our list would certainly include The Buddha, Nagarjuna and Bodhidharma. The Buddha started what we know today as Buddhism, which of course is as misleading as it is to say Jesus started Christianity, or Moses starting Judaism. In the ordinary, all encompassing fashion, these people began movements that today are fractured into many different sects, none of which can possibly represent the entirety of the main body. It’s much like a tree with roots beneath the ground emanating into a trunk with many branches above ground. Rarely do we concern ourselves with the unseen roots—only one of the branches.

Often times we learn valuable lessons by way of myths about these Buddhist giants. We can’t even say for sure if, for instance, that Bodhidharma actually existed, but the tales of his life (true or not) are extremely valuable to our ordinary lives, sometimes in unexpected ways. To most people such tales seem arcane or meaningless just as this “knowing not” may appear at first glance.

One of the tales about Bodhidharma concerns his meeting with Emperor Wu of the Chinese Liang Dynasty during the 5th century. The emperor had built many Buddhist monuments when he met Bodhidharma and expected to receive an equal number of accolades from Bodhidharma. Instead Bodhidharma told the emperor none of his work deserved any merit at all. Why? Because Bodhidharma was expressing a fundamental truth: All of temporal life is fleeting. It comes and it goes. Nothing temporal has lasting value.

The emperor was quite perturbed and in a huff asked two questions of Bodhidharma and got two more unexpected answers. First he asked, “What is the first principle of the holy teachings?” “Bodhidharma replied, ‘Vast emptiness, nothing holy.’” Then the emperor asked, “Who is standing before me?” Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.”

“Vast emptiness, nothing holy,” and “I don’t know.” Knowing not, or not knowing? In a curious way, the answers Bodhidharma gave are the same, even though they seem very different. How so? How about we make some word substitutes and instead of using the word “emptiness” we use the word “unconditional.” Would that clarify matters? It might except for this word “vast.” And this “nothing holy” might just as well be called “nothing unholy,” since without conditions neither holy nor unholy has any meaning—emptiness/unconditional can’t be articulated just as none of us can really define our inherent true nature. That too is “knowing not.” Only this “not,” while being incomprehensible, can only be experienced, never articulated.

What we think we know of ourselves is a shadow: an unreal mirage which we call “ego,” and an ego appears to us as what we think of ourselves. It is a complete, perceptible fabrication that is very convincing, and being perceptible gives us a clue. To observe or perceive anything requires one who perceives, yet is in itself imperceptible, without form or any dimension conceivable.  Yet it must exist or nothing could be perceived, just like a blind man, without vision, can never see anything objectively delineated.


Unfortunately our ego is the source of all suffering. This imaginary non-being is, as Zen Master  Hakuin Ekaku said, “The cause of our sorrow is ego delusion.” It is a mask that hides our true nature, which is pure, complete, joyous and beyond suffering. In truth all of us are in a state of knowing not and the only way to vanquish suffering is to penetrate through the mask that blinds us. How to? The answer is here.
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