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Barbara O'Brien

Not Knowing

By March 19, 2012

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I really love this quote from Dosho Port:

"When we come to practice we don't know what we don't know. After a while, the ego mask starts to crack and we begin to know what we don't know. With some diligent practice, we might have a break through and for a moment or so know what we know. And if we continue with this wondrous work, we might stumble back to not knowing what we don't know."

If this seems discouraging, Dosho says this process can be like a spiral, in which one never returns to the same place.

"Not knowing what we don't know" means that we accept conventional views as all there is to "reality." I would argue that the path of the Buddha begins with the acknowledgment that our conventional views are not all there is to reality. We perceive there's something we don't understand, and we accept that this something cannot be understood by intellect alone.

The Web is well infested with people who fancy themselves to be experts on Buddhism because of their superior intellectual understanding. But most of the time, these "experts" are people who don't know what they don't know. And because their cups are full of certainty, they are unlikely to continue on any kind of path.

IMO the biggest advantage of working with a teacher is that a good teacher will pull rugs out from under you whenever you feel satisfied with concepts and theories.

On the other hand, Dosho says, "Some of us tend to cling to this beginning movement as if the idea 'I don't know' is all there is to practice. That's a sad thing." Perhaps the assumption that there is nothing to be realized or clarified is another kind of certainty.

Possibly the greatest strength of Rinzai Zen and koan contemplation is that it doesn't let you hide in a self-satisfied fog. But any good teacher of any tradition will challenge your understanding.

March 19, 2012 at 4:18 pm
(1) Mumon says:

If you are aware you’re in a state of not knowing that you don’t know, you’re ahead of being in the state of not knowing that you don’t know that you don’t know.

I should quit now before Donald Rumsfeld makes an appearance.

Seriously, though on days when one realizes there’s something that is known or realized, one should also inquire to find out what’s still not known or realized.

March 20, 2012 at 10:34 am
(2) Mila says:

I also really appreciate that quote, and like the image of a spiraling dance, between knowing and not-knowing …. & how ego can appropriate either position, to fortify itself: an egoic me “not-knowing” is just as much a problem as an egoic me “knowing,” ha!

Which is why I also appreciated the reminder of the importance of a teacher and embodied practice-community:

“If we practice alone, we might not have the great opportunity of discovering how stupid we really are. And if we only have the limited range of sense input offered in cyberspace, we might also use our practice to shore up the walls of defense.”

The internet is a fantastic resource, allowing for valuable connections of all sorts …. but at certain points it really can’t replace face-to-face interaction with someone able to know/not-know more clearly than we’re able to, at the moment …. :)

March 22, 2012 at 4:46 pm
(3) 'J.A.' says:

Not to be aware of it is also a sort of awareness, knowledge, Barb, one that I certainly give into no idea, whatsoever, never forgive myself that I can hide from you, ‘cos it’s apart from your honest attitude also your right
that you can, why, admit, what you DON’T know, to fear it is natural enough, which, however, means that even your no knowledge can help you be the receiver of the relevant fact that what, you don’t know, can even exist as someone else’s knowledge, the one you will certainly & by
eye find out, e.g. about the good idea that the more, you ask, the more you suddenly know, instead of ignoring it, so I can find out & so on, greetings, ‘J.A.,’ guitartie@yahoo.ie.

March 23, 2012 at 10:59 am
(4) George Deane says:

I have long thought that prior to being a Buddhist or the practitioner of any other religion one must have a spiritual attitude toward life. Having a spiritual attitude implies, among other things, that there is an ineffable level of reality well beyond the grasp of immediate sense data which infiltrates us and which we can only intuit by some “mysterious”, process. .It becomes available to us only through experience. We can only be sensitive to such a reality. We cannot “know” it. We initiate this experience by diminishing our ego consciousness and becoming aware of a reality well beyond its limitations.

March 23, 2012 at 11:08 am
(5) JohnEAngel says:

what is there to know but one’s true self?

March 23, 2012 at 11:12 am
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

what is there to know but one’s true self?

Ah, but what is that?

March 25, 2012 at 4:51 am
(7) safwan says:

I think the ultimate knowledge is to know ones true self.

True Self is ones inner identity based on the Truth, that is: or based on the Buddhist Dharma and its teachings of interconnectedness, harmony with the universal life – a knowledge leading to security, meaning in life and happiness.

Ignorance of this identity produces illusory-self, based on separation, ego, wrong attachments. It is also called the Lesser Self: a superficially acquired concept of ones limited identity, defined by birth, gender, ethnic circumstances. This Lesser Self can be seen as a tip of an iceberg of ones Greater self (or the True Self) knowing that one’s existence here is as a human being is a manifestation of the universal life, empowered with compassion, wisdom and action to help living beings. No other knowledge is more purposeful.

March 25, 2012 at 10:18 am
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

True Self is one’s inner identity based on the Truth, that is: or based on the Buddhist Dharma and its teachings of interconnectedness, harmony with the universal life – a knowledge leading to security, meaning in life and happiness.

Hmm, “True Self is one’s inner identity based on the Truth” is not exactly what Buddhism teaches about the self, but this may be just a matter of how we’re defining words.

First, take care about the word “knowledge.” Buddhists generally use “wisdom,” and knowledge and wisdom are not the same thing. Generally “knowledge” is about information, or that which can be grasped conceptually. Wisdom is about direct insight gained through experience. In Buddhism, it’s not so much about changing what we understand but how we understand. When we change how we understand that also affects what we understand, of course, but the how has to come first to get the what right.

Also — although the conventional self is a kind of illusion, take care about thinking in terms of a “true” and a “false” self. In Mahayana we speak of the two truths, which are conventional (or relative) and absolute. The relative identity of things is not “false,” it’s just not the absolute truth. Some people speak of conventional and absolute in terms of the “small self” and the “big self,” which is a big improvement over “false” and “true,” but IMO “conventional” (or “relative”) and “absolute” are closer.

The “lesser” or conventional self is not a little portion of the “greater” or absolute self. The enlightened say that all of the greater is present in the lesser. For that reason, designations that suggest some kind of relative size can throw us off. Language is full of traps that we all fall into sometimes.

Now, back to “inner identity” — “inner identity” is way off. First, “inner” and “outer” is not a useful way to conceptualize self. I speak from experience on that point. If you ever catch yourself thinking in terms of inner and outer self, just stop. Or visualize a field of referee – bodhisattvas waving penalty flags and blowing whistles, to remind you to not conceptualize inner and outer identities.

Second, “identity” is a problematic word. Whose “identity”? All designations are relative and arbitrary; identities are taken relative to other identities. In the absolute, there are no distinctions. The nature of “identity” is an extremely critical point that needs clarifying.

March 25, 2012 at 4:55 am
(9) safwan says:

Obviously, there is no knowledge apart from the mind.

Whatever the subject of knowledge is, knowledge originates in the mind.

If the mind is enlightened (to the truth – or to the universal dharma of Cause and Effect) then it can reflect the true nature of reality – in its journey, and whatever the mind encounters in life will acquire the true meaning.

March 25, 2012 at 10:58 am
(10) Barbara O'Brien says:

Obviously, there is no knowledge apart from the mind.

What is mind?

March 25, 2012 at 10:15 pm
(11) safwan says:

“Know Thyself”.


March 25, 2012 at 10:29 pm
(12) Barbara O'Brien says:

“Know Thyself.”

That’s fine, but who is the knower? This is critical. If the self is an illusion, who is it that knows? And what is mind?

Famous story about Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen:

Hui-k’o, who would be the Second Patriarch of Ch’an, stood in the snow outside the cave. To show Bodhidharma his sincerity to learn the Dharma, Hui-k’o cut off his arm and said, “Your disciple’s mind has no peace as yet. Master, please, put it to rest.” Bodhidharma said, “Bring me your mind, and I will put it to rest.” Hui-k’o said, “I have searched for my mind, but I cannot find it.” Bodhidharma said, “I have completely put it to rest for you.”

Do you see what’s going on in the story?

March 26, 2012 at 7:57 am
(13) safwan says:

Good point: who is the knower.
When Barbara asked: “What is Mind”, then it was “Barbara’s mind” asking “what is the mind”. It is the wonderful question of the Mind willing to know itself.

To see one’s physical appearance, one needs a mirror. But how to see one’s mind? Meditation and chanting are tools for “Observing the Mind and finding the Ten Worlds within”.To observe the mind is to reach the highest level of awareness.

The concept of The Nine Consciousnesses
presents the Mind as interrelated multiple layers starting with the simple 5 senses and thinking, then the Ego consciousness (Mano), the Subconsciousness (Alaya) and finally Enilghtenment (Amala) or Buddhahood (as a potential realm existing in all people).

The 5 or 6 sensations encode for a living being the surrounding world – and aid in survival, but it is the Mano or Ego mind which generates abstract beliefs, concepts , current modelling (of what life is, personality…etc…) and the illusion of individual self. This is the Questioner: “who is me?” And this level of mind cannot understand itself because it is affected by a deeper level of subconscioiusness: the Store House of Karma (Alaya).

Enlightenment (to the reality of existence of both body and mind) is the Mind of joy and wisdom – and it is reached at the Amala Consciousness, This is the self-less mind of Buddhhood, the oneness of the microcosm (individual) and the macrocosm (the Cosmic Life, or the Universal Dharma). This is the TrueSelf, detached from illusions and ego, and it is the universal mind whch has never known birth or death.

” Master of Secrets: What is the meaning of Enlightenment? It is to understand one’s own mind as it truly is”. Mahavariochana Sutra.

March 26, 2012 at 9:07 am
(14) Barbara O'Brien says:

“What is Mind”, then it was “Barbara’s mind” asking “what is the mind”.

Not my mind, no. It’s an ancient question. There are several Zen koans that ask, “what is mind”? Also, be aware that the English word “mind” is kind of a red herring, because the way most of us who are cultural westerners think of “mind” is not precisely what the Buddha meant by it. Also some Asian languages have words for diverse states/phenomena that all get translated as “mind,” and many distinctions are lost in translation. So it’s important to not know what mind is. Empty your cup of all assumptions.

In Buddhism, mind is not brain. Sometimes “mind” refers to an individual, but some senses of the word “mind” cannot be assigned to individuals — not my mind, not your mind, just mind. Again, in Asian languages different words are used to express this, but in English we’ve only got “mind.”

In the case of Hui-k’o, Bodhidharma’s question showed Hui-k’o that the “mind” that tormented him was an illusion. The detail about his arm is an expression of his commitment to find an answer, but it is irrelevant to the question; we’re not talking about the nervous system here.

I’m pushing you here because you seem to have developed some “hard” concepts about the nature of mind that are pulling you off center. In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know. Practice not knowing for a while and stop generating concepts to explain things. Just be open, and let mind reveal itself.

The book you linked to says,

The same sutra also says: “Master of Secrets, these men in this way cast aside the concept of non-self and came to realize that the mind exists in a realm of complete freedom, and that the individual mind has from the beginning never known birth [or death].”

It also says: “Emptiness is by nature removed from the sense organs and their objects. It has no form or boundaries; beyond any futile theory, it is equal to space. It represents the ultimate in the absence of individual nature.

Sorta kinda what I’m trying to say here. But the phrase “the individual mind has from the beginning never known birth [or death]” is tricky. “Individual” mind seems out of place, and I’d be curious to know if the translation is accurate. On the other hand, the writer might have been trying to make a point about the oneness of absolute and relative, nirvana and samsara, form and emptiness.

March 26, 2012 at 8:13 am
(15) safwan says:

No matter how we tell Hui-ko that the teaching of No-Mind is the solution to “peace of Mind” – messy as it is,

if his arm is bleeding and the nerves are sending signals to the brain evoking pain and danger of losing blood, the No-Mind philosophy will not work.

For me, Bodhidharma is a metaphor for escapism from reality: spending 9 years wall gazing – whether it happened or not – is not something I would treasure as an achievement.

March 26, 2012 at 10:28 pm
(16) safwan says:

Barbara : the way you turn a dialogue about mind into a lecture, assuming the chair of a supremely knowledgeable master – successfully manifest the spirit of no-Mind.

March 27, 2012 at 2:56 pm
(17) Barbara O'Brien says:

the way you turn a dialogue about mind into a lecture, assuming the chair of a supremely knowledgeable master – successfully manifest the spirit of no-Mind.

I’m not a supremely knowledgeable master. Some stuff I see, some stuff I don’t see. I’m just trying to give you a nudge. Not knowing, or halting the mental habit of forming ideas about stuff, is a really excellent practice that I advocate. Ideas, even very nice ideas, get in the way of realization. Don’t try to figure it out. Just be open. It will reveal itself when you least expect it.

March 27, 2012 at 9:15 pm
(18) safwan says:

You say to me:

“Just be open. It will reveal itself when you least expect it”.

And I say that your comment applies also to you.

Perhaps there was a reason why you were attracted to the
subject of “Not Knowing”.

March 27, 2012 at 10:42 pm
(19) Barbara O'Brien says:

And I say that your comment applies also to you.

It applies to all of us. In the future do try not to be such a snot to people who are trying to help you.

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