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Barbara O'Brien

Neither Knowing Nor Not-Knowing

By September 21, 2012

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We're looking at the Zen koan "Ordinary Mind Is the Tao." If you missed the first two installments, please start with "Ordinary Mind" and then read "Directing Ourselves."

The koan thus far: The monk Zhaozhou asked his teacher, Nanquan, "What is the Tao?"  Nanquan said, "Ordinary mind is the Tao."

Then Zhaozhou said, "Should we direct ourselves toward it, or not?" And Nanquan said, "If you try to direct yourself toward it, you go away from it."

Zhaozhou asked, "If we do not try, how do we know that  it is Tao?"  Here is Nanquan's response:

"Tao does not belong to knowing or to not-knowing. Knowing is illusion; not-knowing is blankness. If you really attain to Tao of no-doubt, it is like the great void, so vast and boundless. How, then, can there be right or wrong in the Tao?"

Here the main case of the koan concludes, "With these words, Zhaozhou was enlightened." We've still got Mumon's commentary and the lovely capping verse, but we'll look at those in another post.

I've not worked on this koan formally, using Rinzai koan contemplation, but I suspect the quote above is the part Rinzai students must present to the teacher to demonstrate mastery of the koan. This is not simple, but it's so Zen.

If you are feeling frustrated because what Nanquan says makes no sense, don't feel bad. After years as a Zen student I doubt I could present this koan to any teacher's satisfaction without putting in a lot more time on it, either. But please understand that frustration is part of the process. Koans challenge you to step outside of your conventional way of understanding things. If they don't frustrate you when you first hear or read them, they aren't doing their job.

In his commentary on this koan, Zenkei Shibayama Roshi wrote,

"In the Japanese language, the word for Tao is michi, which has the meaning of 'abounding.' When it is abundant everywhere, how can it be sought after? The seeking mind itself is already the sought-after Tao. If we try to know it, it turns out to be a relativistic objective and ceases to be the Reality. It is therefore said, 'Tao does not belong to knowing or to not-knowing.' What is known is only a conceptual shadow of the Reality. If, however, it is not known at all, it is dead blankness. Cast away all the discriminating consciousness and attain to the Tao of no-doubt. It will then be like the great void, so vast and boundless. There is no room for discrimination to enter here."

How can we neither know nor not-know? Zennies sometimes talk of "getting out of my head," meaning to stop considering one's brain as the only means of knowing. Zen teachers often speak of knowing with "whole body and mind." The realization of enlightenment is described as "body and mind fallen away."

Some Soto Zen teachers describe zazen, Zen meditation, as "body practice." In zazen, the body is not just something we're using to support our almighty brain. When you sit zazen, your elbows sit zazen; your feet sit zazen; your hands and back and knees sit zazen (sometimes uncomfortably). Yeah, the head is sitting zazen, too, but it's not more important than the rest of the parts.

The late John Daido Loori said,

"When the mind moves, heaven and hell are separated. Good and bad, up and down, subject and object are separated. When the mind stops moving, the ten thousand things return to the self, where they have always been. That is what it means to see with the whole body and mind, hear with the whole body and mind, feel with the whole body and mind, and understand intimately. Intimacy means no separation, not two. The hearer and the thing heard are one reality."

This takes us back to not directing ourselves toward it. We "know" things by prodding at them with our thoughts, trying to figure them out. But this neither knowing nor not-knowing happens when we stop prodding.

What about kensho? Koun Yamada Roshi, a Rinzai Zen teacher, said, "Until we realize the Way by satori we cannot help but be agonized by our own delusions. It is like binding ourselves with rope. To free ourselves from the agonies of the dualistic world, we must forget ourselves in samadhi at least once in our lives."

That's the Rinzai perspective; Soto Zen teaches that realization can happen so gradually and subtly we may not be aware of it, and the Big Bang of satori isn't necessary. Realization that one doesn't notice makes no sense, I guess. But once in a while I'll hear someone ask a question or make a comment from a conventional perspective, and I'll suddenly become aware that, oh! I don't understand it that way any more! So, yes, realization can be gradual and subtle.

By the same token, appreciating "Tao does not belong to knowing or to not-knowing" takes practice. Don't try to figure it out. Be still, and let it explain itself.

Next time, we'll look at the Tao of no-doubt and Zhaozhou's enlightenment.

September 22, 2012 at 11:25 am
(1) Mila says:

The final line of Nanquan’s response — “How, then, can there be right or wrong in the Tao?” — brought to mind this poem by the (enlightened?) Sufi mystic, Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase
each other
doesn’t make any sense.

And John Daido Loori’s statement that — “Intimacy means no separation, not two. The hearer and the thing heard are one reality” — resonates with the Mahamudra practice of Tibetan Buddhism, to realize no-object, no-subject, no-action.

So for instance the “hearer” and the “thing-heard” and the “act-of-hearing” are understood as dependently-arisen — To hold any one of the three as having an independent existence is to be caught within a conceptual sphere — a cognitive obscuration.

September 22, 2012 at 1:37 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

That’s one of my favorite Rumi poems, Mila. :-)

September 28, 2012 at 1:51 pm
(3) Joram Arentved says:

P.S.: By MY eye the answer to knowing, not-knowing, is being, a relevant ‘alternative’ that I at least don’t feel that I can fail to believe in, greetings, ‘J.A.’

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