Jundo Cohen - Treeleaf Zendo

“I Don’t Know Mind” – Jundo Cohen

A friend asked about “Don’t Know” mind. Rather than admit honestly that I don’t know, I said this about the several (yet same) meanings of “Don’t Know” in Zen. Don’t know if I should post it, so I will.


Here’s what I know (not) about “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know” can have two or three very different faces in Zen meaning. It is vital for us to know all of them, and all are cherished in our Zen practice. They are very different, yet each is a face of the same “Don’t Know” no-sided coin. (When someone like the Son teacher Seung Sahn assigned the Koan to his Koan Introspection Zazen folks, “Only Don’t Know,” he meant all of these ways too I believe.)

First is something like “I don’t know, and that’s okay.” Tomorrow I have a cancer follow-up, next week a meteor might fall on my house, the political situation could get worse, I could win a beauty contest next week or the lottery … I don’t know what will be, and that’s okay. Just get on with it, what will be will be, chop wood and fetch water.

Next, there are certain “big questions” that even the Buddha did not seem to know because he was human (some Buddhists think he knew and just did not want to say, but I think he really did not know any more than a living being can, and when he did say perhaps he was guessing too). Where do we “go” when we die, where did the universe come from, is time finite or infinite, etc. The Buddha often refused to answer such questions as not central to his main focus (and, when he did, he often just adopted the perspectives of people in iron age India, 2500 years ago). A human being cannot exactly know while alive any more than an ant can understand the geology of a mountain it walks across, or a bird can understand the principles of aerodynamics which keep it aloft, or a dog the nature of the fire plug it pisses on. One might say that they and we just have brains too small, but I say … just walk walk walk, fly fly fly, piss piss piss. Try not to walk off a cliff or piss on your own foot.

HOWEVER. “I don’t know” also has another, very special meaning in Zen, such as in the legendary story of Bodhidharma’s response to the Emperor when asked, “”Who are you?” Bodhidharma responded “I don’t know.” In fact, Bodhidharma was not addled. This “I don’t know” means that Bodhidharma actually KNEW (Grocked, to use SF writer Robert Heinlein’s word) in a way beyond “I” and some separate object to “be known.” Thus, as we drop from mind divided subject/object knowing, there is only some “Knowing.” The self/other divide is stepped through. Then, by the way, a funny thing also happens, and some “answers” are presented to some of those “big questions” about the universe (which “universe” turns out not to be anything apart or other than the “original” face of that “I” too). Past and future aside, the universe constantly “comes from” right here, as you are this and this is you always. There is an aspect that is not about “going” or “coming” or “birth” and “death” because there is an aspect never left, so no need to “return.” There is something about this reality, although we can only subtly sense it, beyond coming and going, beginnings and endings and time’s flow, etc. All is somehow precious and shining too, as is every atom, you and me of the whole shebang. There is no place to fall even when we fall, and our flying and pissing is the whole world flying and pissing.

It is much like a sailor who, although not knowing the full bounds of the great ocean, every inch of coast, tomorrow’s weather, where the ocean comes from or goes, can nonetheless taste the “Whole Ocean” by just dipping his finger in the waters where he sails and tasting the brine right here. This is Whole Ocean, it comes and goes from here, and the sailor is also just the sea all along. He may not clearly know the start of the voyage or the destination, but please sail sail sail from right here, avoiding the rocks and shoals as one can. Something like that. Dogen wrote in Shobogenzo-Zenki (The Whole Works) …

“Life is like a person in a boat. Aboard the boat, one uses a sail, holds a tiller, poles the boat along. Yet the boat carries you and without the boat you are not there. Riding the boat is what makes it a boat. You must study and penetrate this very moment. In this moment, the whole world is this boat. Thus “life” is what I live and “I” is life living me. Getting aboard the boat, this bodymind and all that is around are all the complete activity of the boat. Both the whole world and the vast sky are the boat’s complete activity. This I that lives and the life that is I is just like this.”

All of the above are true at once, good and wise meanings of “don’t know.” All sides of the same no sided coin.

But, then again, what the heck do “I” know? 🙄

Gassho, J

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