When we begin with the understanding that we are talking about things that can’t be talked about, there are some comforts and discomforts that arise. While it is more comfortable to relinquish some of our feeling of responsibility for “getting it just right,” this also requires us to feed our discomfort with not knowing. More on that later.
It also requires us to be humble. Now, I know that some so-called Zen Masters of the past really promoted what they called “Don’t Know Mind.” I don’t know a lot about those guys, because they’re just not in my Tradition. I have, however, seen some of their disciples using the words, “Don’t know,” as if they were some kind of skeleton key or ‘Get out of jail free’ card. I was reading a magazine someone gave me and it included a transcript of a ‘dharma combat,’ (I think those folks renamed them ‘dharma encounters’ in order to be less offensive.) This was their attempt at creating something that is a cross between the encounters reported by the koan collections and an accomplishment-minded sanzen(1).
The end result was a kind of embarassing dialogue that involved a lot of clever repartee, some Zen-sounding aphorisms, and always seemed to conclude with the person who was supposed to be proving something or other saying, “Don’t know,” as if that settled the matter.
It is probably a good thing that one of the old masters wasn’t present, because I can hear them saying, “Then how will you help others?” and probably bopping them on the head with a stick.
My point in this is: just saying that you don’t know something is easy, and frankly, it rings hollow to everyone around if you don’t embrace the full experience of not knowing. That’s a lot harder than saying the empty words as a sort of cop-out. The transcripts (and videos if you are YouTube savvy) are just saturated with the farthest thing from humility. See for yourself.
Actually leaning into the direct experience of not knowing and coming face-to-face with what you don’t know is not something that puffs up. It both produces and requires humility.
So, beyond simply saying the words that we are going to talk about things that can’t be talked about, and beyond simply saying the words, “Don’t know,” there is the humility that allows us to empathize with each other. We’re all desperately trying to talk about something impossible. We’re all desperately trying to experience something real, but unknowable.
My second master liked to say, foul-mouthed old man that he was: “Just shut up. It’s effing ineffable!” When you hit that point, you’ll know right away whether the people at the table with you are okay. If, having shut up, there is a companionable silence, then you should proceed. If there is bristling and shifting in seats, you should probably just take your show on the road.
That companionable silence is the result of a lot of people sitting around, trying to remain open to something direct but unknowable. In my experience, it feels like a bunch of folks gathered around a campfire. If you were to break the silence and ask someone to describe the feel of the fire’s light on their hair, you’d probably get an answer a lot like you’ll get from the buddhists at the table with you.
It’ll be fun. Pull out a guitar and strum some chords and set their answer to music. That’s pretty much what this is all about.
(1) Sanzen is a formal, ritualized private meeting between a master and someone else, usually a student. In the Rinzai tradition, this became an opportunity for the student to test his or her realization and receive feedback from the master.