Freed from knowing.

This was a Dharma talk given by Christopher Kakuyo Sensei at the SLBF 1/6/ 2019

I would like to start today’s Dharma talk with one of the most famous of the Zen Koans –

Attention! Master Dizang asks Fayan,

 “Where have you come from?”

Fayan replies “I pilgrimage aimlessly,”

“What is the purpose of your pilgrimage?” asks Dizang.

“I don’t know,” replies Fayan.

“Not knowing is the most intimate,” remarked Dizang.

At that, Fayan experiences great enlightenment.

“The Book of Equanimity.”  Case 20

Not knowing is the most intimate. This line is the heart of Zen teaching and as Zoketsu Norman Fischer the once Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center has said, and the central point of many teachers practice.  So what does this mean?

Traditionally Koans are riddles that have you discover an answer beyond simple rational and logical thinking – what we are going to share today is not that, I am not sharing some special awakened insight, but share with you my “studentship” my trying to see how I can apply this to my life.  How I can make sense of not knowing to be the most intimate aspect of everyday life – first I want to look at what it means to be intimate with someone or something.

So what does it mean to be intimate?  

The origin of intimate is from the Latin intimus “inmost, innermost, deepest”  also from  intimatus which means ,”closely acquainted, very familiar,” also “inmost, intrinsic.”

That which is intimate is that which is closest to us, and how close? The deepest, innermost part of ourselves and our experiences – that which is intimate is that with which we are very familiar and closely acquainted.  

I think also implied in intimacy is a certain level, a certain willingness to be vulnerable.  As I have shared during past dharma talks, because of disappointment, suffering and emotional exhaustion many of us live our lives in our own self-imposed solitary confinement – we walk around but on the inside,  we are securely locked in our solitary cell and to come out and be intimate with life means to be vulnerable again and take the chance of being hurt. That can be terrifying.  But as the writer Richard Back has written, “The opposite of loneliness is not togetherness, It’s intimacy”

What are some of the things that get in the way of intimacy?

According to Dizang knowing – gets in the way of intimacy.

How does “knowing” get in the way of intimacy?

This kind of knowing is can also be called the trap of knowing.

What do you think is meant by the trap of knowing?

Part of being human in a constantly changing and dynamic world is that we endlessly and hopelessly seek out certainty. We want security- but we go about seeking it in a world that can’t give us the fixed, stable and unchanging security that the small ego-self is constantly trying to create.

Because of this, certainty is prioritized above all other things. Just observe your mind when interacting with your friends, family, and lovers. We know with certainty their motives, thoughts, and feelings – I do it and it’s funny how we are oh so willing to share that knowledge with whoever will listen. Candace only does that because she has always X or my dad only did that because he feels guilty for Y.  This is even more apparent in polarized times like ours. If I “think” (code word for know) that ALL Republicans are deep down fascists or that all Democrats are deep down socialists my “knowing” is getting in the way. This may sound overly simplistic but if we think this even a little, it keeps us from spending time, interacting or getting to know the “other”. In rapidly changing times there is a reactive move toward fundamentalism, in religion, and politics. When people are afraid and insecure they will attach to any certainty they can find.

I appreciate this quote from Mika Korhonen. where she writes that knowing is one of the most pernicious of mental traps.

“In the state of ‘knowing’, we feel satisfied. It is like a complete puzzle with no pieces missing. We go around and ask questions until all the gaps are filled. If there are no pieces missing anymore then there is no reason to go searching!” 


I know therefore I am done thinking, I am done asking questions, I am done learning. The knowing we are talking about here is the kind of knowledge that gets in the way of intimacy with others, with ourselves, with our lives and our practice. The path to intimacy isn’t knowledge but the invitation that comes from asking a question to understand another to understand ourselves in relation to reality as it is.

The only way we can get know someone, or get to know our lives is to start with I don’t know. For years I told the story of my father – in all its unflattering details – but I realized that I had no idea who my father was and is and still don’t because true knowledge comes from being willing to see the other beyond our stories of who they are and our willingness to ask.

I don’t know also applies to our practice. When we think we Know with a capital K what mediation is, what Buddhism is, what awakening is, even who we are, we are cutting ourselves off from what these really are and by so doing we keep them from manifesting in our lives naturally, unhindered by our silly meddling. But then again,

I don’t know  – 

Maybe that is what Dizang mean when he said to Fayan, “Not knowing is the most intimate.”  

When think we know, we do not know as much as we are convinced for as Socrates taught,

“To know is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” –Socrates

And I love this quote from Daniel J Boorstin,

“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Daniel J Boorstin, 1984 January 29, The Washington Post, 

This ‘not knowing” is I am referring to is not confusion or paralyzing doubt. When I say, “I don’t know,” I am talking in the spirit of openness and curiosity as in, “I don’t know! Let’s find out!” or “Let’s keep going and see what happens,” it is the ‘not knowing” of faith. It’s the “not knowing” that comes after being defeated time and time again as Josh Bartok from Boundless Way Zen writes  

Defeated by our lives, defeated by our minds, defeated by our spiritual practice. This then unfolds into a really profound – and profoundly uncomfortable – not knowing. This not-knowing then gives way to a kind of receiving, a receiving of just this, of this moment as it is, a receiving … a receiving of Amida Buddha’s compassion. And a receiving of ourselves.


Intimacy and receiving are woven together. It is impossible to have one without the other.

We can also look at not knowing as the not knowing of  Suzuki Roshi’s Beginners Mind,  in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,

 “With beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, in the expert mind there are few.” Beginner’s mind is the essence of not knowing”

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind –Shunryu Suzuki 1970

It’s embracing the joy of unlearning what we thought we knew about ourselves and others as Gareth Young from Red Clay Sangha has written,

I am finding that I am unlearning more every day and am more aware of each person I meet as a beautiful, radiant manifestation of the same reality that manifests me, not different and not the same.

Not Knowing Is Most Intimate – 02 Sep 2012 – Red Clay Sangha – Atlanta

Ahh and here is intimacy manifest – contemplation, mediation and mindfulness are doors to intimacy not just with ourselves but with the world around us.  I love this from A Hillman,

The more we tune to our core, the more our boundaries widen and melt. We begin to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. We let go our hold on what we think we know and tremble as the energy of the unknown rises within us. We stumble on the lair of a wild creature in our bowels. Our kinship with the grasses and hills grows, and beasts of the forest and soaring birds of prey acknowledge their counterpart in us. The whole world enters as if through our pores, shining threads of light spun across chasms of separateness.

Love coheres. It is an energy that unites. Love joins us to the mysterious dimension of the One. This intimate communion leaves us wide open and exquisitely sensitive to Presence—inside, outside.

Taking Root: An Unbroken Intimacy with Life – Kosmos Quarterly Winter 2012

I have printed this up and laid it on my meditation cushion –

As Dogen taught “Enlightenment is intimacy with all things”  and not knowing is how we open ourselves up to intimacy.

So how can we cultivate the non-dual spirit of “I don’t know”? The first thing is to simply be willing not to know, to let go of the knowing. I have found the world is lighter when I am free of having to know, I am more patient, less stressed, open.

Here are two concrete things we can do to cultivate the not knowing.

First, there is a good practice suggested by Buddhist teacher, Gil Fronsdal, is to attach “I don’t know” to as many thoughts as possible. For example, when thoughts arise like, this is good, or this is bad, or I can’t handle this; these become, I don’t know if this is good or I don’t know if this is bad or I don’t know if I can’t handle this. As he says, “the phrase “I don’t know” questions the authority of everything we think.” It allows us to be free of fixed ideas; it can create curiosity and allows openness to creativity.” He goes on to say that this simple phrase can help us challenge tightly held beliefs and can “pull the rug out from under our most cherished beliefs.” Not knowing opens the world to us, it makes way for us to be compassionate, patient, kind, honest and help cultivate equanimity.

The last thing that we can do to cultivate the essence of “I don’t know” is bowing. James Ishmael Ford has written about not knowing and how it relates to the act of bowing.

“Not knowing. That is the ancient spiritual practice of bowing in a nutshell. The bow, I suggest, can open our hearts, can take us places we never dreamed of, to a tangible, transformative, endless world of possibility called not knowing. I want to underscore: this not knowing has endless creative possibilities. To throw in another metaphor, one or two just aren’t enough for this place.  The moment we surrender to not knowing, when we bow to life: we discover a well that apparently is bottomless, bubbling with life-giving waters.”

NOT KNOWING IS MOST INTIMATEReflecting on Bowing as a Way of Life

I raise my hands in gassho and bow to each of you. May we know enough to ask questions but not need the answer, may we each find the courage to let go and invite all of our lives to come as they are. May we free ourselves from the need to know. May we embody the spirit of ” I don’t know and may we be like Fayan and in our not knowing experience great enlightenment.

Namu Amida Butsu.

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