Monday, October 4, 2010

Only Don’t Know


In a conversation I had with a friend, he said, “I’m trying to figure out your mood; what your energy is doing.” (That’s California-speak for, “How you doin’?”)
Me: “Why not see what your energy is doing instead of projecting onto me?” (We have that kind of relationship.)
He: “Good idea. Here’s a better one: How about if I don’t “figure out” what either mood is? Why should I allow conditioned mind to frame and label everything, then get me to believe I know what’s going on?”
Me: “Great question!”

What followed was a lively, rather profound exploration of the relationship between what is in the moment and the multi-layered process of interpretation used by conditioned mind to set up the suffering world of “I/me/mine.”

From awareness practice we know, intellectually at least, that labels are not things. To help us see how we confuse words and concepts with the thing itself, Alan Watts offered that great image of a hungry person walking into a restaurant and eating the menu. When asked, “How are you feeling?” most people will answer with a word or words that they believe express a state of sensations/emotions. If the person says they feel anxious or depressed or afraid, we don’t actually know much of anything about what they feel. We’re meant to project our own experience of a state we call by the same label and everyone can go on pretending we know what we’re talking about. (Not hard to understand why people so often feel misunderstood.)

This habit of looking to conditioned mind to tell us about the moment we’re arising into is, of course, the source of suffering. If one is not here, right here, eyes wide open, nothing else going on as the moment arises, one has no way of realizing that all those interpretations an egocentric karmically conditioned mind are putting forth are not true. One tiny flicker of assumption, based on a word that suggests a concept designed to create an illusion, and the hapless human is light-years off into an imaginary world of made-up nonsense that will result in nothing but suffering.

Karmic conditioning is ceaselessly seeking to reinforce its own imaginary reality. In each moment it projects and the unconscious human believes. We’ve all heard those examples of the hungry person driving down the street only seeing restaurants, or the person with a near empty gas tank seeing nothing that isn’t a gas station, or the very clear, “when a pickpocket sees a saint he sees only his pockets.” What’s less obvious is that a person who is karmically predisposed to fear sees every situation as dangerous, a victim always feels mistreated, the entitled expect to be first in line, and the arrogant assume the best is their God-given right. Each of us assumes that our assumptions are reality and that what conditioned mind is presenting is accurate. But of course neither is true.

Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn was famous for using, “Only don’t know” to point people toward his “don’t know Zen.” Not knowing, knowing that we don’t know, knowing there’s nothing to know and there is no one to know it is a very helpful understanding, But just as important as the “don’t know” in this good advice is the “only.” Only. Solely and exclusively. Nothing else. Just that. Everywhere, all the time, “don’t know.” Do not think you know and do not try to know. With that focus it gets harder and harder for egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate to build and maintain a world of suffering for us. Instead of just going along with the same tired old program, we can ask, moment-by-moment, “Is that so?” “How do you know that?” “Who says so?” “What if that’s not true?” “What else is possible here?”

In gassho,


  1. Brilliant, as always, Cheri. Thank you!

  2. This is so powerful. What stands out for me is the "eating the menu" analogy (reminds me of "the map is not the territory", but more concrete) and the discussion of "only". But what stops me in my tracks is the questions you propose at the end. One of my habits is jumping in and finishing another person's sentence, assuming I know what they're about to say. Another is that I tend to look for the cloud in every silver lining. You remind me to pause before I speak, and ask, "Is that so?" Thank you!!

  3. I don't know how to take this?

    Lying down? Sitting? Standing?

    Oh, you want to know my internal reaction, huh?

    It helped me focus on the present. And that was a great present you gave me while I read your blog.

    Wish I could stay, but that monkey mind is chattering about the past and the future and I have been unable to stop feeding him.

    Except for this brief connection with you.

  4. In school we get poor grades if we answer:
    "I don't know."

    If we ask someone to marry us, they can't easily respond with: "I don't know."

    So, it takes great commitment and willingness to turn our conditioning towards: "In this way I train myself."

    A thousand times we need the reminders.
    And a thousand times we bow in profound gratitude for the ancestors who have kept the Dharma alive and well.

    And may our practice be dedicated to keeping the Dhamra alive for those who are yet to be born.