Some fifty years ago, in an essay entitled “The Unexpected Universe,” the distinguished anthropologist Loren Eiseley (1907-1977) eloquently addressed those questions. Recalling a remark by the nineteenth-century German scientist Heinrich Hertz, who believed that “knowledge of nature” would enable us to predict future events and arrange our present affairs accordingly, Eiseley contrasted Hertz’s confident outlook with that of a previous era:
Hertz’s remark seems to offer surcease from uncertainty, power contained, the universe understood, the future apprehended before its emergence. The previous Elizabethan age, by contrast, had often attached to its legal documents a humble obeisance to life’s uncertainties expressed in the phrase “by the mutability of fortune and favor.” The men of Shakespeare’s century may have known less of science, but they knew only too well what unexpected overthrow was implied in the frown of a monarch or a breath of the plague. 
Among the many resonant phrases in this passage, one in particular stands out. In speaking of a “humble obeisance to life’s uncertainties,” Eiseley evokes the courtly manners of Elizabethan England. Beyond that, he invokes an outlook as foreign to our own time as Shakespeare’s diction is to contemporary English.
For centuries the world’s great spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism included, have warned against pride and encouraged humility. Pride goeth before destruction. The meek shall inherit the earth. In classical Zen teachings, however, pride and humility are rarely discussed in terms of sin or virtue. Rather, they are understood to be the symptoms, respectively, of ignorance and awakening. “Form is emptiness, emptiness form,” the Heart Sutra tells us: the form we call the self is empty of a separate, intrinsic existence. Like a wave on the ocean or a whirlpool in a stream, the self exists, but it is no more solid than it is immutable. To be proud of that contingent self, to imagine its being apart from and superior to the stream of life, is to harbor a foolish notion and often to bring harm upon oneself and others. Yet the root cause of suffering lies not in self-pride but in what Buddhism calls a fundamental ignorance of reality. And contrariwise, the realization (through the practice of meditation) of the emptiness of self fosters a humbler view of one’s place in the world. Meditation engenders wisdom, and wisdom engenders humility.
To cultivate the wisdom of humility, of course, is not necessarily to embrace obeisance. The word obeisance, which derives from “obey” and refers to such gestures as bows and curtsies, has become rare if not archaic. And so has the concept itself, insofar as it connotes deference to a human authority. In Zen practice, a kind of obeisance is expressed through the bow known as gassho, palms pressed together, and especially through prostrations, which constitute an integral part of Zen liturgy. For many people bows present no particular problem, but even committed Zen practitioners sometimes resist the formal prostration, forehead touching the floor, which the fourteenth-century Zen master Bassui Tokusho described as “a way of horizontalizing the mast of ego in order to realize the Buddha-nature.” No less an adept than Philip Kapleau Roshi, founder of the Rochester Zen Center, described how much he resisted prostrating himself before his Japanese teacher during his first formal interview. “How that went against my grain,” he recalled, “and how I resisted it! Why should I bow down before another human being?”  Sometime later, having sensed his student’s resistance, Kapleau’s teacher explained that in performing a prostration Kaplaeu was bowing not to his teacher but to his own “Buddha-nature.” That “revelation,” Kapleau reported, resolved his dilemma. And later, as a teacher himself, he fully endorsed the practice of prostrations. “When entered into sincerely,” he contended, “[they] are a source of spiritual nourishment that everyone, awakened or not, can tap.” 
Perhaps so. But if, as denizens of a democratic, individualistic culture, we can manage to bow to our better natures, can we also bow to “life’s uncertainties”? To borrow a phrase from Alan Watts, can we embody the wisdom of insecurity?
Toward that end Zen teachings offer a practice called “not-knowing,” or, in its Korean formulation, “Don’t-know mind.” In this practice we sit still, become aware of our breathing, and repeatedly ask the question, “What is this?” followed by the statement “I don’t know.” By so doing, we cut through easy answers and habitual responses, becoming ever more intimate with the present reality. Simultaneously, we train ourselves to accept uncertainty and its attendant anxiety.
Not-knowing” is a difficult practice under any circumstances, but it is especially so when transported from the meditation hall into the uncertainties of everyday life. It is one thing to contemplate the idea of “life’s uncertainties” on the meditation cushion. It is quite another to do so while waiting for the results of a biopsy or a loved one’s MRI. Yet over time, the practice of “not-knowing” can fortify us against such crises, in the same way that a muscle can be strengthened through physical training.
“This world uncertain is,” wrote the Elizabethan poet Thomas Nashe in “A Litany in Time of Plague” (1600). For those who believe that everything happens for a reason, or that a wise and munificent deity governs the universe, the fact framed by Nashe’s line may be easier to bear. Absent such consolations, however, the line itself can be a salutary mantra. Posted above one’s desk or installed in a mobile device, it can remind us that uncertainty is an inescapable part of the human condition. In the words of the Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield, it can prompt us to “bow to what is.”
 Loren Eiseley, The Unexpected Universe (Harcourt Brace, 1969), 41.
 Philip Kapleau Roshi, The Three Pillars of Zen (Beacon, 1965), 174.
 Philip Kapleau Roshi, Zen: Merging of East and West (Anchor, 1989), 191.
 Ibid., 192.