“My job as a reporter,” the late Gwen Ifill once remarked, “is not to know what I think.” Humble in spirit but incisive in content, that remark calls to mind two essential stories from the Zen tradition.
In the first, a learned university professor pays a visit to Nan-in, a renowned Zen master of the Meiji period (1868-1912), with the intention of learning more about Zen. The two men meet for tea.
Eager to impress his host, the professor holds forth at great length, demonstrating his extensive knowledge of Buddhism and expounding his personal views. Meanwhile, Nan-in pours tea into the professor’s cup. When he has filled it to the brim, he continues to pour, spilling tea all over the table.
For a time the professor ignores this distraction, but when he can bear it no longer, he exclaims, “The cup is overfull! No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in replies, “you are full of your opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Part historical record and part Zen parable, this story is instructive on at least two levels. Like many stories of its kind, it depicts an enlightened master teaching his student by hauling him down from the realm of abstract thought and into the concrete reality of the here and now. The professor has come to Nan-in to learn about Zen, but instead of listening he chooses to lecture his teacher. By mirroring the professor’s profuse outpouring, Nan-in awakens his guest to that immediate reality.
Beyond this fundamental lesson, Nan-in’s action also demonstrates how acquired knowledge can become a hindrance to clear seeing and intuitive understanding. Knowledge itself, if based in fact, is an invaluable asset. Abstract knowledge can enrich and illuminate our lives, and its practical application, in such fields as medicine, law, and clinical psychology, can alleviate suffering. But an egoistic attachment to one’s knowledge is quite another thing. It can fuel a delusive sense of superiority, moral and intellectual, and it can impede the process of selfless inquiry. By overfilling an already full cup, Nan-in alerts the professor to these hazards of his profession.
The story of Nan-in and the professor is popular in Zen circles, perhaps because Zen students and teachers can readily identify with one or both of the characters. Unfortunately, the story has sometimes been enlisted to support what Zen teacher Norman Fischer calls the strain of “romantic anti-intellectualism” in Zen teachings. In a manner more vivid than just, the story portrays the professor as Nan-in’s inferior, at least in wisdom, and it places intellectuals in general in an unflattering light. Partly as a counter to those tendencies, I would pair the story with another, complementary tale from the Zen tradition.
In this story from 9th-century China, the monk Fayan sets out on a pilgrimage in his straw hat, robe, and sandals. As he progresses on his journey, he encounters the Zen master Dizang, who asks him where he’s going.
“Around on pilgrimage,” Fayan replies.
“What is the purpose of pilgrimage?” asks Dizang.
“I don’t know,” Fayan confesses.
“Not knowing,” replies Dizang, “is the most intimate.”
As in the previous story, this exchange portrays knowledge as a potential impediment to fresh perception. To an extent we may or may not realize, we can be imprisoned by our expertise. What we know or think we know can bolster our resistance and immure us to the evidence of our senses. By contrast, an attitude of radical openness, known in Zen as “don’t-know mind,” can awaken our senses, strengthen our tolerance for uncertainty, and allow us to see things as they are.
Yet, if the theme of this story is much the same as in the first, its tone is far more affirmative. In this story the operative word is “intimate,” which suggests both close proximity and a direct, unfiltered experience of the object of knowledge. By engaging in open inquiry with a “don’t-know” mind, we not only meet that object on its own terms. We also become intimate with what Zen calls its “suchness,” whether the object be an unfamiliar sound, an unidentified bird, or a sudden, unsummoned state of mind. “Intimate” derives from a Latin root meaning “inmost.” And paradoxically, by practicing “don’t-know mind” we come to know the things of this world at a depth not obtainable by discursive analysis alone.
So far as I’m aware, Gwen Ifill was not a Zen practitioner, but in her resolve not to know what she thought about a subject until she had intimately and exhaustively explored it, she embodied the wisdom depicted in these ancient stories. Perhaps that is one reason why her early death last month was so widely and deeply mourned, and why her exemplary work as a reporter remains a beacon for her successors.
Gwen Ifill’s remark was reported by Sam Roberts in his article, “Gwen Ifill, Political Reporter and Co-Anchor of ‘PBS News Hour,’ Dies at 61,” New York Times, November 14, 2016.
“[M]aybe, as Nan-ch’uan implies, we valorize ‘not knowing,’ a kind of romantic anti-intellectualism, as the true Zen.” Norman Fischer and Susan Moon, What is Zen? (Shambhala, 2015), 126.