Posts Tagged ‘not-knowing’

gwen-ifill-the-dalai-lama“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?” (more…)

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Of what may we be certain? In the vast cosmos, as in our circumscribed private lives, what is predictable and what is not? Between the expected and the unexpected, where does the balance lie?

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. [1]

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. (more…)

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According to the fifth-century Indian sage Bodhidharma, one of the founders of the Zen tradition, Zen is a mode of inquiry “not dependent on words and letters.” It is a practice of direct seeing, based on direct experience. Language in general and conceptual language in particular can come between our minds and the realities of this world. We can mistake the word moon for the moon itself.

Yet, as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, author of more than sixty books, affirms, “Writing is a practice of looking deeply.”* Through the act of writing, as through the practice of meditation, we can become intimate with our lives. We can stop and look deeply into what is occurring, and as the poet Eavan Boland once put it, we can fully “experience our experience.”  In these ways, as in many others, the parallel practices of meditative inquiry and meditative writing share a common purpose. And in the works of the greatest contemplative writers—Thomas Merton, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop, Matsuo Basho, to name a few—the two practices are so closely allied as to be one and the same.

That is certainly true of the Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney (b. 1939), whose poems and essays bear the marks of a meditative temperament. And in his poem “Personal Helicon,” he offers an illuminating metaphor for the process of “looking deeply,” even as his poem enacts that process.

The title of Heaney’s poem alludes to Mount Helicon, the sanctuary of the Muses in Greek mythology. By association, it also alludes to the Hippocrene spring, the legendary source of poetic inspiration, which was situated on Mount Helicon. Yet at first glance the poem appears to be a fond sketch of childhood, set in rural County Derry and centering on the poet’s early fascination with wells. “They could not keep me from wells,” Heaney declares in his opening stanza. “I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells / Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.” In subsequent stanzas, he recalls particular wells in the Northern Irish countryside, including one “so deep you saw no reflection in it,” and a shallow well in a ditch, which “fructified like any aquarium.”

In his closing stanzas, however, Heaney turns from fond reminiscence to mature reflection on his life’s work:

Others had echoes, gave back your own call

With a clean new music in it. And one

Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall

Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,

To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring

Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

In the first of these stanzas, Heaney acknowledges both the childhood pleasure of hearing echoes in a well and the not-so-pleasant experience of seeing a rat in the water. Understood figuratively, the image of the rat suggests foul and frightening aspects of the self and the world, revealed by the process of looking deeply. And in the closing stanza, he likens that process to the act of writing, which allows him both to see himself and to evoke what he has elsewhere called “the mysterious otherness of the world.” Like the child’s voice echoing in a well, the mature poet’s rhymes conjure the dark unknown. They create a state of mind known to literary analysts as “negative capability” and to Zen practitioners as “Don’t-know mind” or the mind of “not-knowing.”  Abiding with confidence and courage in that state, the poet and meditative practitioner are open to infinite possibilities.

Not everyone can write a poem with the depth and precision of “Personal Helicon.” But anyone with pen and paper can enlist the act of writing as a tool of meditative inquiry. As the American poet William Stafford once remarked, writing is “one of the great free human activities,” which anyone can pursue, whether as a literary vocation or as a vehicle for “looking deeply.” Please try it for yourself.


*Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax 1998), 83.

Seamus Heaney’s reading of “Personal Helicon” may be heard at:


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In November, 1972, I accompanied Dan and Lillyan Rhodes to the University of Rochester to hear a reading by the poet Gary Snyder. A native of Fort Dodge, Iowa, Daniel Rhodes was an internationally known potter, sculptor, and professor of ceramic art at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. He was also a longtime friend of Gary Snyder.

Of the poems I heard that evening, one in particular made a lasting impression:


In the blue night

frost haze, the sky glows

with the moon

pine tree tops

bend snow-blue, fade

into sky, frost, starlight,

the creak of boots.

Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,

what do we know.*

As he read the last line of his poem, Snyder stressed the word “we.” What can we presume to know, he seemed to be asking, in the presence of the natural world’s nocturnal beauty? His tone was one of awe, tempered by disdain for human presumption.

Gary Snyder’s poem owes something to Ezra Pound, one of Snyder’s poetic mentors, who admonished us to “pull down [our] vanity”  and to “learn of the green world what can be [our] place.” Snyder’s lines also reflect his practical experience as logger and forest ranger, his empathic study of indigenous cultures, and his lifelong practice of Zen meditation.

In one well-known story from the lore of Zen, a monk sets out on a pilgrimage in his straw hat, robe, and sandals. Along the way he encounters a Zen master, who asks him where he’s going. “Around on pilgrimage,” the monk replies.

“What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”asks the master.

“I don’t know,” the monk confesses.

“Not knowing is the most intimate,” replies the master.

That story is conventionally interpreted as an illustration of “beginner’s mind.” By not presuming to know where he is going, the monk is opening himself to whatever he encounters. Void of expectations and preconceptions, he can meet the world directly.

That interpretation is plausible enough, but Gudo Nishijima, a contemporary Zen master, has a different take on the story. In Nishijima’s view, the monk’s response acknowledges the limitations of his perceptions. To be sure, we usually know our immediate destinations. In relative terms, we know where we are going. In ultimate terms, however, we really have no idea where we’re headed. By admitting as much, the monk remains in touch with ultimate reality, even as he lives in the relative world.

Thirty-six years ago, as I listened to Gary Snyder read “Pine Tree Tops,” I did not know that Dan Rhodes would retire and leave Alfred the next year—or that he would die of a heart attack in Nevada in 1989, at the age of seventy-eight. Nor did I know that Gary Snyder, Beat poet and author of  rugged lyric verse, would become an icon of the environmental movement, or that his progressive views on ecology, derived from the ancient principle of ahimsa (“non-harming”), would become moral imperatives in the early 21st century.

Gary Snyder is a man of wide erudition, with a deep respect for the natural and social sciences. In offering the teaching of not-knowing, he is not sanctioning an aggressive ignorance. Rather, he is urging an attitude of humility and reverence, lest we do further harm. Resonant at the time, his lines are even more urgent now.


*Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (New Directions, 1974). To hear Gary Snyder read “Pine Tree Tops,”  go to http://cdn3.libsyn.com/bubba/Gary_Snyder_Spiritual_Spice_14.mp3?nvb=20091124134834&nva=200911251.



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