What’s your response when I say, “The best way to respond to the great suffering in the world is with the practice of ‘not-knowing’?”

Maybe you react to that statement with suspicion and aversion. Part of me does, because I care deeply about the suffering, destruction, and injustice in the world and want to do something about them. Responding with “not-knowing” sounds like retreating into complacency – doing nothing to change the world, and using the excuse like, “You can’t know what to do, it’s all too complex and confusing.”

Fortunately, the Zen practice of “not-knowing” is not like this. It’s not an excuse or a cop-out. It’s not clinging to ignorance or passivity. It’s not at odds with the bodhisattva path. It’s actually an incredibly intimate response, in touch with reality, which provides the ground for effective action.


Quicklinks to Content:
Some Ancient Chan Teachings on Not-Knowing
Practicing Not-Knowing in the Moment
Recognizing Versus Knowing
Not-Knowing Is Most Intimate – and How That Helps
How to Know When Your Not-Knowing Is a Cop-Out


To be honest, the teaching of “not-knowing,” also called “don’t-know mind,” can be easily misunderstood and therefore misused. All potent spiritual teachings are rather like knives: Very effective for certain tasks, but potentially dangerous if used recklessly, incorrectly, or in the wrong circumstances. The Zen teaching of don’t-know mind can be easily twisted into a near-enemy – in this case, refusing to take a stand even when the situation calls for it.

You might argue that we shouldn’t teach something like don’t-know mind because of the chance it will be misunderstood and do great damage. However, that would be like saying we should never use knives because occasionally people cut themselves with them, or use them as weapons. It’s better if we learn how to properly use and store knives, and to clearly identify when they’re being misused. I’ll try to do that, here, with the Zen teaching of not-knowing.

Some Ancient Chan Teachings on Not-Knowing

The teaching of acknowledging not-knowing as a profound practice seems to have appeared early on in the Chan (later the Zen) school of Buddhism in China. According to the second koan in the Book Equanimity,[1] the Indian master Bodhidharma invoked not-knowing in his response to the emperor of China:

“Emperor Wu of Ryo asked the great master Bodhidharma, ‘What is the ultimate meaning of the holy truth of Buddhism?’ Bodhidharma replied, ‘Vast emptiness. No holiness.’ The Emperor asked, ‘Who stands here before me?’ Bodhidharma replied, ‘I don’t know.’ The Emperor was baffled. Thereafter, Bodhidharma crossed the river, arrived at Shorin and faced the wall for nine years.”

On the surface, it may seem like the Emperor’s question stumped Bodhidharma, and he subsequently had to go sit in meditation for a long time in order to deepen his understanding. However, this probably wasn’t the case.

By the time he met the Emperor, Bodhidharma had already been practicing a long time, and he carried the lineage tradition. His “I don’t know” isn’t the same as our ordinary “I don’t know.” Our meaning would typically be: “I’m wracking my brains for an answer but can’t come up with one for you.” Or, “I’ve been trying to figure that out but the answer eludes me.” Or, even worse, “I feel separate from my true self, my true nature, so I feel alienated from who I really am. Your question has exposed my inadequacy.”

If Bodhidharma didn’t mean these kinds of don’t know, what did he mean? And how could his response be a teaching, as opposed to an admission of insufficient understanding? Before I go into that, I’ll share another ancient story about not-knowing from the Book of Equanimity. This is Case 20:

“Master Jizo asked Hogen, ‘Where have you come from?’ ‘I pilgrimage aimlessly,’ replied Hogen. ‘What is the matter of your pilgrimage?’ asked Jizo. ‘I don’t know,” replied Hogen. ‘Not knowing is the most intimate,’ remarked Jizo. At that, Hogen experienced great enlightenment.”[2]

Hogen awakens at Master Jizo’s comment not because he suddenly realizes why he’s been wandering so long and practicing hard, and not because he finally conceives of what he’s been searching for. Rather, he momentarily drops all of his preconceived notions, and at that moment there is only his body-mind, Master Jizo’s compassion, the Buddha Way, the sandals on his feet, the cicadas buzzing in the trees. There, in his direct experience of his life, the meaning of it all becomes clear – without conception, definition, description, or “knowing” of any kind.

As soon as Hogen thinks about it, as soon as we think about it, knowing creeps in again, creating a sense of separation. And yet – to always have the refuge of not-knowing, how wonderful!

Practicing Not-Knowing in the Moment

To bring this discussion back to our time and place: the practice of don’t know mind, or of not-knowing, is immensely practical, and serves the bodhisattva well.

How? How can this kind of thoughtless, immediate, not-knowing be useful when you’re facing a neo-Nazi? When you need to decide how resist the environmental destruction and degradation that’s threatening all life on this planet? When you have to find a way to defend democracy, or truth, or compassion? Or when you need to claw your way out of a hole of suffering in your personal life?

The key is that not-knowing isn’t clinging to a state of indecision or ignorance. It’s not a fixed position you take. Instead, it’s a way you engage the next moment: fresh, open, unbiased. You let go of clinging to fixed views, of your sense of knowing. It’s grounded in reality, because in reality, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You don’t know for sure what’s going to work. You don’t know the person standing in front of you – at least, not completely, and maybe hardly at all. You don’t know who you are, as if you could sum yourself up in a sentence or paragraph.

You practice not-knowing in this very moment – not in the abstract. As soon as you make not-knowing into a position, it’s not actually not-knowing anymore, it’s refusing to know or decide. It becomes a position you hold for your own convenience, comfort, or ego, and lacks compassion.

The point is not to be attached to anything – neither knowing, nor not-knowing. When it’s time to have a conversation with someone about what needs to happen, you take your best stab at knowing. When you have to make a decision or take an action, you make your best call, based on your best knowledge. But then, in the next moment, you let it go and take a breath in not-knowing – which completely and utterly changes your relationship to knowing. When you see that your best knowing comes and goes, that your “best calls” sometimes work out and sometimes they don’t, it actually frees you up to get more creative and take more risks with your knowing. There is no one, fixed, absolute truth you’re eventually going to arrive at; instead, it’s a crazy balancing act all along the way.

Recognizing Versus Knowing

Let’s say you read about a terrible injustice somewhere in the world – maybe not that far away. People are suffering and dying – and the worst thing is, they’re suffering and dying needlessly, because of exploitation, fear, and greed. (And if you read the papers, of course, this is more or less a daily experience.) When we read about this, we have reactions. We know this wrong. We know this suffering and injustice needs to be ended.

But this knowing should perhaps better be called recognizing. We recognize sadness, pain, empathy, grief, frustration… we feel a basic human response to the suffering of others (at least, this response is basic to people who have a healthy, functional body-mind). This is a bodhisattva’s natural response. We also recognize the contraction and darkness of greed, hate, fear, and delusion, just as we recognize warmth, coolness, ease, and pain.

And yet, very quickly, most of us are going to take our basic recognition further, willfully crafting it into knowing. In our efforts to understand, and therefore exert some measure of control over our experience or over the world, we speculate on why this is happening, who is to blame, the systems that are to blame, what needs to change. If at the very least we figure out what our opinions are, we know what kind of actions we should take – or at the very least, what kind of attitude we should carry around. Even if we’re at a loss for how to help, we can take solace in the fact that we’re opposed to what’s going on.

If we know, we can predict and plan. We can imagine an alternative future, where things have been fixed according to what we know, and suffering has decreased. When we start to feel overwhelmed or stressed, we can rely on our righteous stances and thereby insulate ourselves in some subtle way from what’s happening right now.

Of course, with new facts, complexity, arguments, opposition from others, our knowing needs to be constantly revised and maintained. It can get quite stressful, establishing a moral world order in our minds!

Not-Knowing Is Most Intimate – and How That Helps

Some of this thought is good, of course. We should consider what’s happening, our opinions about it, and look for things we can do in response.

But at some point, when our thoughts get repetitive, when we’re trying to impeach the president in our minds, or create a plan to end world hunger, or when we’re stuck on a terribly sad or traumatic fact or image, or imagining the many forms in which doom could come…

Then it’s time for balance – a time for the medicine of not-knowing. This takes courage. We have to be willing to become intimate with our fears, our sorrows, and our sense of overwhelm – exactly the kinds of feelings we try to keep at bay with our knowing. (And even “negative knowing” has this effect. For example, you may be convinced the world is going to hell in a handbasket – but in some ways it easier to be prepared for the devil you (think you) know, then to open up to the vast possibilities of reality.)

For a time, we let go of the stress of having to figure everything out, of maintaining our positions and opinions, of identifying everything we encounter as right or wrong. This helps our body-minds to settle, and become more relaxed, healthy, and clear.

How do we heal our country and our world? Lots of ideas may spring into our minds. But if we momentarily let them go and say quietly, humbly, compassionately, “I don’t know…” Such sadness! Such grief! Such concern! Such intimacy!

How do we end racism? Again, let go ideas, however good they might be. It’s not the time for ideas. It’s time for listening. “I don’t know…” Notice how the reality of the struggles of people of color, momentarily, comes closer to your heart?

How do we radically redirect the entire human way of life on this planet away from limitless exploitation toward long-term sustainability? Let go of ideas… “I don’t know.” Do you see how this practice of “I don’t know” includes, “I want to help. I love. I ache for suffering beings. I ache for myself. I’ll do my best. How? What?”

Then, when we’re ready, we engage our discriminating mind again, and know when we need to. But the open, intimate space of not-knowing gives us more effective ground on which to stand when we take action.

How to Know When Your Not-Knowing Is a Cop-Out

Of course, sometimes we cling to not-knowing instead of knowing. We just take a breath and enjoy each day, one moment at a time, aware that ideas are abstractions and you can only deal with what’s right in front of you. But clinging to not-knowing is not intimate. You can tell because you need to turn away from suffering in order to maintain it. It’s a cut-off, limited position that feels somewhat deadened or numb. It’s not an open, responsive, other-focused way of operating; when we cling to not knowing, our world becomes self-centered and small.

When I thought about writing about the practice of not-knowing, I considered calling it the “refuge” of don’t-know mind, because of the relief it provides from stress… but the term “refuge” implies you can hide out there and avoid responsibility, so I didn’t want to use it.

Then I thought about the term “stance,” as in a posture or position, which maximizes the effectiveness of your response to challenge, as in a martial art. This is a pretty good word, because although it may imply something static, in practice an effective stance is dynamic, open, and responsive. It also contains the truth that really employing don’t-know mind is complementary to taking a stand or being open to action. But “stance” does summon an oppositional image…

Perhaps it’s best to discuss the “ground” of don’t-know mind. This term points to the fact that this mind reflects an aspect of reality – it’s not an attitude or view we adopt for utilitarian purposes. We really, actually, don’t know. We have to decide and act, but within the groundless reality of emptiness. This way of looking at it is described in the Prajna Paramita Sutra in 8,000 Lines:

“The Leader [Buddha] himself was not stationed in the realm which is free from conditions,
Nor in the things which are under conditions, but freely he wandered without a home:
Just so, without a support or a basis a Bodhisattva is standing.
A position devoid of a basis has that position been called by the Jina.”[3]

So, a Bodhisattva is standing. She is free, and she is devoted to the deliverance of all beings. But she stands without a support or a basis. How is that possible? Intellectually it makes no sense, but it describes the reality of our lives and our functioning. “Knowing” is an abstraction that we use to make decisions, so it has it’s uses, but if we can recognize knowing is also empty of inherent self-nature, we aren’t overly attached to it. We don’t mistake it for reality itself. We are free from the compulsion to maintain a fiefdom of knowing, and we can be directly informed and touched by the world – which means our responses will be more on-point, and therefore more effective.



Conze, Edward, trans. The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines & its Verse Summary. San Francisco, CA: Four Season Foundation, 1973
Wick, Gerry Shishin. The Book of Equanimity: Illuminating Classic Zen Koans. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005.



[1] Wick, pg 13
[2] Wick, pg. 63
[3] Conze, pg. 13

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