Knowing the unknowable

Is everything knowable? Scientists claim that everything in principle can be known. That means to say that although there is the unknown, it still can, if the circumstances are right, be known. However, what makes the known possible? It cannot be more of what is known. What makes experience possible? It cannot be more experience; more experience can widen, enrich, contradict or qualify experience, but it cannot create experience. So what can create the known? It is the unknowable and you are unknowable. As long as you believe that you can eventually know what you are, or know what Mu is, then you will be perpetually walking around in the prison ground of conceptual ideas. This is the great challenge, this is the great impossibility. How can we go beyond, how can we make that leap, from ‘I am something’ to ‘I am’, from the known to the unknowable? We call that leap ‘kensho’ and those who have made that leap could be called realized people. However, we do not leap from here to there. We leap from here to here.

So what exactly is that leap? This really is a question you should ask yourself: what does the leap mean? It is the same question as “Who am I?” or, better still, “ What is my face before my parents were born?”   If you are really asking this question, it is no good to remain within the possible. It is no use at all looking for a technique, a way, a method, a teaching – there are no paths to the top of the mountain: every step that you take goes down.. Many people when they hear this drop their hands and say “Oh what is the point….”

You are the unknowable. That is your true nature. Any attempt to know your true nature moves you away; or, another way to put it, sullies your true nature. It is so essential for your practice to realize this. You must start with the faith, “I am the unknowable.” As long as you want to stay within the possible, within the known, you are giving yourself an impossible task. It is not necessary to say that you are the unknowable. That is gilding the lily. It is not even necessary to say I am. That you are is enough.

As the Diamond sutra tells us, “There are no distinctive marks of Tathagata (an awakened person).” This is important, not simply as an answer to, “How will I recognize a person who is realized?” it also must qualify what you are doing in your own practice. Many people think that an awakened person is in some way a superior person, someone who has got on the inside track of truth, that somehow there is something special about an awakened person. And people have this idea, not because of the teacher or the awakened person, but because they themselves want to be unique; they are practising in order to have distinguishing marks so that other people will recognize their brilliance. This need to be unique, need to be special, need to be someone––very often it is accompanied with the need to be superior–– is a curse of life. I say it is a curse of life because it does not only pertain to human beings, but it pertains to animals also, the alpha complex, the need to be unique. This need is so widespread. It underlies wars and revolutions, divorces and murder, as well most other conflicts and misunderstandings.

It is made obvious by nationalisms. All nations claim they are unique. For example, a short while ago Quebec wanted the fact of its uniqueness written into the Canadian constitution; currently in American politics a politician who does not subscribe to the idea of ‘American ‘exceptionalism’ will not get far as a politician. However Canada is unique because I say it is unique, and I say it because I am a unique person. I bestow my uniqueness on Canada. I bestow it not only on Canada, but on my religion, my family, even the hockey team that I follow. My being unique, special, is something that is constantly part of my experience. And it has to be rooted out, this is the great impediment, this is the obstacle to a real life.

One of the difficulties with being unique is that we want to be it in such a way that we do not have to affirm it. We want to be special, but we do not want to make any kind of overt gesture towards being so. If I have to assert my uniqueness, it means that it is in doubt and indicates that I am no longer unique. My uniqueness has to be taken totally for granted. It is not at all unusual for people to deny that they feel unique. Their uniqueness is unquestioned, it is absolute. This means that when we are practising, our uniqueness is extremely difficult to work with, particularly on a sesshin when there is no-one who is challenging us, no-one to make uniqueness surge up.

Our claim to be unique is why humiliation is such a wonderful medicine if you are really practicing, because the act of humiliating us challenges and overthrows for the moment our certainty of being unique. Even so, as you know, if you really work on yourself, to be humiliated can be extremely painful. On a sesshin, you are not humiliated very much, although some people do find coming to dokusan humiliating. But during everyday life, we are given abundant opportunities to see into the need to be unique. When this happens, be aware; if you become angry, become angry, but feel the pain of the anger, the remorse, the regret. Do not make excuses, to not make promises about future anger, do not criticize yourself, and above all do not blame the other person. Each time you are able to do this, you erode more of the ego or sense of self. A chapter on humility that was written by Hubert Benoit is essential reading if you are going to work with humiliation. If you do not have access to this chapter please send me an e-mail and I will send it to you.

You are unknowable but you live your life as the known, as the unique sense of self. The sense of self is but a set of habits based upon a set of memories. These habits are ways of reacting to situations, and these habits are very deeply ingrained. They have been ingrained, some say, since time immemorial; that we are carrying over our karma, or if you like, the ingrained habits of many lives.

An awakening, even if it is a deep awakening, is not going to shake this castle of concepts and structures and habits very profoundly. Remember that Hakuin, on his awakening tells us, “My pride soared up like a majestic mountain, my arrogance surged forward like the tide. Smugly I thought to myself: ‘In the past two or three hundred years no one could have accomplished such a marvellous break-through as this.’” The sense of self, because it is so well known and familiar, is taken to be precious, so much so that I say that I am the sense of self. Most people who are practicing even search into it to find true self. Even so the sense of self is unnecessary. It is a burden that you carry much as a bag lady carries her precious belongings. One must question this sense of self, at the very core of which lies, festering in the dark, uniqueness.

The struggle to get to know and to go beyond the sense of self is the primary task for any one who seriously practices Zen. The primary task is not to come to awakening. Awakening is a great help in the struggle. Some say that it is essential. But the sense of self is like a cancer that sucks the very life and vitality out of life as is evident in so many people who are exhausted on the treadmills of fame and gain all in the service of their enemy.

The only way to struggle with the sense of self is by being constantly aware of its workings. Life gives us a constant array of possibilities for working with it. For example, you are in a queue and someone pushes in front of you; a motorist blasts you with the car’s horn; or someone steals your purse. Be aware of your reaction.   But you must be willing, ready and alert. The sense of self thrives in the darkness of inadvertence, in the darkness of forgetfulness and ignorance. Shine the light of awareness on to it. Do not analyze what is happening, do not delve into the past for reasons, and above all do not blame others for your suffering. No one can hurt you but yourself.

This work is the work of a lifetime. Impatience, particularly impatience with the practice, is but an expression of “I am important! Why should I have to wait for kensho!” Love the practice, love it as you would love a saviour. Be intent on the process, never mind the result.

Awakening itself is not enough to root out the malignancy. This is why we work on subsequent koans. By passing the first koan, we make a hole in the screen that is apparently separating us from true self, and subsequent koans help enlarge that hole. But it is also said that ending your koan practice is just the beginning of real practise. As Dogen said, “There is no beginning to practice or end to awakening, there is no beginning to awakening or end to practice.” See this as a lifetime’s work, not as something that you are trying to get through, get done with so that you can get on with your life. As long as you have that attitude then you are in hurry and as long as you are in hurry you are wasting your time. Patience is of the utmost virtue in practice, the patience to be what you are.

Only the personality can be recognized, and the personality is built up because I constantly ignore the truth that I am. The habit patterns of the personality are ways of reassuring myself that I am. You must have known times when you have been in a state of utter confusion, utter panic. Then you grasped at anything, anything at all, as a way of reassurance. They say a drowning person clutches at a straw and that is true also of a person in an utter state of confusion. And that straw, because it rescued you from the jaws of hell, becomes like reinforced concrete, another big block in the development of the personality. If at the moment of being in extreme panic you could go with it, you would disappear into the arms of your own true nature. The panic is a fear that indeed you are going to disappear and so you fight against salvation.

An awakened person does not make any claims, grandiose or otherwise. You can be sure that all who proclaim their own greatness and uniqueness are not awakened. Unfortunately, there have been in America a number of teachers who have abused the trust of their students and have pretended to have certain unique powers. Much of this has been aimed simply at seducing the students. It is a terrible, terrible misuse of trust.

The problem is that on the way we can encounter many mysterious and striking experiences. The student mistakes one of these for awakening and then has his or her mistake confirmed to be authentic by a teacher who is not awakened and lacks any authority at all. We do have remarkable experiences – and I am not saying these remarkable experiences do not have their value––but if one clings to them, if one makes something of them, then they are simply another concrete block put into this personality. We must always keep in mind Dogen’s response when asked what he attained from his travels in China: “I walk on my own feet, I see through my own eyes.”

When we are practicing, we might have another kind of experience: the experience of just being ordinary, inconsequential, even perhaps feel that we are a failure. It is not unusual to have this feeling of being ordinary, both on and off sesshin. Often we react with a certain amount of dismay, or with a feeling of having taken a wrong turning. “I have practiced a long time and I am not special. I have to do something about it, my practice has not given me anything, I am just another ordinary person.” This is not an unusual experience. And these are moments to slide into like a thief in the night, just be with that feeling, and be thoroughly, thoroughly ordinary.

We hear about transmission, indeed there is a special ceremony called Inka in which transmission occurs. People sometimes ask whether awakening can be directly transmitted to another. When I first started reading Zen, and read mondos telling of a disciple asking a question and the master replying and the monk coming to awakening I thought, “Gee, that is good, I just have to find the right teacher because he or she will be able to say bingo or whatever it is and I will be awakened!” However in the Dhamapada it says, “By oneself evil is done; by oneself one suffers. By oneself evil is undone. No-one can purify another.” It is worth mentioning that Nisargadatta says the opposite. He says, “Yes, it can. The words of an awakened person have the power of dispelling ignorance and darkness in the mind. It is not the words that matter, but the power behind them.”

However it is not so much the power behind them; it is your readiness. This is why listening to a teisho is a form of meditation. One is very much there, very present, alert, but not in a judgmental way, not in a way by which one filters what is coming through. This obviously is where a teacher must have great integrity and be talking simply from his or her own awakening. But once that is established, once you are allowing the present moment to be, then it is possible for something to be said which somehow sparks a cognitive flash. You do not know what it is – you simply know that it is right. Don’t search to try to find what is just right, don’t try to put it into words. Once you see this “ah yes” it has done its work, it has already lit up part of the darkness. To try to grab it, to try to do something about it, adds another block.

Some people leave the practice after years of practice and feel that they are a failure. By this they mean that they have not attained anything, that they have not attained awakening. They believe that attainment must be manifest; that others must be able to see what has been attained in order to be successful in practice. This is a very common complaint. People come into the dokusan room and say, “I have practiced for a long time, everything is still the same, I have got nothing from my practice.” What is it that they are trying to get? What is it that they want? What is it above all that will satisfy them? I said right at the beginning of this article that an awakened person has no distinguishing marks. So how can we practice for years in the hope of some distinguishing marks?

Regrettably, very regrettably, most people practice Zen in order to have their uniqueness recognized and enhanced. Many people, as I said before, look upon awakening as awakening to their true brilliance. Because nothing has happened, no confirmation of the light that should be shining out of the center of their forehead has been given, they say the practice is no good. This is such a shame, such a waste.

I have said many times that one must start off with the faith “I am”. It is a very simple opening. It is very simple – I am. You don’t need to say the words. Just to be. If one really just is – it is very often accompanied by a feeling of wonder. Ah! Just to be comes sometimes as something of a shock. During Workshops you sometimes get the beginner’s mind. You’ll get one or two people star struck – you can see they are walking around in a daze because they have suddenly realized “I am!” and it is a total revelation to them.

So unless we start here, I am, we are going essentially to try to find something with our practice, try to get something from it. Yet nothing, nothing is comparable to opening to the truth “I am!” Anything else is simply a shadow cast by the light of being. Our practice is: opening to what I am already. “From the beginning, all beings are Buddha.” The problem is that I have spent my life constantly trying to reassure myself that I am. And this has led me to this curse of uniqueness, because I believe that unless I am unique, I am not really; I believe that I lack an essential quality of being. I turn my back on the very treasure that I am seeking. This is why it is so important to work from where you are, and so get back to where you are. You are not going from A to B in this practice, you are going from A to A.

The people that wander around in a daze after simply attending a workshop have already seen something, but it is shallow and without roots. But then there are people like Nisargadatta or Ramana Maharshi. It is possible to enrich, enrich, enrich constantly. Once one has seen this, it is no longer necessary to try to be something special, be something different. It is no longer necessary that I go from being a grubby person without any real attributes to fame and glory. I have no need to attain a brilliance of being, something extraordinary. Let go of that, see that you are really grubby, lacking any attributes, just an ordinary person. The brilliance that you seek is the grubby personality that you despise. That which has no form appears. That which has no form appears as an ordinary person. It appears as an ordinary person because truly there are only ordinary people.

I was in the guard of honour in the Navy, (that truly was no achievement; I just happened to be the right height.) At one time I was in the guard of honour for the Queen and as she went by I thought “My Lord, how short she is!” All that I saw at that moment was a middleaged woman walking past me. We want people who we can look up to. We want to have heroes, this is why we have kings and queens and presidents and leaders and all the rest. We want them to be unique, special, so much so that we will lie to ourselves about them, deliberately overlooking their weaknesses and ordinariness. It is in this way that spurious teachers are able to pass as famous roshis. Kings and emperors were looked upon as semi-divine or, as in Japan, fully divine. Because this is what we want. We want something out of this world. There is nothing out of this world other than your true self. You will not find magic anywhere other than when you get out of bed in the morning.

There is no success, there is no failure. One way to look at it is there is a lake and when the wind blows you get sometimes ripples, sometimes waves. But at the same time, the lake is getting deeper and deeper and deeper. If you live just on the surface, all that you will know is whether there are ripples or waves or smoothness. If there is smoothness, you say whoopee we are getting somewhere! And when there are waves you say, oh dear, I am getting nowhere! But, all the time there is a deepening, an increasing richness which you cannot detect as long as you remain on the surface.

How do you feel today in comparison with how you felt yesterday? You just can’t say. There is no comparison; there is nothing to compare with. You may remember that you felt miserable yesterday, but it is a memory; I am asking for a feeling. How do you feel today in comparison with how you felt yesterday. Stay with the feeling and you realize that it is impossible to make a comparison. Your feelings could be far richer today than they ever were a week or two ago and yet, if you are stuck on the waves on the surface, you will say “well nothing has happened”. Have faith, this is the point, or be faith. If faith, then faith.

You are the unknowable. When emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma, “Who are you?” Bodhidharma said, “I do not know.” You do not know because you are knowing. Knowing is I am; I am knowing. Meditate on this. What is knowing? And how can it have any kind of influence? Knowing is useless, utterly and completely useless. It is as useless as the rose in the garden, as the butterfly that flutters by, as the sun that shines. It is only as a cog in the machine that I can be useful. Only when I see myself as a cog in the machine do I want to have results. A result will mean that I am a bigger cog.

One cog turns another, the whole machine intermeshes. We could see the world as a set of intermeshing causes. Here is a metaphor that might help you: a man lies dead on the floor, bleeding from the head; and there is another man standing with a smoking gun. The question is: what caused that man’s death? You might say: the gun. Or was it the bullet, or was it the fact that this man bought a gun, or was it the fact that it was possible to buy a gun, or was it because the dead man was seducing the other man’s wife, or was it because the man with the gun was poor or unstable or whatever? In other words, all of these are looked upon as causes. You will find some action group or other that will support any one of those causes.

So what is it? It is obviously the whole world is in on any action. This is why, As Gurdjieff rightly said, “Man cannot do.” It is worth seeing into this because by doing so you can be relieved of a great deal of frustration. You can contribute but you cannot determine the value of that contribution or the result that it should get. This of course relates just as much to practice as it does to activity in life. You contribute in your practice; you practice but the result in not up to you. Man proposes, God disposes. That is how it is in the world, and how it is when you are practicing. Instead of using the word God we could say, ‘the totality of the situation’ and it is the true self that is, after all, the totality of the situation.

With the totality of the situation there is no origin, is no cause for you. Nothing brought you into being and nothing can take you out of being. You are not related to anything. How can you be when you are everything. Knowing is not a thing to be bound by causes and results. It is beyond causality altogether. There is no path to awakening. When you are working on yourself, you are exhausting all the resources of your being. You have let it all go. Unless you do so, then there is always something left over that might be it. You will know when all your resources are exhausted because that is the moment of awakening. But you must exhaust all those resources, all that practice, you cannot hold anything back. Let go of all desires that take precedence over the desire for awakening. In the end you let go of all ways, all causes, techniques and methods for bringing about awakening.

Home is the self. “Coming and going we never leave the Self – or true nature.” (It is unfortunate this word self can mean so many things). Home is a wonderful word. When you were young did you ever get lost? Perhaps it was dark, the rain was pouring down, and your feet were getting sore from walking. All of a sudden you realize “I am home!” Utter, utter relief! There is nothing brilliant, exceptional, or outstanding about home. It is ordinary. But it is extraordinary in its ordinariness: security, freedom from fear, happiness, these are the hallmarks of home. When you really see, you see the whole world as home.

Just be! If you are following the breath just allow the breath to flow in and out without obstruction or help. Be thoroughly present to whatever may arise. Not what you think ought to arise, or will arise, or has arisen or could arise, but everything that is at the moment. In this way you will get to know, without comment or judgment, your sensations, feelings and thoughts. Don’t analyze them, don’t take them to pieces, don’t try to feel something about them, above all do not wander about in the past, blaming your mother, father, brother or whomever for your plight. If pain arises just stay with the pure feeling, the pure sensation of pain, just the sensation of pain. If pleasure arises, just stay with the pure feeling, the pure sensation of pleasure. Or the pure feeling of anxiety, just the feeling of anxiety, just stay with this. In this way, you will go beyond them. You go beyond to this that appears to be pain and anxiety. That which has no form appears.

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13 Responses to Knowing the unknowable

  1. Roger says:

    Thank for your text M. Low . I trie to develop Muchotoku mind and the fist time is during my morning zazen practice it is not easy just to breath , one day it will be in my entire day. Your text is a great encouragement

  2. Marie says:

    My uniqueness: when I die, a few family members will weep; some friends may or may not gather to recall my virtues or forgive my quirks; all will eat supper, today or tomorrow, and continue their lives. Now what? Thank you, Mr. Low, for helping me face this directly in your text here.

  3. helmutm says:

    Thank you for sending us this teisho.
    My sense of Dogen’s walking on his own feet and seeing through his own eyes is about that leap from the known to the unknowable.
    This leap to no-where is it a leap into the mystery of intimacy that knows no boundaries, no logic, no anything one can think of ? An intimacy in which mountains begin to walk and stones begin to see ? An intimacy that includes everything there is ?

  4. Albert Low says:

    I am the world, not intimate with it.

    • marc soucie says:

      When you say you are the world, do you mean you are sound, smell, taste, touch, thoughts, emotions and whatever makes the whole of what in normally called ”subjective experience” ? If so, are you saying you are also the content of my awareness ?

      • Albert Low says:

        Yes, I also mean that I am the trees, the road, and the sky. One can speak of ‘my’ consciousness because me and consciousness are two faces of the same coin. Awareness on the other hand is neither yours nor mine; it is without personal limit and is universal

    • marc soucie says:

      What is the difference between saying ”the world is” and ”I am the world” ? I understand that there is a ”world” (there is something rather than nothing) but if the world is One, how can it say ”I” ?

    • marc soucie says:

      I understand that awareness is non personal since the elements that make up the feeling of personhood as well as the feeling ”I am” are contained within awareness. You say that I am also the content of other people’s awareness (you actually said you were but I’m assuming your positing a universal). I find this assertion puzzling. If I assume that I am not the only sentient being and that people surrounding me are also endowed with consciousness, they seem to have subjective experiences that are different from mine. When you are the awareness of blue, I might be the awareness of red. When you are the awareness of joy, I might be in deep sleep. I imagine all the different fields of consciousness as so many different puddles of water, made of the same substance, yet separate and alienated from each other. Language alleviates the loneliness but your words still appear in my consciousness and only serve as proxy to the content of your consciousness. Even if I could read into your mind, I would be doing this in my mind, not yours. As for being the trees and the roads, those concepts are only born and deduced from the content of awareness. When we speak of objects, we normally mean the actual physical and material objects which exist independently from awareness. Are you also that which is outside of awareness ?

      • Albert Low says:

        You are trying to fit my truth not your imperfect understanding and it will not work. Yo have to let teh understanding come to you. Do not chase after it.

  5. Pierre Gougeon says:

    Le chemin, le chemin, le chemin. Merci de l’éclairer et de nous y ramener constamment.

  6. Albert Low says:

    I have often said that coming to awakening is not an experience, but living and seeing the world in an entirely new way. Yasutani used to say that for an unawakened person to try to understand this way of an awakened person is like a baby singing love songs to the moon.

    Truth, that which is realized on awakening, is something more than simply a “a quality ascribed to a statement when we think it corresponds to reality” For example, In the Gospel according to St John it is said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,”a statement that is fully in accord with what Zen would say. Awakening is “knowing the truth;” before then one lives in a conceptual prison.

    Your comment is ample evidence of your attempt to fit your understanding in with mine. It is also ample evidence of your failure to do so. Because you try to fit your understanding in with mine, I am not surprised, that you do not understand why I speak of “my” truth, that is to say truth spoken from the vantage of awakening, because for you there is only conceptual truth

  7. marc soucie says:

    If you are my awareness, you know the content of my consciousness at all times. Is that your claim ?

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