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Not Knowing

July 12, 2013

by Stephen Damon

When I first read Suzuki Roshi’s famous statement that “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few, I knew that I had never read anything like that before. It seemed to go against everything that I had learned from my teachers and my parents. I had gone to school to learn about as many things as I could, even those things like trigonometry that I would never have to use after I left school. I was taught that the best way to prepare for my adult life was to become an expert—in something. Suzuki’s remarks went against the foundation not only of our education system but also our culture as a whole. To stay with Suzuki’s opening statement I had to let go of nearly everything I had learned in my life so I could be open to what he said next. And isn’t that the whole point of Suzuki’s work—to let go of everything and be open to what is arising in the present moment?

Since I first read Suzuki’s book many years ago I have read countless other books on Buddhism and Zen along with an ongoing practice of just sitting, but still “beginner’s mind” remains a mystery to me. The more I explore what he was talking about the more I am in front of the great unknown of myself. Of course, Suzuki Roshi hoped that his students would be affected by his teaching in just this way. Beginner’s mind is often referred to as “Don’t know mind.” It is a mind that is open and receptive, and is not limited by memories of past experiences or expectations of future ones. It is a mind that is empty of any preconditions or contexts. To quote a Zen koan, “It is as vast and empty as outer space.

Lately, I have come to see that don’t know mind is more than just a vast limitless openness. It is a very active attention to the whatisness of our lives. In the deepest sense it is a way of knowing, and engaging with, the depths of ourselves and the world around us. Here we might go back to a famous Zen story:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

During a retreat a few years ago, I had a very powerful impression of seeing my “not knowing” or some might say my “lack.” I saw that this state helped me to be more open to everything. This “not knowing” helped me let go of myself enough to experience the interconnectness of life. So, this “not knowing” was a deeper “knowing” than I had ever had before. I inlcuded this poem in a short book about a week-long retreat in the Russian River.

Not Knowing

At the onset of dawn
before a makeshift altar
beneath an open window

I look to an empty sky
not knowing whom to pray to
or even how to pray to—

Only knowing
that this not knowing
is the only knowing that I know.


  • blueangelwolf
  • Chico
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From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. Chico permalink

    Reblogged this on A Way in the Woods.

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