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On the Virtue of Knowing Nothing

by Don LattinMay 28, 2013
Practice

The very title of this blog, “Spiritual Search,” puts doubt and open-mindedness at the center of our endeavor. Think about it. If we already know the answer, why even begin the search?

In our last installment, “Confessions of a Born-Again Agnostic,” I wrote about how much wisdom can be found in the simple statement “I don’t know,” and promised to say something about how two of history’s greatest spiritual teachers, Jesus and the Buddha, were masters of doubt. 

My friend Huston Smith, the great commentator on the world’s religions, likes to point out that those who crossed paths with Jesus and the Buddha often asked them the same question—not “Who are You?” but “What are you?” 

The Buddha, we are told, was born a prince 563 years before Christ in a faraway land now known as Nepal. After his enlightenment, people would ask him questions like “Are you a god?”

“No,” he’d reply. 

“An angel? A saint?”

“No.”

“Then what are you?

“I am awake.” 

The religion founded in his name was not about believing in God. It was about waking up, and the way to begin that process is to realize that you know nothing—that you’re asleep. 

Back in the late 1970s, I spent a little time studying with a Korean Zen Master named Seung Sahn. His Buddhist teaching can be boiled down to five words: “Keep a ‘Don’t Know’ mind.” Much of our suffering, he taught, comes from confusing our opinion and judgments with reality. 

“’Don’t Know’ mind cuts through thinking. It is before thinking,” Seung Sahn writes in his book Only Don’t Know. “We call this nothing-mind. Nothing-mind means no I-my-me, no hindrance, so this mind can change to action-for-all-people mind,” he continues. “If you do correct meditation, nothing-mind becomes strong and you perceive your situation clearly. What you see hear, smell, taste, and touch are the truth, without thinking. So your mind is like a mirror.”

Another famous Buddhist teacher, the Japanese Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, called this “beginner’s mind.” 

“The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind,” he writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. “This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

I can already hear some of you saying to yourself, “Sure. Buddhism is about keeping an open mind. But Christianity? Doesn’t the Bible preach that Jesus is the only way?"

Maybe. Maybe not. Try to keep an open mind on that one for a couple weeks, until we meet again.


Don Lattin is the author of five books on religion and spirituality in America, the most recent of which are Distilled Spirits and The Harvard Psychedelic Club. Visit him at www.donlattin.com


Don Lattin

Don Lattin is a veteran journalist and the author of five books on religion and spirituality in America. His national bestseller, The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America, won the 2010 California Book Award for nonfiction. His most recent work, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, Forgotten Philosopher and a Hopeless Drunk, is a memoir and group biography of writer Aldous Huxley, philosopher Gerald Heard, and Bill Wilson, cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Lattin’s stories have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered the religion beat for two decades. He lives on an island in the San Francisco Bay with his wife, Laura, and his dog, Bella. Visit him at donlattin.com.


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