adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, February 10th, 2004

Buddhist practice involves an interplay between knowing and not-knowing. In Vipassana we often emphasize knowing and seeing deeply into our lived experience. However, just as our capacity to know can be developed, so can we cultivate a wise practice of not-knowing.

“Not-knowing” is emphasized in Zen practice, where it is sometimes called “beginner’s mind.” An expert may know a subject deeply, yet be blinded to new possibilities by his or her preconceived ideas. In contrast, a beginner may see with fresh, unbiased eyes. The practice of beginner’s mind is to cultivate an ability to meet life without preconceived ideas, interpretations, or judgments.

I can recall many situations in my life where preconceived ideas obscured my seeing clearly. Once, working as a restaurant cook, I was leaving my shift just as a co-worker started his. When I began joking with him as usual, he quickly interrupted me to say that one of his best friends had just died. If I had practiced beginner’s mind, I would have taken the time to discover who he was at that moment. Instead, I felt regret for being insensitive.

I once attended a weekend “Death and Dying” workshop with Stephen Levine. When the workshop started I was stunned by the amount of suffering in the room. Some were dying. Others had recently lost a child, a partner, or a parent. Some had witnessed tragic deaths. One had nearly died herself. The weekend taught me to not to assume I know people from my first impressions. Now I try to remember that they have depths that I might not know about.

This experience points out another kind of not-knowing as well. How would you live your life if you had a clear sense of the uncertainty of the time and place of death-your own and others’? Most people don’t know when death will come. We often live as if we were certain about things that are inherently uncertain. How would we live if we acknowledged our uncertainty?

What is it like to be aware that we don’t know the answers to some of the life’s big questions? People often ask Buddhist teachers about what happens when we die, or the meaning of life. I have been inspired by those who answer that they don’t know, and seem very comfortable with not-knowing. Perhaps these questions are irrelevant to their spiritual life.

Often people are anxious to find the ultimate meaning of life or understand what happens in death because they are afraid of the unknown. They may look to religion for answers. Buddhism, at its heart, is not about answering these questions but about resolving the fear that motivates the questions. Rather than providing security through religious knowing, Buddhist practice calls on us to become free from attachment to security, free from the need to know.

A simple but profound way to practice not-knowing is to add “I don’t know” to every thought. This is most effective in meditation when the mind has quieted down. So, for example, if the judgment arises, “This is a good meditation session” or “this is a bad meditation session,” respond with “I don’t know.” Follow the thought “I can’t manage this,” “I need…,” or “I am…” with “I don’t know.” Like the bumper sticker that says “Question authority,” the phrase “I don’t know” questions the authority of everything we think.

Repeating the words “I don’t know” allows us to question tightly-held ideas. Done thoroughly, “I don’t know” can pull the rug out from under our most cherished beliefs. All too often we don’t question our beliefs. And, since virtually every train of thought has some implicit belief, when we question our thoughts, we question these beliefs.

“Don’t know” can also be directed at motivations that lead us to act. Before adjusting your posture in meditation or quitting walking meditation early, notice what belief is operating in the motivation. Then direct “don’t know” to that belief and see what happens.

When I was kitchen manager in a monastery, I saw how much I was driven by the need to be liked. The way I talked and behaved with the crew was often influenced by this desire. To ensure that what I did or said did not trigger their reactivity and dislike, I felt I had to tiptoe around their (and my) egos. But during that year I began to question my need to be liked. Upon what authority was I basing this need? Did I really know if it was important to have people like me? Don’t know.

Don’t know. Don’t know. Repeated regularly, it almost becomes a mantra in response to what we think or believe. This phrase can open up a space in the mind, helping it to relax and rest. The little phrase, “I don’t know,” is very, very powerful.

One Zen story proclaims, “Not knowing is most intimate.” I understand this to mean that what is most essential is not understood through the filter of our judgments, past knowledge, or memories. When not-knowing helps these to drop away, the result can be a greater immediacy-what some might call being intimate.

The practice of not-knowing needs to be distinguished from confusion and debilitating doubt. Confusion is not a virtue: the confused person is somewhat lost and removed from life. With doubt, the mind is agitated or contracted with hesitation and indecision. These mind states tend to obscure rather than clarify. Furthermore, confusion and doubt are generally involuntary. Not-knowing, as a practice, is a choice meant to bring greater peace.

But lest we take the not-knowing practice too far, Suzuki Roshi said, “Not-knowing does not mean you don’t know.” It doesn’t require us to forget everything we have known or to suspend all interpretations of a situation. Not-knowing means not being limited by what we know, holding what we know lightly so that we are ready for it to be different. Maybe things are this way. But maybe they are not.

As a Buddhist practice, not-knowing leads to more than an intimacy and open mind. It can be used as a sword to cut through all the ways that the mind clings. If we can wield this sword until the mind lets go of itself and finally knows ultimate freedom, then-not knowing has served its ultimate purpose.