Don’t Know Mind

Leading on from last week’s blog about learning to tolerate uncertainty, it seems only natural to explore the role of the mind in certainty and uncertainty. These are two states that we experience all the time, and yet when we scratch the surface it seems that all is not as straightforward as it appears.

I remember an excellent Dhamma talk that the Thai monk Ajahn Ratanavaṇṇo gave one night at the temple in Amaravati. He was talking about how we think we know things, but really we don’t, we only have ideas about things. He recounted a story about when he was a young monk, and someone told him that bamboo could grow to a huge diameter in size. He didn’t believe the person at all, he told them that bamboo couldn’t possibly grow to that size and totally rejected the idea. But some years later, he eventually encountered some bamboo growing as large as the person had said it could grow to, and he said that he felt really bad because he hadn’t believed them.

When he had told the person that it wasn’t possible for bamboo to grow to such a huge size, it wasn’t because he knew it couldn’t, it was because he had the opinion that it couldn’t. He didn’t actually know, but he felt very certain at that moment that he was correct.

Being absolutely sure of something we have no real knowledge of is something we all do, sometimes many times a day. It is something that can be a habit, unless we take time to examine what we actually do and don’t know, and we open ourselves to the reality that there are likely more aspects to anything than we ourselves can know.

It’s ok to not know something, but we live in a society that doesn’t allow not knowing. When your boss asks you a question, you instinctively know that “I don’t know” is the wrong answer. When a politician is getting grilled on the tv, you never hear them saying “I don’t know”, even when they very clearly are just blustering to get the interviewer to move on to the next question. Not knowing is a sign of stupidity, of weakness, of indecision. Even when we take exams there isn’t a space to write “I don’t know”; we are expected to always have an answer, regardless of whether it is right or not.

It is no wonder that most of us will spontaneously give an answer to any question we are asked, whether we have enough information to answer it or not. There’s no space in the ordinary world to simply not know. So we give an answer based on purely the workings of our own mind; because it came from our mind we feel like any questioning of it is an attack on us, we take it very personally. So we cling to our answer and vehemently defend it even when it is clearly shown up to be wrong. The more evidence someone else produces, the more fiercely we defend our answer.

But when we stop and ask ourselves honestly “how do I know that?” then we realise that we didn’t know – we just guessed, or hoped, or formed an opinion. In the same Dhamma talk Ajahn Ratanavaṇṇo talked about the moon, saying we can know how far from the Earth it is, and how big it is, and what it is made of, but we don’t really “know” these things. We just read them, or heard them, or watched a documentary about them. We don’t really “know” what the surface of the moon is like, most of us have never been there, we’ve seen pictures of it, or looked at it through a telescope. But we can still get into arguments with people about what the moon is like, even though we, and likely the person we are arguing with, have never been there.

There might be no place for not knowing in the ordinary world but there is plenty of space for it in Buddhist practice. Realising that we don’t know something can often prove to be a great liberation for us; at times when we are struggling to reach absolute certainty, the moment we realise that we can’t possibly ever be 100% certain can take the weight off our shoulders. The moment we understand that we are struggling to achieve the impossible, then we can stop struggling.

Our heads can spin trying to figure out all the nuances and complexities of a difficult issue, but at the point you realise that you don’t know and you can’t know you have the choice to submit to that reality, and put the whole thing down.

Not knowing, and realising what we don’t know can show us this reality that we often push into the shadows. One of Ajahn Chah’s most famous teachings was the way he would question the certainty of his own mind; whatever came into his mind he would ask “is that a sure thing?” In other words, “are you sure about that?”, “is that for certain?”, “is that definitely true?” It’s a powerful practice, it very quickly flags up how much of what we think sounds incredibly plausible, and yet when we ask a simple question most of it is uncovered as supposition or as straightforwardly not true.

In many ways to always ask yourself “are you sure about that?” points us to an aspect of reality that we rarely engage with. It is largely impossible to know anything for sure; nothing in the world is simple, everything is interconnected, interdependent, and multi-faceted. Anything that we think we know can only ever be part of the story, because there are always elements that are beyond our knowing.

The mind takes the complications of reality and splits them into smaller chunks that it can handle; in reality chocolate is both good for you and bad for you, but our mind is dissatisfied with that answer (not least because we only want it to be good for us). Which one is it? How can it be both? That makes no sense. It can be frustrating to have to deal with the complexity of reality, but that just shows how deluded we can be sometimes. Our feeling of knowing something, and certainty, is so convincing that when we are faced with actual reality we reject it as impossible!

Practice takes us closer to reality, and with it naturally comes the complexity of the world. The more you practice, the less certain you are of anything you know, but this isn’t a precarious position to be in. On the contrary, when we understand that we don’t know, that we can’t be sure, we can actually make better decisions. We stop looking for the answers inside our own mind and look at what is actually in front of us. We drop any feelings of pride around being right or wrong, and we invite other people’s knowledge and experience to form part of the answer. We’re more likely to get to a better answer if we start from a position of accepting what we don’t know.

From the Korean Zen tradition there is a specific practice of the Don’t Know mind, which allows you to experience the limitations of your thinking mind, and encourages you to learn to tolerate the feeling of not knowing. It can seem paradoxically conceptual to begin with, but by using concepts that are impossible to understand it can create a very abrupt feeling of the mind stopping completely.

“SOMEONE ASKED Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Why are we here?”

“Why did you come here today?”

“Because I wanted to come.”

“What do you want?”

“Well, I want happiness,” the student replied.

“Correct! But, where do you come from? What is your name?”


“That’s only your body’s name. What is your true self’s name?”

The student was puzzled for a moment, and then said, “Somebody gave me this name, Juan. That’s my only name.”

“Yes, that is your body’s name: that’s not your name. Somebody gave you that name. Before that, you had no name. So this name is not you. You may say, ‘This is my hand, that’s my head, this is my body.’ But it’s not you. Your body has a master. Please bring your master here.” The student was silent. “Who is your master?” The student replied, “I don’t know.” “You don’t know. That’s your true name. Someone might call it mind, or soul, or consciousness, while someone else calls it nature. But your true name, what is it really called?” The student was still silent. “OK, how old are you?”

“I’m thirty years old,” the student replied.

“That’s your body’s age. That’s not your true age. Another question: when you die, where will you go?”

“I don’t know.”

“Correct! You don’t understand your coming into this world, or your leaving. You don’t know your name or age, or any kind of coming or going. So you are ‘don’t know.’ That’s your true self.”

Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake by Hyon Gak

The point of Seung Sahn’s questions wasn’t to elicit answers about the universe and where we come from, it was to get the student to feel the state of mind that occurs when we don’t know. There is a beautiful stillness in the mind at the moment it realises that it has no way to generate an answer, it simply stops. When we cling to wanting to know the answers to everything, this complete shut down of the thinking mind can be terrifying, but when we understand that we can’t know then this experience is one of peace.

In the Zen tradition, they feel that the state of Don’t Know mind is the mind before thought, a state free from concepts and duality. By exploring ways to experience Don’t Know mind, you can very quickly come to see how limited the conceptual mind is, and how easy to shut down it is. The Zen masters use koans, stories that the mind can’t even figure out where to start to understand them. What did your face look like before you were born? What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Ajahn Chah seemed to be taking the same approach, he would often pose unanswerable questions and unknowable ideas to people, such as have you ever seen still flowing water? Even by always asking the mind “are you sure?” about any thought it produces seems to be encouraging the Don’t Know mind to come forward. When we examine if we really do know something, nine times out of ten it turns out that we don’t know.

Anything that makes the mind just stop dead in its tracks can help us to explore Don’t Know mind, watching the Cats stage show broadcast during lockdown sent me into Don’t Know mind for hours. When we are in Don’t Know mind, our job is to explore it and to come to terms with it. It is both beautiful and unnerving, like floating weightlessly and having the ground fall away under your feet at the same time.

When we feel it as beautiful, then explore what makes it feel that way. The moments that the mind goes quiet are such a sweet relief, we don’t realise how much noise our thoughts make until they stop. When we feel it as terrifying, explore what makes it so terrifying. Who is terrified? What is there to be terrified of? What is terror anyway? What makes you think that you can know anything?

This can potentially send you a bit dotty, so if it starts to feel overwhelming just put all of your attention on the sensations of the body, or use a metta meditation. You might not be sure if you exist or not, but it’s usually always possible to generate some loving kindness for other beings.

The more you work with it, the more you see that the feelings of confusion are coming from the conceptual mind itself. When you don’t try to think about it, there’s no confusion, when you do try to think the confusion starts again. Until we start practicing, we dismiss these kind of mind-boggling conundrums as being nonsense – if there was any substance to them we would be able to figure it out. But when we practice we realise that there was nothing wrong with the question, it was the mind that was trying to think about them that was nonsense.

The conceptual mind is very good at some things, but for understanding the totality of the universe it is incredibly limited. And even when it realises that it can’t work out the answer to a question, instead of admitting that it doesn’t know it either shuts down, or goes on the defensive and attacks the question. Before I started practicing I would undoubtedly have come to the conclusion that Cats made no sense at all, and therefore must be rubbish; now I can just experience it as an occasion for Don’t Know mind to arise.

Of course even when we try to use these practices sometimes the outcome is just delightfully absurd, and the famous story of the clash of cultures when Zen met Tibetan Buddhism is always worth telling. Ajahn Amaro gave an account of it in Small Boat, Great Mountain:

“Dialogue across different spiritual traditions is fraught with obstacles even within a shared Buddhist heritage. Over the thousands of years since the death of the Buddha, different schools have evolved in their own unique ways. Typical of the pitfalls was a meeting in the late 1970s between a Korean Zen master and a respected Tibetan rinpoche. The meeting had, of course, been set up by their western students in hopes of fostering an exchange between two lineages long estranged. The Zen master began with a Dharma challenge. Holding out an orange, he asked forcefully, “What is this!” The Tibetan master sat in silence and continued to thumb through the beads of his mala. The Zen master asked again: “What is this!” The rinpoche turned to his translator and inquired softly, “Don’t they have oranges in his country?”

Small Boat, Great Mountain by Amaro Bhikkhu p XIV

Was the rinpoche’s answer wrong? Who knows? When we are prepared to not know it opens up all kinds of possibilities for us, and it opens up the heart to accepting all the possible variations. Although this post has been focussed on thinking, Don’t Know mind can help us to cultivate the heart too. When we understand that we don’t have all the answers it opens us up to being much more accepting and tolerant of situations and people. This is the kind of openness that we need to develop our loving kindness and compassion for ourselves and other beings. When we accept that the mind doesn’t know, or that its answers are limited, then we make a space for the heart to step in, and when we use the heart more and the head less our decisions will undoubtedly become kinder and wiser.

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

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