It seems as though we are living in an era of fierce certainty, an era in which the reasons for one’s certainty are not nearly as important as the ferocity with which they are proclaimed, an era in which the exclamation point must accompany any idea if it is to be taken seriously. Respect goes to those who declare their certainty, and those who lack certainty are dismissed as weak or confused. Particularly with regard to matters of personal spirituality, contemporary American society seems to demand absolute certainty. Even within the Buddhist community there is talk of the “real Buddhists” and the “not real Buddhists” as though one could be certain that their tradition was the only real Path.
Yet Buddhist practice often asks us to question certainty, even when it appears to be based on solid information. Buddhist practice pokes holes in our certainty, crushes our proverbial soap box, knocks over the proverbial stool on which we would like to stand above the questions that plague a human life. In fact, Buddhism extols the virtue of simply not knowing. Yet how are we then to have strong belief in Buddhism? What is the benefit of questioning certainty? Is there anything truly skillful about not knowing?
If we take an everyday conversation as an example, it might help to illustrate the point. Say that you overheard the following conversation:
A: I don’t know who baked those cookies, but I’m really glad they did. They were delicious.
B: Yeah, that was C.
A: Oh, did you help C bake the cookies?
B: No, but C is always baking cookies. It was C.
At first glance, this conversation may appear innocuous. Person A states that they don’t know who baked the cookies, and person B uses their past experience to state that person C baked them. However, if we are rigorous in examining this conversation, we might take note of the question that person A posed. Was person B actually present in the moment of baking cookies, therefore making their statement based on firsthand information? Another clarifying question would be asking whether person B heard directly from person C that they had baked the cookies. If neither of those things are true, then it seems that person B cannot actually say with certainty that person C baked the cookies.
Now one might think this is splitting hairs, a small matter really, and not worth even exploring further with person B. Yet this conversation demonstrates how certainty has taken the place of not knowing, and how stating this certainty without any qualification has taken the place of seeing the situation more accurately. For example, person B could have said, “I imagine that person C baked those cookies because they are always baking cookies around here.” Such a statement would be more precise, and would still convey person B’s idea about who had been baking.
Still, it might seem trivial. Such a small difference in meaning doesn’t have much bearing on the real world, one might think, and certainly not on such lofty matters as world peace or personal liberation. Keep investigating, for not knowing stands in contrast to knowing. Like background and foreground, both must be clearly seen if one is to integrate the whole picture.
Suppose that person C did not actually bake the cookies. Maybe C always bakes cookies but, since C always has to bake the cookies, D decided it would be helpful to bake the cookies this time. Then, person B’s statement to person A is misinformation. The mistaken statement is, perhaps accidentally, sowing the seeds of delusion both in person B’s mind and in person A’s mind by stating something that is not accurate. This is the opposite of finding clarity in the mind, the opposite of seeing clearly the reality before us.
And there is an aspect of this exploration that is even more intriguing. Even if person B was correct in saying that person C had baked the cookies, the statement is still based in wrong view. It is wrong view based in treating an inference as an actual fact. Such an inference would be fine if it were specifically acknowledged, thereby clarifying the statement as a belief, and not a statement of fact. However, stated as a fact, when it is in reality an inference, is sowing the seeds of delusion in the person B’s mind and in person A’s mind because it fails to capture the truth of not having personal experience of the situation. It fails to capture the truth of not knowing. It fails to accurately describe the uncertainty that exists in person B’s relationship to the matter of who baked the cookies. Therefore, the statement is reinforcing wrong view.
Others might say things differently. Take, for example, the Brazilian native peoples known as the Pirahã. British ethnologist Daniel Everett spent a total of seven years with them, studying their language and culture. He was fascinated, because the Pirahã do not seem to have any past tense in their language, and they do not seem to talk about anything that has not been experienced by themselves or someone they have spoken too. Everett, who wrote a book about his travels titled, “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes” states that the basis of Pirahã culture is, “Live here and now.”* This creates specific limitations on what they can discuss or even think about. So it represents an extreme, not an ideal. However, it demonstrates a certain accuracy about personal speech that can be a useful pointer. Everett reports that the Pirahã are comfortable living without trying to describe what they have not experienced.
The honesty and clarity of not knowing has been expressed as Buddhist teaching for thousands of years. For example, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni gave this teaching in the Numbered Discourses, Book of the Threes, No. 28:
“And what, monks, is the person whose speech is like dung? Here, if he is summoned to a council, to an assembly, to his relatives’ presence… and questioned as a witness thus: ‘So, good man, tell what you know,’ then, not knowing, this person says, ‘I know,’ or knowing, he says, ‘I do not know’; not seeing, he says, ‘I see,’ or seeing, he says, ‘I do not see.’ …This is called the person whose speech is like dung.”**
Here we find the Buddha making a strong statement about the smelly nature of saying that one knows when one does not know. At first glance, one might suppose that the Buddha is only referring to outright lying, however that would be limiting the scope of what he presents here. Presented in this light, as though one were a witness, it is easy to understand how an inaccurate statement could cause great harm. This is a teaching on the attributes of right speech, an aspect the Noble Eightfold Path, described in much of Buddhism as the path to liberation.
And this was not all that the Buddha said about speaking with certainty. He also gave discourse after discourse exhorting people to investigate the nature of their firsthand experience. The Buddha taught that, by accurately investigating firsthand experience, one might have an encounter with the Dharma, the law. In this context, Dharma can be understood as the nature of reality which the Buddha described as, “apparent here and now, encouraging investigation, to be experienced individually by the wise.”
Many centuries later Chan monastics also gave teachings about not knowing. In particular, they recorded a koan about not knowing, said to have taken place in Tang Dynasty China. The Japanese word "koan” means “a public case or proclamation,” and it is an abbreviation of the Chinese phrase, “kofu no antoku,” which referred to publicly declared legal decisions in ancient China. The word, thus, has the implication of information that applies to everyone. In contemporary practice, one might consider koans to be similar to legal precedents. They are describing situations from the past whose details are not exactly the same as in our own case, but they are nonetheless situations able to demonstrate something about practicing with our own case. They point to principles that are universally applicable because the principles are revealed in everyone’s daily life.
In “The Book of Serenity,” a collection of ancient Zen koans, the following conversation is recorded as Case 20:
Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”
Fayan said, “Around on pilgrimage.”
Dizang replied, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”
“I don’t know,” said Fayan.
“Not knowing is nearest,” said Dizang.
Fayan was suddenly awakened.
Without analyzing the specifics of this dialogue, it appears that Dizang is teaching his student something about honesty and clarity. Apparently, even greater clarity was the result for Fayan. How could that be? Consider how opening to a limitless potential is an acknowledgment of what is always true.
Yet how do we begin to practice with our sense of certainty? When we’re certain, we’re certain, even if we know that we need to be clear about not knowing. How can we get a foothold here? One place to start is to reflect on a time when your certainty is proven wrong. Returning to the cookie example, person B might find a great opportunity for practice if they were to find out that D had baked the cookies and not C. First, B could observe their own reaction to being proven wrong, either privately or in public. Are they angry and defensive, lashing out verbally or even physically at messenger of the bad news? Are they depressed and self-critical, taking out their frustrations on themselves? Do they shrug it off, making it out to be a small matter, or even refusing to acknowledge the validity of the facts? Or do they laugh at themselves a bit and muse on the unpredictability of life? Often the type of reaction or response we offer to having been mistaken has more to do with the ways that we feel identified with a view than with the accuracy of the view itself. That is, the more we believe that certainty about an inferred view defines who we are or defines our value as a person, the more likely we are to have a strong negative reaction to the inaccuracy of that view.
One way to practice skillfully with the news of having been wrong is to reflect on how that state of mind appeared. What was it that made us feel so certain about something incorrect? Where did we step in to fill in a gap in knowledge with our own view? Was it that we knew that we did not know, but did not feel comfortable appearing uncertain? Do we feel that we must know in order to be a certain kind of person, or to simply be a person of value? Again, there seems to be a lot of societal pressure these days to appear to be certain about one’s views. Starting with inquiry can help to open our minds and hearts to another perspective.
The twist is that, in the context of a society that rewards speaking with certainty, we have to muster some clarity and confidence of our own if we are going to speak about not knowing. We cannot depend on receiving rewards from others for expressing not knowing. Can we can feel inwardly confident about not knowing, rather than feeling anxious with a general sense of uncertainty or of certainty? We will have to discover our own rewards for the kind of speech that does not obscure not knowing.
Perhaps one reward is allowing for many possibilities in one’s experience of life, a kind of mental flexibility. Another reward might be feeling fewer instances of anger or depression due to making mistakes. Another might be sustaining a general sense of wonder and curiosity about our lives. Sekkei Harada Roshi, the Abbot of Hosshinji, a Zen training monastery in Japan put it this way, “There is something mysterious. Leave it mysterious.” Or to quote Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, former Abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” Each of us discovers our own rewards for not knowing.
**Source: https://suttacentral.net/an3.28/en/bodhi translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi