by © Jacob Newell (Daoshi Gu Shen Yu)
When we are born, nature gives us the wonderful gift of unknowing. But human beings tend to overlook the value of this gift and treat it as an affliction. And so we try every which way to avoid it or transform it. Yet no matter how much knowledge we accumulate, our basic unknowing always remains.
The fact that we don’t know everything is something that I suppose we all need to come to terms with somehow. We’ve got options. Let’s take the question of life and death.
Ever since I was four years old I was intrigued by the fact that we don’t know where we come from before we were born and where we go when we die. It seems to me that we are all dealing with this reality in one way or another.
Perhaps many people accept that we cannot know the answer to this question, and so they set aside their curiosity and move on with life. These people often self-identify as “agnostic”, meaning without knowledge.
But others of us are driven by a curiosity to find an answer to this question – seeking “gnosis”. I have always been one of these “seeker” types, and since I was a child I have approached this quest in a variety of ways. I can sum them up as: faith, philosophy, and enlightenment…and then there’s Laozi.
Faith: Having been raised Catholic, I was taught that unknowing is not a problem so long as we live a moral life and accept Jesus as our savior. Then all will be revealed when we are granted a glorious everlasting life. We’ll go to heaven and meet God, Jesus, and all of our friends and family who also were moral believers. While this path of faith (or other similar paths) seems to satisfy many people, it didn’t work for me because I felt the people who were preaching it didn’t really “know”.
Philosophy: And so I started actively questioning, outside the realm of religious faith, ruminating on my own and studying the great philosophers and spiritual teachers, picking apart their teachings and looking for gems of truth. This is also the path of science. While deeply engaging, this path too was ultimately unable to pacify my discomfort with unknowing; it only drove me crazy, going round and round, raising more questions than answers.
Enlightenment: And so I turned to Zen, with the hope that if I practiced hard enough I would eventually come to experience a grand enlightenment in which all mystery is revealed. Ahh, at last I had found the way to direct experience – true gnosis. But then Zen Master Seung Sahn told me: “wanting enlightenment is a big mistake.”
What the heck?
Laozi: There’s another way we can approach our unknowing, other than turning away from it, pacifying it with faith, attacking it with reason, or seeking to cure it with enlightenment: we can just let it be what it is, look into it, be with it, come to know it and appreciate it. Zen Master Seung Sahn called this “don’t-know mind.” This of course is the mind of Laozi.
Knowing not-knowing: value!
Not knowing knowing: sickness!
(Laozi Ch. 71)
In scholarship, daily increase
In Dao, daily decrease
Decrease and decrease until wuwei
(Laozi, Ch. 48)
Laozi is inviting us to appreciate this unknowing in its bare reality – not supporting it with faith, not attacking it with philosophy, and not betraying it with the aspiration of enlightenment. This is the gnosis of agnosis, “knowing not knowing.” Herein lies indescribable satisfaction; herein lies our greatest treasure.
Jacob Newell (Daoshi Gu Shen Yu) is an ordained Daoist priest and founder of Old Oak School of Dao. He practices and teaches Taijiquan and Daoist cultivation in Sonoma County, California. His book of poetry, These Daoist Bones, is available from his website, www.oldoakdao.org.]