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The Cloud of Unknowing

Take a 2,600-year-old spiritual tradition from Asia and drop it into the blender of postmodern American consumer culture. Add science and multiculturalism to taste, and mix at Internet speed. This is 21st-Century Buddhism -- a weekly blog for the Interdependence Project. In this space, I'll talk about the issues that Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners face in our time and our place. I'll also bring in occasional posts from other guest bloggers who are contemplating these issues. If you have something to say, write to me at dhblogfeedback (at) gmail (dot) com.



Episode 007:

The Cloud of Unknowing

I have only read, so far, bits of Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel's book, The Power of an Open Question -- but I've been thinking a lot lately about its title, and about the power of questions. I've been thinking, especially, about the power of sitting with difficult, open questions, rather than clutching at easy answers.

Pablo Picasso once said, "Computers are useless. They can only give you answers." That is, perhaps, as good a way as any other of explaining the gulf that still exists between computers and human beings. The most advanced artificial intelligence projects have, so far, been able to produce computers that can provide very sophisticated answers, but they have not been able to produce a computer that will, of its own free will and out of sheer curiosity, and with self-awareness, ask a real question. The moment when a computer finally asks its first unprompted question -- especially if it's one of the Big Questions, like "Who am I?" or "Why do I exist?" -- will probably be the moment that AI is truly born.

If questions are what separate us from computers, which increasingly are created in our own image, they are also what separate us from our fellow creatures in the animal realm. Without a doubt, animals have varying degrees of intelligence that can sometimes be quite sharp and sophisticated. But it's difficult to imagine that animals really concern themselves very much with questions like "how?" or "why?" As long as the given conditions meet their basic needs, or can be manipulated to do so, most animals appear to be pretty content. They see no need, and perhaps lack the intellectual capacity, to ask questions about meaning.

Human beings, on the other hand, seem born to ask questions -- as every parent of a three-year-old child knows. We are the species that continually asks "What is this?" and "Why?"

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche has said that religion often begins with answers, whereas genuine spirituality begins with questions. I suspect that Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, focusing as she does on the power of open questions, might agree with that. The key to following a genuine spiritual path is the capacity to rest in the fertile space of a question -- the space of not-knowing, not closing the question, not grasping at the illusion of certainty but growing (as Pema Chodron says) "comfortable with uncertainty."

At some point, I think, most people stop asking meaningful questions. Some stop asking because they settle for easy answers -- which might come from traditional religion or, just as often these days, from scientific materialism (which is in some ways the new religion). Others stop asking because they conclude that there are no answers possible to such open-ended questions, and so they give up caring -- settling into a life of just getting by, just trying to be as secure and happy as possible on a material and social level. And some people go to war because they believe the answers they have found are better than the answers others have found. One way or another, most people find some means to short-circuit the spiritual process of questioning, and to wrap themselves up in a cozy blanket of certainty. The space of uncertainty is not an inherently comfortable place to be, and people have all kinds of tricks for getting themselves out of it.

In his classic Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Suzuki Roshi famously wrote: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." The crucial Zen idea of "beginner's mind," according to Wikipedia, means holding "an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions" -- even when studying at a so-called advanced level. "Only don't know," the Zen master Seung Sahn used to tell his students, "only don't know." Without the attitude of openness, the basic mind of not-knowing, we cannot be receptive to new possibilities: no new information can get through the filter of our preconceptions. This is not to say that we cannot learn things and develop confidence and faith on the spiritual path. But anytime we begin to think of ourselves as experts, or to think that we hold the definitive answers that are going to apply in every situation, we are in trouble.

The 14th-century Christian mystical text, The Cloud of Unknowing, perhaps says it best. The anonymous author of that book wrote that God cannot be approached through intellectual knowledge or seeking answers, but only through open, heartfelt devotion and love:

Our intense need to understand will always be a powerful stumbling block to our attempts to reach God in simple love [...] and must always be overcome. For if you do not overcome this need to understand, it will undermine your quest. It will replace the darkness which you have pierced to reach God with clear images of something which, however good, however beautiful, however Godlike, is not God.

Change the word "God" to "Dharmakaya" or "Ultimate Reality" or "Buddha Nature," and you've got the Buddhist view there, too. None of our concepts or ideas or artifacts of knowledge, rooted as they are in the illusory duality of one who knows and something separate that is known, can ever truly touch the unconditioned, unfabricated nature of reality as it truly is, the naked truth of suchness. For suchness is not something that can ever be "known" in a conceptual way -- only experienced.

At least, that's what they say. But how would I know?  


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The Power of Questions


Thank you for this. It reminded me of my spiritual roots. My practice started inadvertently when I heard somebody suggest that the questions we ask shape the lives we lead. (If your question is, "Why am I such a loser?" you come up with one path to walk, but if you ask, "How can I improve my life?" you end up down a different path. It may seem obvious, but it had a profound effect on me.)

The "unknowing" can be uncomfortable, of course. We are constantly asking "What don't I know?" Ignorance, as such, is perceived as a position of weakness and vulnerability. But if the question was, "What's good about this?" it can be a very different experience.

Thanks again.

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