I gave this teisho during our Full Moon Zen regular weekly practice session on January 28, 2021. You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.
Soon, at the end of our service, we’ll chant the Four Great Vows:
Creations are numberless; I vow to be one with them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to transform them.
Dharmas are boundless; I vow to be teachable.
The enlightened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
These vows, which are chanted by Zen practitioners at the end of their services everywhere today, were probably formulated in China, perhaps 1,300 years ago. They may relate back to an older Indian Buddhist source.
In light of all that’s happening in the world today, I want to call our attention to the second line of this chant:
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to transform them.
What are these delusions that are inexhaustible, and what might it mean to transform them?
In three of the traditional languages of our stream of Zen—Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese—the words translated here as “delusions” variously mean pain, affliction, or mental distress. There’s certainly an association with the passions; with impulsivity and captivity to our emotions. There’s also an association with the Three Poisons, for which we atone as we open our gathering: greed, hatred and ignorance.
The English word “delusions” conveys a sense of misperception, misconception, or even mania, as opposed to clarity of mind. In light of this, it might surprise you to hear that some contemporary Zen teachers actually think of delusions, and of ignorance, the last of the Three Poisons, in terms of too much clarity, rather than too little—in terms of misconceptions born of our certainties.
This interpretation expresses a key Buddhist insight—the emptiness of all forms—that we realize and manifest through Zen practice. We desperately need more people capable of putting this insight into practice today.
As some of you know, I’ve devoted a portion of my time to teaching, writing, and practice in the conflict resolution field for many years. My primary interest always has been those conflicts that implicate our most deeply-held, identify-defining values. Sacred values, whether “religious” or “secular.” I teach a course at Harvard called Negotiating Across Worldviews that explores this domain. I’ve also been working with Israeli and Palestinian leaders for several years, helping them explore possibilities for resolving their conflict in some way that could work within multiple worldviews simultaneously.
Why are our certainties a type of delusion and ignorance, and a potential source of conflict and other forms of suffering?
Well, really, how could they not be? The more certain we become about our own views and convictions, the more we close ourselves to new information, perspectives, and experiences. Our capacity to perceive and know is always limited, but the less curious we become, the greater the risk we’ll descend down a rabbit hole, missing things that are important and behaving in ways that cause harm to ourselves and others whose needs and interests lie outside our present field of vision or comfort zone.
I suspect this is how most big blunders happen—in whatever domain, from our personal lives to wars within and among nations. Many so-called “mistakes” and other calamities likely occur because someone is invested in a partial story with a foregone conclusion. These stories are partial in two senses: they serve our own perceived (or misperceived) interests, and they omit important information and perspectives, including others’ perspectives. We also tend to be too confident about how these stories will end, if we don’t buy into them, as if we alone had a crystal ball.
Neuroscientists are discovering that our brains preferentially seek information that reinforces our existing beliefs, and that our brains also tend to interpret ambiguous information in ways that align with our beliefs. This may make some sense from an evolutionary perspective. The world, and life within it, is complex and confusing, and organisms need strategies for orienting—for reducing complexity, in order to survive. Preferentially relying upon a view of the world and game plan that have helped us survive uncertain situations in the past seems like a reasonable default setting, in the absence of a crystal ball.
These days, however, I’m not so sure this default setting still serves us well, at least with respect to some types of contemporary problems. It’s hard not to think this while watching militant partisans storm the chambers of a citizens’ assembly that aspires to be a model for reasoned deliberation, but is too often stuck in partisan gridlock, unable to meet the pressing challenges of our time.
Zen encourages a very different orientation, or default setting. Time and again, Zen teachings emphasize not knowing. This is not an abstract principle or aspirational ideal or virtue. It is, in fact, that only sensible orientation self-aware people of good judgment and goodwill could embrace: acknowledging we actually don’t know what we do not, and perhaps cannot, know. There are many things we simply don’t know, and likely never can know, despite our evident discomfort with this seeming predicament and our strong desire to know.
Unique among spiritual traditions, Zen is a nontheistic—not atheistic, but nontheistic—tradition. It provides plenty of friendly passageways to both atheism and theism, if you’re inclined in one way or the other, but it largely resists binaries of all kinds.
Zen isn’t primarily about ideas. If you want a single idea, or short phrase, that sums up the core teachings of Zen, however, you could do worse than the title of one of Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn’s books: only don’t know.
This not knowing default setting may be what the world needs most at this point in the evolutionary history of our species, at least if we hope the evolution of our species will continue.
Lin Jensen, a Zen teacher and activist in California, makes this case well in the following passage from his book Pavement. He says:
“When I don’t know something for certain and don’t try to convince myself that I do, I’m held momentarily in the hand of restraint and the world is safer for it. Without designing answers, I’m forced to hold the question open. It might seem doubtful or even absurd that the world of our understanding is unreliable and that the possibility of peace lies not so much in what we know as in what we don’t. Something I know for a certainty often solidifies into the sort of unquestioned fact that outreaches doubt and curiosity. If a question has been answered to my satisfaction, I’m not likely to see the need for further inquiry. Nations will readily go to war in defense of such an unexamined answer. Is it so far-fetched to imagine that a little modest doubt might bring people nearer to a peaceful resolution of differences?”
And yet, and yet. Like the ensō—the broken circle that is the most familiar visual symbol in, and of, the Zen tradition—even this insight and orientation eventually comes `round to nip at its own tail.
It’s also possible to get stuck in uncertainty; to become paralyzed. We can also be too certain about our not knowing, clinging to it as a false refuge. At some point, we must let the bow string slip from our fingertips. Let the arrow fly. Ultimately, we must make a move and make our mark. Inaction is a form of action.
Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, Zen practice tends to free us from this sort of paralysis, even as we surrender to the experience of not knowing. As we lose our cognitive certainties–our stories about the universe and our own lives–our experience of the universe and our own lives within it feels all the more real and true. Fragile forms of conceptual knowledge are replaced with a knowing that’s in our bones; that is our being. It’s a knowing that clarifies and quickens our presence-in-the-moment, allowing us to respond more readily, wisely, and compassionately to what the moment invites or requires, rather than responding from a small and brittle sense of oneself, with its conceptual certainties or conceptual uncertainties. We show up, move, and make our mark as an expression of the broader, inclusive, connected reality in which all of us participate, whether or not we yet see ourselves that way.
I’ll close with one of my favorite poems by Jālal a-Dīn Rumi, a master of another great spiritual tradition, Sufism:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.