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Is “don't know” the same as “question everything”?
January 9th, 2013 (January 10th, 2013)
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illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Is "don't know" the same as "question everything"?

"Don't know" is often used in Zen/Seon, as an exhortation (or sometimes as a method, a description or even as an answer), however the meaning may not be as trivial as it seems.

"Question everything" may be a tempting interpretation, and the Kālāma sutta (AN 3.65) comes to mind… but there is a cause as to why 'I' or 'you' is always missing in "don't know" and the interpretation as "question everything" misses that cause (and its consequence).

The missing 'I' refers to the ignorance that Buddhism tackles. When it is said that nirvāṇa is the "extinction of ignorance, lust and aversion," we are not talking about the ignorance of some scientific field or of how to play the piano correctly vs. incorrectly. We are talking of the ignorance of the nature of reality, notably the ignorance of  anattā and śūnyatā (emptiness).

"Don't know" is then not so much about doubting everything or questioning everything, but about questioning the one main illusion that bounds us to saṃsāra: the nature of things, a nature which appears to us as solid, permanent, certain and possessing an essential, inherent, intrinsic self (or core).


"Questioning everything" (in particular with a reference to the Kālāma sutta) is not easily understood as "questioning the nature of things", so the student might benefit from knowing the nuance.

The Kālāma sutta is often interpreted as giving licence to question everything, which is true but misses the fact that the Buddha obviously still expects you to agree with him at the end of your enquiry: questioning everything does not exchange "right view" with "wrong view". By the end of your enquiry, you should have you own conviction (and your own arguments and experience to back it up) rather than merely parroting (out of respect for a great teacher), but you'd still be agreeing with the Buddha on the right view, i.e. the nature of reality: suffering, impermanence and selflessness.

"Don't know" addresses the same "three marks of existence" rather than "everything" (even if the three marks, themselves, do apply to everything…).


#Buddhism   #Dharma   #Zen   #buddhistcircle  
Kālāma sutta: cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalama_Sutta and http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html

Example: is 2+2="don't know"?
Yes, and 2+2=4 nonetheless. The "don't know" is not about 4, it is about "is this permanently true?", "is this true independently of any context?", "why do I suffer if I realise this is wrong?", etc.
If you think I'm joking, tell me the speed relative to the ground of an object moving at speed V in (i.e. relative to) a train, when the train itself is moving at speed V relative to the ground? For small speeds, V+V will give you an extremely good approximation. For speeds close to the speed of light though, V+V is totally wrong; using the wrong mathematical operator may be painful, even if you do calculus correctly (wrong operator due to… context)!

[ image: calligraphy by Jakusho Kwang, from http://www.oxherding.com/my_weblog/2009/04/korean-zen-seung-sahn-dont-know.html (a blog post you might want to check too)]