Not-knowing is Most-intimate

There is a Chinese Zen kōan, a teaching story about a pilgrimage that I won’t share with you today. If Zen teachers were lawyers, Zen practitioners would be required to sign a release which states that whenever a teacher says they will not do something, it means the opposite, especially if they use words that start with not-. With that disclosure out of the way, I am not going to tell you about the story because I still get easily confused by Zen kōans. And even though I spoke last time about turning off your ears and listening through your entire body, the more words there are, the more my mind wants to take over.

But I do want to talk about pilgrimages, whether they are to far-flung locations, or down your street or even in your mind. A pilgrimage is an intentional exploration or journey. Buddhism often calls this the Way or the Path.

Over 67 years ago, I started on a pilgrimage that began with my birth.  It was a path full of unknowns and the early years of intentionality were biological, as I had no sense of my mind or the world itself. We will come back to my later youth soon. Now, I want to jump to about seven years ago, when I participated in a Zen pilgrimage to the sites of Shakyamuni’s birth, death, enlightenment and teaching.

Bodhgaya, not far from Vulture Peak

At each place, we would read aloud the relevant sutras describing those events. At Vulture Peak, Shakyamuni would meet with his sangha. One of his dharma talks featured no words and interestingly never happened. I think you all have heard this one. In one of his early gatherings, Shakyamuni silently held up a flower.  Only one of his disciples, Mahākāśyapa, reacts by smiling. A story of few words, right to the point. Just a flower and a smile. Simplicity and beauty. Nothing more needs to be said. Dharma transmission without words. The essence of Buddhist teaching. No dharma talk, no planning, no speech. Enlightenment.

Despite its simplicity, much has been written and spoken about this story, proving that the mind cannot be turned off nor should be turned off. What is not as often discussed is that this wonderous story was written in about the 11th century AD in China, some 1500 years after Buddha’s paranirvana or death. And non-coincidently, it appeared as part of a Chan text, Chan becoming Zen in Japan, two hundred years later. So this story that is so dearly beloved today, would have been unlikely been known to Shakyamuni, Mahākāśyapa or any Buddhist followers in the early centuries of Buddhism. Our pilgrimage went to a real place to re-experience a story that never happened. Yet without this story of words, Zen and modern Buddhism would not exist as we know it.

So is this story true or not? Historically it is unlikely. Yet, even after I found out its origin and disclosed to you, it does not seem any less important or timeless to me. Does that information change anything for you?

On our Pilgrimage–Lumbini, the site of Shakyamuni’s birth
A descendent of the tree where Shakyamuni was supposedly born

That said, I don’t believe all Buddhist sutras. According to one of the ancient sutras, Buddha was born in Lumbini, emerging from his mother’s armpit, while she braced herself against a tree. He then took seven steps and announced, “I am the world-honored one.” We read this sutra aloud on the steps of a temple in Lumbini. I was so astounded by this story that I had not heard previously that I broke the reverential silence with, “This is ridiculous! How can we even read this aloud with a straight face? The Buddha I know is no fake supernatural god.” This created some heated discussion within our group, focusing on scientific verification, belief in sutras and trust in stories which honestly left me thinking ill of one of our leaders and some of the other practitioners.

We have a brain and it should not be ignored. While science and logic have their limitations, I think we are in agreement about how human birth works and the abilities of newly born infants. The Buddhism I practice doesn’t need a miracle story. Practice itself is the miracle that we share.

Just to keep score, so far in this talk, we have one story that is not true, yet I embrace it for my perception of its truth. And another which I reject because of its contravening of scientific truth.

Let’s go back to my life pilgrimage. Each of us has our own pathway and origin story, and if we had a few days, I could potentially tell you mine. I have come to accept that my story of my version of my experiences may not be as truthful as I thought. Recent brain science shows that the further I am from any particular experience, means that what I think I remember is more likely to have morphed into a quite different story over time. In the milliseconds from an experience to the recognition of the signals travelling the nerve pathways to the brain, the experience is gone and the brain classifies it as something else. Over time other experiences and stories are added until the kernel of experience becomes layered by all sorts of other emotions, feelings and events. This scientific explanation mirrors Zen teachings of the mind.

Despite knowing this, I often want to believe my story as I tell it, just like I want to believe the flower story. Through practice and over time, I have become less committed to holding fast to my own tale of life. In what ways is the history of my story or the made-up history of my story important for me or anyone else?

The answer is in the Chinese kōan about pilgrimage I started this talk with. Although the kōan is short, I only want to share the last five words. These words secretly made their way into my body the first time I heard them, probably in one talk or another that Ryushin Paul Haller gave at the San Francisco Zen Center. He often incorporates the phrase into his talks. The context of the talk has been long lost (another forgotten story,) but a seed was planted somewhere in this physical body into which I was born. Over the years, each time those words were spoken in talks, they continued to reverberate within me. I wish I could say I was aware of their power but despite my intentions, I am more often oblivious of the machinations of my body and mind. All I can say, each time they were spoken, I instantly and briefly fell into them.

Last month, a fellow practitioner wrote me an email with these words in it. For the first time, I recognized how their beauty and deepness had sprouted within me. And again, with little forethought, their natural progression from deep within my body and soul has bloomed into a dharma talk today.

So here they are:

Not knowing is most intimate.

Not knowing is most intimate.

Not knowing is most intimate.

This are the words that have been haunting my body for these years.  Today for the first time with you, I speak them out loud: Not knowing is most intimate.

Repeat them to yourself. How do they feel to you? What is their shape and where do they seem to land in your body? Do they make you curious? What else comes up?

Zoketsu Norman Fischer points out, “we practice with phrases like (this)…and bring it into our sitting. We breathe with it in meditation practice…We repeat the phrase to ourselves during the day, and begin to notice it coming up spontaneously from time to time…It begins to influence us, bringing ordinary occurrences to a deeper and more mysterious level…The point is to keep chewing on it…until suddenly or gradually it reveals itself to us.”

Zen and Buddhist practice eschews making comparisons—comparing one thing to another is a form of clinging, desire and non-truth-telling. Who has not sometime declared that they just ate the best meal of their life and then looked forward to a better meal? If you did manage to have the best meal ever and tried to cling to that, disappointment can only follow with each new meal you ate that does not measure up.  As humans we seem addicted to wanting better and better experience. We even want better practice, instead of just practice.

For a one day, try an experiment of giving up comparisons and simply speak plainly of what you are experiencing at the moment. When I tried to do this, I became aware of how much unfulfilled desire and clinging enters into my speech and thoughts in every moment.

Yet this simple five-word phrase appears to have two comparisons: not knowing and most intimate. If we read or speak the sentence with only four words, we can get to its point.  Most-intimate is a noun itself, as is not-knowing.

Most-intimate is an intimacy without any measurement or bounds. It is an experience of immersion and suchness with an awareness filled with everything in our bodies. All of our experience, wandering, searching and being is the most-intimate, not partially intimate, not sort of intimate but most-intimate. Most-intimate is full of deep emotion and feeling of the moment which range from happiness or grief, fulfillment or emptiness, beauty or revulsion. Most-intimate wraps its arms around and hugs your body with its knowledge.

Not-knowing might be considered the prequel to most-intimate. Not-knowing is the beginning of experience, before experience happens. Not-knowing is the emptiness of the void awaiting its fulfillment. Not-knowing is anticipation without anticipation. It is the space between our breathes, the space between experiencing our senses. Not-knowing is the lack of expectations while embracing expectations.

In me, these four words arouse an exquisite calm and clarity. They silence me into a realm of personal wonderment and universal connection. Not-knowing and most-intimate are an equation signaling equality; they are a declaration of practice: Most-intimate equals not-knowing; Not-knowing equals most-intimate. Most-intimate exists within not-knowing just as not-knowing exists within most-intimate. Not-knowing expands the universe infinitely, while most-intimate simultaneously draws the universe into your body.

As a queer man, these simple words seem to profoundly address my life journey from youth to the man I am now. The open spaces of the not-knowingness of my queer lives are most-intimate, generating feelings and experiences private to me alone. As I grew older, my experiences of understanding of my body, my own sexual identities, my ways of projecting myself in my body, were but some of the ways that not-knowing is most-intimate. For a long time the pilgrimage of my queerness appeared to be my own lonely journey, with rare but important waystations of community and connection. From my earliest memories (accepting this is a mere story of what my memories are), I felt outside the norm, outside the conventional, outside the expected, beyond what I was told and trained to be and understand.

Not-knowing was indeed the most-intimate part of my journey. Helpless like I was as a baby, I could not share my queerness with anyone, since I did not know the words to explain, the words to align my body, emotions and desires. The intimacy of confusion, my own confusion, the not-knowingness of who I was. These feelings were deep within me, yet I did not know yet how to recognize them.

This is how not-knowing, not being sure, not having the feelings others expect we have, not having clarity, not knowing who or what to trust, not having security, not having the words, not having the expectations in us is most-intimate. Whether we are in joy or despair, not-knowing is most-intimate is our path and pilgrimage.

Not-knowing is most-intimate is a strength and secret power of queerness and any other version of otherness. It opens a dharma-gate to explore realms closed to others; it allows us to create our Way in the world, to seek out others to love and share our truth. I finally began to understand the most-intimate side of the equation when I joined the sangha of queerness and otherness. During the darkest days of fear, legalized homophobia, the AIDS epidemic, the murders of queer and trans people, our not-knowing is most-intimate continually gives us a community vision to create the safety and nourishment that we need and to create the world that we want to live in. This sangha itself is a result of and a vehicle for the pilgrimage of not-knowing is most-intimate.

In the last years of his life, my partner René, struggled in his version of not-knowing, a version that tore his soul apart, irreparably. Every night, in the months before he took his life, we would sit at the dinner table looking at each other, searching for the magic words that would sooth his pain and mine. Staring into each other’s eyes was not-knowing is most-intimate. As he shared the tortures of his mind and how they wracked his body, his sharing was not-knowing is most-intimate. When we would play scrabble, game after game, the only thing that would put his mind at ease, our placement of letters on the board was not-knowing is most-intimate. When he asked me to help him die, his request was not-knowing is most-intimate. When I refused, my tears were not-knowing is most-intimate. And when the day came that I would find him lifeless, my scream was not-knowing is heartbreakingly most-intimate.

Looking back, I realize that I accompanied René on his pilgrimage . I can now say that my Zen practice during that time and since then has been an exploration of not-knowing is most-intimate. It was through the writing of this talk that I now understand that, so thank you for that gift. While I was still working at a non-profit where virtually all of our students had experienced the murder of a friend or family member, after René’s death, I became the one who could easily talk about the life and death, with not-knowing by my side, listening with most-intimate intention to their pain and stories, as we explored their path. And four years ago, when my friend asked me to accompany him on the journey of his last weeks of life, not-knowing is most-intimate, guided me in discovering what that might mean for me and him and the others around him.

I am a novelist and all of my fiction emerges from not-knowing is most-intimate. Many writers that I know do not outline and only have an idea of what they want to explore. When I sit down at the computer, even as I write this dharma talk, not-knowing is most-intimate guides my fingers on the keyboard in a direct connection to my words swirling in my brain and body. At the end of a writing session, I can look back to see what happened, which seeds my mind for the next session. Other creatives that I know have told me that they approach their art forms and work in a similar manner.

In the fourth-grade, my teacher Mrs. Price took me out of my constrained working-class suburban town and opened my eyes to the world, as she brought in slides and stories of her travels around the world. Her experiences planted a seed to explore the world and live in a different way than I could imagine at the time. My journeys since have taken me to live in Uganda and Honduras and to visit almost one hundred more countries. When I first started traveling, I used to read up and plan my visits to try to make sure I did not miss the important sites.  My traveling was based on accumulation and clinging, making Sure I could tell people later that I saw the things they had heard or knew about. Even then, I often remember not the classical churches or the ruins as places, but as feelings or interactions or evocations of their essence.  With not-knowing is most-intimate, I now approach traveling with a perspective based on curiosity, of what happens next, of settling into the daily rhythms of a locale, finding connections and trying on new eyes, ears, noses and tongues as I sense my way around. 

Not-knowing opens my heart and allows me to let go of preconceived notions. Most-intimate arouses the connections around me waiting to be recognized. Not-knowing pushes me to explore the physical realms of our world as well as the mental constraints that seemingly define me. Most-intimate accompanies me as I sit and allows me to accept my own awakening, despite my not-knowing that as well.  Not-knowing permits me to drop this body and accept the body of the sangha and all beings. And that is the most-intimate pilgrimage.

Thank you.

This talk was given at the San Francisco LGBTQ Sangha on 1 March 2021 and can be heard here.

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