not knowing

Updated On — 11th Oct, 2022


Anything can happen. Yes, on the surface, that can feel ominous, especially in these times. But it is precisely because anything can happen that allows us to experience freedom from stress, grief, and burnout.

It’s amazing to reflect how much we don’t know. And how consequential our open questions are. When, and how, will this pandemic end? How many more will die? Will any of our loved ones die?’

Will I die from this illness?

In Honolulu, our mayor just announced a lock-down for two weeks. But it could last longer if we don’t get the current surge in new infections under control.

Will it?

At work, we admit many patients daily from our local jails and homeless shelters. How many will be Covid positive when I show up to work tonight?

Will I be their nurse?

Will I get infected with Covid a second time?

Who will win in November? And will the loser concede?


Buddhism makes a big deal out of impermanence, of knowing that things are constantly in flux, not just intellectually, but in our hearts.

Anything can happen. Yes, on the surface, that can feel ominous, especially in these times. But it is precisely because anything can happen that allows us to experience freedom from stress, grief, and burnout.

Because impermanence also implies openness; whereas it’s opposite, permanence, implies a closed system where positions are fixed, and opinions solidified.

beginner’s mind

Not-knowing is actually a practice in some Zen circles, where it is sometimes also called “beginner’s mind.” In the well known book by that name, Suzuki Roshi, who brought Zen to the USA in the early 1960’s, explains an excerpt in her field may know a subject deeply, but may also be closed to new possibilities or ways of viewing old problems.

Some folks come to Buddhist practice seeking answers to the big questions, and may be disappointed at a lack of clear answers.

not really about the answers

If folks stick around long enough, and develop a mature meditation practice, they appreciate Buddhist practice is not so much about answering the so called big questions of life and death, but rather about dissolving the angst around the questions themselves.

Suzuki Roshi often said this not-knowing doesn’t mean you don’t know; it means, rather, that you are not limited by what you think you know. That you are open to the essence of mutability, of change.

Because you never know how things will turn out.

a heart that is ready for anything

U Pandita Sayadaw, a Burmese meditation master I had the good fortune to study with, taught a very strict and austere form of practice. He would often admonish his students to have a heart that is ready for anything, and that everything is workable.

Meditation allows us to discover a way to be open in the midst of the chaos of confusion of these times. When we notice we have been going over the same thought like hearing the same tune on a top 40 radio station, we learn to let it go into freshness, into an open and delightful space.

Eventually we get it–there is really no place we arrive at in meditation.

Because just like reality itself, there are no fixed spaces, not even any absolute truths. As one contemporary Zen teacher put it

It’s a crazy balancing act all along the way.

This balancing act takes courage to do whole-heatedly, which is a hallmark of our practice. We learn to be intimate with our fear, sadness and grief, as well as with our joy and happiness, and not spin out in any direction.


We stay present with what is on a profound and fundamental level. We don’t mistake “knowing” for reality-as-it-is, for what Buddhists sometimes call suchness.

In this way we stay in touch with the world and ourselves in a very intimate and sweet way.

In this way we are touched deeply by the world, and respond with a balanced mind suffused with compassion and loving-kindness.

Be well.

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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

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