Every individual has a responsibility to help guide our global family in the right direction. Good wishes are not sufficient; we must become actively engaged.
–His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Noam Chomsky recently warned that we are now living through the most dangerous moment in human history. He cited the climate crisis, threat of nuclear war, and rising authoritarianism, but a long list of other issues can be added, among them the COVID-19 pandemic, economic breakdown, increasing social polarization… and the November election, in which many of those problems are at stake, perhaps including the very future of our democracy. No wonder so many of us are feeling anxious these days.
Buddhist teachings have always emphasized impermanence, and this year certainly offers us plenty of examples to demonstrate that truth. The instability of the world that most of us nonetheless took for granted has become more apparent and the future seems more unpredictable than ever. It’s not that we should want to return to the “old normal,” which was never that good for most people and certainly not for the biosphere. But it’s also looking doubtful that there will be anything like a “new normal” in the foreseeable future. We may not know what happens after we cast our ballot in what could be the most important election in US history, but there is good reason to believe we’re in for a wild ride that will test the maturity of our practice.
One Buddhist principle that is all the more relevant today is don’t-know mind—a teaching that calls attention to the “not knowing” state of mind that various meditation practices cultivate, in which we let go of discursive thought. The practice of don’t-know mind applies this state of mind to everyday life, but it’s easy to misunderstand. It doesn’t imply willful ignorance about what is happening. When a student once asked Chan (Jp., Zen) Master Yunmen what the goal of a lifetime of practice is, he replied: “An appropriate response.” We, too, must determine how to respond appropriately to our formidable array of challenges, and we need to keep abreast of developments in order to be able to respond appropriately.
Don’t-know mind is not an excuse to evade responsibility. Rather it involves letting go of our fixed ideas about the world, including our expectations. Such “not knowing” is the first tenet of the Zen Peacemakers, a network of socially engaged Buddhists co-founded by Zen teacher Bernie Glassman in the late twentieth century. (The second tenet is bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world, and the third is taking action that arises from not knowing and bearing witness.) Peacemakers co-founder Roshi Egyoku Nakao describes it as a “flash of openness or a sudden shift to being present in the moment” in which we “take shelter in the place before anything arises, a place of emptiness and profound silence.” We become more spacious, more aware of our own reactivity, and more open to the perspectives of others.
“Not knowing” is not a fixed position but a way of engaging with the world just as it is, right here and now. We don’t know what’s going to happen next, but we do the best we can according to what we can see. We remain ready to change what we are doing as the situation, or our view of the situation, changes.
Understood in this way, don’t-know mind points to what is most distinctive and powerful about the spiritual activism of an aspiring buddha: bodhisattvas act without attachment to the results of their actions. The Buddha said that what awakened people do is nirasa, a Pali term variously translated as “desireless” or “without expectation.” Aphorism 28 of the Tibetan Buddhist sage Atisha’s (980-1052 CE) lojong, or mind training, teachings provides a classic formulation: “Abandon any hope of fruition. Don’t get caught up in how you will be in the future, stay in the present moment.” This principle is also an essential aspect of karma yoga as described in the Bhagavad-gita: “Your right is to the work, never to the fruits.”
Acting without attachment can be misconstrued to imply a casual attitude, or foreground one’s motivations over unintended outcomes: “What’s important is my intention; I don’t care about the results.” But that misses the essential point about don’t-know mind.
Zen practitioners often recite the four bodhisattva vows. The first is to help all living beings awaken: “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to liberate them all.” If we really understand what this commitment involves, how can we avoid feeling overwhelmed? We are vowing to accomplish something that cannot possibly be fulfilled. What the vow really calls for, however, is reorienting the meaning of one’s life from the usual self-preoccupation to primary concern for the well-being of everyone. What becomes important is not the unattainable goal but the direction of one’s efforts—a direction that in this case orients us without providing any endpoint. The vow goes beyond any attachment to any particular accomplishment or failure. It involves cultivating a new way of being in the world, which becomes our passion, and our joy.
This new way of being does not necessarily result in a rush of hopefulness. One of my teachers, Robert Aitken Roshi, liked to say “When there’s hope, there’s no hope. When there’s no hope, there’s hope.” Hope is dualistic. To cling to hope is also to be shadowed by its opposite, fear, which is ready to pounce whenever we let go of that hope. Bodhisattvas are moved to act by something deeper: a compassionate generosity of spirit that wants to express itself and, although it seeks results, does not require them.
This points to the profound connection between don’t-know mind and nonattachment to results. Our task is to do the very best we can, without being able to know what the consequences will be—never knowing if our efforts will make any difference whatsoever. Will our canvassing work to influence voters help to turn the tide to the political side we favor? Will uncounted postal ballots lead to chaos on election day, and afterwards? We don’t know—and that’s OK.
Even though we don’t know, we hold the intention that our work will bear fruit: we try our best to be strategic. Yet ultimately, our “appropriate response” is a gift that, like all genuine gifts, does not expect something in return. We can’t know if what we do is important, but we do know that, in these critical times, it is important for us to do it.
Of course, to be so unattached to the results of our efforts is to set the bar unrealistically high, and that’s OK too. Our job is not to be perfect, but to do what we can. As Wendell Berry put it, “We don’t have the right to ask whether we are going to succeed or not; the only question we have the right to ask is what’s the right thing to do?” When things don’t work out, we might be discouraged, but thanks to our meditation practice we do not get stuck there. We may need some mindful breaths, but don’t-know mind is always accessible, as soon as we open up to it.
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