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"I Don’t Know" by Lin Jensen

20 January 2010

There are times on the sidewalk when I simply don’t know what to do, when nothing in my experience clarifies what’s happening. That’s the way it was when a kid in makeshift robes, dreadlocks, and bare feet sat down with me on the pavement outside the entrance to the Chico Natural Foods co-operative. He sat facing me with our knees barely a hand’s-width apart. We sat like this for some ten or fifteen minutes, then he laid on the sidewalk between our knees a single quarter. I didn’t know what this meant.

Did he want money from me, displaying the quarter in the way that street beggars sometimes drop change into an upturned hat to encourage passers-by to add more? Or was he giving me a quarter? It’s curious how uncomfortable it can be not to know what’s going on and how urgent the pressure can be to understand. The quarter lay there between us like an unanswered question, until I finally said, “I don’t have any money with me” (which was true), “so I can’t give you any.” When I looked up to see how he’d taken this, his eyes met mine, noncommittal and perfectly steady, without disclosure of any kind.

I never made any sense out of the quarter the boy with dreadlocks laid on the sidewalk. In time, he picked the quarter back up and gave a little bow in my direction and left. And though I might speculate endlessly, I have to admit that I simply didn’t know what was going on. The thing is, I often don’t know what’s going on, even when I think I do. Persuading yourself that you know what’s going on when you don’t is a likely candidate for bringing harm into a situation. The world is reeling from the impact of leaders who know what they’re doing. This deluded knowing accounts for most of the worst mischief the human race is capable of. It leads to an unwarranted certainty that is synonymous, in the language of Zen practice, with ignorance.

In Zen practice, rather than striving to have knowing answers to all questions, we choose instead to turn toward the questions without answers, toward the actuality of our lives that isn’t explained by the logic of subject and predicate, toward the truth that’s only known in its living immediacy, unfiltered by logical persuasion. We may concoct detailed explanations to convince ourselves that we really do know what’s happening, but knowing of the sort that’s contrived from available evidence is always an arbitrary reduction of what’s actually happening and has nothing of the depth of open-hearted not-knowing.

The quarter the youth laid upon the sidewalk outside Chico Natural Foods is just one more mystery in a universe of unknowns. It’s a small thing, which I can modestly admit I don’t understand. But it’s my experience that there’s good value in leaving unanswerable questions unanswered.

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? I’m thankful for anyone, like the youth with the quarter, who reminds of how much I don’t know.

Excerpted from "Pavement" by Lin Jensen (Wisdom Publications).

Lin Jensen is Senior Buddhist Chaplain to High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California, and founder and teacher of the Chico Zen Sangha in Chico, CA, where he writes and works on behalf of nonviolence and in defense of the earth. Lin’s books Bad Dog!, Pavement, and Together Under One Roof were each selected Shambhala Sun’s Best Buddhist Writing in 2006, 2008, and 2009 respectively. Lin’s new book, Deep Down Things will be released by Wisdom Publications in Fall 2010.


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