In praise of the virtue of knowing nothing
HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated April 25, 2010 12:00 AM
Information overload is a state when too many facts, figures and data are swimming in your head that you can’t even begin to process or derive patterns or conclusions that can be meaningful to yourself or someone else. The feeling is one of over-saturation, of being engulfed and swallowed up by information that is endlessly boring and useless.
Surfing the net can give you that feeling, what with everything everyone has to say about anything so easily accessible. Experts come out of the woodwork with every possible explanation of or theory about whatever it is you are looking for.
I used to think that was so cool. Well, most of the time, I still do, but not all the time anymore.
No doubt, the world looks up to people who know a lot, or are “certified” as wise and knowledgeable because they have master’s degrees and PhDs, or other academic recognitions. We who are in awe of them like to think they are experts whose sound advice is worth the money and adulation we give them.
This article is actually in praise of the opposite. It is about the virtue of knowing nothing — in praise of people whose minds and judgment come from a blank, unwritten page. It is in praise of people who do not cling to knowledge and wear it like armor to intimidate others or to protect their reputations.
Sensei Roshi Suzuki, a Zen master, describes such an uncluttered mind as a “beginner’s mind.” It comes from nowhere and owes nothing to anyone. Unfettered by political correctness, bias, fear or judgment from one’s peers, it is not afraid to be wrong, or different, or original, and is not concerned if one’s insights are ordinary or unique. It simply sees things as they are. It does not seek to impress for ego aggrandizement or any other motive. One can say that a beginner’s mind sees clearly. It is the paradoxical opposite of what we all strive for.
I am not out to knock knowledge or expertise per se. I am merely pointing out the mistake of clinging or attaching to a fixed, unwavering, closed mindset. Often, we hear descriptions of people whom the world considers as bright, intelligent, sharp and wise but, alas, they seem to be full of themselves. They have a condescending attitude towards those who, in their view, are less than they are. They see themselves as authorities and are so lost in the power and stature that the words “authority” and “expert” have bestowed on them that they begin to lose the usefulness of the knowledge that got them to where they are in the first place.
What passes off as their wisdom on a subject seems to be nothing but posturing, or an attempt to impress, which comes off as fakery, arrogance and superiority. It stops being about what they know but the fact that they are supposedly knowledgeable.!
Here’s a Zen story I love:
A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring.
The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself.
“It’s overfull! No more will go in!” the professor blurted.
“You are like this cup,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
As the story suggests, the person who is empty of motives, ego and attitudes, can see clearly. Why? Because he is not invested in anything. He has no reputation to protect, and has no need to win or be brilliant.
In a sense, a beginner’s mind can be subversive. It will call anything as it is, and that can certainly rock the boat. I am reminded of the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes who was the only one who saw through the hypocrisy of the “knowledge and expertise” that the hucksters had claimed to have to intimidate the Emperor into wearing an invisible fabric, or be called ignorant because, he could, in truth, not see anything. But the boy had received no briefing and no information on what he was supposed to see. He had an empty mind, bereft of artificiality in seeing and perceiving. Thus, his mind was more discerning of truth and he saw hypocrisy as it was.
An empty mind does not fit or mold the world outside into pre-existing theories. It does not distort what it sees to fit what it already believes. Rather, it comes up with theories about the world based on what it sees and experiences. And even while it does, it is ready to jettison its findings and discoveries when new facts present themselves. One might say the empty mindset is always in a flux. Something is always being thrown away for new things to come in.
These two mindsets, the “full” and the “empty” minds, are always at war with each other. Creationists versus evolutionists, dogmatists and conservatives versus liberals, secular versus religious — everyone is trying to present his case to the rest of humanity and win them over to his cause. As both sides claim to seek the truth, deep inside — while I do not question their motives — I would like to say something about how they perceive things.
Zen takes all this truth-seeking to a more cryptic but deeper level when it admonishes its adherents, saying, “Don’t seek the truth, just drop your opinions.” It can be exasperating to the crusading, purpose-driven mind to hear such words. In an election season like what we are going through in the Philippines, this advice can sound nonsensical. How can we campaign for our candidates when we are supposed to have no opinions about them?
Perhaps what the Zen master means is that the truth is availably clear if we let go of all pre-conceived ideas and opinions. By not entertaining the call of ego, the need to be right, the power of peer pressure, we can arrive at the bigger truth, which goes beyond choosing the right candidates. We can begin to see who we really are without attachment to our opinions and attitudes.
And the big truth is, we are not our opinions. We are not our preferences. We are not even our mindsets. If we were all these, they all would be fixed and unchanging.
So let us continue campaigning for those whom we believe will lead us best. But when it is time to drop the fight, let us do so with little effort and no sense of loss. This is good to know as we reach the end of the election season.
Soon, we will need to clear all this political campaigning from our heads to make room for the new concerns and tasks required by the collective living of our lives.
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