PZI Teacher Archives

8 I Don’t Know – The Zenosaurus Course in Koans


Zenosaurus Curriculum 8: Most problems come from “knowing” things that might not be true. If we stop insisting on certainty we might feel anxiety at first, but then an exhilarating freedom might arrive.

8 I Don’t Know – The Zenosaurus Course in Koans

I Don’t Know

This is probably the core of freedom, to rest in the uncertain, before certainty has been constructed. Not knowing is something the mind often dreads. It’s easy to dread not knowing.

As a child whenever the teacher asked something I would say “I know, I know” and life seemed to be a test in which if I were clever I could get enough right answers and I could find something to rely on.

The Koan: Bodhidharma’s Vast Emptiness

The Emperor asked the great master Bodhidharma, “What is the number one principle of the holy teaching?”
Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”
“Who are you, standing in front of me?” asked the emperor.
“I don’t know,” said Bodhidharma.
The Emperor didn’t get it.

When a baby arrives she doesn’t know things and we don’t know much about what she is going to do. If you take her to see a rose, her eyes get big; for her everything is rose, and alive, like a shout. Later when the child is grown she might think she knows what a rose is and remember her childhood with nostalgia—the time when the universe was alive with no knowing.

Old map makers made things up—‘here be dragons’, they said ‘and here, where the wavy blue lines angle sharply down, you fall off the edge of the world. Don’t go there.’ We make things up to help us to navigate, and it’s a valiant attempt. When I was fishing on the Great Barrier Reef, there were fisherman who believed in a floating reef and gave you warnings about anchoring on it. Even then it was fairly well known that coral is heavier than water and grows up from the ocean bed. But the charts weren’t very good, sea and weather are confusing, and if you run across a reef where you didn’t expect to find it, then perhaps it floats about, like The Flying Dutchman. I believe that medieval philosophers called that ‘saving the appearances.” In medicine, confirmation error means looking for what you expect. It occurs when this morning you have treated five people in the Emergency Room with flu and a sixth person arrives with some of the symptoms of the very beginning of flu and gets treated for flu when she is actually suffering from aspirin overdose.

Instead of making up explanations that the expected thing is the right thing it can be interesting to go into situations without a preset attitude, without knowing what is right and how things should turn out.

Here’s a story about this koan from a friend who teaches art in a primary school.

Not knowing what a child needs

For the entire year of kindergarten a child called Marianna did not utter a single word at school, not in the classroom, the playground, or anywhere else on campus. At home, she was gregarious and chattered away like any other five-year-old. If she was shopping at Vons with her mother, she would dance about, laughing, asking if she could please buy this or that. If she happened to run into a classmate in the produce department, silent Marianna would appear.

Bribes, threats, tricks, ignoring the behavior, psychotherapy—nothing worked. The parents seemed unconcerned, a nonchalance that annoyed the classroom teacher, who was certain the strange behavior was a serious and pressing problem. I did not know why Marianna lived in self-imposed silence, but I enjoyed her performance piece. It was quite a feat for a five year-old, utterly in character for an entire year.

 In first grade, she joined my world. Before her initial art session I was warned: ‘Marianna does not speak’. She was small, even for a person of six years, slender, with olive skin and long auburn hair. When asked a question directly she could answer it with her eyes. I noticed I wasn’t interested in coaxing her to speak. I could see that her silence wasn’t sullen, withdrawn, angry, or aggressive. I imagined her as a princess under a spell that required she enter into a world different from the one she inhabited at home.

As Marianna approached the sink at the end of her first class, I said
 something friendly. I wasn’t expecting a response. Some girls in line said in a loud faux whisper, “She doesn’t speak.”
“I know,” I replied. “I wish all of my student’s didn’t talk. Marianna, maybe you could come and teach my 6th graders how not to talk in art.” She looked up at me with her large, luminous eyes and a barely suppressed smile. In this way, I became a character in her fairy story.

In the faculty lunchroom, her classroom teacher could often be heard worrying about her intransigent student. Marianna eventually began seeing a new part-time school counselor, a kind and receptive woman, and she began to talk just to her, in whispers at first.

Eventually she agreed to talk to me. I approached her carefully, obliquely as if she were a wild bird. I remember the excitement and fear in her eyes. She beckoned to me to bring my head closer. Then she cupped her small hand over my ear and whispered her answer to my question. That was all. She had let me enter her in-between world. We whispered to each other for months, and she slowly expanded the circle to include others.

By late spring of that year she was chattering away, indistinguishable from her peers. She retained her ability to communicate whole sentences with her eyes and I sometimes missed the world she drew me into. I also wondered what the silent time was like for her. I now imagined her as Persephone, someone who had set aside that portion of her life to spend in the underworld.

Years passed.

 One of the peripheral, and often dreaded, assignments of a teacher at my 
school is parking lot duty which entails ferrying children from the sidewalk, before and after school, through the sea of Mercedes, SUV’s, and BMW’s, and into their vehicles. I actually enjoy parking lot duty. On a warm day last fall, only a few students remained and Marianna, now in Grade 6, and I leaned against the chain link fence, talking.

”Do you remember the time when you didn’t talk at school? I just loved that time.”
 She glanced rapidly up at me, and recognized that I was speaking truthfully. Waves of light moved across her face.
“Do you remember much about it?”
“Yes, I remember.” 
She pauses. 
“My sister has a theory about why I didn’t talk at school. She says I did it because I wanted everyone to pay attention to me, but that doesn’t seem right.”
“Why do you think you were silent?”
She turned her attention inward, holding the question. Unhurried and curious, she was searching all the interior spaces, one by one.

Her expression suddenly changed as she gazed up at me, her face wide open, laughing,” I don’t know!”

Not knowing how to live through a revolution

Here is another story about intimacy and uncertainty.

A friend who is an ObGyn told me “When I entered medical school I truly believed that if I learned everything I was taught and studied hard, I would know how to handle every medical situation.” During the early part of the last decade she visited Haiti. She had been doing poverty medicine and, during one of her visits she decided to adopt a baby whose mother was very young and couldn’t keep him. This was about 6 years ago. Just as she was finalizing the paper work in Port-au-Prince, a revolution broke out. Suddenly there was no functioning government and she had a baby but no exit papers. All the Americans and Canadians were pulled out of the country. There were riots, and helicopters passed overhead at night shooting into the crowds. There was no way to know how to manage. It was an intense, boring, awful, frightening, loving and wonderful time and many people helped.

One of her Haitian friends was stopped in his ancient Toyota pickup, hit over the head with a brick, and left for dead by the roadside. A passerby noticed him and eventually he was taken to hospital. He was to have had a birthday party that night.
“So the party is postponed,” she said.
“No, he woke up, we’ll have it in the ICU.”
And they did and it was joyous. You can’t postpone a party since you don’t know about tomorrow. And you don’t even have to know about today; you don’t know that you can’t have a party and be happy in the ICU. When, after three months, my friend returned to her very interesting job in the States, she said, “I don’t want to forget how we were in Haiti, I don’t want to stop living like that.”


Most problems come from knowing things that might not be true. If we stop insisting on certainty we might feel anxiety at first, but then there an exhilarating freedom might arrive. We often wait to act till we have a handle on things but we can actually move through life without having a handle, without even having the handle that we know who we are and what we should be doing.

The photo of Man on a Wire comes from the innocence of the time when the world trade center was just being completed.

Questionable questions

1. What are the questions in your life for which “I don’t know” is the answer? How does it feel not to know?

2. Have you been in a situation that was marginal, where your usual rules didn’t apply and you had to think on your feet? What is it like to go between knowing and not knowing?

3. Do you like to “get credit” for things you do? How is it when you don’t?

4. Who are you? Does it help you to have an idea of that or not?

5. What makes you happy?

6. What’s your favorite color?