Knowing, Not Knowing

Talk presented by David Slaymaker
Report written by Chang Jie 09/26/2010

On Sunday, September 26, 2010, Dr. David Slaymaker gave a talk entitled, "Knowing, Not Knowing" at CMC.

     According to Dr. Slaymaker, "to know" means to recognize that all our experiences are marked by emptiness, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self. Within Buddhist practice, "knowing" means to fully know body, mind and environment while we are performing "the task at hand". But often times, we complicate these things unnecessarily. Therefore, we should actually "not know", or let go of our attachment to, some of what we think we know. In other words, we should let go of our belief in and sense of knowing things as permanent, satisfying, substantial, and self.

    Dr. Slaymaker stated that there are two sets of seemingly contradictory teachings that direct us on how we can do this--first, by letting go and paying attention, and second, by not attaching to wandering thoughts while being clear of what arises in the mind.

    "Letting go" does not mean isolating ourselves from other people physically or emotionally or not caring for others. While interpersonal relationships and caring can be a source of pain and suffering if approached unwisely, avoiding them altogether is not letting go.

    To illustrate his point, Dr. Slaymaker told a story about a monk who wanted to practice meditation in isolation. He found an elderly woman and her daughter to support him for a year. When the year passed, the elderly woman tested the monk by sending her daughter to embrace the monk and asking him how he felt. He responded, "Old dry twig leaning against a cold stone cliff," to which the old woman responded by taking a stick and chasing away the monk. The point of this story is that we should recognize joy as joy, warmth as warmth, and pain as pain. There shouldn't be denial of or resistance to feelings as they are. Rather, when feelings arise, we should contemplate or look at them and recognize that they are impermanent, empty, not self, and unsatisfactory--that they arise and perish, but ultimately are not "me."

    "Letting go" does not mean letting go of our personal responsibilities either, such as performing well at work or taking care of our family and ourselves. Rather, these kinds of negligent actions indicate a very strong attachment to the self and a fear of exertion and risk.

    "Letting go" also does not mean behaving or saying things impulsively without considering the consequences. Instead of seeing sensations and feelings as impermanent, empty, not the self, and unsatisfactory, this attitude sees every sensation, feeling and experience as important and full of self, and needing to be expressed. It is a very deep attachment to self, where a person thinks that whatever ideas about the world, about themselves, or whatever else arises in their mind is true. In Chan practice, it is critical to say to ourselves, "I don't know," and to ask ourselves, "Do I know?" and, "Are all these thoughts and feelings important to the present moment?"

    "Letting go" means understanding that all phenomena are marked by impermanence, emptiness, unsatisfactory, and selflessness.

    "Paying attention" means giving the body and mind fully to the task at hand. Master Sheng Yen said that when we are doing a particular task, that is all we have to care about, and that we should do it in a relaxed manner. In the book, The Method of No Method, he tells a story about how he took a group outdoors to a field during the work period of a retreat and told them to gather the sticks on the ground and sort them by size. Only one student did the job in a relaxed, focused and efficient manner; the others were confused, chaotic, and kept looking at each other to see how others were doing it, finally returning to the hall exhausted.

    This was a very simple task. Were those later students paying attention? Were their minds and bodies fully given to the task at hand? What was distracting them? They may have been worrying about doing the task correctly. Often times, in the midst of a task, we spend a lot of our mental energy worrying about doing it wrong. We might be remembering something from the past or worrying about some consequence in the future. We are not in the present moment. We are distracted, attaching to ideas, instead of the doing the task.

    Shifu called these "the thorns in our minds." It is the same when people sit on the cushion, and the mind is full of regret, resentment, worry--"mental baggage." These thoughts don't have anything to do with picking up sticks. Dr. Slaymaker told another story about a monk who told his master that he could not practice because of his anger. When his master asked the disciple to show him his anger, the monk replied that he couldn't, to which the master replied that he was not angry. His anger was not the self. It was only from the past.

    Shifu also called these thoughts "meaningless sensations" - things that arise that have nothing to do with the task at hand. When they arise, we shouldn't respond to them. Instead, we should shine the light of impermanence, no self, emptiness and unsatisfactoriness on them.

    To conclude his talk, Dr. Slaymaker shared a quote from Shifu on how to approach a task: "You should approach each task with a plan that takes into account the past and the future. But once you start the task, focus on the present. Carry out the task with an even and ordinary mind, without feelings of like or dislike, good or bad, or engaging in discursive thought. When you complete the task, reflect on whether any changes are needed, whether the job was done well, and how you can do better in the future. This is how to practice Silent Illumination while you are working. The principles are the same, no matter what you are doing."

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