I wanted the title to display in Japanese. But I failed to understand how to make that happen in Word Press. So I wrote it in MS Word and then took a screen shot of it in Preview. You can see it over there to your left. I use computers the way a caveman might.
The phrase yukue fumei (yoo-koo-eh foo-may) has been much on my mind lately. The Chinese characters used to spell out this Japanese phrase (the Japanese language uses Chinese characters) mean, from top to bottom; “go,” “direction,” “not,” and “clear”. The most common way of translating the phrase is to use the English word “missing”.
But I always liked the phrase yukue fumei because it has a different sense than the word “missing” even though you could argue that it means the same thing. It literally says something more like “it is unclear where (the thing or person in question) has gone.” I used it in Japan sometimes when a more common word like nakunatta (missing) or wasureta (forgotten) would suffice. It has a more formal sound. It probably made me seem quirky or made me seem like I didn’t know the colloquial terms. Actually, though, I just preferred yukuei fumei because it usually seemed to express the situation better.
Last Sunday I was in charge of bringing the chant sheets to Against The Stream. For those who don’t know — and judging by the attendance last week that’s pretty much all of you — we are now doing a Zen style morning service every Sunday at 10 am at Against The Stream (Noah Levine’s meditation space at 4300 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA). Chanting is the main thing one does at a Zen style morning service. So the awesome Jessie Bandur made us up some nice little booklets with all the chants in them.
Up until I arrived at ATS at 9:45 last Sunday I believed those chant sheets were in the back seat of my car. I was thus very much surprised to discover that they were not there. This was doubly troubling because I seemed to recall putting them in the car along with the other items we needed for the service, which were, in fact, precisely where I thought they should be.
We had a little emergency on our hands. In a mere 15 minutes we were supposed to start chanting and no one, including me, had the chants memorized. Nor could we expect the handful of people who showed up to the service to know the chants. Luckily Rylend Grant, a regular goer-to of these events, had a single copy of the older version of the chant sheet in his car. He ran off to a Kinko’s and copied it and we were in business.
But the matter of where the damned chant books were really twisted my cranium up the whole morning. I searched my car a total of four times for the things, even though my car is not very messy right now and I had thoroughly exhausted any possible hiding place for them within the first two minutes of the first search. I just could not comprehend how they could not be there.
This got me thinking about the unknown and how it fits in with Zen practice. The Sanskrit word shunyata is most often translated in books about Buddhism as “emptiness.” Older books will sometimes say “the void.” But a better translation of shunyata might be “the unknown.”
We human beings get really uncomfortable when we don’t know things that we think we’re supposed to know. I was supposed to know where those chant sheets were. It was physically painful to not know that. It gave me a headache.
Furthermore, we human beings like to think that we ought to know pretty much everything. So when it comes to stuff that is categorically unknowable, such as the Nature of the Universe, or what happens after you die, or why Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen made $400 million dollars, we feel like we have to invent explanations. We do this to ease the nagging discomfort of not knowing these things.
The problem is, nobody ever really completely believes those explanations. Yet we’ll kill each other over them just to convince ourselves that we really believe them. Because why would you kill somebody over something you didn’t actually believe in the first place? Therefore the fact that you killed someone over it must prove you really believe it. Right?… uh… I said… right?
Much of Zen practice is about becoming comfortable with not knowing. This is common among a lot of meditative traditions. But I think it’s most clear in the Zen tradition and in certain forms of Christian contemplative meditation. One of the greatest Christian contemplatives wrote a book called The Cloud of Unknowing all about this. The Korean Kwan-Um school of Zen emphasizes “don’t know mind.” Shunryu Suzuki expressed the same idea by speaking of “beginner’s mind.”
If we become comfortable with not knowing, our life becomes easier, and we become freer. Krishnamurti talked about “freedom from the known.” It’s a wonderful feeling. We often become mired in that which we think we know. We become trapped by it, stuck in it. This is a problem because knowing is always to a greater or lesser extent an illusion.
There are a few things we reliably know. I know there’s a cup of water to my right. I know how to drive a car. I know where I parked it. I know how to make really good curry.
But most of the really important stuff we just don’t know. I don’t know how to end gun violence. I don’t know what to say to a girl after I’ve taken her to dinner. I don’t know where I’ll be in five years. I don’t know if my forthcoming book will sell a bazillion copies or none. I don’t know a lot of stuff. And this makes me uncomfortable.
But the extent to which I can let go of my need to know those things that I do not or cannot know determines to a large degree how happy I’m able to be. And I do know that I want to be happy.
Shikantaza style meditation seems to me to be the ultimate way of truly letting go of the known. There is no voice guiding you, telling you what you should do. There is no mantra or mandala to focus on. Some teachers tell you not even to focus on on your breathing, just to let all of it go. This can be terrifying.
But once you get over the terror, it’s the most liberating thing I know of.
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I also know that your donations help me immensely whenever it’s time to pay the rent. Thank you!
And I know we’ll be sitting zazen tonight at 8:30 pm at Yogavidala, on the corner of Franklin and Vermont in Los Feliz, behind the 7-11.
And I also know we’ll do our monthly day-long zazen this Saturday starting at 10 am at Hill Street Center 237 Hill St., Santa Monica, CA 90405. If you don’t want to stay all day that’s no problem. The day-long is structured so that we do the normal 10am-Noon program, followed by lunch, followed by a couple more hours of zazen for those who want to stay on. But you can go home at noon if you want.
And I also know that my movie Cleveland’s Screaming! is now available to rent or own via download from Distrify. Just click on the preview below!