The Wisdom of Unknowing


There are many who believe that they have all the answers, but the answers they have are often borrowed from others.  And when we hold to such information with unwavering conviction we leave little room for true understanding.

There was a professor who had been studying Zen philosophy for many years, and one day he was given the opportunity to travel to Japan and meet with a great Zen master.

As they sat down together for tea, the professor talked on and on about all that he had studied.  As he rambled, the Zen master quietly poured the tea, filling the professor’s cup until it began to overflow.  The professor continued to speak, watching as the tea poured over the edge of the cup, along the table, and onto the floor.  Finally he could no longer contain himself and cried out, “The cup is full!  No more will go in!”

The Zen master stopped pouring and set the pot aside.

Like this cup,” he told the professor, “You are full of your own preconceptions.  There is no room for anything new.  How then can I teach you about Zen?  First, you must empty your cup.”

The knowledge which we acquire from books and from teachers, if we are fortunate enough to learn from the right ones, has come as a result of that person’s own direct personal experience.  However, much of what we read and hear has been passed down from person to person over a great length of time, or is merely someone’s speculation.  And yet, so much of it we take as truth without any sort of verification.

We often say that we know something simply because we have heard it said, but to know means to be certain, and there is nothing which we can be certain of without having experienced firsthand.  Otherwise it is simply belief.  Belief is an assumption, albeit sometimes an educated assumption.  But nonetheless, it is an assumption and little more.

And yet we cling to belief as if it were the highest truth.  To believe something is to suggest that we don’t really know.  For if we know something for certain, then there is no need to believe.

If I am very honest with myself then I must admit that I have a great deal of uncertainty.  That is not to say that I’m completely lost in life, groping around in the dark.  I have many well-founded beliefs, all of which are based upon rational understanding, observation and study.  But, even so, I must admit that they are beliefs, and I must always remain flexible to the possibility that they may be flawed or even downright false.  Really, I have little desire to believe anything.  I would much rather know.  But in order to do so, I must be willing to relinquish my beliefs if ever they are shown to be false.

For those of us who are sincere in are search for truth and wisdom, we must be willing to suspend our belief, to put aside our preconceived notions, to clear a space for new information to enter.  If we wish to learn we must remain open, not only to ideas which support our beliefs but also to those which are contrary.  We must be willing to consider all sides to any argument, to see the greater picture from many angles.  And this requires humility because we must be willing to admit to ourselves that we don’t have all the answers, and that there may be uncertainty in the answers we do have.

Wisdom begins with unknowing.

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