The Wisdom of Ignorance

I once met a wise old man who assured me that he could answer any question I put to him. And so I asked the greatest questions of life…

“What is the purpose of life?”

“What happens after we die?

“How does one attain enlightenment?”

And it was true. For every question asked, he gave an answer. In fact, for each question, he gave the very same answer… “I don’t know.

Such a man is indeed wise because he knows the limitations of his understanding. There are many who believe that they have all the answers, but what they usually have are merely speculations and borrowed concepts. Yet they have such certainty in their answers that there is little room for new information to enter. When new knowledge is given to them, especially when it contradicts what they have already accepted as truth, it is very difficult to make room for it.

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

As they sat down together, the Zen master began to pour some tea, while the professor talked on and on about all that he had studied. As he spoke, the Zen master quietly poured the tea, filling the professor’s cup until it began to overflow. The professor continued tspeaking, 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 many people, however, this is not an acceptable option. Beliefs must be defended by any means, even by the force of violence. But if one truly believes that he has obtained the truth, then where is the need to defend it? The truth is indestructible. It doesn’t need defending. The only thing that needs defending is that which is weak and susceptible to damage and destruction. And herein lies the truth behind belief.

The very act of believing rests upon some doubt. Because we are so uncomfortable with uncertainty, we borrow and sometimes even fabricate some belief in order to comfort ourselves. But when our beliefs are challenged we often become distressed, and take offense.

Belief is the veil which hides our doubts. Beneath every belief there is a corresponding doubt which counters that belief. And when one’s belief is challenged, it is not so much the belief that is attacked, as much as it is one’s doubt that has been touched upon or even exposed. The believer becomes offended, not so much by his challenger, but by his own internal doubt, which has long been buried and forgotten, and has now been brought to light.

If one has experienced the very presence of God, and someone comes along and says, “There is no God!“, one is not offended by such a statement. There is no reason to take offence. But if one merely believes in God, and secretly he doubts whether God is there, then to that same proclamation he responds with fear and anger, because what if that statement is true? You become offended because someplace deep inside of you, you carry that doubt, and now someone has come along and has given some confirmation to it. In that place, deep in your subconscious mind, you actually agree with them to some degree. You become angry with them, not because they believe differently from you, but because their words reflect something of your own internal beliefs; something which you have tried very hard to repress.

In order to better sustain one’s beliefs it is preferable to surround oneself only with those who share and support it. But as long as there remains even one person who believes otherwise, their belief is a constant antagonition, touching upon your doubts much like picking at an open wound. And so, it is for this reason that we often seek to convert those around us.

This is not always the case of course. Sometimes we have something which we know is beneficial for mankind and we wish to share it out of mere compassion. But oftentimes, those who go out preaching for conversion do not fully understand what it is they are preaching. And it seems to reason that they are merely trying to convince themselves of their own beliefs by gaining the consensus and approval of their converts.

It seems that amongst many people, religious and otherwise, there is such a strong desire to convert everyone around them, and to even go to the very ends of the earth to eradicate any possible opposition. Even the atheist goes out of his way to argue his case. But for what? If one is so certain that there is no God, then why bother discussing it so adamantly?

But the militant atheist is not simply attacking what he sees as a false belief. He is also defending his own belief — the belief that there is no God. And why does he strive so hard to defend it? Because he has some doubt. Perhaps deep down he senses that God is there, but he has rejected Him because of some disappointment with life. Or it may be that he is simply rejecting a faulty concept of God, while still harboring some intrinsic belief in a God which he does not yet fully comprehend.

Regardless of what I believe, or how strongly I believe it, I always take an agnostic approach. How can I be certain of anything? And furthermore, how can I come to know Truth if I am unwilling to relinquish belief?

It has been said that ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. In order to learn you must be open. In order to be open you must put aside all beliefs and be willing to consider those ideas which are contrary to your preconceived ideas. It takes humility, because we must be willing to admit to ourselves that we don’t have all the answers, and that we are uncertain of the answers we do have. We don’t feel comfortable with uncertainty. But let’s be honest with ourselves. How much do we really know?

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