Knowing Not-Knowing

On the Fifth Grave Precept: Do Not Be Ignorant

I was brought up to believe that knowledge is based solely on experience, but where is it, the experience? Can I touch it?

Knowledge lies in reality, not somewhere beyond it. Thus, ignorance, its opposite, describes thinking and acting based on something that doesn’t exist in the present moment. Experience may seem to exist, but only in my mind; it is documented by the objects around me, yet is ephemeral. My personal history, the conclusions and wisdoms derived from my past, can also obscure the reality, the knowledge available to me at this very moment. When they do, they may turn into delusions and contribute to my ignorance.

Not Letting Experience Obscure Reality

What is real, observable, learnable right now?

Not the buzz of conjectures and opinions in my head, but what appears in front of me when I open my eyes to the present moment.

What is the present moment then? It is what anyone receives, non-judgmentally, through the five senses, the totality of experiences, actions, feelings that are happening now.

I remember attending a poetry retreat with Philip Moffitt, in which we were asked to read each poem, focusing not on the interpretation of its meaning, but on the immediate sensations, reactions it evokes within us. To hell with the poem’s meaning — what’s arising when lines are being heard? Warmth, fear, indifference, color blue, recollection ‘du temps perdu’? That was real. What an eye-opening experience!

The truth of reality also lives in my body. When I can actually focus on the sensations within me, I often find the true state of my being — e.g., peace or anger — contained right here, right now — inside. My mind, for instance, might believe I am excited about some event going in my life, but focusing on my body, I could notice the anxiety such external excitement is covering up.

Committing to Not Knowing

Not-Knowing opens up an opportunity for real Knowing, for Learning. The Zen Peacemaker’s reading of the first Pure Precept, the traditional “Do not do evil,” is “to commit [oneself] to Not-Knowing, the sources of all manifestations, and seeing all manifestations as the teachings of Not-Knowing” (ZCLA Precepts Workbook, p. 18).

Every koan in the Book of Equanimity starts with a call for attention.

How else do you find things out, other than the acknowledgement that you know so little? Pay attention and find out what’s here. If you say ‘Well, I can’t do it’, then how will you learn?
 — Tenshin Fletcher, the Abbot of Yokoji Zen Mountain Center, YZMC Journal (Jan.-March 2015)

Putting Mindful Knowledge into Practice

Another aspect of this precept is what we do with knowing. Knowledge not applied to real life, let’s say, a dry, intellectual reading of the Diamond Sutra without reflecting it in one’s life and actions, is ignorance. On the other hand, I remember being blown away five years ago reading, for the first time, at a retreat at Thich Nhat Hahn’s Deer Park Monastery, his commentary on the suffering caused by unmindful consumption. It opened my eyes to letting — ignorantly — the toxic infotainment bring the unnecessary suffering into my life. It made aware right there and then of the voyeuristic negativity peddled by mass media: “Worry, worry, worry, and keep your eyes glued to the screen!” and its costs to my peace of mind.

I made a decision to limit and filter my exposure to, first and foremost, the news, and the channels through I receive them. I’ve been following this vow the best I could. Such Conscious Not-Knowing of what is not important has decreased anxiety and fear within me, while allowing a deeper look at the issues and news that truly matter to me.

I accept the Not-Knowing. I am here to notice the real moment, to observe it, to study it, and, hopefully, to learn from it, and to apply what I learned to my daily life.


In Fall 2015 and Spring 2016, I studied at Zen Center of Los Angeles towards formally receiving the Buddhist precepts (‘jukai’). As part of preparations for the jukai, the aspirant was expected to reflect on the meaning of each precept. This is the fifth of the ten essays in the series. My jukai ceremony took place May 28, 2016.