Testimony of Stephen H. Short
Zen and the Art of Not Knowing God
The alarm clock read midnight. I groggily swung my feet onto the knot-holed floor;
it creaked as I felt my way through the darkness. Outside the window, the faint
stars barely illuminated the encroaching forest. I lit a candle stuck to a plank of
wood -- my altar -- and bowed deeply to the unsmiling Buddha next to it.
My knees ached as I positioned myself on a black cushion, legs folded beneath me,
palms up, back straight. Before lowering my gaze to a spot on the floor, I caught
the baleful stare of Bodhidharma, an early Zen Master whose fierce, bulging eyes
screwed into me from a poster on the opposite wall.
The candle dripped and the night clung to its mysteries. The darkness seemed to
close in on the small circle of light, buffeting it back and forth as if to squash it.
Suddenly, something passed over my head. I thought I was alone in this cabin deep
in the Maine woods. Fear gripped my insides like a strongman's hand. It happened
again. I could hear it coming closer with each pass.
Here was a chance to truly practice Zen. Despite my fear, I focused all my
attention on the spot on the floor. I kept my mind clear and devoid of thought. I
remained unmoved by any emotion. The passing thing came closer, like a whisper
in my ear. Then something scaly brushed against my forehead. Unable to stand it
any longer, the next time it passed I raised my eyes and found myself staring into
the glinty eyes of a foot-long bat as it swept across my face.
How did I get here, I wondered? Where am I going? And can I get there from here?
I first began reading about Zen the day before I graduated from college. I
wandered into a campus bookstore and asked for a good introduction to this
curious, mystical philosophy I'd heard so much about. I was given Alan Watts's The
Way of Zen.
The attraction was immediate. I was drawn to the mystery of it all. Watts claimed
there was a knowing beyond knowing. But, no one could tell you about it; you had
to discover it yourself. You did this by becoming still.
But it was the promised fruit of this discovery that was most fascinating to me. It
seemed that this knowing -- called enlightenment -- released one from pain,
suffering, and death. My attraction to Zen is perhaps best illustrated in a letter I
wrote to the man who later became my Zen Master:
One day, when I was very young, some friends and I decided to climb the
roof of a large barn nearby. It was very steep and high, and we went out
from the inside through a second story window. When my turn came,
without really thinking about what I was doing, I climbed out the window and
started up the roof. There was no problem; it was easy and fun. But when I
got about halfway up, I suddenly looked down, realized where I was, and
was filled with fear. I stopped. I couldn't move. I laid there and just tried to
hold on. I couldn't go up and I couldn't go back down. I stayed that way for
a long time. Finally, with my father offering words of encouragement from
the ground, I fearfully inched my way back down to the window and safety.
My life since then has been one of confusion. I don't know what's ahead, and I
don't understand what's behind. I don't believe in anything, and I don't know what
to believe in.
I feel like I'm still halfway up the roof, unable to move, just trying to hold on.
Zen promised a way out of this dilemma. It promised freedom: freedom from
confusion and freedom from fear, particularly that fear that seems to lurk behind all
others -- the fear of death. Those who attain enlightenment, I read, are beyond
life and death. They are beyond every opposite, even "me" and "not me." This
transcendence seems to give the enlightened almost godlike power and
After years of reading about Zen and its claims, I was driven to test them when my
marriage broke up and I sank into a state of crushing despair. I stopped by a Zen
center in my area and, by coincidence, a famous Zen Master was visiting that night.
Compelled by my pain, I insisted on an audience.
Ushered into a muted, incense-laden room, I was confronted by the stare of a
shaven-head Korean man, about 50, dressed in long, gray robes. His expression
was completely impassive, as though he weren't really there. And his eyes looked
straight through me, as though I weren't there, either. He seemed to know
everything I intended to say, so I dared not conceal anything. All I could blurt out
was, "Why am I so unhappy?"
"Because you don't understand your true nature!", he shot back without a pause.
"Don't ask 'why.' 'Why' is a very bad word. You come to the Zen center, do hard
training, and then you will understand your true nature."
I didn't know what he meant by my "true nature," but here was someone
confidently offering a way to happiness. That was all I needed: I was ready to walk
the path of Zen.
I began attending lectures at the Zen center. It quickly appeared that my chief
obstacle to perfect freedom was my thinking. The solution is to have a nonthinking
mind. The Master called this a "don't know" mind.
This "don't know" mind, he explained, is totally empty and clear. It holds no beliefs
or ideas. In fact, it holds no sense of a "me" that might have any ideas. "You must
put it all down," the Master would say. "Put down "I," "my," "me." Don't hold
anything, don't make anything, don't attach to anything. Only go straight -- don't
But, I wondered, if I put down "I," "my," and "me," what's left? How do I function if
I don't think?
The Master explained that stripping our minds bare in this way reveals our true
nature. This nature is like a perfectly clean mirror. It accurately reflects the things
around it. A mind with ideas, on the other hand, is like a dirty mirror, distorting our
With a clean mind-mirror, we are at last able to act "correctly." With a clear
perception of each new situation, and no thought of self, we can respond according
to our true nature. For example, if we encounter a man who is starving, and our
mind-mirror is perfectly clear, our response will also be perfectly clear -- we will
give him food. This is the unthinking and hence correct response. The "don't
know" mind-mirror only reflects hunger and is not obscured by preconceptions,
evaluations, or selfish motives. It is as if the observer himself is starving, for his
mind is holding no idea of separation between "me" and "other."
I questioned, though, whether it is possible to have a truly "don't know" mind.
Aren't we always holding something? If we feed the hungry man, for example,
aren't we holding a value for human life? To a truly "don't know" mind -- not
attached to anything -- whether the hungry man lives or dies shouldn't matter.
It made me wonder where the value for human life -- or any impulse toward good
-- comes from. But I stopped wondering. If I'm to be a Zen student, I told myself, I
must get rid of such thoughts and always keep a "don't know" mind -- even when
listening to the Zen Master extol the "value" of letting go of all values.
The vehicle for thinking is language, and the Zen Master dismissed this, too. "The
sun never said, 'I am sun,' and the moon never said, 'I am moon.'" He wanted us
to see that our names for things -- and our thinking about them -- get in the way
of a pure experience of them, of their clear reflection in our mind-mirrors. But, I
thought to myself, is language really so bad? I wondered if without language the
correct response of the "don't know" mind is always possible. In the case of the
starving man, would we always know what his needs were if he didn't tell us, "I
haven't eaten in days. Please help me."? Isn't language a more precise and reliable
way to transmit information than mere impressions?
But the Zen Master wanted us to experience life, not think about it. I became
paralyzed on the barn roof as a child, he explained, because I stopped to think. He
illustrated the importance of not thinking by recounting a childhood experience of
When I was eight years old, I went to the mountains with my friends. We
used a sickle to cut the grass...to make compost. I liked that job, so I cut a
lot of grass, gathered it all in a bag, and went together with the other
students cutting grass to go to school. At that time, one of my friends said
to me, "You cut your leg!" Then I looked at m