Shambhala Sun | March 2013
You Don’t Have to Know
JOHN TARRANT discovered that not knowing is the best—and maybe the only possible—response to suffering.
Into this wild Abyss
The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave—
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds
When my father was
dying I flew home to see him. The streets were bright with autumn
sunlight; in the hospice his room was small and windowless (as soon as
someone else died he would get a better room—information that made me
consider the other patients with an appraising glance). His body,
overwhelmed by inward forces of chaos and unregulated cell growth, gave
off animal smells. He seemed to be struggling up to the surface of a
pool, in pain and at the same time overmedicated. He gazed at me and
pretended not to know who I was. I pretended not to know who I was
either, we laughed, and that opened a gate to our last time together.
think of moments of pressure and difficulty as like that—as gateways,
the beginning of a journey. Everyone around my father was anxious and
sad, and I started to feel that way too. It seemed obligatory, even
courteous. As I got to know him in his dying self that week, he was
often in pain, sometimes afraid, and I could feel helplessness rising in
easy to forget to be curious, and to grab an off-the-shelf knowledge,
something like “This is awful.” Not reaching for off-the-shelf
understandings, though, is an important skill.
Visitors were often cheerful. My father, though, didn’t want
to be told he was looking fine (it all depends on what “fine”
means) or treated with anxious kindness. He would play the
role of the dying man if he thought that was requested, but
when the visitor left he would shrug and go back to his conversations—about when he swam horses across the river, and how
he kept trying to make his marriage make sense but didn’t ever
find a pattern to it, and sometimes about how discouraged he
got in the long night hours. Small details and large meanings.
He was just dying, and wanted to live it as far as he could, with
whoever showed up. He didn’t like to have a lot of painkillers on
board because he wanted to be there for his life.
The whole of the ancient, master teachings on suffering come
down to this: Suffering is the notion “This isn’t it,” and its variants, such as “I can’t bear this, it shouldn’t be happening,” and “I
have to know how this will turn out,” and “What if it gets worse?”
Freedom, waking up, and fearlessness come down to the
simplicity of “Wait a minute, what if this is it?” and its variants
“no need to bear it” and “I don’t know.”
The thing to do at the beginning of a journey is to take a
step. Any step will do. I have another hospice story: A friend was
dying, a family doc in his thirties with a young wife and a young
child. I flew in to see him too, and as I walked down the halls of that hospice, I heard voices announcing my arrival. I began
to feel grief and a terrible, jittery obligation to make things better. I couldn’t imagine what I could say to help. It became hard
to breathe. And as I walked down that hall full of good people,
all of us wanting suffering to be relieved and feeling at a loss to bring that about, it was clear that I didn’t even know if my
friend would be coherent, or what I would say to him if he were,
or if there was any way to help.
This not knowing was a good thing, because it was possible
and true and the only door out of the building of pain. Anything
else wasn’t possible or real. I burst happily into the hospice room,
and my friend asked me to listen to music with him (Richard
Strauss’s “Four Last Songs”). He delivered a rhapsody on oxygen,
he offered me a swig, and I agreed: Oxygen is a fine, fine thing.
And now, the famous story of Bodhidharma—the red-haired, blue-eyed, pierced and tattooed barbarian from
India—and Emperor Wu of China:
“What’s the first principle of the holy teaching?” asks the
“Vast emptiness, nothing holy,” says Bodhidharma.
“Well, who are you then?”
“I don’t know,” says Bodhidharma.
There’s a layered quality to suffering and intense emotion. As you become interested, a tiny, elf light appears in the darkest dungeon. That’s the gate of emptiness. As you
become more interested, you walk deeper into the forest and
everything looks different. Sometimes it becomes joyful right
away, but it doesn’t need to. It’s become a path and that is
So, no first principles, but a few rules of thumb can be fun:
1. You don’t have to know.
2. If you take a step, any step, and feel about, you’ll find ground.
3. Whatever happens is your journey; what to do is given.
4. It’s for your benefit, honorable reader. It’s for you. No one
was ever given another now.
5. Curiosity saves the cat.
6. The question “What is this?” is a koan and always reveals a
7. No need to bear it.
8. When we want something to be over, we lose compassion
for ourselves, now.
9. What if there’s nothing wrong?
10. Not having a first principle.
My father and I still talk sometimes, in dreams and in the
spaces opened by a koan. We talk about the weather, what I
have in my garden, how my daughter’s doing.
We’re all hurtling through our lives, and the planet is hurtling through space without a seat belt. We have to discover
successively more freedom inside the terrible things that have
happened and the terrible things that certainly will happen,
and the whole of it is also a mysterious splendor, full of kindness, welcome, and cups of tea.
John Tarrant Roshi is
director of the Pacific Zen Institute. A frequent contributor to the
Shambhala Sun, he is the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros and The Light
Inside the Dark.