My column this month doesn’t focus on a particular issue, although so many worldly circumstances cry out for attention. It is about the practices and capacities one needs simply to remain upright in the fires of uncertainty.
At the pivot point of A Song Everlasting, a new book by the novelist Ha Jin, the exiled protagonist, Yao Tian, a professional singer, remembers that a fellow Chinese exile had said to him: “The price for freedom was uncertainty.” This sentence, tucked away toward the end of the book, leaped out at me as true.
Of course, we don’t have to read novels or travel far on the Buddha’s way to reach this understanding. Early Buddhism articulates the Three Dharma Seals or Three Marks of Existence: impermanence (Pali: anicca), non-self (anatta), and suffering (dukkha). From that perspective, we might conclude that uncertainty amounts to suffering.
But according to Thich Nhat Hanh and a number of Mahayana sutras, the Three Dharma Seals consist of impermanence (Skt: anitya), non-self (anatman), and nirvana—the cessation of suffering. This stands the equation of uncertainty and suffering on its head; uncertainty is freedom.
Looking at these two views of the Dharma Seals, what seems clear is that impermanence and non-self are fundamental principles. The Third Seal—dukkha or nirvana—depends on our attitude toward the first two. Do we see impermanence and non-self as prison or liberation? Can we find freedom by actually embracing uncertainty? I should say that attitude is no insignificant thing. Our attitudes have deep roots in the conscious mind, the unconscious mind, and karma.
Usually we want to “know” things, to arrive at certainties, things we can count on. This extends from basic concerns, such as knowing that my home will be there tomorrow; or wanting to ensure safety from infection by COVID-19; or imagining that our nation’s political system is imperishable. But recently we have seen wildfires in California and floods in Louisiana from Hurricane Ida, destroying all the homes in their way. On our sangha Listserv, emotions have lately flared concerning safety from COVID-19, vaccinations, and how/when to open the zendo to in-person practice. On 6 January, we saw violent mobs literally breaking down the doors of the US Congress, threatening our longstanding institutions of governance.
Nothing is permanent; nothing is certain. If we are not prepared for the universality of uncertainty, we are bound to suffer. Conversely, uncertainty is a gift. We may not always see it, but uncertainty allows for the possibility of creativity and change.
There is a famous Zen koan, “Dizang’s Not knowing” (Case 20 in the Book of Serenity), that can be our guide to the freedom of uncertainty. This dialogue takes place in Tang dynasty China, but remains relevant:
Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”
Fayan said, “Around on pilgrimage.”
Dizang said, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”
Fayan said, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
Not Knowing echoes though the ages of Zen. It is Bodhidharma’s response, “no knowing,” when Emperor Wu asks who is standing before him. It is Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s Beginner’s Mind: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” It is the First of Bernie Glassman’s Three Tenets: Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, and Appropriate Response. It is Korean Master Seung Sahn’s “Only Don’t Know.”
If uncertainty is the price of freedom, intimacy (or nearness, as it is sometimes translated) is the fruit of freedom. When we are uncertain about things, we are intimate with our self. This may not always be a comfortable intimacy, but it is what another Zen teacher of mine calls “life on the line.” As Yao Tian of A Song Everlasting comes to learn, this is direct experience of the “self,” of its impermanence and its surprising capacities.
The freedom of uncertainty is one side. The other side of uncertainty is fear and anxiety, which is not entirely irrational. It’s wild out there. Our world is uncertain and always has been. Regimes and empires fall and rise. Invisible organisms bring illness and death. Bitter words of fear and hatred incite division and violence. In these circumstances, not knowing is insufficient. To stick to not-knowing as an unbending principle is investing in ignorance. Along with uncertainty and not-knowing, we must bear witness—the second of Bernie Glassman’s Three Tenets. It is also the second of the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Enlightenment—Investigation of Reality (Pali: dhamma vicaya). We open all our senses, we study with body and mind, and we make the best guess about how to proceed. That’s Glassman’s third tenet—an Appropriate Response. Then we see which way things are headed and make a course correction. Both in our meditation practice and in life we do this over and over again. Even as we sit in the Buddha’s upright position, we are constantly making small adjustments to meet the forces of gravity, fatigue, and distraction.
Going forward calls for Great Patience, the perfection of kshanti (Skt.). Such patience is the motor of zazen. Practice means sitting with every arising thought or circumstance, even when we might want to jump out of our skin.
After all these months of pandemic, with no end in sight, patience is wearing thin for many of us. I’d like to join Fayan on pilgrimage, wandering aimlessly. These days, even driving across the Bay Bridge to run an errand feels like a great adventure.
So, please be patient and compassionate to yourself and others. Let your mind travel freely on pilgrimage, and honor uncertainty while keeping your eyes open. Buddhas and ancestors will support us, even when the world is on fire.
Hozan Alan Senauke
Ha Jin. 2021. A Song Everlasting: A Novel. New York City: Pantheon
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