NOT KNOWING IS MOST INTIMATE: Reflecting on Bowing as a Way of Life
A Sermon by
James Ishmael Ford
28 October 2007
First Unitarian Society
West Newton, Massachusetts
Dizang asked Fayen, “Where are you going?” Fayen replied, “I am wandering about aimlessly.” Dizang asked, “So, what do you think of this wandering about?” Fayan said, “I don’t know.” Dizang replied, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
Case Twenty, The Book of Serenity
I don’t know about you with certainty, but most of the time in my life, I can trick myself into thinking I have some real say over what’s going on. I’m master of my fate, captain of my ship. For reasons that are almost unfathomable, I can do this even though at least once a week I repeat, out loud, the Five Remembrances from the Upajjhatthana Sutta, a traditional Buddhist text that points out in graphic detail just how little control any of us actually have over the course of our lives.
The version used in our Zen meditation group where I recite this text goes “I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old. I am the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.” It goes on, briefly, to address our actions and what our choices in our actions can actually mean, but what I just cited is the really hard part.
And it’s the part I don’t really believe, not deep down near the reptile brain. There’s something about the human mind that allows us to ignore the contingency of life. I suspect its origin is in how that ignorance helps us to make decisions that allow us to dodge a saber-toothed tiger. Whatever the evolutionary origin, we seem good at this. At least I’m good at ignoring how fragile life is.
At least, that is, under ordinary circumstances. When things are going normally I can tell myself the story I am in control. That what happens is in my hands, my future, my destiny; are all mine. Of course this story distracts me from the reality of things, that I really have very, very little control; the reality that life is in fact wild and unpredictable. Here in the West we have a saying about this, that the only certain things are death and taxes. Of course we can also count on sickness and old age. But here’s the truth: beyond sickness, old age and death, and maybe taxes, it’s Mr Toad’s Wild Ride all the way.
Now while I like the illusion of control, it really isn’t particularly helpful. Maybe it’s helpful for dodging that saber-toothed tiger. But it isn’t helpful if I want to be in touch with who I really am, and most importantly, who I can be when my eyes and heart are truly open. So, my thesis for today is pretty simple: I suggest that place of surrendering our fond delusion of control, as difficult as it might be, can also open doors to very important places.
Today I want to talk about that, about letting go; what it is we encounter when we do, and where it might take us. In sum I want to talk about letting go as a spiritual practice. Specifically, I want to address how it can be found in the spiritual discipline of bowing, whether literally, or simply in our hearts.
For no obvious reason I’ve found my thoughts floating to an old Superman comic book, something I read in my adolescence. I have no recollection of what the arc of the story was supposed to be. Only one image remains, lingering in my memory, but that image is quite strong, and I think, relevant. Several of the major characters, as I recall at least Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are ordered to kneel before some king of a distant planet or emperor of some out of the way galaxy. Whatever, it was some nasty power. And Lois and Jimmy refuse; proudly announcing Americans don’t bow to anyone.
If I were to put my finger on a single problem we suffer from as a culture it is that we Americans don’t bow. There are some notable exceptions, but as a people we don’t bow. I’ve long since noticed one can find direct analogies between our social organizations and our inner lives. So, while I think we could profitably spend our time together today simply reflecting on our current national policies through the lens of “not bowing,” I would rather take this reflection to the heart of the matter, to its most intimate, to our individual psycho-spiritual experiences of life as it actually is. I have a point to this. Whether our driving concern is social or individual, as we look into our own hearts and minds I suspect we can find useful pointers. A win-win, if you will.
I think it also important to notice how there is bowing and there is bowing. First, there are circumstances where the hurt that has been piled on us makes it feel too hard to bow, or even wrong. I can think how many women have felt the weight of patriarchal culture, and the relentless instance that one submit to the “natural order” as ordained in holy Scripture. I can think of African Americans being told now is not the time to push for basic human rights. Or, BGLT people being told don’t rock the boat; don’t demand marriage equality right now. The time isn’t right, just bow to the circumstances. I can think of a person who has spent a lifetime being told she or he is not good enough, bow to that. To be told bowing is essential when colored with these lies of power speaking to oppress is a real problem.
And that’s not the end of the list. I think it is important to notice what I’d call theatrical bowing. We seem to have no problem with at the end of the performance that self-assured, wide grin, arms thrown out, nod to the audience, accompanied by applause, preferably loud and sustained. There is little sincerity in this bow.
Life is complicated and we need to remember those things that make it complicated. And it’s important to note these kinds of bowing are what some people call a “near enemy.” The near enemy looks like the genuine article, but really is a counterfeit, brass passing as gold. We need always to be watchful, I’ve found, of those counterfeits of our spiritual lives. Speaking for myself I find these near enemies often the most seductive of the many traps on an authentic spiritual way. They take us in other directions than toward our true home, almost always toward destructive places.
But here’s the deal, what we find as we navigate the shoals, as we avoid the traps along the way, is worth the struggle. And as regards to bowing in its deepest sense, bottom line: we’re never really in control. It’s all tentative; all hesitant, everything can and will disappear in a beat of the heart. One day we have a job, the next day not. One day we’re healthy, the next day cancer. Sickness, old age and death (and maybe taxes) are the only things we can be sure of. Well, I guess we can’t even guarantee getting to old age. The certainties of our lives comprise a very short list and are not entirely pleasant.
So, what I’m talking about here is how we can engage the world as it really is. This is, I suggest, near the heart of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer that we find what we need that allows us to “accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Or, perhaps you might prefer it in the words of Don Schlitz as sung to us by Kenny Rogers. “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”
There are good reasons for us to tell ourselves stories of being in control. No doubt. But they have limited utility, and at some point, the fold is all we have. What the bow as a spiritual practice is, is a call to surrender whatever it is that we think makes us special. For some of us it is surrendering our idea of not being good enough; a twisted way of being special, but a real one. For many of us it is surrendering thinking we’re better than this or that. For most of us it is surrendering our great mix of emotions and feelings that we are sure of, that we feel right down to our bones and what makes us, we wish, who we are. Here it’s the litany of identity, engineer, lawyer, mother, good person, bad person, a person with more than a modicum of control over what happens next. We need to let go of our knowing, and at some point, actually, letting go of it all.
That’s the bow I’m thinking of. And what it looks like, and what it feels like, and where it takes us is what I’m trying to address. Mostly, I want to point to where this bowing can take us. Which brings us to today’s reading. It comes to us from a twelfth century Chinese anthology of spiritual stories called the Book of Serenity. It’s framed as a simple conversation between a pilgrim on the spiritual path and a sage. The sage Dizang asked Fayen, “Where are you going?” Fayen replied, “I am wandering about aimlessly.” Dizang asked, “So, what do you think of this wandering about?” Fayan said, “I don’t know.” Seizing the moment, Dizang replied, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
It doesn’t really matter for our purposes who the players in this story are, although I find it interesting that they’re real historical people. Still, we can, and I believe it very helpful, to think of them as the part of our minds that believes it is in control and the part that knows better. “How are you doing?” I can ask myself. “Oh, wandering about,” I might reply. Particularly, right now. Interestingly, some versions of the text say “wandering about on pilgrimage.” Others, however, say “wandering about aimlessly.” These days, wrapped in not knowing, I prefer the second. Then pushed to respond to how I feel about this, I really, really understand that line “I don’t know.”
Don’t know. Not knowing. That is the ancient spiritual practice of bowing in a nutshell. It’s the moment we find, whether consciously done as a discipline reciting things like the “Five Remembrances,” or the Korean practice of physically bowing one hundred and eight times a day; or when we just find ourselves cast into it through divorce or job loss or dramatic illness.
The bow, I suggest, can open our hearts, can take us places we never dreamed of, to a palpable, transformative, endless world of possibility called not knowing. This is what I really want to underscore: this not knowing has endless creative possibilities, to throw in another metaphor, one or two simply aren’t enough for this place, this moment when we surrender to not knowing, when we bow to life: we discover a well that apparently is bottomless, bubbling with life-giving waters.
Right now, I’ve decided the rhythms of my personal life and those of the life of our congregation made it clear I should leave my place as minister without a certain next step in place. It’s a bow, a voluntary bow, and a surrender into a place of not knowing.
And this is what it looks like. In my own experience, it means that while I like to plan and analyze, sometimes, sometimes in the most important places, I have to surrender my dreams of control, and let what is, be. For me it means shifting a bit, and letting my body guide me, rather more than my head. Right now, living within the bow, within the not knowing, I discover things. My dreams hint at things, and I need to notice. My body’s aches and joys tell me things, and I need to notice. Chance encounters and fragments of conversation take on new and luminescent qualities, and I need to notice. Here the water bubbling up out of the well reveals itself, flowing freely, informing, nurturing, opening new ways. It’s something glorious, as well, of course, as unsettling, and occasionally even frightening.
This not knowing is most intimate. It reveals who I really am, it loosens my sense of boundaries, shakes off stories of control and certainty, and, and in all that; reveals a wide and wild world as my true home. I suggest this also may be where your true home is. And here’s the point: the key to the door to our greatest liberty, to our truest home, is found in not knowing, within the arc of a bow.