Is our much-touted Zen “not knowing” actually and truly humility, or is it a not-knowing that reserves enough discrimination to still kind of know that it’s the best way to be? Some recent study of mine has really brought this question home, and I’d like to share it if in somewhat roundabout a way.
I know very little about the San-chieh chiao (Sanjie Jiao) — the “Three Stages Sect” — apparently a radical Buddhist sect that flourished in China in the sixth and seventh centuries before disappearing from the historical record. The main piece of information, in fact, that I’ve acquired about it in my studies is that we don’t really know what it was or why it vanished.
The dominant story about it, though, is an interesting one whether or not it’s accurate. In that version, the sect embraced extremely radical teachings and established something called the “Inexhaustible Treasuries” — a kind of dana orgy which, in Gernet’s telling, drove people to bring literal cartloads of cash to monasteries for the Sangha and for distribution to the poor. For these radical teachings and their popular power, the sect was persecuted and destroyed by secular and Buddhist authorities both. Again, I’m not up on the scholarship by any means (although I have heard that the relationship between the institution of the Inexhaustible Treasuries and the Sanjie Jiao has been called seriously into question), and the only reading I’ve done on the sect are the couple of essays in the extremely interesting and likely outdated collection Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, particularly one by Mark Edward Lewis that summarizes his take on their doctrine in the course of laying out his view on the causes of their suppression.
As Lewis sees it, the sect took the pervasive Chinese Buddhist notion of the decline of the Dharma (known to many of us by it’s Japanese rendering mappō) to a logical if wild conclusion. Given the total degeneration of the Dharma, the total absence of awakened discernment in this late and decadent age (around 600 AD!), how could any of us know the true from the false, the enlightened from the deluded, the truth from heresy, Buddhas from ordinary beings? Since this is so — that in this last age we are truly in no position to judge — the safest and most sound bet is to take everything as true and everyone as Buddha. It follows too that we should literally say nothing and take no views except this view that all discernment is false.
This was a totally ecumenical approach — non-Buddhist teachings and even demonic ones were all to be taken as true. It was also profoundly bodhisattvic: like the Bodhisattva “Never Disparages” of the Lotus Sutra (best known to Zen students by the hit single he inspired), all beings are to be simply taken as Buddha. Because who can really know they’re not?
This is of course fraught. As is often the problem in the Buddhadharma, this “no view” does pretty much amount to a view, just as the “no right way” amounts to a “right way,” etc., and for Lewis the Sanjie Jiao was by no means immune to this. (For example, it’s hard to compute their stated radical inclusion of all doctrines with their scathing critiques of Buddhist approaches that dared to distinguish true from false doctrines.) It’s also based on a grim view of the state of the Dharma that, while many of us may relate (“no Zen in the West,” anyone?), is by all measures extreme.
But the invitation to the profound humility underlying this logic of “no discrimination” stands out to me quite powerfully. Zen is a lot about confidence in our Buddha Nature, unshakeable faith in the ground of our life as it is, and the deep freedom that comes of that to fully and fearlessly express the conditioned arising self we are right now. I’ve often felt and said that humility can get sort of drowned out by that project. Humility is present, to be sure — as anyone whose been destroyed by a period of zazen knows well! — but it’s background. Contrasted with approaches that place humility front and center, as root and limbs — Catholic monasticism or Japanese Pure Land Buddhism come to mind — we Zen folks can seem, well, a little puffed up.
It’s arrogant of course to say so (… or is it humble, in that I’m a Zen creep like the next?). The truth is that despite some habits of No Zen posts, what we “do wrong” isn’t really my point.
It’s just that I’m appreciating that call to a more radical humility that’s based on real not-knowing. Can my “don’t know mind” — the one that really, really doesn’t know anything at all — manifest as complete humility, full acceptance of all wholesome teachings, unambivalent reverence for all others?
Or does my version of “don’t know” instead contract to something like “and you don’t know either,” leaving open the possibility that I’ve still got a better angle than you?