The Gate of Unknowing

Enlightenment, Realization, or Gnosis is nothing that can be attained through any of our conventional ways of knowing. This is because conventional knowledge is based on imaginary distinctions, which we take to represent reality. The Reality that Gnosis reveals, however, is non-dual, and without distinctions. To the extent that we reify the distinctions of conventional knowledge as inherently existing entities and objects, they act as veils to our Realization of this Non-dual Reality. Thus, to attain Gnosis we must surrender our belief that conventional knowledge gives us knowledge of Reality. This is why the Taoist sage, Lao Tzu, asks:

When your discernment penetrates to the four quarters
Are you capable of not knowing anything?1
And why the great Sufi poet, Rumi, writes:
Where should I seek knowledge? In the abandonment of knowledge.2
Because as Zen Master, Suzuki Roshi, explains:
If you want to understand it, you cannot understand it. When you give up trying to understand it, true understanding is always there.3
Now many seekers take such teachings to mean that, in order to attain Gnosis, we must stop trying to grasp reality through formal philosophical modes of thinking. This is certainly true, as far as it goes. The trouble is, it does not go far enough. What Gnosis demands is something much more radical. The Christian mystic, St. John of the Cross, explains:
Those are decidedly hindered, then, from attainment of this high state of union with God who are attached to any understanding, feeling, imagining, opinion, desire, or way of their own, or to any other of their works or affairs, and know not how to detach and denude themselves of these impediments. Their goal transcends all of this, even the loftiest object that can be known or experienced. Consequently, they must pass beyond everything to unknowing.4
In other words, it is not just our philosophical knowledge that must be surrendered. We must surrender belief in any of our conventional ways of knowing—including those everyday, `common sense' ways of knowing we take so much for granted.

This is easier said than done for two reasons. The first is that our most primitive forms of knowledge are based on elementary distinctions which, under normal circumstances, we are not even aware we are making. Consequently, before we can surrender our belief in all forms of knowledge, we must first become mindful of those subliminal mental processes on which knowledge itself is founded.

The second reason is that even the creation and acquisition of our most sophisticated forms of knowledge is by no means a dispassionate affair. Except in the rarest of cases, it is motivated by a desire to in some way enhance and protect ourselves. The more we think we know about the world, the more we feel we can control and manipulate it to our own ends. By the same token, the less we think we know, the more we feel lost and vulnerable. Consequently, the prospect of surrendering our belief in all forms of knowledge is quite frightening, for it means we must be willing to enter a state of such profound unknowing that we literally no longer have the slightest idea of who we are, or where!

Roughly speaking, we create and acquire conventional forms of knowledge within a hierarchy of types or levels. Although these types and levels interact and interpenetrate each other in complex ways, for simplicity's sake we can think of this as similar to putting on layers of clothing. And because we are convinced that all these various layers of clothing are necessary for our survival in a cold cruel world, we develop strong attachments to them. Our task on the spiritual path, however, is to progressively divest ourselves of these garments until we stand utterly naked and exposed. Only by passing through the gate of complete unknowingness can we open ourselves to the Realization that there is no `cold cruel world' to begin with! Everything, including our supposed `selves,' is only the inexhaustible Radiance of Consciousness, Itself.

So, let us look at some of the different types of knowledge that must be surrendered, as well as some of the major forms our resistance can take when it comes time to do so. It is important to keep in mind, however, that individual seekers can have varying degrees of attachment to different types of knowledge, and so will experience varying degrees of resistance to surrendering them. What's more, as a practical matter, most seekers do this in a piecemeal fashion, like someone who might remove his pants before taking off his overcoat. Thus, our progress from knowing to unknowing usually follows a more complicated and circuitous route than can be presented here.

Our highest and most all-encompassing level of conventional knowledge consists of worldviews. Sticking with our clothing metaphor, we can think of them as our overcoats. Worldviews come in a variety of forms—symbolic, mythic, religious, or philosophic—and are usually shared by members of a particular culture or sub-culture. The worldview of modern secular culture, for instance, is the philosophy of scientific materialism, while the worldview of medieval Europe was Catholic Christianity. But however different they may be, all worldviews represent an attempt to organize lower levels of knowledge into a coherent picture of the cosmos as a whole and our own place within it.

Most of us inherit our worldview from the culture we grew up in and tend to take its fundamental assumptions for granted. Although often unconscious, these assumptions influence our lives in quite concrete ways. To give but one example, religious worldviews teach us that some part of ourselves—a soul, psyche, or mind-stream—survives death, and so we must be concerned about how our actions in this life will affect the next. According to scientific materialism, on the other hand, we are purely physical beings for whom death is final. Consequently, there is no need to worry about what happens to us in some postmortem state.

In general, it is not too difficult for seekers who come to a mystical path holding a religious worldview to surrender their attachment to it. This is because virtually all religions insist that, in the final analysis, Absolute Reality (God, Brahman, Buddha-nature, the Great Tao, etc.) is a Mystery which cannot be grasped by the human mind. Therefore, all that seekers who are already committed to a religious worldview really have to do is take this teaching seriously. Instead of regarding their religious doctrines as absolute, they have to learn to see them as simply "fingers pointing to the moon."

Although initially some seekers may fear that making this kind of shift in perspective will compromise their faith, in the end most find that the more they glimpse the Moon of Reality directly, without the mediation of doctrines, the more they actually come to appreciate the richness and depths of the doctrines, themselves.

Sometimes seekers who have never been exposed to the mystical dimensions of their own religious traditions become attracted to the mystical teachings of other traditions. The danger for them is that, rather than focus on the essence of the teachings, they fixate on the worldviews in which these teachings are formulated. For instance, westerners who are attracted to Eastern traditions often become fascinated by concepts of karma, reincarnation, subtle energy systems, etc. While this kind of knowledge can certainly be useful for guiding one's practice, if a seeker becomes attached to it as representing reality, he or she has merely exchanged one overcoat for another. To avoid this trap we need to heed the great Zen master, Dogen. Although his words are aimed at Buddhists, they apply to anyone walking a mystical path:

To follow the buddha completely means you do not have your old views. To hit the mark completely means you have no new nest in which to settle.5
Seekers who come to a mystical path with a scientific materialist worldview often have a much more difficult time of surrendering it than those who hold a religious worldview. The reason for this is that, while it is easy for materialists to regard religious worldviews as imaginary, they believe their own worldview to be `true,' because it is `proven' by science. As a result, they are constantly trying to reduce mystical teachings to their own materialist categories, and so end up never taking off their overcoats at all.

Since seekers who hold a scientific materialist worldview usually pride themselves on being logical thinkers, the remedy for their attachment is to conduct a logical inquiry into the nature of science itself. Such an inquiry, if pursued rigorously, will destroy the belief that science can ever give us any kind of absolute knowledge, let alone an absolute worldview.

It is perhaps fair to say, however, that most of us in our day-to-day lives are not particularly concerned with worldviews. We are content to let the experts (theologians or scientists) figure out the ultimate nature of the cosmos for us. What really concerns us are matters closer at hand. This brings us to the next level of knowledge which consists of social and political ideologies. We might compare our ideological convictions to the dress clothes which we like to wear when making public appearances.

People who are strongly attached to this level of knowledge tend to see the world in quite dualistic terms as a great ethical struggle being waged between diametrically opposed historical forces, such as liberalism vs. conservatism, socialism vs. capitalism, localism vs. globalism, etc. Such people often become ardent activists and spend a good deal of their time writing letters, joining campaigns, or engaging in protests to promote their chosen Cause. Indeed, the knowledge that they are on the `right' side, fighting the `good' fight, is what gives their lives meaning and purpose.

When people with strong ideological commitments enter a mystical path, they tend to interpret the teachings in ways that support their own partisan views. This is especially true when it comes to teachings about morality and moral precepts. In failing to recognize that, from a mystical perspective, moral precepts are tools for fostering selfless love and compassion in their own lives, they seize on them as reflecting social and political imperatives to which everyone should conform. Thus, instead of softening the hearts of such seekers, practicing moral precepts often has the contrary effect of hardening them.

The antidote for seekers with this type of attachment is not to give up their activism, but to cultivate the virtues of humility and tolerance. Humility is born of the recognition that we do not and cannot ever know whether our own actions are ultimately right or wrong. All we can know is whether they are motivated by self-centered grasping and aversion, or selfless love and compassion. Tolerance comes from the recognition that, although we might not agree with our adversaries' views, we cannot know with absolute certainty that they are false.

In this we would do well to emulate the great Indian activist, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi refused to kill British soldiers, not because he felt himself to be morally superior to them, but for precisely the opposite reason. He was humble enough to recognize his conviction that Britain's colonization of India was wrong was only relative in nature. In his eyes, however, killing was an absolute act. Therefore, he reasoned, he could not commit an absolute act based on what, in the nature of things, could only be a relative judgment. If we can be as detached from our own ideological views as Gandhi was, then taking part in social and political activities can itself provide powerful opportunities for furthering our spiritual practice.

Whether or not a person is attached to a particular social or political ideology, almost everyone is attached to that common sense, practical knowledge necessary for the conduct of everyday life. We might compare this level of knowledge to a suit of work clothes. It includes everything from learning facts about the products we buy, to acquiring skills needed for getting better jobs, to understanding the people we encounter in our daily lives.

One reason we are so attached to this kind of knowledge is, of course, that all our worldly comfort and happiness seems to depend on it. If we are not reliably informed about the world around us, we may miss opportunities to improve our circumstances, or fall prey to others who will take advantage of our ignorance. But, in addition to its utilitarian value, there is an even more profound reason for our attachment to it. Because everyone in our immediate environment shares in this same pool of practical knowledge, we take for granted that, regardless of the accuracy of any particular piece of information, fundamentally it must reflect a real world of real objects, existing out there, apart from ourselves. Therefore, to question its underlying veracity seems to threaten not only our physical well-being, but our very sanity.

This is why almost all seekers experience great resistance when it comes to surrendering belief in the absolute nature of their practical knowledge. "After all," they insist, "we still have to live in the relative world!" What Gnosis requires, however, is precisely the Realization that there is no relative world!—that the `objects' so familiar to us are, in fact, reifications of imaginary distinctions. Here is how the Confucian, Kao P'an-lung, described his own direct insight into this truth:

Suddenly, I realized this and said, "it really is like this, in reality there is not a single thing!" With this single thought, all entanglements were broken. Suddenly, it was as if a load of a hundred pounds had fallen to the ground in an instant. It was as if a flash of lightening had penetrated the body and pierced the intelligence.6
The most effective way to arrive at this insight is to meditate on the moment-to-moment impermanence of all the sensory phenomena we perceive. The more we experience for ourselves how transitory these phenomena truly are, the more we recognize that the `objects' in our environment which seem so substantial are actually constructs of our minds and, therefore, "empty" (as the Buddhists like to say) of any inherent existence. Then, although we can still make use of practical knowledge, we no longer cling to the belief that it represents a real `world' of solid `things' in which we can find any abiding happiness.

Having stripped ourselves of our work clothes, we come down to the next level of knowledge, which we can compare to our most intimate apparel—our underwear. This we might call personal knowledge. It consists of what we know—or think we know—about ourselves and includes such things as our sensations, emotions, ideas, opinions, feelings, desires and aversions, likes and dislikes, memories of the past, and fantasies of the future—in short, everything we believe constitutes our individual identity.

Needless to say, this is the level of knowledge we are most attached to. In fact, it is almost impossible to conceive of life without it. What would it mean, for instance, not to know what you think or feel, like or dislike, remember, or expect? For most seekers, the prospect of falling into this kind of ignorance is quite terrifying because it seems that if we really didn't know any of these things, we would not exist at all! And, of course, this is just what the mystics say. In reality, we are not our thoughts, feelings, likes, dislikes, memories, or expectations. But until we surrender our belief that we are these things, we cannot discover who we truly are.

There are two main methods for surrendering your attachment to this kind of personal knowledge. One is to cultivate such an intense devotion to some form of the Divine that you are willing to totally surrender yourself to it. Eventually, this will bring you to a state where, as St. Teresa of Avila, writes:

There is a self-forgetfulness which is so complete that it really seems as though the soul no longer existed, because it is such that there is neither knowledge nor remembrance that there is either heaven or life or honour for her.7
The second method is to meditate on the impermanence of whatever internal phenomena you think constitute your `self.'  Just as meditating on the impermanence of external phenomena leads to the realization that there are no real `objects,' so meditating on internal phenomena leads to the realization that there is no real `self'. It is nothing more than an imaginary character in a story which the mind constantly tells itself!

But even a seeker who gets a genuine glimpse into his or her own selflessness is still not necessarily out of the woods. So attached are we to conventional ways of knowing, that our minds are apt to seize on this very insight with the thought, "Aha! Now I know that I am nothing!" But knowing that you are nothing is not at all the same as not knowing anything. Only if you can allow all thoughts—even the thought "I am nothing"—to dissolve away without a trace will you be able to enter the gate of true unknowing. This is the state of emptiness or kenosis in which all conventional knowledge is wiped out, for as the Hindu saint, Lalleshwari, says:

Neither silence nor yogic postures
enable you to enter there.
In that state there is no knowledge,
no meditation, no Shiva or Shakti.
All that remains is That.
O Lalli, you are That.
Attain That.8
Kenosis, however, is not the same as Gnosis. There remains one last barrier to full Enlightenment. We might call this the First Distinction, and compare it to the sensation of our bare skin. Even though we have shed all our clothes, we still feel a nameless, primordial sense of separation. This is how the anonymous Christian author of the Cloud of Unknowing expresses it:
Long after you have successfully forgotten every creature and its works, you will find that a naked knowing and feeling of your own being still remains between you and your God. And believe me, you will not be perfect in love until this, too, is destroyed.9
The trouble with this First Distinction is that it is prior to thought, language, and all other forms of distinction. As such, it is not something that you create. In fact, it creates you—or rather, the First Distinction is that very experience of being a `you.' Consequently, there is no way `you' can surrender it. In fact, any effort `you' make to do so simply serves to keep this distinction in place. This is why Enlightenment always comes spontaneously as an act of grace. And this grace acts only in a state in which, not only has all your knowledge been erased, but even your attempts to attain knowledge have fallen away. Thus, Zen master, Hakuin, writes:
When all the effort you can muster has been exhausted and you have reached a total will suddenly come and you will break free. The phoenix will get through the golden net. The crane will fly free of the cage.10
Here is how the Christian mystic, Dionysius the Areopagite, describes the seeker who suddenly finds that the Primal Distinction has been shattered:
He breaks free...away from what sees and is seen, and he plunges into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing. Here, renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united by a completely unknowing inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.11
This is also why the Sufis insist that the spiritual path leads, not to greater and greater knowledge, but to greater and greater bewilderment, because as Ibn `Arabi writes:
The bewilderment of the gnostic in the Divine Side is the greatest of bewilderments, since he stands outside of restriction and delimitations....No curtain and no veil remains for this most elevated locus of witnessing rends and tears them all.12
Finally, it should be said that, although Gnosis always dawns in a state of kenosis, like all states, kenosis passes. Gnosis, however, does not pass—nor does the ignorance to which the Gnostic has been brought. Indeed, these two are identical, for even though thoughts arise again and conventional knowledge returns, the Gnostic continues to know nothing, precisely because there is no `thing' to be known and no `one' to know it...and even this is saying too much.
- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Summer-Fall 2001. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.
1. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, trans. D.C. Lau (London: Penguin Books, 1963), 66.

2. William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1983), 175.

3. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1970), 131.

4. John of the Cross: Selected Writings, ed. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 86-87.

5. Dogen, Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen, ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 43.

6. Rodney L. Taylor, The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 62.

7. St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, trans. E. Allison Peers (New York: Image Books, a Division of Doubleday, 1961), 219.

8. Lalleshwari: Spiritual Poems by a Great Siddha Yogini, rendered by Swami Muktananda (South Fallsburg, NY: SYDA Foundation, 1981), 84.

9. Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing And The Book of Privy Counseling, ed. William Johnston (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., an Image Book, 1973), 103.

10. Hakuin, The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin, trans. Norman Waddell (Boston: Sambhala, 1994), 62.

11. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 137.

12. William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989), 381.