Essential Ignorance

October 5th, 2010

A discussion with some students the other day made me think of some aspects of working on the book, as it went through a series of publishing misadventures. A handful of editors took issue with a part I didn’t know would be at all controversial; when I said I don’t know.

My teacher P’arang always told me never to be afraid to say “I don’t know,” and it’s good advice. But these two editors said that people won’t buy a book if the writer isn’t confident about what he/she knows. I shouldn’t tell the reader that I don’t know, they told me. But actually, that’s not what I was saying in the book. I was talking about questions of history, things we might wonder about the historical Buddha, things we might want to know about the beginning of Buddhism centuries ago. When I say that essentially, I don’t know if the Buddha said, I don’t mean, “I haven’t learned enough to know that certainly.” I’m saying that I don’t know and nobody knows.

I meant the statement to lead to insight about essential ignorance. It’s not the same as conditional ignorance: “I don’t know, but I’ll let you know when I find out.” We practice in the face of essential ignorance, understanding that we might never know.

So I thought of this in similar terms when a student used the words “incomplete” and “unfinished.” If we look at these terms in a conditional sense, they’re negative. You’re incomplete, but I know what will complete you. You’re unfinished, and you should be finished by now. In an essential meaning, they’re actually kind of inspiring. We learn more because the more we learn, the more we can see our own incompleteness. We keep working because we’re unfinished, and we’ll never be finished, so we’ll always have more work to do. Seeing this as a great opportunity, rather than a great tragedy, will help us immensely.

One Response to “Essential Ignorance”

  1. anila says:

    It’s possible that THE most fundamental current hiccup in our little human experiment — at least in the States — is everyone feeling like not knowing is failure. And so you yell louder than the next guy; you draw ridiculous conclusions from your list of “facts”; you hire a PR team and head to the Washington monument on MLK’s birthday; you decide which of other people’s tendencies are “natural”; etc. etc. etc.

    I like your willingness to not know; the courage of it; the example.

    I liked your book, too.


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