Not knowing

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Taoism and Zen recognise that there is absolutely nothing wrong with not knowing. Modern culture is obsessed with the notion that everything can and should be known.
Yet, realistically, how much do we really know? How much can we know?


In terms of education, a person can be tutored to degree standard and beyond. A degree is 1/360th of a circle. No graduate ever knows 1/360th of any given subject, no matter how hard they study.
They know far less than they realise.

Further education

Postgraduate study narrows the field of expertise further still. You know more and more about less and less. The danger with knowledge is that it is always partial, incomplete.
It is simply not possible to know anything through and through. This is an aspect of the human condition.


Reality is often referred to as 'truth' because it is not subject to any form of interpretation. We never comprehend the truth. The truth is everything, all at once, at each moment of our existence.
Do you see?

Information overload

No human can experience the absolute immediacy of truth. Our brains cannot process the sheer volume of information contained in every single moment of our lives.
There is simply too much to understand it all, to know it all, to remember it all. To even try is a folly.


People resist the fact of not knowing because they wish to seem clever. Realising that everything cannot be known may feel like an admission of stupidity, but it is not.
Stupidity is believing that you can know it all.


If somebody asks you a question and you do not know the answer, say so. Do not lie, bluster or make something up. Admit the truth. It will liberate you.
Life is so much easier when you come to see that there is no way you could possibly know everything about everything. Not knowing is inevitable.


Arrogance is based on fear. People cling to a slither of knowledge and parade it as though it were the entirety.
A doctor may seem clever until you ask them to mend your car, and a tai chi master may seem gifted until you ask them to discuss subatomic physics with you...


Specialism is necessary in life. It is the only way to gain advanced knowledge in a narrow field of focus. Do not be proud of what you know.
A genius in one area is potentially a fool in all others.


Lao Tzu wrote that we find balance by realising that our knowledge is fragmentary. Nobody knows it all. Even if they think they do.


There is a difference between innocence and ignorance. Innocence is the natural condition of not knowing whereas ignorance is the pretence of not knowing.

Consider tai chi...

Innocence is when you have no idea that something exists or should be trained. Like a new starter who is unaware that tai chi was designed for combat.

Blinding yourself?

Ignorance is when you know that tai chi should contain whole-body strength and should be applied in combat, but you choose to not learn these skills.
Rather than undertake a complex course of new study, you pretend to be unaware.
Ignorance is the act of ignoring the existence of relevant information. You know it is there but you pretend that you do not.

Ti-ts'ang asked Fa-yen, "Where are going?"
Fa-yen said, "Around on pilgrimage."
Ti-ts'ang said, "What is the purpose of pilgrimage?"
Fa-yen said, "I don't know."
Ti-ts'ang said, "Not knowing is nearest."

(Zen mondo)

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Page created 2 October 1996
Last updated 16 June 2023