Zen and Rationality: Don't Know Mind

by G Gordon Worley III1 min read6th Aug 2020No comments

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This is post 1/? about the intersection of my decades of LW-style rationality practice and my several years of Zen practice.

In today's installment, I look at the Zen notion of "Don't Know Mind" in rationalist terms.

I'm a little unsure where "don't know mind" comes from. Sensei Google suggests it might be the Seon expression of the idea that in Zen is said "shoshin", often translated as "beginner's mind" but also carrying notions conveyed by translating it as "original mind", "naive mind", "novice mind", and "inexperienced mind" (noting that the character rendered "mind" is better translated as "heart-mind"). There's also a beloved koan often called "not knowing is most intimate" (Book of Equanimity, Case 20), and "don't know" is a good name to put to a particular insight you might have if you meditate enough. Regardless, "don't know mind" is a thing Zen practitioners sometimes say. What does it mean?

Depends on how you parse it.

The standard parsing is as "don't-know mind", as in the mind that doesn't know. This fits with the notion of soshin or beginner's mind, that is the mind that has not yet made itself up. In standard rationalist terms, this is the heart-mind that is curious, relinquishing, light, even, simple, humble, and nameless. Saying "don't know" is tricky, though, because there's the looming trap of the "don't know" that stops curiosity. Instead, this is the "don't know" that extends an open invitation of learn more.

You can also parse it as a command: "do not know" (since Zen falls within the Buddhist tradition that claims all you know is mind, "mind" is redundant here). This isn't an imperative to never know anything. Rather it's an encouragement to gaze beyond form into emptiness since our minds are often caught up in form (the map) and fail to leave space for emptiness (the territory[1]). More specifically, to know is to make distinctions, to construct an abstraction, to prune, to have a pior over your observations, to give something a name, to say this not that. Naturally, this means knowing is quite useful; it's literally what enables us to do things[2]. Yet it necessarily means leaving something out. "Don't know mind" is then advice to simultaneously let all in even as you keep some out.

Thus both interpretations converge on this idea that we can open ourselves to "knowing" more if we can hold fast to the realization that we don't already know it all.


  1. If I'm being more careful, the duals of form and emptiness and map and territory don't perfectly align, map and territory being more akin to the phenomena/noumena or ontological/ontic split in Western philosophy. Nevertheless I think this is a good enough comparison to get the idea given the broader ways we sometimes talk about map and territory on LW. ↩︎

  2. By "do things" and specifically "things" I'm here talking about things-as-things, that is things as reifications of the territory in the map, since properly things only exist in the map, not the territory, since without the map there is no thinginess, only a soup of stuff. ↩︎

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