What is Buddhist practice for? Different traditions might answer this question in different ways: to purify karma, to attain enlightenment, to cultivate compassion, to find true happiness. In Zen, we try not to talk about this at all—there’s a lot of talk about “practice for its own sake,” even famous statements about zazen being “good for nothing.” There’s a danger in making anything a means to an end. But if we want to name a purpose, or even a by-product, of practice, we could do a lot worse than to say it’s for rooting out unconscious bias.
“Unconscious bias,” in a single phrase, captures what, in Buddhism, is the problem. We say there are three poisons: attachment, aversion, and ignorance. Attachment and aversion—they’re the bias. And ignorance is, well, unconscious. We don’t see it. These three poisons feed each other, in a constant loop. Attachment and aversion become so deeply ingrained in our identity that we don’t see them for what they are; we just imagine we’re seeing things accurately, responding appropriately. They become the shape of our ignorance. And ignorance, of course, is at the root of attachment and aversion. We imagine we are separate, then we either despair at that and try to cling (attachment) or decide it’s justified and push away (aversion). We’re doing this all the time.
When I read the news about acts of hatred and discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans, when I hear how it leads to deadly violence, it’s a stark reminder of what the three poisons look like in the extreme. When I see the murder of Black people on TV, when I hear of the constant dangers faced by people in the LGBTQ+ community, when I just look at how women, for millennia, have been treated in every aspect of their lives, it all points to fundamental Buddhist teachings—not the ones we like, about how to make it all better, but the other ones, about what’s at the root of it all.
We commonly hear foundational teachings in a problem–solution framework: the problem is dukkha, or dissatisfaction, and the solution is to go beyond attachment. Or, more broadly, the problem is the three poisons, and the solution is X, Y, and Z. In the same way that my tradition didn’t really talk about outcomes, it didn’t really talk about how to “fix” anything, either. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done.
We don’t know what we don’t know. Period. In my understanding, that will always be the case. We come to see certain things, of course; we aren’t locked into this moment’s particular ignorance forever, but ignorance itself never completely goes away. What this practice allows for—and what an aware, thoughtful life allows for, for that matter—is a recognition of ignorance. We may not know what we don’t know, but we can know that we don’t know. And that opens up a world of possibilities.
The next time a face appears on your screen, or you pass someone on the sidewalk, even as your mind is forming some thought about that person—assumptions about age, class, personality, or whatever it may be—try to interrupt it with the thought, I don’t know. This is a twist on huatou practice, in which one question permeates everything; the most famous is probably “What is this?” but in this case, maybe it’s “Who is this?” That’s a great approach as well, but there’s a danger, I think, of asking the question and then trying to immediately answer it. That’s not the point. This I don’t know shuts down that next part, at least for a second. It pushes pause. It puts the thing we don’t want to know—that we are fundamentally ignorant—at the center, even if just for a breath.
Sometimes, our unconscious biases become conscious. That’s magical. It can be shocking and painful and humiliating as well, but it’s magic, like suddenly opening our eyes and seeing the sky when we didn’t know it was there. We all need those moments; we need to be open to those moments. But as a practice, as a way to stay close to that possibility, we can make the unconscious part conscious. We can know that our eyes are closed, even if we don’t know what’s beyond them. We can agree to that reality, sit with it as a fact, see how it feels.
This isn’t just about race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or culture—this is about everything, everyone. When you look at your spouse? I don’t know. Your children? I don’t know. They’ll thank you for it. When you look in the mirror? I don’t know. Make it a habit. Make it the song you can’t get out of your head. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
Because you don’t. None of us do.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.