I once heard a teacher describe this scene: Imagine you in a boat on the river, surrounded by fog, and see another boat coming right toward you. At first, maybe you wave your arms so you’re seen, but when its course doesn’t change, you start to shout. Your shouts soon turn to angry shouts—why aren’t they listening?—so now you’re yelling and waving your arms wildly, and still, the boat is coming. Finally, it breaks through the fog, and you realize there’s no one in it. There was never anyone in it.
In that moment, when you see the truth of the situation, everything changes. All your anger, all the stories you were creating about the stupid person in the other boat, perhaps even your feeling that this is part of a pattern in your life, dealing with idiots—it instantly dissolves. You were mistaken. It’s that simple.
Buddhism most famously illustrates this with the image of a snake that, on closer inspection, turns out to be just a rope (Hinduism uses the same image). If it’s dark out and you encounter something coiled on the ground—if you’re like me, anyway—you might jump five feet in the air before realizing it was just a piece of rope; you might even run away and never know, and tell all your friends about the snake that almost got you. We all have these moments, and regrettably, for most of us, we don’t have that clear moment of seeing the truth and having a little laugh about it. We just add whatever it is to the pile of fictions we buy into and go about our lives.
How do we see the rope for what it is? How do we step out of paranoia into clear seeing? In one way, it seems hard—especially today, we’re bombarded by competing stories, many of which are false, and we have to choose. Seeing the truth of a thing isn’t that hard, most of the time. A rope, if you just look more closely, is unmistakably a rope. If we choose to, we can investigate sources, ask people we trust, slow down. The truth is never not right in front of us. But we are also human, which means we don’t naturally choose based on cold facts; instead, we choose based on the narrative that matches what we already believe. It’s always easier to reinforce a belief than to tear it down. Even when it scares us, sometimes we want the rope to be a snake. For whatever reason, in the worldview we’re carrying around, maybe the rope doesn’t feel like a right fit—even if it’s true.
Buddhism is full of responses to this. Some teachings start by asserting what is true and say, “Study and practice this until you, too, see the truth of it.” Some teachings are about how to analyze whatever is in front of us, how to dissect our thoughts or encounters or objects of mind so that we can come to understand them in a more neutral way. Either way, there is an invitation to actively bring discernment to each moment, to not simply settle for wherever our minds go first.
There is also a place in the middle, between embracing falsehood and recognizing truth: not knowing. Much of Zen practice starts and ends here—not necessarily with seeing definitively the truth of how things are, but with holding, moment to moment, an awareness of our own ignorance and making space for the possibilities that arise when we don’t decide on this or that. The Korean Zen master Seung Sahn famously taught, “Only don’t know.” It sounds simple—simpler than analyzing, simpler than holding on to a fiction—but it’s hard, one of the hardest practices we can take up.
I forget this practice of not knowing all the time; I have to relearn it every day. But when I remember it, it’s where I start. When I read a news article that makes me angry, I stop and remind myself not to know, not to rest in that easy place of being so sure. When the article makes me happy, I do the same. And then, of course, I forget again. The world is practically made of rope; the boat coming at you is almost always not what it seems. How much do we really see?
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.
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