You Don't Need to Know What You're Doing- Koun Franz

You Don't Need to Know What You're Doing- Koun Franz

As I wrote the other day, this month is when Zen temples celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment. I won’t retell the whole story here, though it’s beautiful. Instead, I want to point to two moments—one just before the big moment, and one after—that I think really matter.

As the hours passed beneath the bodhi tree, and Siddhartha’s awakening started to seem more and more inevitable, Mara, the demon whose job it is to distract beings and turn them away from enlightenment, started to get frustrated. He had shot arrows at Siddhartha, debated with him, even tried seducing him away from his task with his three beautiful daughters, all to no avail. At one point, Mara demanded to know, “Who gives you the right to do this? Who will stand as your witness?” Famously, Siddhartha reached down and touched the earth with the tips of his fingers, saying, essentially, “The world is my witness.” 

I think about this moment a lot. This is pre-awakening—though we tell the story as if awakening was a foregone conclusion, it hadn’t happened yet. Siddhartha didn’t touch the earth from the place of knowing that we usually associate with buddhahood; he did it from a different place, one of not knowing what would happen next. A place of pure resolve. In that resolve, in that stability of knowing what he must do, there was a certainty: I belong here. That’s different from saying, “I will succeed.” It’s more like “I know I’m where I need to be, and no one can challenge that.” It’s a quiet, powerful moment, one in which, according to some versions, the earth actually shook in response.

You Don't Have To Know What You're Doing I DharmaCrafts

Sometime later, at the sight of the morning star, Siddhartha woke up and was the Buddha. Something happened; a puzzle piece, for him, clicked into place. The question was resolved—but it had been resolved on such a deep level that he couldn’t describe it, or even begin to. When he stood up from his seat and started walking, Mara saw another opportunity, his big, last chance. He strode up to the Buddha and said, “That was amazing. You really showed me. But there’s no second act to something like that—if you stay on in this sense realm, nothing will ever match it; if you try to teach it to others, your explanation will always fall short. Nothing left for you but nirvana…” According to the story, this was Mara’s strongest move yet. Nothing could have dissuaded Siddhartha from getting to this point, but now that he was here—what next? He knew, on a deep level, that part of what Mara was saying was right. It gave him pause.

Here, I imagine him kind of walking in a circle on the grass, or pacing, Mara looking on. I don’t know how long it took him—minutes? Hours? But he eventually concluded that it was important to go forward, to share what he knew, even if there was a low chance of success. Even if there was no success. Even if—and this, for me, is the point—he didn’t know what he was doing. In this moment of decision, we catch the flavor of the bodhisattva path, the posture of committing oneself to others whether you know how best to serve them or not. It’s another quiet moment. In a way, it’s the moment—it’s the moment when the Buddha began walking (metaphorically) in a perfectly straight line, knowing he would never veer to the right or left, that he would never go backward, that he would never stop. 

I don’t know about you, but I have trouble relating to the big awakening moment. What I do relate to—and feel challenged by—are these moments of decision. In one, Siddhartha proclaims, “I will not move”; in the other, the Buddha says, “I will not stop moving.” Both are silent—if it’s a movie, it’s something we see in his eyes, in his posture. And in both moments, the decision is absolute, unshakeable. He follows through. 

I feel, through this practice, a deep sense of what I am supposed to do. But the execution is not so clear. How do I serve others? How do I keep my eyes open to what is true? Books have been written with possible answers, but it can be simple. To serve others, just don’t stop offering. To see what is true, just don’t close your eyes. You don’t need to know what you’re doing. You just need to know that you belong here, that this is your path to walk, that you can choose this, right now, in a way that makes the world shake. 

You Don't Have To Know What You're Doing I DharmaCrafts

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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would like a catalog and a phone number so i can order in person thanks

oskar tuohy

I don’t assume that distractions arise from a negative source, even when they threaten a negative impact and present a challenge to following through with what serves. If they require one to shore up one’s inner workings, they could be an opportunity to increase one’s capacity to serve.

Not knowing what you’re doing eliminates being self-conscious about it, the possibility of trying to put your thumb on the scales, and other kinds of drag. They say that dancers simply take direction, while actors may question it; in some situations, only dancing will do.

I should probably mention that I have not studied Buddhism; these are my observations from experience, for better or for worse; and they are expressed in the spirit of “Take what you like and leave the rest.”


Thank you so much, Koun-Franz, for your writings. I so look forward to each article that is shared. Know that your work is so important and your teachings are so valuable — especially in today’s world. I so love sharing your words and insights with my students. Thought provoking, inspiring and humbling. I don’t always know what I’m doing, but I try and try with the greatest of intentions to serve as best as I can. Thanks again~

Loretta Jo Schlatzer

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