The Emperor asked Bodhidharma, “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?”

Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”

The Emperor then asked, “Who stands before me?”

Bodhidharma replied, “I don’t know.”

~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 1

Last week, through deep karmic circumstances (and a credit card), I found myself sitting on a black-rock beach near Kona, Hawai’i, watching a single surfer, alone in the water, trying to catch several sets of desultory waves. Time and again, he would paddle, stand up on a slightly cresting wave, it would lose force, and he would flop over backward as it rolled under him. What a great lesson and note! How about “ordinary mind”, or the lone surfer was “not two” with the waves?

I began searching Basho’s haiku for possible references to waves, and though I did not find what I thought I was looking for ~ a wave poem ~ what struck me was the subtle differences in translations of the same simple poem:

Aki chikaki Autumn approaches Autumn nearing

Kokoro no yoru ya and the heart begins to dream Inclination of the mind!

Yojo han. of four-tatami mat rooms. A four-and-half mat room.

For me, the first translation is alive with warmth and possibility. The second is cooler, and more distant. Both, of course, are correct.

This in turn led me back to what has become kind of a foundational koan for me: my own interpretation of Not Knowing, and how its meaning has subtly changed for me over the years. When I first encountered the above case in the early 1990s, what moved me most was Bodhidharma’s “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” For me, that statement was clear and obvious. But when he went on to respond, “I don’t know”, I can’t say those words held a special resonance for me. That has shifted for me. At one of our retreats some years ago, when I was serving as Head of Practice, I found myself speaking into the zendo, “‘Not knowing’ is not the opposite of ‘Knowing’. It actually has no meaning whatsoever.” And then later, one of our teachers gave a talk and said, “I used to look upon ‘not knowing’ as an attitude, a verb. But now I see it as a thing, a noun.” That made great sense to me.

But in recent years, my translation has subtly shifted again, this time as a teaching from the students I work with. I guess I now see ‘not knowing’ as an invitation to allow the world to present itself in whatever form it chooses to take, moment by moment. It is a kind of witnessing; of maintaining a soft edge against the universe. An openness to change and transformation. A holding of “beginner’s mind”, but not directed toward something narrow like “practice” or “ritual;” a beginner’s mind toward my cup of coffee, the sun streaming in the window, the lazy cat on the rug. The universe is constantly in motion, recreating itself. It is a wonderful plunge in, this life.

Let me share with you another Basho poem:

Kochira muke Will you turn toward me?

Ware mo sabishiki I am lonely too

Aki no kure. This autumn evening.