Monday, 26 November 2012

Don't Know...Can't Get There From Here?

It's happened to us all. You're walking down the street grooving to your favorite death metal band in your headphones. A car slows along side you and rolls down the window. "Excuse me..."

Now because you're a Buddhist, you won't pretend not to hear them and just keep walking. You hit pause and turn to face them.

"Sorry to bother you."

"No problem."

"Can you tell me how to get to - fill in the blank with someplace you know is close but that you've never been to?"

That's how it begins. It's a simple transaction repeated hundreds of times a day all over the world. The dilemma? You have no idea how to get there. Do you admit it? Do you make something up? I come down on the side of Right Speech and admit I don't know, but it's interesting to consider that many people don't.

My husband grew up in Japan. He's told me that many Japanese would give false directions before admitting they don't know. Knowing the answer to this random question from a stranger has somehow become enmeshed with their sense of honor and self-worth. So much so that they would rather lead the stranger astray than embarrass themselves in front of said stranger. What would they make of my ready admission of defeat?

When I first came to Buddhism, I frequented the Cambridge Zen Center in Massachusetts (affiliated with the Kwan Um School of Zen). The biggest take-home concept from my experience there was "Don't Know mind." Instead of being threatened by it, I received the idea with joy. What a relief to surrender to my metaphysical ignorance! Embracing my state of unknowing contributed wonder to my life. In Don't Know mind, I became more curious and less anxious about whether my assumptions turned out to be true.

I still don't understand how being able to give directions with greater accuracy than a London City cab driver can become a barometer for personal honor. If something so trivial is capable of triggering shame, it certainly explains why people's reactions to true affront can be so extreme. It also explains why practicing to dispel shenpa from small things in our lives can make such a huge impact in terms of decreasing our suffering.

So the next time you get that sinking feeling from the questioning look of a stranger, hold your head up high and declare your ignorance loud and clear. Be proud! Be bold!

Unless you're in Japan.

Then again what do I know?


  1. I welcome questions from strangers on where places are. If it's somewhere I have not personally been then I make a note to check it out myself. Also, being a tech geek I can easily direct anyone to their location of choice in moments. I think that with the advent of technology these opportunities are becoming more rare.

  2. I always hope I know the way when someone begins asking me directions and have often felt a sense of disappointment when I have to tell them I don't know. But it's not a problem I have these days.

    Gotta love smartphones and google.

  3. Ah yes! The advent of GPS. Such a great tool, but then came the samsara of Apple's new maps : )