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  • Thomas Bien

Let Go of Knowledge

Normally, we think of knowledge as something valuable. This almost goes without saying, and since it goes without saying, it also passes without further examination.

But knowledge can be a hindrance. When we cling to it, it can limit our understanding. Believing that we know, we stop examining matters further, and this can be a trap. If Galileo had rested content with the knowledge of his day, he would not have questioned that the earth is the center of the universe. If Einstein and Bohr hadn’t questioned the knowledge of their time, we might still imagine that Newtonian physics is the total and complete truth about the universe.

Notice that in this example, Newtonian physics is not “wrong,” merely incomplete. Our knowledge doesn’t have to be wrong for it to limit us.

Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us not to cling to any of our so-called knowledge, even if that knowledge bears the imprimatur of Buddhist teaching. Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki extolled the virtue of beginner’s mind, because in the mind of the beginner there are many possibilities.

One of the important areas of our lives in which we should remember this principle is in our knowledge of other people. We can cease from looking deeply into the nature of others because we think we already know what they are like. This is a dangerous assumption. For one thing, people are not one thing: we have many sides, and can behave quite differently in different contexts. For another, we change. It can be quite frustrating when people continue to see us in terms of how we were years ago, and not notice that we have changed since then.

It is always useful to ask ourselves, “Am I sure?” Knowledge is a map of reality. It is not reality. Reality itself is always more complicated, more wonderful, sometimes more terrible. This question cuts through our stultified knowledge, and invites us to see others, ourselves, and our world more clearly and deeply.

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