(Delivered at UUSF on December 24th, 2016. Listen to the audio here.)
If you look in the dictionary, there are two uses of the word “wonder.” The first meaning curiosity, as in “I wonder how that works.” And the second meaning awe, as in “They gazed in wonder at the star(s).” The two meanings feel different to me. When we wonder about something, there is the sense – whether it’s true or not – that we can use observation and reason to eventually discover the answer. When we wonder at something - marvel, behold in awe - there is more the sense that this is something so grand, so amazing, that all we can do is experience it. Yet the two definitions of wonder are clearly related; both start with the recognition of not knowing. As I thought about it, I realized that the times when I do not know - whether it’s curiosity or awe - are the times I feel most alive; and that I’ve pursued that feeling throughout my life.
You see I started vocationally as a scientist. Got a PhD in neurobiology from Caltech and worked in a research lab for seven years at SUNY Stony Brook. But then changed professions. Studied religion at Georgetown; then got a job working for the UUA. (That’s the national association of Unitarian Universalist congregations.) I got into science for the same reason that most scientist do, I think - curiosity, the desire to understand the world around us. And left science once I realized, belatedly, that while I loved asking questions and designing experiments, I almost always felt disappointed by the results. Knowing answers seemed far less rich, less magical to me, than posing questions. So I switched to a field where answers are much harder to come by than questions. (Come to think of it, no wonder I’m a UU.)
Of course, we're here to celebrate Christmas, but there are several other holidays this time of year as well. One of them is Bodhi Day. That's the day when Siddhartha became the Buddha, when he “awoke” and attained enlightenment.
On one level, Buddhism, like science, is a quest to know. We practice in order to see more clearly, to know more truly. And if one believes the sutras, they tell us that when the Buddha attained enlightenment, he could see everything. Every previous life. Every karmic consequence. The entire interdependent web, past, present, and future. He didn’t teach about those things because they are not relevant to the goal of Buddhism, which is to end suffering. But if the sutras are to be believed, with full enlightenment comes perfect knowing.
Whereas Christianity values mystery, NOT-knowing. The mystery of the Divine incarnating as a poor infant in an occupied land. The mystery of what the shepherds saw that night, trembling in awe. Every year, whether we believe it literally or not, many of us repeat the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth in order to re-experience wonder.
Yet knowing and not-knowing are not mutually exclusive. Followers of Zen are taught the value of not-knowing, or beginner’s mind, which isn’t the same as confusion or ignorance. Not-knowing means always being aware that we don’t see the whole picture, and thus approaching each situation with curiosity. After all, we are not enlightened yet. (Or at least I’m not.) In order to learn, it’s necessary to first recognize that we don’t know. When we think that we already know, we miss things due to preconceived ideas, filter out due to interpretations, and dismiss due to judgments.
In science too, every conclusion is to be held lightly, tentatively. So that one is always open to new information that might transform our understanding. Looking back, I realize now that, while I don’t regret it, it wasn’t necessary to leave science to maintain wonder, if I had kept my focus on the process and not the so-called results.
Chapter 71 of the Tao Te Jing tells us, “To know that we do not know is health. To not know yet think we know is disease.”
We live in a society that values knowing over not knowing. Not-knowing is seen as weakness, whereas knowing - certainty - is seen as strength. What’s more, the people who “know” tend to assume the worst. That things are going to turn out badly, that people can’t be trusted, that suggestions won’t work. Those who “know” are quick to say ‘I told you so’ and to make others feel foolish for hoping and trying and, yes, failing.
Right now, this country seems determined to hurl itself backwards a half century or more, and daily reports of violence assail us; it is extremely tempting to despair. Most of us, myself included, think that we know what the next few years are going to be like. But if we “know” that it’s hopeless, then we will not see opportunities. We fulfill our own naysaying prophecy.
This darkest time of the year is also the season of wonder. The season to tell stories of babies born who will redeem our world, of oil lamps that burn eight times longer than reason would allow, of people who sit under trees until they become Buddhas. Let us have the courage to NOT know what is not possible, to believe that the future is still ours to imagine.