Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, And Compassionate Action


Robert Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellison co-founded the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care (, the first Buddhist organization to offer fully accredited chaplaincy training in America. They co-developed and co-lead the Buddhist Track in the Master in Pastoral Care and Counseling degree program at New York Theological Seminary. In July 2013 they taught at BCBS on the Buddha’s remembrances about aging, illness, and death. In February 2014, they will teach Love, Compassion, and Intimacy: Experiential Teachings on the Heart Sutra. This article is based on their teachings July 21, 2013.

Chodo: We have taught three practices in this course, practices related to the Buddha’s remembrances about illness, aging and death. The practices are not-knowing, bearing witness, and compassionate action. These are well suited to chaplaincy and hospice from a Buddhist perspective. But they are also well suited to our practice in life generally. They provide a bridge from formal practice to practice in daily life.

Koshin: From a Zen perspective, there isn’t an independent nature. Yet, what I understand as a soul, as a Jungian, is our capacity to assign meaning to things. That very often we can get so caught in ourselves, and then hope, maybe that the Dharma will become like a big babysitter and take care of us and make everything OK. Or, that the Dharma will be a babysitter who will make us feel peaceful. It’s this kind of capacity where we’re still thinking that the outside is not inside. That it’s only something from the outside that will come in and save the day like Ironman, like Superman, the Avengers. Yet that is a deprivation of allowing ourselves to be fully in the world. I think that the Buddha clearly stated that it’s up to us to assign meaning in understanding and insight–that we can be amidst the world, flowing in the world, not separated.

I’ve met so many Dharma practitioners, so sincere, doing retreat after retreat, and then they get home and act like assholes. Practice can be used, in some ways, as a shell. How do we realize it, embody it, through our whole body and mind? So that it really is about every moment, about what happens when I leave the retreat? Who cares about Zen? This is a small retreat. Out in the world is a great retreat. Or maybe we could say, “It’s an awesome retreat.”

These kinds of small retreats are very important. But the great retreat is in the midst of our lives, in our relationships, walking down the street, ordering an espresso, falling in the house, stubbing your toe–those moments.

One of the ways we work with this is by looking at ethics. I serve on the ethics committee in the hospital for example. But another way, in our tradition, is looking at our own experience. So it’s not like a commandment in our tradition. In other traditions, sometimes actually even in Buddhism, it’s felt as “Thou shalt not”–don’t do it.

Three ways of looking at the precepts

So we look at the precepts in three different ways. One is the intrinsic way, an absolute view. In this view there is, for example, no stealing–nothing has ever been stolen. If things really have no independent nature, how could anything belong to anyone? It’s hard to live that way, yet it’s so important to remember:  on an absolute view, it’s not really totally important.

Then, there’s the orthodox, or strict view: “Don’t do it.” Don’t steal. Don’t assume you know anything.

The third view–all three are important for us–is, “What’s appropriate in this moment?” What’s skillful in this moment? Maybe in this moment, I do need to know something. If the person in front of me is having an epileptic seizure, it’s good to know something. It’s good to know that when the “walk” sign is on, it’s  time to walk.

So it’s always about looking at it, and turning the jewel of these precepts, so that we don’t get stuck in one view.

I think in some ways, in our school, we favor the relational, what’s appropriate in this moment. Each school favors one view; it’s like liking chocolate or vanilla.


The first of the three practices we’re going to talk about today is “not knowing.”

One of my favorite stories–it’s sort of the creation story of Zen, we could say; I love creation myths. This creation myth is about Bodhidharma, who was an Indian monk. Some scholars say now, that his teacher Prajnatara was possibly a woman, which I love thinking about. We don’t typically hear about women in the formal Zen lineage. But now we might have Prajnatara.

So some fabulous Indian lady taught this guy named Bodhidharma and said, you know, you should go to China and bring the Dharma there. As the story goes, he got on a leaf and sailed to China. It’s such a great image.

So he got to China, and the emperor at that time, who was called Emperor Wu, heard that there was this interesting guy from India, and had him come to the palace. Buddhism was already alive and well in China at that time. So the emperor said, you know, Bodhidharma, I’ve built all these monasteries, I support all these monks, I’ve built beautiful Buddha statues, and I’m interested in how much merit do I get?  So human right?  We all do this is different ways. What do I get for what I did?

Bodhidharma said something radical: “No merit whatsoever.” You get nothing. In some ways, this is the first teaching of Zen: There’s nothing to get. No gain. This really pissed off the Emperor. How dare you! Who do you think you are? And Bodhidharma says, “I don’t know,” and turned around and left, and apparently sat in a cave for nine years facing the wall. This is why, in our tradition, we sit facing the wall.

So this, “I don’t know,” this not-knowing is not being attached to getting into an argument about it with the Emperor. “Well, I’m a monk, and I studied with Prajnatara, and I’ve meditated a million retreats, and aren’t I so enlightened and special.” He’s saying, in some ways, what I find to be true: We don’t really know. To me, the moment, once in a blue moon, when, we’re just having experience–just to be feeling the wind on your face, without saying, “Oh, wind on my face.” That moment before where we talk about it in terms of prajna, which means wisdom–some translations of prajna  say it means ” before knowing.” So, to be wise is to not know already, not have it figured out.

That’s really challenging because we need to know what to do. Yet I’ve had the experience where the more I don’t know the more open and creative I am. The more I’m not sure how it should go, or how it should look, the more possibilities there are.

It is so amazing to me, that when I walk into a patient’s room, I still have this little anxiety: What’s this going to be? If I let that anxiety carry me into the room, how am I going to make contact? When I walk into a room, or I look at someone, I try to have some contact with my heart, my belly and making sure it’s kind of soft. Because I know when I’m not aware of my breath and having that as a part of my process, I start to feel like I know something, or like I need to know something. Then I’m starting with my opinions, which are “so important.”

[laughs] It’s ridiculous, right? But we do this all the time. We’re so sure we know. We even think we know what Zen is, or whatever your practice is, what Theravadan Buddhism is, what Tibetan Buddhism is, what Shambala is.

Chodo: I’m very suspicious of change. I need to know. Because as a child growing up I never knew what was going to happen. There was such craziness in my household, being raised by an alcoholic mother and many, many uncles. I never knew if there was going to be anyone home, if there was going to be food on the table, who was going to take care of this that and the other. So I grew up having to know exactly where everything was going to be, for my own sanity. I had to create my own knowing, and even now, in my wise old age after all these years of practice, it still throws me for a loop if I don’t know exactly what is going to happen. Even the simplest thing, like going for dinner, I want to know exactly what time we’re going to be there, and if you’re not there–if you said 8:30 and you’re not there at 8:45–I’m going to be angry, because it gets me so unnerved, because I don’t know what happened to you.

I was once in a relationship, with someone who was very comfortable just being in the flow of things. We would make plans to go to a movie or for dinner, and he would say I’ll meet you at 8 o’clock, and he’d turn up at 8:20 with six other people, and announce we’re not going to the movies, because I called so-and-so and we’re going to go for dinner and it will be great And I would be literally shaking with rage. Don’t do this to me! Don’t surprise me.

Then we would go for dinner, and it would be great, the best thing that could have happened that night, but the leading up to it is so awful. This being in a place of not knowing is sometimes really difficult for me.

There’s something very freeing about allowing myself to take on the precept of not knowing. As Koshin said, in a hospital situation I may get to the nurse’s desk, and they will say, could you go in and see Mr. Smith, he’s a real pain in the ass. He’s non-compliant. He’s bitching and moaning about everybody, the doctors dislike him and social work can’t deal with him. So if I walk into Mr. Smith’s room with that knowledge, that this is how it is, I’m already demonizing this man that I’ve never met. If I can take a breath, and wash that away, and allow myself to not know, this moment, what the encounter is going to be, I can walk into Mr. Smith’s room and say  “Hi, good morning Mr. Smith; how are you doing?” And he might say, “Get out! I don’t want to talk to anyone.” Or he might say, “very lousy day.” And I’ll say, “Can I come in, have a chat?” He may say, “yeah,” and I’ll ask “What’s going on?” “The doctors are not listening to me, the social worker wants me to do this, the nurse thinks I’m being difficult because I need to know what they’re giving me.” It’s just about Mr. Smith needing to be heard. He may be difficult, he may be an old curmudgeon. But he wants to be heard. And unless somebody can change the way or adopt a different way of being–I’m not pointing a finger at social workers or doctors–all of us just need to allow for the possibility that we don’t know.

Koshin: Some years ago, Chodo and I were chaplains at Sing-Sing correctional facility, which is a maximum-security prison. Some of you have heard of it. I was really intrigued, mostly because I grew up in, as I was talking about yesterday, in a family that was very directly affected by the Holocaust. I grew up with a distrust of Germans. I was taught to demonize Germans; even Poles. I did several retreats with Bernie Glassman at Auschwitz–I went there each year for five years, staying a week at a time in the camp; it’s an international group with Germans, Poles, Israelis, Brazilians–everybody. It was my actual experience of doing these retreats that led me to realize how a lot of thoughts and opinions were not mine.

I had all sorts of ideas about who the people are at Sing-Sing, who these guys were. No one goes to Sing-Sing for stealing candy. We would go there on Sundays, and it’s a serious schlep; it takes an hour to get into the prison, even just to spend an hour with these guys. I remember the first time going there, all the bars closing behind me, and it’s not pretty, it’s not a new prison. It’s old and kind of scary.  We are transported by van from the entrance area of the prison, to a room in another block deep I within the prison.  I’m thinking “We’re totally going to be murdered.” I was sure it could happen like that, in walked these six guys who meditate regularly and are interested in dharma teachings. They are big with tattoos and muscles–you get the picture. And they just sat on the cushions and were so open. It was so extraordinary to me we’re all sitting together in a circle, and they’re asking questions about how to work with their minds, asking how to pay attention to their breath.

Chodo: Asking how to survive, basically.

Koshin: Where there’s no quiet, there’s never any quiet in their space. It was extraordinary. Talk about “not-knowing mind.” They taught me about not knowing. They also taught me how we all have those murderous thoughts, but for one or two of them, the thought went into action. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t had a murderous thought. These are just people who happen to have done it. It’s just that thin line, and they can all talk about what it was like, crossing it. How easy it can be. And we all do cross that line in small ways. We kill moments, we kill intimacy; we cross that line constantly, in a relative way. We stop ourselves from being able to live fully, from being able to embrace what’s in front of us. I do.

So this not knowing is about giving ourselves a break from having to work so hard, and thinking we know all the reasons why we can’t function freely. I have a whole list of reasons why I can’t just be in the moment.

Chodo: The next one we’re going to look at is “bearing witness.” It’s pretty much what it sounds like. “Bearing witness” to whatever is unfolding before us. There’s a wonderful bodhisattva or deity in the Buddhist tradition; she’s known as Avalokiteshvara, or Guan Yin, or Kannon. She/he is the bodhisattva that hears the cries of the world. Her function in the world is to help us. She has a thousand arms, and in the palm of each hand is an eye, and a tool say, a hammer and nails, a spade, and a rope–today it might be an iPhone or an iPad. According to myth, her job was to ferry folks across from the shore to nirvana, to “the other shore,” and she spent her entire life doing this, ferrying people across to the other shore. Then on the day that she had ferried the last person across, she turned back and saw that the entire shore that she had just released people from, was filled again. In that moment, her head exploded and she burst into tears. And the story is that at that moment a Buddha appeared and said, “I will give you these tools that you may continue to help all sentient beings.”

“Bearing witness” is her job. When we can manifest the embodiment of any of the bodhisattvas, we’re taking on, in this case, the ability to bear witness, and to act appropriately–compassionate action, which is the next one.

But “bearing witness” is also taking on that not-knowing mind. It’s just letting everything unfold, not judging, not sitting in front of these prisoners and saying, “Well, he deserved to be here,” because he must have committed a very serious crime. And in fact two of those guys at Sing-Sing were caught up in the Rockefeller Law, remember that? Three strikes and you’re out. One guy had been in Med School in New York; he was from Columbia, and got caught with a joint; he had been convicted in the past of petty theft a couple of times but he had straightened out his life. But he got caught with a joint and was sentenced to 12 to 15 years. Interestingly enough, there were no Caucasians in the group; they were all Hispanic and African Americans. But here’s this big guy, with, as Koshin said, tattoos and huge muscles, and you think, wow, trouble; but who knows what he was like when he first entered the system, probably just a regular kind of guy.

Bearing witness meant being able to sit in that awful little cement room that we turned into a Zendo every Sunday. They had fashioned tools in woodwork shop and had made a statue, and sewn cushions–can you imagine these guys doing that? And they made origami flowers for the altar.

To be able to bear witness, just be present, to everything that was in that room, just as we bear witness to everything that’s in this room, as we have been doing for that last three days of this course. For me, noticing people sleeping, anxious, possibly bored, possibly engaged, possibly not here at all–to allow all that to be present, without judgment, and most importantly, without thinking “I’m doing a bad job.” Because all I’m doing is the best that I can do. And for some folks, that may not be good enough. This is what I think bearing witness is about: It’s about seeing the other, and myself in relationship to the other. And sometimes it’s not great. It’s just what it is. This is how this relationship is. How can I use the precepts to keep me on track, to be in that constant place of not-knowing. Just bear witness to my own thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Koshin: Bearing witness is, for me, where it’s at. They go together; we have to first, let go of our fixed ideas about how things are going to be. Yesterday I was talking to some people, and they said “We didn’t know we were going to be talking to people and doing these exercises. We thought it was just going to be a silent retreat” We come in with all sorts of ideas about how this weekend was going to be. Having the not-knowing mind and cultivating that kind of mind, who knows what this is going to be? It’s quite freeing. Then we can actually, as Chodo was talking about, bear witness. Just receive. Allow in.

Dogen, in the Shobogenzo, talks about “to study the Way is to study the self.” We’ve got to know who we are. We’ve got to know our conditioning, know our conditioned nature. Get really into it, actually: What’s our stuff? Once we can know the self, we can loosen it or forget it. Then we can “not know.” Then we can develop this quality of not knowing. Once we can do that, we allow the world to advance. We allow ourselves to be in the flow of the world.

We could call this interdependence, but lately, I’ve used the words intimacy and vulnerability. Because if we’re really vulnerable, we can bear witness. Because it means that we’re open to what’s happening in front of us. We’re open to even being total fools. The more I practice, the more foolish, actually, I feel–the opposite of feeling like we know something, and we’re sure of it. I used to think I knew what Zen was. And I think it’s about how we can allow the world in, in that way, so that we can just receive.

I remember my first visit in the hospital as a chaplain. I had completed my training and with many years of zen training under my belt. I thought  “Now I’m going to do good, now I’m going to be available. I’m going to be really mindful, and listen, with my heart, and maybe even put my hand on my heart while I’m listening, so that they’ll know that I’m really receiving them, in a very earnest way.”

I had the best teacher–she was waiting in that room for me. I walk in, all sincere–tragically sincere–and I say, “Hello, I’m from the spiritual care department,” and she says “Wherever you’re from, you’re looking good. Come over here, sexy.” [laughter] “I haven’t seen a guy like you around here. Get close.” Oh my god. Talk about groundless. She kicked my spiritual ass.

So I realized that I wasn’t bearing witness at all. I was entering a relationship with a completely fixed idea of who I was. I wasn’t actually going to be able to see her, or be with her, or be interested in her because it was all about me. So how am I going to bear witness to anything? It wasn’t until I sat very close to her, as she was flirting away–which was actually kind of fun, and I could begin to let go of my ideas of how this was supposed to go. Oh, I’m here to be with her, with what she’s experiencing. So there we were, kind of flirting, being saucy, and I noticed that she didn’t have any legs. I really didn’t notice that for the first ten minutes. She was perhaps in her fifties and had quite advanced diabetes, and both of her legs had been amputated. She was an attractive lady, and her life was just drastically changed. I was like, oh my god, how did I not see that? I realized how much of my lack of bearing witness was happening, and how important it suddenly felt that we were flirting. I was respecting her sexuality, the thing she feared she was losing. And to realize that this was very important to her, I was slowly moving into compassionate action, being with her where she was. Another person whose legs were amputated might need something entirely different, but this was what this woman needed to feel, whole and sexual. She was able to tell me about the fun times, to talk to me about dancing. She wanted to talk about how all the men were always crazy for her, and how pleasurable that was for her, how that made her feel whole. Eventually, we were able to talk about her grief. But it wasn’t until I was able to recognize her as a woman alive and comfortable with her sensuality, and to respect that, to give dignity to that. It was through bearing witness to what was actually happening, and letting go of my ideas of how incredibly important I was that enabled loving action to flow. To realize I didn’t have to work so hard.

Chodo:  So the last of these remembrances: “My actions are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”

I think those last two lines are really important. Probably for me the most important of these remembrances: I am the beneficiary of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand. And sometimes my actions are not so compassionate. Sometimes I’m really unskillful in my actions, my behaviors. I mentioned on Friday, my default emotion is anger. I can fly into a rage at the drop of a hat. The simplest things will set me off. They can send me into an incredible rage, and when I’m in that place of anger, I’m right–there’s no question, I’m right. You’re wrong. What it sets off is this really uncomfortable place of being, for me. Suddenly my world is no longer stable. I’m this other person who takes on this demon personality and I’ll slam doors, I won’t tell you where I’m going because I want you to worry about me.  I’m like a petulant child, or a frightened child, more likely. Because I’ve suddenly been transported to this old place, all compassion for myself has just disappeared. The ground on which I’m standing is very shaky.

So I notice when I’m being just Chodo in the world, and doing what I feel I was called to do, which is to take care of others, coming from this very natural place of wanting to bear witness, to take care of, just wanting to do that.

Not that I feel, at the end of the day, “Wow, I really did a good job today.” I just feel OK in my world, and the ground feels very solid. Something very different occurs in my being, my body, my emotions, when I’m “taking care of” my actions, when I’m “taking care of” my thoughts, when I’m taking care of how I relate to you.

I’ll tell you a story about compassionate action with a very old Jewish lady, a Holocaust survivor. This was during my first year of chaplaincy. She was probably late eighties. She was also very flirty. I was really uncomfortable with this old lady coming on to me. It was very obvious; she didn’t speak very much English, she spoke German, a German Jew. She and her husband had escaped to Israel where they lived for many years before coming to the states, so she also spoke Hebrew. I had lived in Israel for a while so with my limited Hebrew and her limited English we were able to connect. She had dementia and over the course of a few weeks what became apparent was in her mind I was her husband. When I stepped out of the idea that this old lady, was coming on to me because I was a young guy when I let go of all my stories, once  I realized she saw me as her husband, and I was able to play that part for her, to visit her as a loving husband, just the simplest touch, on her cheek, this woman changed. You could see her face just light up. She knew she was dying, she knew what was going on with her, but there was something that she needed to do. She needed to talk to this man, she needed to make reparation, and she needed to have twenty-five or thirty conversations with me in German and Hebrew, and I had no idea what she was saying, but it was the right thing to do. To just be present, to bear witness–compassionate action, to just stay there, and let go of all my ideas and stories. It was such a beautiful teaching. We’re always saying to our students, every time you walk into a room, you’re encountering a teacher. They may be the nicest person in the world, and they may be the most awful person. There have been great teachings with people you wouldn’t want to spend much time with outside the hospital. That’s really what we’re talking about with compassion. When I can get out of the story of my life and find out what happened in their life to bring them to this point, why they have to be so nasty, so negative. What got them to this point? Just to be able to sit there, and take it.

Koshin: The most important thing for me, in terms of practicing these three, is courage. The courage to be vulnerable. The courage to have fear and anxiety and still witness. That’s what courage is, and not making a thing about it. Just functioning in that kind of courageous way–with our grief, with our sorrow, with our joy, with our aliveness. And to me, that is where the aliveness, peace and joy live, when we’re not clinging to some habitual conditioned way of being. We’re saying, yes, I have this conditioned way of being, but I’m going to move, and go forth.