by Kat Liu
If you look in the dictionary, there are two uses of the word “wonder.” The first meaning is curiosity, as in “I wonder how that works.” And the second meaning is awe, as in “They gazed in wonder at the stars.” 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 also clearly related, as both start with the recognition of not knowing.
It was wonder as in curiosity that caused me to first pursue a career in science. I wanted to understand how the world around us works. And it was wonder as in awe that caused me to leave science for religion. I realized that while I loved asking questions and designing experiments, I was almost always a little disappointed by the answers.
What I was seeking was what Christian theologian Rudolf Otto called the numinous, that feeling of awe in the face of the transcendent. Mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Terrifying and fascinating mystery. For me, the world reduced to materialist explanations seemed far less magical than my initial wondering questions.
At its best, Christianity calls us to stop thinking that we can understand (i.e. control) everything, and to surrender to mystery. To be open to wonder as in awe. At its worst, that surrender to mystery becomes unquestioning acceptance, and that unquestioning acceptance becomes certainty. The opposite of wonder.
On one level Buddhism, like science, is highly empirical. Knowledge is based on observation. And we practice in order to see more clearly, so we can know more truly. If one believes the sutras, they tell us that when Siddhartha became the Buddha—the Awakened One—he could see everything. Every past 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 liberate us from suffering. But if the sutras are to be believed, with ultimate awakening comes perfect knowing.
Yet for those of us who are not yet Buddha, the path to perfect knowing lies through not knowing. 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, that our interpretations may be skewed, and thus always approaching each situation with curiosity, wonder. 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.
The Tao Te Jing tells us, “To know that we do not know is health. To not know yet think we know is disease.”
Let us practice not knowing. Let us wonder what might be possible.