It is helpful to repeatedly turn towards the altar and the clarity symbolized therein, and to stop and consider the impact of these words. How is this detail related to liberating my mind? How is this act an embodiment of generosity? What is its relationship to the world at large? How sincere are my vows? Where am I going with this life?

Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”
Fayan answered, “Around, on a pilgrimage.”
Dizang pursued, “What is the intent of your pilgrimage?”
Fayan said, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is the nearest to truth.”

Right thought is “no thought.” Intimate knowing is not knowing. We should not hold to any specific thoughts about wisdom or delusion, our direction or purpose, because all degrees of knowledge are illusory. Not knowing is not blank consciousness of the mind. It is a space of complete awareness, free of illusions, full of potential for spontaneous and compassionate activity.

On one hand, there is the sustained demand to reflect precisely on our understanding and intent, on how we choose to exercise the possibilities of this life. On the other hand, there is the intimation that not knowing is the best we can possibly do.

In the teachings of the Eightfold Path, the conclusion of the Four Noble Truths and the way out of suffering offered by the Buddha, Right Understanding and Right Thought begin the list. They are followed by Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Concentration and Right Mindfulness—eight strands that make up a course of fundamental sanity. Eight aspects of our ordinary lives made extraordinary by what we discover within them.

Occasionally, in Mahayana doctrine, Right Understanding and Right Thought are presented as teachings that pertain to prajna, direct access to and wisdom of the underlying emptiness of all phenomena, something that is beyond the reach of a knowing mind. In the Pali Canon, the narrow definition of Right Thought equates it with right intent. It is only to the degree to which we intend, and are conscious of our intentions, that there is a possibility of right thought. Thought is intention. Everything we say, do and not do rests on our thoughts.

Right intention needs to be an intention that is clear. It needs to be an intention that is based on the right understanding that precedes it, which, in turn, rests on an investigation of reality—specifically the Four Noble Truths—leading to that understanding. We find ourselves in this beautiful, reinforcing loop where through dedicated, exhaustive study of this reality, we get a glimpse of how things really are. That in turn informs us about what we need to do. We do that and see more clearly again.


Photo by Rob Kirby


How do we navigate the tension between needing to know and clarify, amidst the perpetual and unresolvable mystery? How do we apply ourselves in our search and not give up too soon, settling for comfort or approximation rather than genuine resolution? How do we exhaust ourselves into not knowing? Do we have to?