Knowing through not Knowing

2 minute read


Retrieved from: Ajahn Chah - Food for the Heart

If you were to ask them, “Why were you born?” they’d probably have a lot of trouble answering, because they can’t see it. They’re sunk in the world of the senses and sunk in becoming (bhava). Bhava is the sphere of birth, our birthplace. To put it simply, where are beings born from? Bhava is the preliminary condition for birth. Wherever birth takes place, that’s bhava. 

For example, suppose we have an orchard of apple trees that we’re particularly fond of. That’s a bhava for us if we don’t reflect with wisdom. How so? Suppose our orchard contains a hundred or a thousand apple trees. So long as we consider them to be our trees, we are going to be “born” into every single one of them—born as a worm, in a sense, for the becoming mind has wormed its way into every one; or, even though our human body is still back there in the house, it’s as if we have sent out “tentacles” into every one of those trees. 

Now, how do we know that it’s bhava? It’s bhava (a sphere of birth) because of our clinging to the idea that those trees are our own. If someone were to take an axe and cut one of them down, we, over here in our house, would “die” along with the tree. We’d get furious and have to set things right. Maybe we’d fight over it. That quarreling is “birth.” The “sphere of birth” is the orchard that we cling to as our own. We are “born” right at the point where we consider it to be our own. 

Whatever we cling to, we are born right there; we exist right there. We are born as soon as we “know.” This is knowing through not-knowing: we know that someone has cut down one of our trees, but we don’t know that those trees are not really ours. This is called “knowing through not-knowing.” We are bound to be born into that bhava. 

Vaṭṭa, the wheel of conditioned existence, turns like this. People cling to bhava; they depend on bhava. If they cherish bhava, this is a birth. And if they fall into suffering over that same thing, this is also a birth. As long as we can’t let go we are stuck in the rut of saṁsāra, spinning around like a wheel. Look into this, contemplate it. Whatever we cling to as being us or ours, that is a place for birth. 

There must be a bhava, a sphere of birth, before birth can take place. Therefore the Buddha said, “Whatever you have, don’t have it.” Let it be there but don’t make it yours. You must understand this having and not-having; know the truth of them. Don’t flounder in suffering.