Because Zen makes sense

Lecturing is about Competence, not Knowledge

Yesterday I kept a lecture, lasting a couple of hours. I was supposed to clarify what was demanded from the participants regarding competence in their work, as presented in laws and other official documents. And since I have reflected quite some time about the scepticism towards knowledge in Eastern philosophy, as expressed again and again in Tao Te Ching, I had to share with my audience some of my thoughts.

One who seeks knowledge learns something new every day.
One who seeks the Tao unlearns something new every day.
Less and less remains until you arrive at non-action.
When you arrive at non-action,
nothing will be left undone.

There are, according to my understanding, several aspects to this anti-intellectualism. I have also made some notes about it in connection with Zen, which I consider more or less like Taoism in this regard. The more philosophical approach will be that simplicity is better than complexity, and that an empty mind is a simple mind. And an empty mind is bound to be more aware, since there are no obstacles to our experiences in the moment, here and now.

From a practical point of view, I know that my lectures increase the knowledge in audience. I am a fairly good lecturer. But I also know that my lectures in lesser degree make any difference regarding new practices. Most shall listen to me, appreciate what they hear, – and go back to work and continue doing things the way they have done things before. The goal og my lecture is to implement new practice in accordance with new knowledge, and I know I often fail making this change. New knowledge is necessary, but it does not by itself fight traditions. And there are reasons for this.


First of all I know that new knowledge has to challenge the knowledge that is already there. They don’t meet me with an empty mind, and my audience always measure me up against their own experiences. And if they can’t somehow harmonize what I say with their old experiences, they might turn their back to my message. That critical view is in fact essential, both for not being manipulated, but also for putting new knowledge into a frame of usefulness.  Or as is expressed in this quote, attributed to Buddha (probably not correct):

“Don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe me because others convince you of my words. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts.”

“Don’t rely on logic alone, nor speculation. Don’t infer or be deceived by appearances.””Do not give up your authority and follow blindly the will of others. This way will lead to only delusion.”

“Find out for yourself what is truth, what is real. Discover that there are virtuous things and there are non-virtuous things. Once you have discovered for yourself give up the bad and embrace the good.”

So for new knowledge to be accepted, I have to take into account the knowledge that is already there. But still I talk about knowledge, not competence. I have thought of the difference between knowledge and competence, and the difference is immense.

Knowledge is always limiting reality. It is always in the way of receptivity, and it blocks new input. Knowledge is like putting reality into a box. If knowledge is true knowledge, it is at its best only a fragment of that reality it tries to explain, and it is always full of limitations. Knowledge is alway some sort of pre-conditional facts about the reality it aims to describe. And if we cling to much to the knowledge we already have, there shall be no room for any alternative views. So it is really true that we shall have to renounce some knowledge to be able to develop and widen our understanding of reality. The “empty mind” makes sense. And in the empty mind lies the experienced reality.

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?

So, as a lecturer, I somehow have to deal with this challenge, and one way to do it, is in fact to discuss what I discuss here, and perhaps focus on mindfulness as a mean for personal development.

My second point in this reflection is that when knowledge meets experience, it transforms to competence. While knowledge alone limits reality, and therefore the usability, knowledge plus experience break through the limits, and the mental and practical landscapes both become wide and open, in an inspiration for us to use. And that creates a change, in attitudes, in thinking, in practice.

So there are many reasons why we should put knowledge aside from time to time, and open ourselves up for new inputs. And I think that when I manage to move my audience in that direction, my lectures shall become new knowledge turned into real competence, – and a real change. My awareness of the immense difference between knowledge and competence, together with a mindful approach in my lectures shall make it worth listening to me. And I can hope that my lecture becomes more than a single stunt, and that my work can be traced in retrospect.

Acting in accordance with Tao, even in intellectual work, could both be rewarding, – and Zensible.


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