Contenment from Not Knowing: Ancintita Sutra

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In many aspects of human endeavor competition plays a valuable role. Competition spurs new invention and new extremes of human physical and mental strengths. Competition can also be a contributing causal factor in fear, hatred, anxiety, frustration, anger and envy; all negative dispositions that can tag along in the unconscious mind. In Chan practice there is no room for dispositions and actions that hinder progress. That is why, in the sangha is no place for competition between members. In Buddhist practice there is no place for competition because all people are unique expressions of the Universe, so one’s level of progress cannot be measured with another’s.

Siddhartha, the historical Buddha didn’t have to imagine the detrimental effects that competition could cause. After all, he had been to school, had siblings, had a father’s legacy to look up to, and he’d experienced who could deprive themselves the most when he traveled with the ascetics. The Awakened One must have contemplated what aspects of human existence were most likely to cause the arising of competition and conflict. In the Acintita Sutta he offered four and the negative consequences of pursuing them.

Acintita Sutta: Content in Not-Knowing

creative re-description by Wayne Ren-Cheng


There are four unknowables that are not to be the subject of conjecture, that would bring madness and discontent to anyone thinking they could know them. Which four?


The encompassing abilities of the Buddhas is an unknowable that is not to be the subject of conjecture, that would bring madness and discontent to anyone thinking they could know them.


The meditative state (jhana) of a person in meditation is an unknowable that is not to be the subject of conjecture, that would bring madness and discontent to anyone thinking they could know it.


The precise results of karmic consequences is an unknowable that is not to be the subject of conjecture, that would bring madness and discontent to anyone thinking they could know them.


The “origin” of the world is an unknowable that is not to be the subject of conjecture, that would bring madness and discontent to anyone thinking they could know it.


There are four unknowables that are not to be the subject of conjecture, that would bring madness and discontent to anyone thinking they could know them.



NOTE: Know that I’ve taken the liberty to put this important sutra into contemporary language and have used the buzz-words of the Pragmatic Buddhist tradition. Venerable David and myself have often discussed if any of sutras re-worded (or creatively re-described) in such a way could offer the same intent as the those translated directly from the Pali, and holding to the symbology and textual references of that time 2600 years ago. Using the sutra as translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – “Acintita Sutta: Unconjecturable” (AN 4.77), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, – I’ve attempted to do just that, present the sutra in a contemporary way and be true to the intent of the Buddha.


An unknowable is any idea, concept, theory or hypothesis that can’t be empirically proven. Attempting to “know” that arises from inconclusive evidence and opinion puts the idea, concept, theory or hypothesis firmly into the unknowable category. Guesswork causes only more guesswork. Circle of causality. The Buddha tells of madness and discontent as results of pursuing the unknowable. In the Buddha’s time and culture “madness” held a broad range of meaning, much as it does today. For the Awakened One and his disciples the concept of “madness” probably referred to all who continued to blissfully remain in samsara, not even able to recognize the possibility of a way out. Then too people, no matter their caste found themselves discontented with their place in the world. They didn’t have enough and wanted more . . . had too much and wanted more . . . had it all and were searching for more. The Buddha tells of four unknowables with the potential to cause the arising of negative karmic consequences.


Doesn’t take much to imagine the conflicts that must have arisen in the earliest days of the sangha. Men and woman from a broad swath of Indian society and previous spiritual practices all in one spot, listening to one man, trying to learn what they needed to know while holding fast to what they thought they already knew. The four unknowables that the Awakened One recognized as dangers to practice for bhikkhus and bhikkunis have parallels in the lay-world.


The ex-Jainist and the ex-Yogic listened to, and watched the same Awakened One yet their views of him were quite different. The ex-Jainist would argue, “Where the Awakened One walks nothing dies”. The ex-Yogic would counter with, “Nothing dies because he levitates everywhere, his feet never touching the Earth”. The conversation continues with them each trying to out-do the knowledge of the other. Each using unknowables to reach a conclusion.


Whether a practitioner follows a traditional form of Buddhism and imbues Siddhartha with supranormal powers like levitation, teleportation and the ability to talk to gods, or holds a contemporary view of Siddhartha being an example of the best a human being can be, there is no way to know for certain the reality of either view. In a multi-tradition, international Engaged Dharma Insight Group sangha at the Buddha Center in Second Life there are certainly varied views of the Awakened One. Conjecture over those views isn’t appropriate in the sangha. The sangha gathers as a group to learn about the Dharma, to connect with the dharma, and to develop a sincere practice . . . not to question the views of others, but to offer a path that works for each member. Rather than focus on what a Buddhas encompassing abilities might be, focus on what your encompassing abilities are, and what they can be. Don’t allow unknowables to become distractions.


When I was first training in meditation there was a very competitive guy named Roger. Roger always wanted to compare his meditative experiences with others, his intent to prove his meditation was the strongest. Whatever meditative technique was taught he’d master it overnight. His seeming ease caused anxiety and frustration in other practitioners as they compared their progress to his. Comparing oneself with the ideal versions of another’s practice can quickly lead to negative karmic consequences such as envy, confusion, lying, hatred and other debilitating habits and dispositions. The sangha is there to be examples to each other not yardstick to measure by. Our practice is an individual one while we meditate with the sangha.


This unknowable has parallels in the world off the cushion. Think of meditative state (jhana) as a placeholder for any other unknown about how another person thinks and acts. People spend a lot of effort and energy trying to determine what someone else is thinking and doing (think TMZ, 60 Minutes, any news station), all in an effort to hide from their own thoughts and actions. Conjecture about the state of mind of others has no value in developing your own state of being. Ceasing any effort to determine the state of mind of others allows you more opportunity to determine your own state, and to improve it.


The reach of karmic consequence encompasses all of the causal Universe. From your actions you can experience a very small example of those consequences. For those who try to keep a running tally of the merit points they have accrued this must be frustrating. There is no practical need to know this unknowable. It is know through experiential verification that what we do matters, what we do has consequences. With this reality firmly in the bodymind there is no need to know the full extent of those consequences. One only needs to think and act with positive intent and karmic consequences are much more likely to be positive and enriching.


God or accident, causal conditioning or miracle, Big Bang or Soft Whimper, no one can prove absolutely how it all arose . . . what is the “origin”of the Universe. The Buddhist philosophy of co-dependent origination says that nothing can arise out of nothing. This would lead one to the conclusion that the multi-verse has always been here . . . but as it couldn’t have arisen out of nothing than something started a multi-verse that has always existed. Seems like a paradox . . . heck, it is a paradox. A paradox whose answer, or lack of answer shouldn’t have any impact on how Buddhism is practiced. It is isn’t the “origin” of the Universe that is important in each moment. It is the “origin” of dispositions and habits, of spirituality, of compassion, and of positive personal transformation that is.


The four unknowables offered in the Acintita Sutta can have direct negative impact on personal and societal suffering in a socially engaged practice. The four require judgements to be made without having all the information, or having the ability to get all the information. They can also cause the arising of unhealthy competition in the sangha. Pursuing the answers to the “abilities of the Buddhas”, “meditative state of a person”, all karmic consequences, and the “origin” will result in any one, or more of the hindrances to Buddhist practice. The practitioner will crave knowledge that is unattainable. Ill-will toward the self for not being able to find answers, and ill-will toward those who claim answers that don’t match your expectations can arise. Seeing yourself as incapable of finding the answers will lead to feelings of hostility, resentment and rejection against yourself and those who are adamant about their own conclusions. Searching for definitive answers to unknowables causes a restlessness of bodymind and an inability to achieve serenity.


Setting aside the pursuit of unknowables is a pragmatic action for all aspects of how you live. Why care if, or what supranormal powers a Buddha possesses? It is the powers that you possess that have value. Why be interested in the meditative state of someone else? It is your meditation practice that directly affects how you are, not the meditation practice of another person. Trying to map out the intricate web of your own karmic consequences weakens moment-to-moment mindfulness of what you do matters. Do what is appropriate in each unique situation and be certain that most consequences will be positive in nature. The “origin” of the world is a hotly debated topic because it touches on religious views, scientific research and personal opinion, none of which can supply a verifiable answer. The “origin” answer has little chance of affecting how we are moment-to-moment. Why then expend effort on it?


The connection to the Four Ennobling Truths is evident in the Acintita Sutra. The four unknowables were, and still are sources of self-imposed suffering. Looking for the answer to any of them, and the act of struggling to convince others that your view is the correct one leads to an unnatural craving to find the answers. Re-describing these as unknowables is the first proof that there is a way out of this suffering. The Awakened One’s intent was that practitioners would view the unknowables differently. They’d stop talking about them, instead they’d actively pursue reachable knowledge and wisdom. Mindful of karmic consequences practitioners would put effort into thoughts and actions directed toward human flourishing and the alleviation of individual and societal suffering.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s