Sensei Carl Genjo Bachmann: The Meaning of Life and “The Mind that Doesn’t Know”

untitledExcellence Reporter: Sensei Carl, what is the meaning of life?

Sensei Carl Genjo Bachmann:

Sitting quietly doing nothing
spring comes and the grass
grows by itself.

“Sitting quietly doing nothing” refers to a mind that is still. And when the mind is still “spring comes and the grass grows by itself”, uninterrupted by our thoughts. This is life just as it is. To look for meaning would be extra.

The Chinese mountain poet, Stonehouse, writes about a mind at rest:

Stripped of conditions my mind is at rest.
emptied of existence my nature is at peace.
how often at night have my windows
as the moon and stream passed by my door?

Stonehouse is describing a mind that is empty, that receives things just as they are. He is not looking for meaning.

My own search for a meaning to life ended up with “I don’t know”. Arriving at this place turned out to be a gift. Not knowing opened up limitless possibilities, one of which was, it’s not important that I know. I realized that not knowing the meaning of life, allowed me to enter life on it’s own terms, unclouded by my preconceptions.

Finally, one of the things I learned when I became a zen student was to live life moment to moment as fully as I can, and not be distracted looking for a meaning. Living life this way has helped me to trust, “the mind that doesn’t know”.

Mary Oliver concluded her poem “the summer day” with the following lines:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

My answer to her is: I don’t know.


~Sensei Carl Genjo Bachmann is a zen teacher in the white plum lineage. He received dharma transmission from Robert Kennedy Roshi. He is the teacher and one of the founders of the Clear Mountain Zen Center in Montclair NJ. Carl is a long time social worker and psychotherapist.

Copyright © 2016 Excellence Reporter

Categories: Zen

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