Inquiry begins with the recognition of not knowing. The moment you recognize that there is something you don't know, inquiry may proceed. If you take the position that you know, then no inquiry is possible, for we must first acknowledge that there is something we don't know. Not knowing, even if uncomfortable, is the starting point of inquiry.
When we say we don't know, we are usually looking at the situation from the perspective of our ordinary sense of knowledge. It is like saying, “I've studied chemistry; I studied the acids, the bases. But I haven't studied organic chemistry, so I don't know about organic molecules. I need to explore those so that my knowledge will be more complete.”
This is how we ordinarily think about not knowing—from the perspective of ordinary knowledge. But there is a more profound form, a more basic not knowing that underlies all of our knowledge, and it is present all the time. For instance, you look around and say, “I'm sitting here with these people, inside these walls,” and you think you know who the people are and what the walls are. This is ordinary knowledge that comes from experiences in the past. If you investigate, you will discover that you don't really know the people or the walls. In reality, you don't truly know in this moment what a wall is. You call it a wall because you know things about walls, and you put the wall in a certain category that rigidifies it. It appears to be a normal wall, but what you are knowing is basically your mind. More precisely, you are knowing this presentation, which we call a wall, through the filter of your mind. But do you really know the wall at this moment? Do you truly know what this thing is in itself, without your ideas about it?
You will not know unless you divest yourself of all your ideas about walls and people and look totally openly to see what you find. Then what you can experience is a basic, direct knowingness. That can start only from a not knowing. And you cannot take even this fresh, basic knowing into the next moment. In the next moment, you might need to penetrate even deeper to experience directly what is in front of you.
Let us suppose that now you look at the wall and it looks as though it were painted white. If you eliminate your ordinary knowledge and look at the wall, you might recognize that it is really more black than white, even though it is white in ordinary experience. We think we know even simple things like color; on a certain level of perception, the wall is white. But we are not seeing the wall in the most complete way possible. We are looking at the wall through certain beliefs we already have, which we imperceptibly impose on our perceptive apparatus. We look through those ideas and see things in certain appearances. Our perception is not pure.
Here is another example of how an inquiry begins by not knowing: You find yourself suddenly frustrated and scared, and you don't know why. The more you are aware of what happened—“I just went through this door and saw all these people and I am scared”—and realize you don't know why, the more likely it is that inquiry will begin. Right away you may find a reason to explain your feeling: “I am just scared of crowds.” This is knowledge derived from previous insights, but you can use it to close down the not knowing. If you investigate, you might realize that you are not scared of crowds; you might discover that the reason why you are afraid is deeper. For example, you might be concerned about losing yourself in such a situation.
It is important that we explore more thoroughly this not knowing. We usually think that not knowing is a gap, a deficiency, in our ordinary knowledge; we judge ourselves or feel bad, threatened or scared when we realize that we don't know something. We think it's something we could have known, and that if we know it now, the not knowing will disappear. This position implies that we do not understand that not knowing is how direct knowledge first reveals itself, that not knowing is really a knowingness. Not knowing already implies knowing, doesn't it? You know that you don't know. In other words, one of the main ways basic knowingness functions is in the feeling that you don't know.
This possibility of not knowing thoroughly permeates our experience all the time, in all situations. It is fundamental to our knowing capacity, which begins by not knowing. How can you know if you don’t first not know? We are unable to see that not knowing is the pervasive ground of our knowledge. Not knowing, in some sense, is where we live all the time. Every piece of knowledge is situated in not knowing. It is the space where all knowledge is.
-adapted from Spacecruiser Inquiry, Chapter 7 by A. H. Almaas