Joan Halifax Dharma Talk: Learning as Initiation

Learning as Initiation: Not-Knowing, Bearing Witness and Healing

by Joan Jiko Halifax

In our culture, education means that we have been led out of ignorance into knowing and knowledge. Learning is described in terms of the accumulation of facts. In looking at how learning is experienced in tribal cultures, for example, we discover that the complement of education as we know it in the West is initiation, plunging inward. Initiation takes us into the unknown and is grounded in not-knowing. I propose that the initiatic dimension of learning is imperative for Western culture now.

Within indigenous cultures, there are rituals that allow for experiential learning. Certainly, learning takes place through a wide variety of forms and styles in indigenous cultures, however, the most important context of learning occurs in the ritual process of initiation, known as rites of passage. The Dutch scholar Arnold van Gennep wrote an important, insightful book in the 1920s that inspired thinkers like Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Henderson. van Gennep examined rites of passage from many different cultures, discovering that most rites of passage move through three distinct phases. The first phase he called “separation”: moving away from the familiar landscape of the social territory and into the unfamiliar the unknown, into not-knowing. The second phase he designated “the threshold experience”: an experience of the liminal, a time when myth and story unfold and where love and death become amplified for the initiate; a time of bearing witness. Threshold experiences, he pointed out, are chaotic, ground shaking and transformative. They are a time when the initiate learns to bear witness and to be present for all dimensions of reality. The third phase he called “incorporation”: the movement back into the everyday world, a time of healing and making whole.

These rites mark a phase shift for an individual or group, a change in maturation, or change in status such as profession or geographical location. These three phases parallel the Three Tenets in the Zen Peacemaker Order founded by Roshi Bernie Glassman and the late Sensei Jishu Holmes. The first tenet is “not-knowing” and denotes separation from the familiar, conditioned world of knowing and the opening of the spontaneous mind of the beginner; the second tenet is “bearing witness” and emphasizes being fully present to the suffering and joy in one’s self and the world; and the third tenet is “healing oneself and others” through returning to the world with the aspiration of liberating oneself and others from suffering.

I want to use the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order as a means of considering the relationship between learning and initiation. Additionally, one of the key learning practices in the Order is called “taking a plunge”. This is, in essence, a rite of passage where an individual enters into a wholly different world of learning, like the Bearing Witness retreats at Auschwitz or working with dying people. In ‘plunging”, an individual works with the Three Tenets of not-knowing, bearing witness and healing as a means of learning and healing in and from the world.

Contemporary Westerners consider rites of passage as something that other cultures do. However, there are universal significant transitions in everyone’s lives which go unmarked, unrecognized by us but are acknowledged as significant by many other societies. For example, the rituals during puberty or the phase shift from adulthood to old age – becoming a respected elder. Yet, in a way, rites of passage are being acted out by us – albeit often in unconscious and chaotic ways – ways with potential major implications for our social and environmental landscapes. Participation in wars are rites of passage for young males into “instant” manhood (as well as an initiation for nations into the realm of power); initiation into gangs or partaking in extreme sports or doing drugs are all state shifts that may be considered sublimated rites of initiation.

The need to die and be reborn, the need to be renewed, the need to encounter profoundly life’s mystery, the need to engage the imagination – arise for every living person. But where are these rituals in our culture that denote and valorize change and open us to not-knowing? Almost absent. Some people have to go crazy in order to deepen and mature, to dare falling off the edge and seeing the other side’s perspective before rebounding into an arena of introspection, deep questioning and, finally, action. Others resolve to enter a strong spiritual practice, while some become physically ill and, like wounded healers, learn to heal themselves and then turn outward to help others. But what does our society do? Certainly not acknowledge these experiences as initiation or education! In fact, these chaotic experiences are controlled and suppressed. These times, when the imagination is activated, or individuals open to a fresh state of not-knowing, are not states with which our society is comfortable. This liminal state of being betwixt and between is not understood or tolerated, nor valorized by society, our families or us.

Rites of passage are opportunities for individuals to leave behind that which is familiar, the known and knowing, and enter, by way of a committed plunge, into the unknown and experience firsthand not-knowing. These are opportunities to bear witness to joy and suffering in oneself and others and, lastly, to heal. And yet education seems to be, in the West, a setting where we learn not to heal, but to “deal”. James Hillman speaks of education as a kind of psycho pathology where we all become dealers. We learn how to use, to deal in, the world around us. Through education we often objectify the world; we perceive the world as an object to be explained, exploited, manipulated and marketed. For example, the marketing of fantasy at Disneyland, or exploitation through the media of personal tragedies.

Rites of passage, on the other hand, are opportunities for extensive subjectivity and active participation in the happenings of our families, relationships, communities, environment and, even our own bodies. Separating ourselves from the familiar and habitual is important. Exposing our habits, recognizing social and cultural conditioning, and the habitual patterns of our minds and bodies is crucial, regardless of whether our culture is indigenous, ancient or postmodern. Extensive subjectivity allows us this step outside ourselves into a larger space and view of the world, a view that reveals fundamental interconnectedness.


The first phase of a rite of passage is “separation”, a time when we embrace not-knowing by leaving the familiar behind. Before a person leaves for a vision fast, he or she encounters not-knowing in a profound way. One may ask: What will it feel like to not eat? Will I be cold? Will I be afraid of being alone? What will I do with all that time? What if I get injured? Will I survive? This experience and questioning can be translated to every moment in one’s life. How can we truly know for sure what will happen in the next moment?

Each moment is a treasure box that has never been opened and experienced before. Suzuki Roshi once said, “Wisdom is a ready mind”. This mind of readiness is a mind that is free of concepts. It is the “beginner’s mind” where anything can happen. The beginning phase in a rite of passage, the time of separation, is where the mind of not-knowing is opened. Here confidence can arise from acceptance of what is without an attempt to control, manipulate or judge.

Bearing Witness

The middle phase of a rite of passage is the threshold experience, the time when the stories that have been told by the fireside are amplified into myth and ritual. Myths are oral technologies that unwrap time, moving one into the timeless. Timelessness is a critical part of learning; it is through being out of relation to time as an absolute that the past and future are realized in the present. When time is unwrapped, one is able to more readily touch simultaneously the relative and the absolute. We often experience, through strong cultural conditioning, the relative and absolute as actually opposite of what their true essence is. First, the relative and absolute are interdependent. Samsara and nirvana are one. Second, the realization that intellectual or emotional reactions are not an absolute and, therefore, an all-determining factor of presence and perception. When this is realized, it is liberating to realize that this present moment will pass, as will an infinite number of others also – nothing to attach to.

The threshold experience in a rite of passage is experiential. A teacher can give us information however, a teacher cannot give us wisdom. It is not an object to impart. We ourselves must have a direct experience of dying to the old life and awakening to a new life freed of conditioning, bearing witness to suffering and joy and to being fully open to change and potential. In Buddhism, we talk about “direct practice realization”: that it really is only through direct experience that wisdom is realized. A rite of passage is a plunge into not-knowing and bearing witness, when the experiential is fully present. Myth is not a story that is “out there”. There is no such thing as symbols. One becomes the place one travels to. One becomes the gods themselves, experiences the power, the frailties and the greatness present in the gods, in the landscape, in animals and plants, in weather and sky, in the sun and moon, like the Huichols who travel as gods to Wirikuta, the sacred land of peyote. we are the story as we bear witness, or become one, with the story.


The last phase of a rite of passage van Gennep terms “incorporation”: the return, the road of healing. In a rite of passage, one returns to one’s community with eyes, heart and hands which can heal the community. Paradoxically, incorporation is education. It is returning with a clear and open mind and heart to the ordinary world in order to not-know, to bear witness and heal; to weave the experience of separation and not-knowing and the experience of threshold and bearing witness into learning through incorporation into each moment.

Taking a Plunge

What does it mean in our culture to be a wise woman or a wise man, a mature person? What does it mean to walk on the old paths and step into the great river of not-knowing? Where is the place for wise people in our communities? And further, what does it mean to develop, from our own direct experience, an ethic of compassion based on not-knowing and bearing witness?

How can we educate our young people so that they return to their communities with vision renewed, with love and compassion present without fear? How can we help our young people to open themselves? How can we help our young people – all people – to open up to not-knowing, to wisdom? How can they learn to bear witness to suffering and joy in themselves and others? One way may be by bringing rites of passage back into education, by allowing students to learn through their own experiences, by helping them touch the mythic imagination and return to wisdom and compassion through not-knowing and bearing witness, by creating settings where learners can “take a plunge”.

Sacred Catastrophe

Many of us have experienced suffering as young people. This culture can be hard on its young people. Sometimes the suffering is passive, other times it is suffering of neglect or abuse. Sometimes, young people are sent off to silver-spooned institutions, where they learn a lot of facts. But they do not learn about sacredness or compassion, about not-knowing and bearing witness. When they emerge from these educational institutions with fact-packed brains, no matter how excellent they may be, if they are lucky, they will have an accident. The accident could be an encounter with a spiritual teacher, an illness or a moment of realization in one’s ordinary life. Or it could be a loss that is so great that the heart breaks open. And, at last, that which cannot be spoken of finally appears. This one has taken a plunge, intentionally or unintentionally.

Often it takes an accident, a chance meeting or disaster, for us to break open. There is the story of Asanga, who spent many years meditating in a cave. He meditated on the Buddha Maitreya, the future Buddha, hoping to receive a vision and teaching from him. But Maitreya never showed up. One day after 12 years of sitting in his cave waiting for Maitreya to appear, Asanga finally had enough and said, “I’m out of here.” With his staff in hand, he began to walk down the mountain path. He walked with the mind of not-knowing.

As he walked down the path, he saw a red dog lying on the path. Looking more closely, he found that the dog’s hind quarters were covered with sores and that the sores were filled with maggots. Asanga wanted to help the dog, but he also didn’t want to harm the maggots. So Asanga dropped to his knees and stuck out his tongue in order to gently remove the maggots and save the life of the dog. The red dog then transformed immediately into Maitreya. Of course, Asanga was stunned that, after 12 years of trying and gaining nothing, only when he had given up, did Maitreya appear. That is precisely the point. Maitreya told Asanga that he had, in fact, been with him in his cave the entire time. Asanga had stained Maitreya’s robes with his food, he was so close to him. But, because Asanga had been trying so hard, anticipating, expecting to get something rather than just sitting with no gaining idea, Maitreya had not appeared. In our acts of true selflessness, true compassion, no time or thing, no gain, nothing to attach to, not-knowing, we experience the joy of liberation from our own suffering. With this freedom and lightness, we can better serve and heal others who are afflicted with attachment to knowing everything or trying to get somewhere rather than living reality just as it is. Nothing heroic or profound – 12 years or 12 minutes – no different when just sitting, just living.

I feel that education in this time, in this era, needs to be about redemption through not-knowing and bearing witness. Redemption is experienced when we selflessly offer ourselves for the well-being of others. This is how Asanga was redeemed: he finally saw the Buddha Maitreya when he offered himself without ego or expectation to remove the maggots from the wound of a single suffering dog.

Reviewing human history from 200,000 BCE to today, we see dramatic phase shifts from the beginnings of oral communication, the development of the alphabet, of script, the printing press, the industrial revolution and now the electronic revolution. We see that each movement between these domains effects a kind of gap. As this phase shift happens, as new orders of organization unfold, we actually move into fields where we activate all of the other, deeper orders as well.

We are in a phase shift right now. We are entering a time when we are moving into a new and higher order of complexity. In this transitional time, which is also a time of suffering, it is critical that we re-activate and re-commit to rites of passage and open ourselves to not-knowing and bearing witness so that we may learn how to proceed, as individuals and as a culture, to heal ourselves and others. We need to learn how to invite imagination and mystery back into education and we must learn how to cleanse our vision so that, in the 21st century, we are not merely educating technicians and pragmatic thinkers but are calling forth new vocations: vocations that are based on the profound aspiration to help all beings not-know, bear witness and heal.

To return to our starting point, we are called to realize that education in the West has left out its complement: initiation. What is required today, and for the next century is an education that is willing to plunge into the unknown, into the unknowable, an education of redemption, an education that prepares us to return and to serve. We are called to learn through not-knowing and bearing witness. We are called to heal our perception of the self as separate from other.