Posted inHenry's Messages

Message from Henry: Doubt

December 6, 2016

According to Pure Land Buddhism…trust….comes to us “out of Buddha’s compassion, which long ago threw its pure light into human minds and dispelled the darkness of ignorance.”


Doubt is one of the “five hindrances” that can afflict our practice, doing their best to slow or halt it. According to Pure Land Buddhism, “there is nothing more dreadful than doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations.”

They speak of five kinds of doubt:

  1.     Doubt in the Buddha’s wisdom.
  2.     Doubt in the Buddha’s teaching.
  3.     Doubt in the person who explains Buddha’s teachings.
  4.     Doubt as to whether the ways and means suggested for following the Path are reliable.
  5.     Doubt of a person with a proud and impatient mind who questions the sincerity of others who    follow and understand the Buddha’s teachings.

I guess at some time or other many of us may be afflicted by one or more of these doubts. I certainly have been.

While these kinds of doubt can seriously undermine our practice, at the same time we do need to be circumspect too: the demonization of doubt can be a sign of an unhealthy power dynamic, for example, where any questioning of the leader’s authority is felt by them as a threat. According to the New Yorker, Scientology, for example, calls people who question their methods “Suppressive Persons” (SP’s for short), and endeavors to break up couples and families where one member does not belong to the cult. But if on the whole a spiritual organization does not seem to be disempowering its members, and is supporting their lives in helpful ways, then the above points about doubt would hold up.

So why does Zen have a history of apparently endorsing doubt? Dahui, a great 11th-century master, went so far as to say that unless you have “great doubt” you can’t experience “great awakening.”

This kind of doubt is different. It is more akin to Cartesian doubt. Descartes set out to doubt everything, to see whether there was anything left that could not be doubted. In the end, he came to his famous formula: “I think, therefore I am.” That, finally, could not be doubted, he thought.

Dharma teachers have often taken up his dictum. Just because there is thinking, that does not in fact imply that there must be a thinker. “Thoughts without a Thinker” is the title of well-known book. Personally I feel like defending Descartes: perhaps he was a little misguided about positing a thinker, a self, a “me,” but not about the fact that consciousness is happening. Whatever it may be, something is going on. The world is appearing before us, we have responses to it, we are born, we grow, we change, we die. I feel that Descartes may have been pointing to the fact of consciousness itself existing, with its attendant human experiences. Perhaps Buddha himself was also driven on his quest by recognition of the fact that consciousness was going on, and he wanted to know what it was. Which is the basic question of Zen practice, and for some, of human life: what is this consciousness? Which is also one of the “hard questions” contemporary science is addressing.

According to Pure Land Buddhism, the five harmful kinds of doubt are generated by us. On other hand, their remedy, trust, does not derive from us. It comes to us “out of Buddha’s compassion, which long ago threw its pure light into human minds and dispelled the darkness of ignorance.”

The counterparts would be: trust in the Buddha’s wisdom, trust in the Buddha’s teaching, trust in the one explaining the teachings, trust that the ways and means for following the path are reliable, and having a humble and patient mind that trusts in the sincerity of others following the Path.

This last point is key. Without humility, it’s hard to follow this path. Humility is the initial gate, the threshold, the gate that leads to all the other gifts of the Way.

Message from Henry is taken from our December 6, 2016 newsletter.
Image: Sad Woman, by cristinaureta, CC0 Public Domain, from

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