Great doubt

Some would say it is encouraged in zen: great doubt supposedly leads to great enlightenment. Take Hakuin’s word for it. Or don’t. That is equally fine with me.

The trouble is that you are always encouraged to doubt within the system, not without.

Yesterday I got an email from a friend who is a zen nun. I had invited her to look at my blog. She did and took the trouble to tell me that in her mind, zen is not to be spoken about. Zen experiences are to be expressed in sanzen (the meeting with the zen master) in a wordless way. All this talking is, in her eyes, just a game. Maybe it’s even an excuse not to be in the monastery and live like a nun.

I pondered this and I remembered the lively discussion that happened on this blog yesterday. I think I’ll stick with that, for the moment.


I am an atheist born in an atheist family. I never went looking for god. I had a religious phase when I was in primary school, but it turned out to be a rather short one when I started questioning god judging people. (How interesting, the wikipedia article on Divine judgment seems to be biased.) There seemed to be something good in everyone. In my eyes, either god would therefore condemn people that were not all bad, or hell would be empty and the whole judgement was really theatre, intended to instil fear, with a gaudy coloured background painted on cardboard.

Maestro de Artés [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Maestro de Artés [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


It took me a bit longer to see that the science we rely on is often no more than a belief in somebody else’s authority. I remember doubting everything I was taught in school, starting on my way home and going on into my dreams. Sometimes I would ask a question and, still sleeping, get an answer. I was so puzzled waking up: How could I know and not-know the answer in the same head, at the same time?

I had an epiphany when I read ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’. Maybe that’s proof that it’s always you reading the book, because reading it again years later, I didn’t come across the compelling stuff that had kept me up all night. This book did ask me what I really knew about gravity. It urged me to go and find out about Newton and do the maths myself. Apart from that, the book criticises universities for producing people with degrees instead of people who pursue knowledge. I think Pirsig might have been on to something, there.

 William Blake's Newton (1795), colour print with pen & ink and watercolour. (Public Domain)

William Blake’s Newton (1795), colour print with pen & ink and watercolour. (Public Domain)

the in-group versus the out-group

Having these eternal doubts, I found myself on the fringes of every group I was ever in. I am also very hesitant to label myself. It wasn’t that groups tried to kick me out, it’s just that I never felt I had become a part of anything.


The rituals associated with zen, the strict rules and the sometimes tangible fear of breaking momentum by not bowing at the right time make me cringe on a regular basis. I know it’s just another paradox, I just don’t see why I should make myself fit into a Japanese mould to get enlightened. Why put such emphasis on form?

I think zen at its best is a raft to cross a river. And when I’m on dry land, I’ll make sure to leave the raft behind.  I wouldn’t say I believe in zen. I am currently in it (maybe my friend would say I wasn’t) because I want answers. When I was little somebody told me the folktale of the girl who ended up on the devil’s lap just for wanting to know. Instead of taking this as a warning, I thought: “Yes, that could be me.” If you really want to know, you cannot afford to be afraid.

I feel I cannot cling to one doctrine, to anything fixed, because it would slow me down or even stop me questioning and thinking. My sister, from the same atheist family, has recently joined a pentecostal church. She says she’s happy because she has found answers. I don’t expect to find happiness that way. That doesn’t mean I think she’s fundamentally wrong. I am not doubting everything because I think to know better. I just need maximum freedom to explore and, well, to think.

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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19 Responses to Great doubt

  1. I share your doubt about doubt. I am from a Christian background and the impossible truths I was asked to be believe on the basis of faith by the biggest institution in history have taught me not to ever blindly believe any guru, philosophy or science. I can’t be a Christian, a Buddhist, a scientist or even an Atheist! Occasionally I get side tracked but in the end there is always experience itself. Nothing beats experience but thinking is good fun too 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, geneticfractals! Wow, there’s no label at all that would stick to you, is there? I really like your take on it. And your emphasis on experience. You add an important point to the story.

  2. Good points, especially about science. I always found it funny that doubting was encouraged by X, provided that one doubted everything except X. When I used to attend my friendly neighborhood Buddhist Temple, they used to bow, and I was skeptical of it. Hollow explanations were provided (“we’re bowing to the Buddha within”), but my mental response was “well, why not bow in front of a mirror then”? This eroded my confidence in them, so when they went to full prostrations, I just stopped coming.

    Some would say it was throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but I’d say it was all bathwater and they lost the baby because they were busy bowing.

    Lots of B’s in that sentence. I like alliteration.

    Anyway, one of the things about skepticism is it can focus us on what matters. I like the expanded view of idolatry — that when a finger points to the moon, we focus on the finger, decorate it, and put sacrifices in front of it. Meanwhile, we totally miss the moon. A healthy iconoclasm is the way to get back on track by smashing the idols so we can look at what it was really about. Provided of course that it doesn’t take us into full blown cynicism, which is easy to do when dealing with idolaters 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, bloggingisaresponsibility. I like your remark about the bathwater. As much as I try to see something worthwhile in everything, I do remember waking up to see some things as pure bathwater.

      The one about the mirror could be a cartoon and would not be out of place on David Yerle’s buddhist humour post, I think. In the book I’m currently reading, somebody asked Huang Po why he was making three full prostrations in front of a statue. His answer did not convince me, either. (I will post on that, I think).

      And then to look at idolatry as if we’re spending our time decorating the finger that points at the moon…Priceless. You have a real poetic streak, today! 😉

  3. duncommutin says:

    Yes, all this makes sense – takes me back again to a Russell quote I referred to recently about ‘liberating doubt’. I think a lot lies behind your comment “If you really want to know, you cannot afford to be afraid.” As it happens, I’m just at the moment mulling over a possible post on the temperamental differences that bias individuals towards one form of belief or another (myself included). So to *know* do we have to eliminate these altogether – or at least learn how to control them?

    • Thank you for your comment. I would be very interested to read your take on that! The Pyrrhonists (I posted on them earlier) thought that abolishing all beliefs was a way to reach a state of tranquility. I find it a very interesting concept.

  4. David Yerle says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more on pretty much everything. I find it really hard to accommodate into any system of belief or behavior and have an instinctive dislike for rules of any kind. I am willing to explore any avenue if it leads to knowing what the heck I’m doing here.
    Maybe I like Buddhism so much because of Buddha’s advice, “place no head above your own.” It makes me have some hope of achieving some kind of enlightenment without having to conform to anybody’s belief system.

  5. Warren says:

    Your nun friend is right in that the quickest way is through guidance to help you see. Though of course you have to see this yourself. The skill in the teacher is his guidance. He or she cannot give you your insight. They can only show where the water is. You have to drink it yourself.

    A point about doubt: I don’t think it is the ordinary doubt but a reformulation of the three marks of existence. What is it to be unenlightened is that there remains some belief in permanence, self and (ordinary) happiness, that is the opposite of the marks of existence.

    Morinaga Soko Roshi quotes Hakuin who says the three essentials of everything a great root of faith, a great ball of doubt and fierce tenacity of purpose.

    It is this great ball that is doubt that needs to be focused upon, what is the meaning and significance of impermanence, suffering and nonself.

    • Thank you very much for your comment, Warren. I agree with you that the teacher can only show you where the water is, in the sense that you have to drink it yourself.
      Sometimes I wonder if the teacher needs to get you acquainted with your thirst. Or if you need to experience yourself as thirsty enough to go find the right teacher. These things are never as simple as they sound upon hearing them first. There are always many angles. And many teachers.

      I like how you advise to focus on doubt. Even though I have since found another direction to wander in, that still sounds true to me. 🙂

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