Doubt on the Path: Lessons from the Buddha

Doubt on the Path: Lessons from the Buddha

Big doubt, big enlightenment; small doubt, small enlightenment; no doubt, no enlightenment.

That’s what the saying is in the Buddhist Lonji tradition of Chan. The spiritual life has always been a quest for meaning and for answers to the two existential questions: “Who am I?” and “Why am I?” A quest for truth, a quest for “what is,” a quest for purpose; these are the foundations of the spiritual way. Too often life’s paths seem paradoxical and confusing. Doubt and perplexity play a vital role in the journey to enlightenment.

Are there lessons from the Buddha that can help us sort out the contradictions?

Fundamental to the entire Buddhist philosophy is the idea that everything depends upon the mind. To help us understand that we are not just what we are thinking, Buddhist teachings make a distinction between what is called “small mind” and “big mind.”  Small mind is the rambling, limited, distorted, distracted, often out-of-control ordinary thoughts of the mind. Big mind is what we call Buddha-nature. This is our true inner nature — the pure boundless awareness that is at the heart, and part, of us all — still as the surface of a mountain pool… calm, lucid, empty, clear and at peace.  

Wat SuthatIn the great Tibetan Monasteries of Lhasa, monks seek to purify their minds and study the subjects of awareness and consciousness. Through understanding the nature of the mind and the process of cognition, inner peace can be attained.

The Buddha often described the nature of existence to be impermanent. One of the most frequently quoted passages from the Mahayana Buddhist Sutras is this short verse:

So you should view this fleeting world,
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

Perhaps existence is not really what we think it is?  So how do we know what is real and what is unreal? How do we know what is illusion and what is truth? 

Most of us who enjoy philosophy are always seeking answers to the big questions. Fortunately, searching for more meaning is considered a desirable human quality. The French writer André Gide once wrote, “Believe those who are seeking truth. Doubt those who find it.”

The Three Stages of Doubt

Wat Suthat 1We are always doubting.  A doubting consciousness is defined as a knower having qualms in two directions. Doubt can tend towards one side of an issue or another, or it can be completely undecided, but it is always accompanied by an element of uncertainty. 

In the book “Mind in Tibetan Buddhism” by Lati Rinpoche, he describes three types of doubting consciousness. For the purpose of illustration, I will give an example.  We might have a statement like: “Sound is impermanent.” Also, let us say this statement is true or fact. Then, you might entertain three stages of doubt about it.

  1. Tending towards the fact — You might think that “Sound is probably impermanent.”
  2. Tending toward distortion — You might think that “Sound is probably permanent.”
  3. Tending towards both equally — You might not be able to make up your mind and wonder whether sound is permanent or impermanent.

Lati Pinpoche says that doubt can be beneficial in that it is an initial step in weakening the wrong view. This begins the process toward developing correct understanding. One of the basic requirements for all Chelas is an open-minded point of view.  No Chela is expected to accept, untried or unsubstantiated, any statement made to him in the course of his training.  The point is not to just “believe in” the teachings, but to evaluate them, understand them, and test them against our own experience. Awakening comes through a direct experience, not through beliefs and dogmas. Although there are benefits in questioning, doubt is still considered in Buddhism an afflicted state of mind. It can be undesirable if the Chela is constantly questioning if this is the right road or not, which makes it hard for him to arrive at his destination.  

Wat Suthat 2

Beyond the stages of doubt, there are states of higher awareness and what is called “correctly assuming consciousness.”  One wonders about the consciousness of the Bodhisattva or the person who has attained Buddhahood and lives the vow to liberate all sentient beings. Here we might find Wisdom and Compassion mutually supportive, and totally inseparable. The Light of Wisdom is clear, precise, sharp and sword like. Compassion is warm, nurturing, and open-hearted. These are complementary facets of the heart-jewel of Bodhicitta or the heart of enlightened mind. How incredible!  

The Search for “Suchness”

Recently, I was reading some Zen literature that described enlightenment as “suchness.” What in the world is “suchness?”  “Suchness,” like love, is a way of being in the world or Tathata. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, we might say “The Power of Now.” You just have to stop thinking. Then you will be in a state of “suchness”: the suchness of the moment, beingness, the as-is-ness. 

Wat Suthat 4“Suchness” is such a quintessentially marvelous word to represent the quality of living an enchanted life. Each moment, each breath, is unique. The sacred, the magical, and the radiant are not somewhere else. They are all right here, where we are. “Suchness” is a refusal to let life descend to a cycle of worry about the past or the future and the mundane. Instead, we find sparkle and wonder in the present — this I feel is truly living the spiritual life. 

The wonderful thing about doubt and healthy skepticism is that it can be the propellant that fuels the spiritual engine towards “suchness.” When you experience your own doubts — and almost everyone has doubts — you will wonder what to do and where you go with your questioning. In my own spiritual practice in Freemasonry, I have several times struggled with doubts about many of my beliefs. I have found that it is through doubting on the path that I have come to see both the something and the nothing of existence. With “suchness,” we allow both perceptions to coexist. Anything we can know with this body or this mind, through our senses, may be fleeting, ephemeral, and insubstantial … or not??

From the great Chinese Philosopher Chuang Tzu:

I dreamt that I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke.

Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I butterfly dreaming that I am a man?

——————

Note: Images are from Wat Suthat Thepphaararam, a Buddhist temple in Bangkok, Thailand

 

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