Sunday, June 19, 2011

Great Doubt

If you do not get it from yourself, Where will you go for it?
~ Dogen
We have a fear of facing ourselves. That is the obstacle.
~ Chogyam Trungpa

The masters talk about Great Doubt. It is one of the three jewels of Zen training, the others being Great Faith and Great Effort. What kind of doubt could this be? It could not be the intellectual disbelief of a skeptic as that would annul faith. Nor could it be the apathetic disposition of the uninspired as that would annul effort. No. It must be something that drives inquiry, a burning doubt, an inquisitiveness that is not easily sated.

There is a voracity to doubt that is like fire, refining the quest down to its core. As K. von Durkheim says in The Way of Transformation, “Only to the extent that a person exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible be found within.”

Students are inclined to think that the spiritual path can be learned from books or by emulating their teachers, by following some instruction in a progressive step-by-step fashion, like walking up a flight of stairs. But, by all accounts, the first step is doubt, unlearning what you know, Learning How to Learn.

Doubt is the best teacher. It pushes you off the top stair so that you fall to the bottom and learn to crawl up on your own hands and knees. Doubt is the best teacher because it induces confusion. Doubt is the best teacher because it stokes the fire rather than quenches it until, as Eliot says, “what you know is what you do not know”. No teacher can teach you doubt, he can only show you the dark:

For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment.
(TS Eliot; East Coker)

Today, my humble friend the poet John O, reminded me that the reason smoking pot leads to insight is that it relaxes patterned thinking. Perhaps the paranoia of the first-time pot smoker is in fact a mild case of the Great Doubt. Perhaps this is why Trungpa and Gurdjieff forced intoxicants on their students...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


strive to maintain a spirit of joy and magnanimity, along with the caring attitude of a parent


In his Tenzo Kyukun (Instructions for the Zen Cook), Dogen emphasizes the importance of the Parental Mind (roshin) which is an attitude of caring and concern, the heart of compassion. It is one of the so-called Three Minds or sanshin, the other two being Big Mind (daishin) and Joyful Mind (kishin).

The spirit of Zen is the inclusiveness of One Heart/Mind, and Parental Mind conveys this most aptly. An old saying describes it as “seeing the pot as your own head and the water as your lifeblood” (quoted by Uchiyama in his commentary of Dogen's Instructions, p. 53). In modern day Japan, it is conveyed by the popular expression minna no kimochi de (see this article).

But one must be careful not to confuse the One of parental mind with the identification of oneself with another self or some larger body. For example, as a first-time nursing mother, I felt that my head had been screwed onto my infant's body. Though a radical departure from my usual self-involvement, I confess that one mind in this case felt more like being a milking cow, headless but nowhere near enlightened.

From a psychological point of view, children and nations are mere narcissistic extensions, that is, extensions of ourselves. This is not synonymous with No-self, and I doubt it is very different in other cultures though they may profess self-transcendence in the national body.

Nor is parental mind the same as superior mind, i.e. the role of mother, father, teacher or boss. This does not transcend separation; it prohibits it. To stretch the capacity of parental mind, try adopting it with someone you perceive as equal to or more powerful than yourself. Separateness then becomes harder to transcend, and inclusiveness snaps like a rubber band as soon as conflict threatens. It is for this reason that love turns to hate more often in an erotic connection than in a filial one. With two strangers, the inclusiveness ideal recedes even further, unless the two are united in anonymity. Without the glue of desire and attachment, we remain in most cases, two detached solitudes.

Uchiyama describes parental mind simply as the "Self inclusive of the whole world", i.e. as:

nothing other than the very things, people or situations we presently encounter and know, and helps us discover our lives through these things and, in turn, pour all our life ardor back into them.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
~ TS Eliot; Little Gidding

Lately, I have met many women aged 40 to 50 who are suffering from hairshirt syndrome. This is a condition where life becomes so unbearable that you simply want to rip it off and stuff it in the garbage.

These women are not suicidal. Menopausal? Perhaps. They tend to have children, too many, though they do not live out of a shoe. In fact, they are often emotionally and financially autonomous and they usually work out too. But they're still bored. And how they suffer! The slightest glitch in their lives causes them unbearable distress. Their husbands, if they still have them, get the brunt of their dissatisfaction because they are desperate to pin the blame somewhere.

Why? Why are they so angry? And what is the cure?

Toni Packer suggests in this article that anger comes from not getting what you want and that you can pull the plug on that “deep reservoir of rage” by bringing attention to the stories fueling the belief that you've been wrongfully victimized.

But if you reach down deeper still, beyond the story and into the more diffuse negative energy underneath, you touch into disappointment. You'd been spurred on by the belief in a happy ending but now you see that imperfection is one of Life's inexhaustible resources and you're surrounded by unmet expectations. You thought you'd get out what you put in, but you got karma, not justice. And in the process your faith got mangled like your gnarly middle-aged hands, and your good nature's become like a latex glove to which you've developed an allergy. Your own skin has become a constant source of irritation.

Stop fighting and make room. Make room for it all. A Zen koan goes "When cold, be thoroughly cold; when hot, be hot through and through” (Tozan). Some versions say: be so hot/so cold that it kills you. Be like a snake shedding its skin. Let it die so Life can renew you.