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...


  1. Love After Love, by Derek Walcott

    The time will come
    When, with elation,
    You will greet yourself arriving
    At your own door, in your own mirror,
    And each will smile at the other's welcome,

    And say, sit here, Eat.
    You will love again the stranger who was your self.
    Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
    To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

    All your life, whom you ignored
    For another, who knows you by heart.
    Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

    The photographs, the desperate notes,
    Peel your image from the mirror.
    Sit. Feast on your life.

  2. Thank you Dry Drowning.

    "Every day Zuigan used to call out to himself, "Master!"
    And then he answered himself, "Yes, Sir!"
    And he added, "Awake, Awake!"
    And then answered, "Yes, Sir! Yes, Sir!"
    "From now onwards, do not be deceived by others!" "No, Sir! I will not, Sir!"

    — Mumon (The Gateless Gate)

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. experience is just goes too far
    experience beyond contain
    experience the whole damn biz
    experience beyond disdain

    till all are free i take refuge in the awakened
    and in the teachings that awaken
    and the assembly of the awakening
    my body my speech and my heart mind
    i offer to you
    please look on me with eyes of compassion
    and please grant your grace
    that i might live and die for the benefit of others


    [ ]

    may all beings know fortune and the source of fortune
    may we all know satisfaction and the source of satisfaction
    never without the sacred joy beyond dissatisfaction
    great peace
    no attachment no aversion no indifference
    to any thing or body

    by the spiritual power inherent in our practice
    may all become awake and free
    may we cross the great ocean of suffering
    the stormy waves of birth love old age illness and death

    I bow to all meditators

  5. This deep doubt is removed upon a true awakening, and it still arises as a teacher, if one is willing to allow it to wear you down into nothing.

  6. Thank you friends, John for your poem, vow and dedication, and Constance for your comments. As doubt wears us down, the sangha is a great source of encouragement.


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