Faith and Doubt in Zazen

There’s a Zen proverb that practice requires three things: faith, doubt, and determination. I’ve been thinking about zazen in the context of these three elements. The way I learned to sit, which I think of as the traditional Soto way, was heavier on faith and determination and lighter on doubt.

The instruction was pretty minimal: Find an upright posture. Leave your eyes open slightly, gazing downward. Hold your hands in this mudra. Breathe naturally through your nose with your mouth closed. Silently count each breath on the exhale up to ten breaths. Then start over at one. If you lose count, just start over at one. That’s it. No drama. Keep it up. Over and over.

The determination, the effort, is to let go and return to breath no matter what. To trust in zazen and in mind, no matter what. Faith is the foundation of this way of practicing. If you are consistent then the faith becomes trust, because you have some results, but when things are tough, your effort is to keep the faith. To trust in zazen. Suzuki Roshi said, “Enlightenment is an accident, and zazen makes you accident prone.” This is consistent with Dogen’s instructions, to have no designs on becoming a Buddha. Whatever arises arises. We reside in mirror mind. Our awareness is a mirror and we let the mirror do the work. Its nature is to effortlessly reflect whatever passes before it. And to have faith in letting go.

For me, doubt has a different flavor. Doubt-driven zazen includes faith, but feels different. If Soto style zazen relies on faith, then perhaps doubt is what drives Rinzai style zazen. In my experience, instruction on how to work on a koan was as minimal as what I got at the start of Soto practice. “Here’s your koan. When you come to dokusan, show Roshi.” But how? How do I do it? How do I start? Oy!

What I didn’t realize at the time was that this was firing up my doubt engine. That’s how it works. My equipment – my mind and body – were beginning to take the shape of a big question mark. There was a swirl of bewilderment, anxiety, and incoherence. And every time I tried to resolve the koan in dokusan, the bell would ring me out leaving me even more bewildered, to the point of anguish and even despair.

Some social psychologists talk about “hot doubt.” It’s the doubt that works as an irritant because it engages the doubter’s emotions, and the irritation propels investigation. There’s a kinship between this hot doubt and Zen doubt. Formal koan practice is good at engendering a version of this hot doubt. It begins as a kind of irritation and slowly becomes an all encompassing feeling of inquiry and investigation. Just as faith requires determination, tolerating and then nourishing this hot doubt also takes determination. This has been my experience, that there are these two types of determination. They’re a little like inhaling and exhaling. The determination of doubt is like the inhale – it’s a more obviously effortful effort – and the determination of faith is like the exhale. It’s more of an effortless effort that requires not clenching but smooth and easy releasing.

Doubt practice can deepen faith/letting go practice. Now, when I sit with breath, I can bring the same kind of question mark body/mind attention to it. I can lean into breath with a more focused investigative awareness, and the greater intensity of attention is a kind of barrier to the waves of thought noise and feeling noise that can otherwise be so tiring and persistent in zazen.