Shades of Doubt

Faith, doubt, and determination are three elements of Zen practice about which lots has been said. Most Zen practitioners tend to connect more with one of the three than with the others. For me, it’s doubt. At first, the idea of doubt as something essential in a spiritual practice seemed pretty odd. I equated doubt with skepticism – a means of challenging and rejecting or dismissing religious beliefs and feelings.

But in Zen, doubt means something different. Zen people use the term “The Great Doubt.” In Zen, spiritual doubt isn’t really anything like skeptical doubt. It’s more like something psychologists call “hot doubt.” It’s when the feeling of knowing you usually rely on falters and fails. You have a big, important, burning question that’s really bugging you, and you can’t resolve it using the analysis and reflection you usually rely on. But the question won’t go away. Zen doubt is akin to existential doubt, a disturbing feeling of not knowing the meaning of existence. “What’s the meaning of all this?” “Why am I here?” This is the ballpark Great Doubt plays in.

It’s what brought me to Zen to begin with, and Zen cultivates this doubt as a potent force. It’s what the classic Zen koan curriculum – the cases, and conundrums (“What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”) that Zen tends to be known for – calls forth. It’s not intellectual puzzlement; it’s rooted in the body. It’s not limited to a specific question or the words that frame it; it’s the essence of the question mark itself. Once Zen doubt gets hold of you, you can’t be satisfied by intellectual answers or spiritual truisms. You have to get to the very bottom of your big question for yourself.

Great Doubt has a relentless quality. It’s a rock in your spiritual shoe; you feel it with every step. But there are also other aspects of practice related to doubt that have a different feeling. Great Doubt is just one voice of awareness. It’s a forceful voice that demands “WHAT IS IT?!!!!” There’s also a voice of awareness that effortlessly illuminates whatever arises in consciousness, a softer voice that says, “IT IS THIS.” Rinzai Zen practice leans in the direction of “What is it?” and Soto Zen practice leans in the direction of “It is this.”

My own practice experience convinces me they’re two aspects of one thing – awareness itself. Awareness itself is what we connect with directly and purposefully in zazen. It’s a struggle to connect with awareness itself whether it’s awareness that questions or awareness that illuminates, mostly because thoughts and feelings tend to overwhelm consciousness. And they’re overwhelming partly because we trust thinking and emotion as our guides, despite considerable evidence they’re not very reliable.

But awareness itself is different from thinking and emotion. For one thing, it’s not personal. It’s like air or light. It’s pervasive and it’s available – it nourishes, it’s useful, and it’s essential. But it’s not “mine” and not “yours.” Not in the usual sense, even though we talk about “my awareness.” We discover it in zazen. Awareness itself is impersonal. We can experience it as Great Doubt or as illumination, or in other ways as well. The “trick” is cultivating composure, concentration, and clarity in zazen without being overwhelmed by thought and emotion. The trick is opening a space for awareness to arise and reveal its nature.


  1. Ken says:

    Very well expressed, Peter-san. Great Doubt, Illumination, whatever it is, we cannot say it. My favorite expression (of the inexpressible) is the Awake Silence. As long as we don’t make a concept out of Awareness, we know it as WHAT we actually are.

  2. Peter says:

    Hi Ken-san.
    Nice to hear from you.