Great Doubt - Foreword
The greater the doubt, the greater the awakening.
by Brad Warner
Boshan’s book about Great Doubt reminds me of what I found most frustrating about punk rock back when I was a faithful believer in that form of music and expression. To me punk rock wasn’t an end in itself. It was an attitude that allowed you to deeply penetrate into the truth of everything. We were on a quest to find the reality behind the facade presented to us by the corporate-controlled media. We were all about questioning everything, including ourselves. Or so I thought.
But lots of people started coming in to the scene for whom punk rock was nothing more than a set of very specific fashion choices and an exceedingly limited way of musical expression. They didn’t see that punk rock was also about Great Doubt.
One of the first things I ever heard about Zen practice from my first Zen teacher was that it requires equal amounts of doubt and faith. This was both a shock and a great relief.
At the time I was searching for something to believe in. I’d been raised without a religion and I wanted one. I had hoped punk could be my religion, but that didn’t work out. And no actual religion I encountered made any better sense either. They all insisted on faith alone. I was supposed to have faith that Jesus died for my sins, or that Krishna could have sex with a thousand cowgirls in one night, or that Moses parted the Red Sea, or any number of other things that I found myself unable to have faith in. When I heard that Zen valued doubt as much as faith I saw that here at last was something I could believe in.
In this brief but remarkably thorough book, Boshan attempts to put into words what it means to truly doubt. Not just to be skeptical—though I think skepticism is an ingredient of Great Doubt—but to push all the way to the very foundations.
Another name for Great Doubt might be Great Wonder. Perhaps wonder is the brighter aspect of doubt.
Our brains have evolved to seek certainty. In order to survive, we have to be certain about what’s a snake and what’s a piece of rope, which mushrooms will provide us with vitamin D and riboflavin and which will kill us, who is our true friend and who is trying to cheat us. Religions take this sensible desire for situational certainty and create the fiction of ultimate all-encompassing absolute certainty. Meditation is often expected to lead us to a state of complete and utter certainty, a state beyond all doubt.
But in this book, Boshan tells us again and again that any state that seems like ultimate certainty is just the product of our own imagination. When we lose our capacity to doubt, we lose the truth. When you remove all doubt, you also remove all wonder.
There are passages in Boshan’s writing that might leave contemporary readers scratching their heads. I must admit there are a couple of times he loses me. But if you find yourself a little lost, my advice is to try not to worry so much about the particulars of what he’s saying and concentrate on the attitude he is trying to convey. Because he’s not trying to impart any specific information. Rather, he’s trying to get us to understand the attitude he calls Great Doubt.
In Fukan Zazengi Dogen says, “Proud of our understanding and richly endowed with realization, we obtain special states of insight; we attain the truth; we clarify the mind; we acquire the zeal that pierces the sky; we ramble through remote intellectual spheres, going in with the head; and yet, we have almost completely lost the vigorous road of getting the body out.”
Boshan never quotes this passage from Dogen. He probably never even read it. But to me he seems to be taking this very same attitude and penetrating into it as far as he can possibly go. Even in moments of the deepest and most profound insight, we need to maintain a sense of doubt, a sense of wonder.
If all you come away with after reading Great Doubt is a little of Boshan’s attitude, then you’re a long way past the vast majority of folks who like to tell all their friends they’re “into Zen” and show off all the great wisdom they possess by virtue of having once downloaded a podcast about meditation.
Boshan is writing both for beginners and for experienced practitioners. Beginners in meditation practice can often feel frustrated because they get distracted easily and meditation doesn’t feel like they imagine it should. But thinking your meditation is going wrong because you have distracting thoughts is like thinking your workout is going wrong because you sweat.
Still, it’s difficult. I get it. I’ve been there. Remembering that doubt is part of the process can make it easier to get through the rough patches. That feeling of doubt you have that you can even do this thing at all doesn’t mean you’re doing your meditation wrong. It means you’re doing it right.
As you continue your practice, though, you’ll eventually have moments where it seems like you’ve broken through, like you’ve solved every philosophical question that has bedeviled mankind for the past ten thousand centuries. You’ll want to shout your new discoveries from the rooftops and lead your fellow humans into the shining New Age of peace, love, and unlimited joy that you know are the birthright of every living creature.
To people at this stage, Boshan says, “Check your-self.” You may indeed have discovered something very deep, very profound. But you haven’t gone all the way because you can never go all the way. Nobody can. Realize that the all-encompassing bliss you feel is just as fleeting as everything else and that reality is much bigger than you could ever imagine.
I think anyone interested in Zen can learn a whole lot from this little book.