Saturday, December 01, 2012

ARTICLE - Re-imagining Your Doubts

Taken from The Shobogenzo – Chapter 54 – Hossho – The Dharma Nature by Dogen

“Now, without directing a question to anyone else,
imagine your doubt to be a statement.
Treat it as the assertion of another person
and investigate it three times over,
and you may find that you are rid of it already”

For a Buddhist practitioner there are said to be three types of doubt that you might experience. First, there are fundamental doubts concerning the existence of the historical Buddha and the state of Enlightenment. Did either of them exist? Second, there are intellectual doubts about the effectiveness of the Buddha's Teaching as a method of attaining Enlightenment. Do they do what it says on the packet?. Third, there are personal doubts about our own ability to practice the Buddha's Teaching. Do we have it in us to become a Buddha ourselves?

When first finding out about Buddhism, those first two doubts are clearly going to be present. These will, hopefully, diminish imperceptibly as ones understanding and practice deepens, if they don't get answered, then this will cause one to abandon Buddhism and move on. Yet, even for more committed Buddhists doubt may persist on a more personal level. Doubts about the effectiveness of our practice may re-emerge if it fails to make perceptible progress. Failing to progress in our practice, we will usually settle on either an external or internal cause. We perceive something is wrong with the practice itself or with the practitioner. Generally our uncertainty about ourselves as a practitioner tends to win out. Even if our confidence in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha remains relatively steady, confidence in ourselves can still wobble from time to time. Whether we place the blame for this state of affairs in the practice itself or in ourselves, its our ego, our sense of our self that is hogging the centre stage.-  'I cannot be wrong so this must be' or 'this cannot be wrong so I must be.'

One could be tempted to attribute this to a lack of sraddha (faith), but often in essence these things are not spiritual difficulties, but psychological ones. Our belief in ourselves, is being shaken by self-doubt. Though self-doubt is not always clearly identifiable as such. Self doubt sometimes cunningly disguises itself behind Buddhist terms which we use rationalise what we want to do. We use language cloaked in a spiritually sanctified sensitivity.  'this will not good for my practice if I'm too will full - forceful - self-disciplined - harsh - persistent etc'. It sounds so rational, receptive and reasonable it can't be self-doubt, because we apply a Buddhist veneer to it - if we call it balanced effort then no one will question it, least of all you.

If I hear Buddhist practitioners expressing personal doubts, I may understand their predicament, sense what the problem is, perhaps even be able to help them move towards finding their own solution. Yet, when it comes to resolving ones own doubts there just isn't enough objective distance from the problem, to see clearly what should be done. We get tripped up by our emotional responses to the doubt itself ~ it becomes all about me having my doubts about me. The perspective Dogen is suggesting here, is to de-personalises that doubt, make it less subjective and more objective, to 'Imagine your doubt as a statement' – 'Treat it as the assertion of another person' – and once you've thoroughly examined it from this perspective, just see how much of it is still standing. 

Re-imagining our doubts 'as a statement' may not be straightforward. For a lot is at stake, and we can throw up all sorts of obstacles to our being objective or clear headed. Traditionally there are said to be three obstacles or fetters that bind us to any view we hold, all are present here –we view our self as a fixed unchanging entity – we experience an undermining level of doubt – we are doing things that are empty rituals devoid of purpose. Each of these cumulatively conspire to make a resolve to cultivate clarity or objective distance a more intractable thing to attain. It's a if we are deliberately surrounding ourselves with an impenetrable fog. To enable us to see these better, Sangharakshita reformulated them as – habit, vagueness and superficiality.These more down to earth expressions make it easier to identify them in our day to day experience.

One reason doubt in our practice arises, is that overtime it develops elements that are habitual. Without consciously noticing it, our practice of meditation or ethics becomes a bit of a lifeless routine. We perform them daily without fail, but with a dulled awareness lacking engagement and aspiration. Most of the time these will be short lived periods that we emerge from quite naturally, so long as we bring awareness consistently to them. However, if they linger on for years unattended to, then they occupy a place in one's psyche like a gremlin hiding itself in the dark damp corners. Stagnation will lead to sadness, to despondency. Wherever habit is present, vagueness about the purpose of our practice will follow in its wake. Vagueness then shifts into an attitude of studied scepticism, an apathy that undermines the desire for practice, making it increasingly superficial. 

Before we all descend into pits of despair, and give up on the whole idea of a spiritual life devoted to practice, its not without hope. A fundamental teaching of the Buddha ~ prattitya samutpada is often translated as Dependent Origination because both cause and effect or things arising or ceasing from experience, are mutually dependent upon each other 'this being, that becomes, from the arising of this, that arises, this not becoming, that does not become, from the ceasing of this, that ceases.' any cause ceasing or arising, causes other things to cease and arise into being.  

Habit, vagueness and superficiality though mutually reinforcing states, are essentially an unhelpful triad. If one were to make even one positive adjustment, their relationship would have to be reformed. Sangharakshita describes three things we can do to address habits, vagueness and superficiality, these are creativity, commitment and clarity. If we can bring just one of these to bear on a habit for instance, it releases energy to further stir up the stagnant waters we may find ourselves in.

Habits are behaviours that have become sub-conscious, once they become fully conscious again, then change is always possible. This makes a space for debate ~ should this habit continue? We can no longer just passively resist by remaining vague or superficial. The sense of our Self though entangled with our behaviour, is not a fixed immutable entity either, so it too can be transformed. We could re-imagine out Self as an unfounded statement – treat as if it were an assertion from another person – and see what happens then to our perception. Seizing the initiative will always raises further questions– is this, or is this not, how things really are?

Vagueness, is a deliberately confused state of mind, surrounded, as it is, by a self created fog of habits, unquestioned behaviours and thoughts. In this muddy realm, we are often unable to be clear about what we think or believe. We end up acting blindly, just going along with things we aren't quite sure we want to understand yet. This is only a delaying tactic – 'I'm not quite ready to get behind this yet, to commit myself wholeheartedly to this, because I have quite a few major doubts here, which I can list if you want me too, all these need clarification before I proceed any further.' If those doubts were openly stated what would happen then? When we do express a doubt, perhaps one we've been struggling with for years, it's insubstantial nature is apparent from the moment you utter the first words.  As we speak of it aloud, the solidity of it evaporates, almost through embarrassment. You're left feeling as if you've been robbed in public, or caught empty handed. This sense of personal embarrassment or shame, in its positive form, is what Dogen expressed when he said:-

“Speak it and it has already filled your mouth; let it go and it fills your hands.” 1

Our most doubt filled utterances and foolish actions, our unethical behaviour in body, speech and mind, can frequently dog us afterwards. It's as if we can't be rid of the lingering smell of it. For Buddhists, part of the process of coming to true wisdom, is through recognising the positive benefits of this type of shame. Feeling humbled by the overwhelming nature of our spiritual ignorance. Without this the volition of our previous actions will continue to follow us. We let it go, but it fills our hands.

Superficiality, is really an expression of intellectual passivity. The mind aims to maintain stability and ease, by just floating on the surface of things. In terms of practice it means staying paddling in the emotional shallow end. We are unclear and therefore can't commit ourselves.This is the territory where empty rituals become commonplace. To knowingly dive into the murkier depths does risk destabilising us and there is always the possibility of 'spiritual death'. Paradoxically, this could open us up to a more substantial stability and emotional  engagement, by being vibrantly alive to reality as it actually is, rather than how we wish it should be.  Dogen knew this when he said:-

“ When we throw all our life energy into whatever we might encounter,

no demons can help but retreat. What a way to live.” 2

A superficial mind remains unconscious of its own ignorance. It cannot,however,remain entirely unaware that something is not quite right.  A refusal to question, enquire or actively seek clarity about the true nature of reality, of self, others and things, will cause an underlying mood of lifelessness to emerge, one rife with melancholy for that vague something which we sense is missing. This is superficialities fatal flaw; its is a mental habit whose vacuity is simply unsustainable in the longer term. A sense of dissatisfaction will inevitable force the mind to question what is going on, continuing to do nothing is not an option, so we initiate change in order to alleviate the suffering it's causing. Conscious awareness will always fight to be liberated from any repressive state it finds itself in.

Usually what is revealed by such moments, is that we have at some point completely lost perspective. We've allowed ourselves to become so obsessed with a relatively minor doubt, that we've inflated into a major dilemma. Dogen's method of ' Imagining your doubt as a statement' or treating it 'as the assertion of another person' is one way of creating emotional distance between you and the doubt. To move it into a healthier, less emotionally precious perspective. If you can't find someone to talk it through with, then try writing it down, or draw it out diagrammatically – do anything that externalises or introduces some objectivity.  From that viewpoint it will be easier to ascertain if the doubt has substance or not.

'Investigate it three times over and you may find that you are rid of it already.' 

If a doubt can stand up to rigorous examination, and not deflate itself in the process, then perhaps it may be a doubt with spiritual integrity. If a doubt is not one conjured up by your mind for you to stumble over, then maybe it's that rare thing: a Great Doubt, something with real spiritual cutting edge, a doubt that may be really worth grappling with.         

1 – Taken from – The Eye Never Sleeps – by Dennis Genpo Merzel – Published by Shambahala – 1991. 
2 – Taken from - The Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment – Dogen & Uchiyama Roshi – Translated by Thomas Wright – Published by Weatherhill – 1983.


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