By Adam J. Pearson
In spirituality, particularly in Zen, but also in Advaita and at the heart of jnana yoga, great doubt expresses great faith. Great doubt arises out of a sincere and profound wish to discover what’s really, really true, what’s true beyond all doubt, even beyond the very doubt that motivates the yearning itself.
This doubt expresses great faith because it is driven by the unshakable, bold, and unassailable faith that what is true beyond all doubt can be discovered. This doubt is at once the start of the process of finding out the truth, the means of its fulfillment, and the expression of its goal, the truth beyond doubt itself.
Destabilizing all that is questionable and diving into profound doubt out of passionate faith is the heart of the way of true freedom for those who are not content to settle for second-hand answers. Diving into doubt may evoke fear because the mind seeks safety in the known. In truth, however, there is no freedom from fear except beyond the doubtable, and only comprehensive doubt can reveal what cannot be doubted.
As a means to its own fulfillment, great doubt operates like a sharp sword, which boldly cuts down all that can be doubted. Whatever is doubtful cannot be what’s true beyond all doubt, and so doubt questions it, cuts it down, rejects it, negates it.
Nothing questionable is spared from this sword, whether it be spiritual or secular authorities, inherited traditions, cherished beliefs, aspects of separate identity, or fundamental cultural assumptions. If this doubt is truly sincere, it will swallow up all that can be doubted like a giant whale, or a blazing fire, sparing nothing.
To discover what’s true beyond all doubt, all of our cherished, but doubtful notions, concepts, and theories must be poured out and emptied through subjection to relentless doubt. A full cup cannot be filled and a mind filled with doubtful ideas cannot discover what’s true beyond all doubt. Doubt is the means of the pouring out; it is a force of emptying all that is questionable and false. In the absence of all that can be doubted, the undoubtable shines just as it is.
This fierce burning away, this radical questioning, this all-consuming emptying, is no project of purposeless destruction, however. This practical doubting, if it is truly sincere and earnest, expresses the great faith that what is true beyond all that can be negated, questioned, and rejected can indeed be found out. Doubt is the means, faith the driving force and the end.
So, on this pathless path, doubt and faith are not-two; one is not bad and the other good, nor are they separate. Doubt is an expression of faith and faith is the fulfillment of doubt. Faith that has not confronted the doubtful is shaky; doubt without faith is in a cul de sac of confusion, a dead end of ignorance. Faith brings us out of doubt; doubt keeps us out of blind faith. Nisargadatta, Bassui, Hui-Neng, Ramana Maharshi and all of the greatest masters assure us: great doubt powered by great faith is sure to succeed. We can either trust them and doubt or doubt them and have faith in our doubting; either way brings us back to the Way.
How do we practice this great doubt? Question all that can be questioned, doubt all that can be doubted, negate all that can be negated, reject all that can be rejected, empty all questionable ideas that can be emptied. All that can be perceived and conceived, we can doubt; the mere fact that we are awake to this moment and present, we cannot doubt. Drop the doubtful and stay with what remains.
Practicing great doubt means cutting down all doubtful thoughts and returning attention to the mind that doesn’t know, moment to moment, whenever focusing and thinking aren’t require for a given practical task. Devote every free moment to returning to the mind that is before thinking, empty mind, the mind that doesn’t know, the basic feeling of being awake and present. Simply rest, simply abide in the empty feeling of alert presence, of not-knowing. That we are, we know; what we are, we don’t know. In not-knowing, nothing doubtful arises; if we stay there, the masters assure us, all will be revealed.
Thus, and in closing, when we take our stance unshakably in the mind that doesn’t know, even while going about our daily activities, our whole life becomes meditation. Gradually, gently, all doubtful ideas and reference points fall away, suffocated, as Nisargadatta puts it, by intense, empty presence. What happens when we truly stick with this not-knowing presence? There’s only one way to find out; here and now, keep quiet and Be.