April  1991   2534   Number 16 

In Doubt We Trust; Ajahn Munindo
On Messiahs and Other Matters; Ajahn Sumedho
Why Did I Become a Nun?; Sister Sundara
Pilgrimage in India; Aj. Sucitto & Sr. Thanissara
Another Part of the World; Ajahn Anando
The Golden State: A. Amaro

In Doubt We Trust

This title doesn't imply that doubt is divine, but it alludes to - and challenges - our tendency to avoid the state of doubt, even when it has lessons to teach us. This article is taken from a talk given at a retreat at Amaravati.

One of the major hindrances in this practice is doubt, or vicikiccha in Pali. It's a wavering in the face of uncertainty. When uncertainty manifests, instead of just being able to say, 'Oh, this is uncertain', we desperately struggle to try and make it certain. We want to be certain, we want to be sure of the right thing to do.

What is the right solution? 'Where am I at? Can I dare go on to another type of meditation, or should I stay with this type of meditation? Should I concentrate on my nose, or should I concentrate on my heart, or should I concentrate on my belly?' Some monks will tell you to concentrate on the nose, and this is what it tells you to do in the scriptures. Other monks will tell you to concentrate on the heart and say, 'Well, you're so emotionally repressed you need to concentrate on your heart.' Other people will tell you to concentrate on the belly. And you think, 'Well, whom should I believe?'

Now the Buddha didn't praise blindly believing - which I find to be a lovely aspect of his teaching - but that doesn't mean we're meant to disbelieve, either. Disbelief is another form of believing. He said that we should not take a position for or against, based on speculation or even logic; neither should we establish our practices and our life on mere belief or disbelief. He said that only when you've taken something up - when you've investigated it for yourself, tested it and seen it to be true - only then accept it; then, and only then. And this is the Middle Way: that point between belief and disbelief, accepting and rejecting, pushing and pulling.

The place of mindfulness is the place in the middle, being with things as they are. So when it comes to doubt and uncertainty, we have to be mindful of that doubt.

If we're trained without any religious perspective, we tend to identify with our conditioned mind, our conditioned intelligence.
What is doubt? What actually is doubt like, as a condition in the mind? 'The last retreat I did I had such-and-such an experience, and this retreat I thought I'd have the same experience again. Am I doing something wrong, or am I doing it right? Perhaps it should be this way - perhaps it shouldn't be this way ....' We can get caught in doubt.

Well, the fact is that we can know, if we're mindful of the mind, that there's uncertainty in the mind and the mind is wavering, and that we're afraid of uncertainty. When we're not able just to acknowledge uncertainty, and we're afraid of it, this fear makes the mind wobble and tremble.

This is a rampant disease for many who have received a Western education. Because, if we're trained without any religious perspective, we tend to identify with our conditioned mind, our conditioned intelligence. The more often we say, 'I know, Sir', the more points we score, the more praise we get; we really become accustomed to feeling very secure and very good about saying, 'I know'. I really like to say that: 'I know'. That's me, I'm the one who knows everything about everything; you ask me, and I have an opinion on it. There's a sense of confidence that feels really good. But the fact is - and this becomes more apparent as the practice proceeds actually, I hardly know anything at all, and what I do know is not of any great consequence. This conditioned mind has a very, very relative function.

We give a lot of positive value to intellectual certainty, so when we're faced with uncertainty we're unable to accept it. So we have this terrible tension. We come across uncertainty, we don't know what to do next.

We can't just sit there and say, 'I don't know what to do', and listen to it. It's very difficult for us to do that. Because of what? Because we're desperately trying to get away from the pain of uncertainty. But it's very important in meditation practice that, when you do start to find uncertainty - and this comes very soon in the practice, uncertainty about your ability to do the practice, or about the teaching or the teacher - that when it arises, you don't dismiss it. Remember the Buddha's instructions: 'Don't believe in logic; don't follow disbelief; don't believe in something because everybody else believes in it. Really find out for yourself - be a refuge unto yourself, know for yourself.'

And so what you know at this moment is: 'I'm uncertain, I'm uncertain about the practice.'

In the beginning, when we first start to acknowledge this, we usually find that we've got a whole backlog of fear and uncertainty. This is because we've been dishonest about our fear regarding uncertainty, and so when we do start to open to it, we find it difficult to deal with. 'This is very important. I mean, this isn't just small doubt - this is a very important doubt, a very important doubt!'

'Should I be a Theravadin, or should I practise Zen? This is very important, very important.' I wavered with this one myself for about seven years. I was really infatuated by the aesthetics of Zen Buddhism. I really thought that I should be a Zen monk. Thai Buddhism did not appeal aesthetically at all, but somehow I found myself ordained as a Theravadin bhikkhu. And there was this uncertainty, 'Should I be here, or should I be in Korea?'

Well, if it weren't for my lousy knees, I would have gone to Korea - I would have followed my doubt. So if you have bad knees, don't discard them. I am really grateful, I can't say how grateful I am for what my knees have taught me! It can take one into a lot of doubt and pain; you can think you've got your practice together until pain comes along, and then you start to doubt. If at that point you can apply mindfulness and do the practice - keep doing the practice when doubt arises - you can make some real progress. You can start to find out where trust and faith lie.

Trust and faith are found inside of doubt. Doubt is like the packaging around faith and trust. If you want to get into something, like a package of cornflakes, you open the box, right? You've got to open the package before you can get inside - no one wants to eat the package! You've got to open the package and get in there!

This is what it is like with doubt. Doubt is obscuring our faith, our confidence, our trust. All of us have some faith and trust - otherwise we never would have started this practice. But sooner or later it becomes obscured by doubt. If we don't have mindfulness at that point, we just never get any further. Our faith, our confidence will never really develop. It will always be dependent on other people telling us, or books, or hopping around trying this practice or that practice, or this technique or that technique.

So, sooner or later in practice, we come to the point where we actually have to open up to doubt and say, 'Come on in, I'm interested in get- ting to know you. Let's be friends, let's get to know each other.' Talk to it, don't fight it any more, spread loving-kindness. The power of loving-kindness is very important in dealing with something like the fear of uncertainty.

If we have this habitual negative reaction to things when I don't get 'my way' - then if doubt comes along, that definitely doesn't accord with 'my way', because 'I' like to be sure, 'I' like to be sure about things. So when doubt and uncertainty come along, if I reject them then I also reject the opportunity to develop and practise - and that's a great shame. So we need some encouragement in this area, to contemplate the phenomenon of doubt: what is actually taking place, why are we so afraid of uncertainty? Why do we always struggle to make things that are uncertain certain?

On of the most valuable teachings Ajahn Chah ever given me was when I went to him once, totally beside myself with doubt and worry. After we talked awhile he looked at me and said, 'If something is uncertain and you want to make it certain, you are going to suffer.' Well that's obvious. But he really knew what he was talking about, he really knew. If it's uncertain, you've got to see it as uncertain - why try and make it certain? It's only because of our attachment to certainty that we can't learn from uncertainty; yet it's only when we're uncertain that we learn. When we're uncertain, we can wake up, and look around and say, 'What's going on, what's happening?' We can be alert and attentive when we're uncertain; when we're sure, we just sit back and get fat and lazy. People who are really certain don't have this sense of openness and vitality and investigation of life, everything's very closed and sure.

So what we develop in practice is not a sense of certainty, but an ever-increasing sense of the uncertainty of everything. We're nor trying to find our if we're a sotapanna ['stream-enterer', a stage on the path to enlightenment] yet: If you're a sotapanna, you're a sotapanna, what do you have to worry about it for? We worry about it because we want to be certain -- we want it 'my way'

But then we're nor really going for refuge in the Buddha's way, we're singing, 'I did it my way ...' Even in the Dhamma we like to try and do it my way. 'I'm going to become certain. I am going to be a sotapanna by the end of this retreat. I'm just going to get rid of all my doubts.' Well, you're guaranteed to fail.

So open to doubt, bring mindfulness to bear on the mind. What does the mind do when it's faced with uncertainty? In this way, when we've stopped fighting it - when we've worked through our backlog of resistance to it - the intelligence can function normally. It's like the intelligence that tells you that if you're too hot, it's because you've got too many clothes on. If you're in touch with your body, if you're mindful of your body, then intelligence will tell you to take some clothes off. Nobody else has to come along and tell you, your natural intelligence will tell you. Likewise with fear of uncertainties. If we work through the backlog, we're able to be clear, to be with it in its raw condition as it arises. And then natural intelligence says, 'Hanging on to doubt with fear is not helping you.' You feel that, you know that.

And then letting go happens. You don't have to tell yourself to do it, it happens. This is insight. You understand the nature of doubt, you understand it for what it is. This understanding came because of doubt, and this under- standing gives us trust.

This is where faith lies: it's through investigating confusion, and investigating doubt with mindfulness.

Try to keep it simple. Don't let practice become too complicated. So, for this evening, I offer these thoughts for your consideration.

Doubt may be an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is ridiculous! - Voltaire