Faith and doubt are both needed – not as antagonists, but working side by side to take us around the unknown curve.
– Lillian Smith
At the end of most of my meditation classes, there’s time for people to ask questions about the dharma talk, meditation in general, or their own practice. A few weeks ago a gentleman raised his hand and said something like, “I’ve been meditating for many years. I’ve been on lots of retreats and know lots of teachers. I mean, I know even their lives aren’t perfect. I sometimes ask myself, why am I doing this again? What’s the point?”
There was a collective, knowing chuckle in the room and the man who asked the question broke into a smile. So did I. At some point, everyone who practices meditation has asked themselves this same question. In fact, this line of thinking is so prevalent that the Buddha included it in the list of Five Hindrances to Meditation, and instructed his monks on how to work with it. He called it, simply, doubt.
When we think of doubt, we often associate it with something that restricts us, prevents us from making a decision, or causes confusion. We may even be immobilized by it. In many spiritual traditions, doubt is associated with a lack of faith or something that needs to be purged so that our faith can be strengthened.
In Buddhist teaching, there are two kinds of doubt. And they both have something to offer us if we investigate them. The first is skeptical, or unskillful doubt. This usually arises out of fear of the unknown, where we use doubt as an excuse to not try something, or to not let something evolve in order to see it more clearly. We disengage from it in order to judge it. Perhaps we’ve already determined it can’t help us, or is useless. There is a story about the Buddha, where he wanders into town after attaining enlightenment under the bodhi tree. And we imagine him with a radiant glow and peaceful countenance. A man comes up to him and asks “Who are you? Are you a celestial being?” And the Buddha simply replies, “I am awake!” The man thinks he’s a bit crazy and dismisses him. Sort of like yeah right, and he walks away. And there’s the Biblical story of Thomas, who upon seeing the resurrected Jesus, refuses to believe it’s really him until he can see and touch his wounds for himself. This is unskillful doubt, the kind that cuts us off from opportunity.
Skillful doubt, on the other hand, is seen as essential to spiritual growth, and an essential aspect of our practice. Instead of something that is perceived as the opposite of faith, it’s a quality that strengthens faith. It’s praised as an insistence on seeing the truth for ourselves, not assuming that something is true because we’ve heard it from a teacher, our parents or from an ancient text. The Buddha is famous for having told his followers not to believe anything just because he said it. He implored them to put every concept and belief into practice and see for themselves if it leads to suffering, greed, aversion, and delusion, or to the growth of love, compassion, kindness, joy, and equanimity.
It’s really the underlying premise of Buddhism, especially as its practiced in the West, this systematic way in which we get to know ourselves, and the habits of our minds that keep us lost in the illusion of separateness. This is why Buddhism is sometimes described more as a “science of the mind” than a religion. The ability to see clearly is a universal capacity; we all have it. When we say we take refuge in the Buddha, we’re not talking about worshipping the historical person Siddhartha Gautama, but resting in the knowable truth of what he represents: the awakened mind.
As is the case with most other traditions, in Buddhist teachings doubt is almost always connected to the notion of faith, which translates as “the offering of our hearts.” Faith is not presented as something we either have or don’t have, but rather as an unfolding. The notion that as we grow in real, organic understanding, our faith grows.
As with doubt, there are also two kinds of faith. The first is what we might consider blind faith, though Buddhist scriptures call it “bright faith,” which I love the sound of. It’s described as like a door being flung open, like seeing something for the first time, like falling in love. It engenders incredible joy. We encounter a person, a place in nature, a poem or a teaching, and suddenly the world is brighter and there are more possibilities. This is often how we feel when we first discover meditation practice and have a great sit or a breakthrough of some kind. Though it sounds wonderful, this faith is considered to be very unstable, because it’s dependent on a certain set of conditions (and we know our conditions are in a constant state of flux), not grounded in our own internal experience. And it’s very easy to get attached to the external object as having the power to make us happy.
What we’re instructed to cultivate is known as verified faith. We come by this kind of unshakable faith when we encounter a concept, a practice, something we read that really resonates, and we don’t skip right to believing it as our own. We take the more arduous path of examining it, testing it out, practicing with it, seeing what outcomes occur as a result for us personally. Because everyone’s path is different, we need to test it out for ourselves. This results in a faith that is rooted not in lofty ideas, but in our bodies, in our cells. We’re not moved to defend it to others or become anxious about it in any way. It also means we’re not attached to it lasting forever. We’re open to allowing for the arising of new information that we can also test out, that might alter our belief. Again, we go through doubt as a way of evolving our minds, of waking up.
As his death approached, the Buddha said to those gathered around him, “Be a light unto yourself; betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Truth. Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves.” It’s a radical notion, that we don’t need to look outside of ourselves for truth. When we practice mindfully, doubt can be the pathway to awakening.