Koan: Great doubt is followed by great awakening. – Dahui

Doubt played no constructive role in the Indian Buddhist spiritual tradition, it was considered an obstacle that must be overcome. In China however, this ‘debilitating’ mental condition was transformed into the principal force driving one toward enlightenment. That transformation took some time and even the 11th Century Chan teacher, Yuanwu, an important figure in the transformation of the literary study of koans into a meditative system, still treats the sensation of doubt as something harmful to faith, which should be diligently avoided at all times.

It was Yuanwu’s disciple Dahui who turned doubt on its head, re-imagining it as the principal force driving one toward awakening. He considered faith the essence of doubt and awakening the function of doubt. So, to ask what this doubt is about, we first have to ask what this faith is about? For Dahui, the faith is that we are awakened from the beginning, innately. He used the tension between faith in our innate awakened nature and the reality of being human to drive the inquiry of koan practice. One way he put it was, “When faith is 100%, doubt also will be 100%. When doubt is 100%, so too awakening is 100%.”

The 17th century Japanese Zen teacher, Bankei, looking back at the tradition in China with an eye on doubt and noted, “Long ago, when Nanyue went to the sixth patriarch and was asked, “What is it that’s just come?” he was totally bewildered. His Doubt about it lasted for eight years. Finally he was able to respond by saying, “Whatever I say would miss the mark.” Now that’s really Great Doubt and Great Awakening!” So, this doubt is the deep questioning of everything that leads to a deep intimacy with everything. In thinking about that, I was reminded of a description of reality that involves a fraction. The denominator is a circle with an infinity symbol inside, representing the common denominator we share with all things, the innate awakened nature of infinite vastness. The numerator is the infinity symbol alone, representing the infinite different ways our common denominator is expressed.

Using that as a starting place, great doubt would be that fraction, multiplied by a question mark, representing doubt, the never ending questioning with wonder and curiosity, moment by moment, which results in the product, great awakening, represented by a circle enclosing a question mark, the vastness of making our mind a question mark.

– David

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