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The Power of Doubt

There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts, it is a sword that kills.” [Attributed to the Buddha on viewonbuddhism.org]

I haven’t memorized the Buddha’s every word, but I doubt he said this, and I’m not the only one. The notion of personal loyalty doesn’t fit with his instruction to “be islands unto yourselves.” Besides, forthright doubt is a source of immeasurable flexibility and strength. It clarifies your thinking and lays your motives bare. It is vacillation, not doubt, that undermines purpose.

I can’t conceive of a Buddha that doesn’t place integrity over personal loyalty, nor one that doesn’t ruthlessly examine the contents of his own mind. Some have translated the Pali term vicikicchā as doubt, but in fact it means indecision, or flip-flopping, which is quite another thing. Besides, Buddhist scripture can be just as bewildering as any other. Miracles, magic and invisible demons go hand-in-hand with levelheaded psychology. You can’t translate without also interpreting, and even if you staunchly refuse to separate the believable from the incredible you’ll still end up prioritizing one passage over another. That’s how we make sense of things.

Which is why, as well as asking myself what I accept in the Buddha’s teachings, I also think about why I relate to them.

Orthodox Buddhists will explain their faith as a result of his impeccable doctrine, but that’s a rationalization after the fact. It’s just not how humans make decisions. No one will take his teachings personally unless they’re inspired by the life of the man Siddhattha. That’s what enables me to even consider what he has to say. Now I’m not talking about Aśvaghoṣa’s fantastic ‘Life of the Buddha,’ but the more down-to-Earth snippets pieced together from the Pali Canon.

You’ll never scrupulously test something
you’ve already decided is true

It’s not an entirely coherent story, but I’m clear about what it inspires in me. First is Siddhattha’s rejection of consensus and his reliance on subjective experience. Next, his rejection of questions that lead to endless speculation. He also rejected wealth, his privileged life and the exercise of political power. The man rejected big things. His doubts ran deep and he wasn’t afraid to act on them. I too questioned much that I was expected to take for granted, and found the answers wanting. So, I relate to the man.

If we’re honest with ourselves, a rather inconvenient question now arises: are we really talking about a man, or is he a myth? There’s no historical proof of Siddhattha’s existence. You might decide with all your heart that he was born and lived more or less as described, but you know that’s just a belief.

I once thought that in order for me to lead the life of a Buddhist, all this had to be true. That’s pretty tenuous reasoning. One day, I admitted my doubts and let it go.

In people of faith, doubt excites abject terror. The suggestion that the Buddha is a figment or a ‘mere’ myth shakes committed Buddhists to the core. If he’s not true, how could his method be true? But these people are like theists who can’t imagine morality without God. The causal connection is imaginary. Years ago I recognized this disjointed, bad logic in my own thinking, and dropped my commitment.

The teachings promptly became far more accessible to me. That may sound paradoxical but in fact it’s just plain good sense. You’ll never scrupulously test something you’ve already decided is true. More to the point, how can Siddhattha’s doubts undermine your certainties if you’re already certain he’s right? Whether or not the character is fictional, the power lies in the myth as much as the doctrine.

Doubt is a source of immeasurable flexibility and strength.
It clarifies your thinking and lays your motives bare.

And the myth is all about overcoming fear. The notion that life is explicable is not even a myth. It’s a delusion. When we spend that life spinning and defending the spurious story of who we are, then we’re engaged in what for Siddhattha is our fundamental tragedy.

Some things do make sense. Some knowledge is useful. Nevertheless, life and we, its players, are contingent, unpredictable and mortal. We don’t know what’s coming. We can ask why we’re here, but we’ll never settle on an answer. We’ll only be satisfied when we let it go. Reason has something to do with it, but it’s mostly an act of courage.

My doubts are no more convenient that yours, or anyone else’s. They make me think when I’d rather not. They force me to backtrack and reassess. They’ve led me to massive disappointments, like abandoning a life I spent eight years building. However, disappointment is always accompanied by insight. It’s tough to see because it’s so unwelcome, but if our problem is illusion then surely disillusion is a step in the right direction.

One way to avoid your doubts is to go into denial. Another is to lean on faith, but beware of this slippery slope. Healthy faith is a provisional suspension of disbelief—an experimental but temporary space that sooner or later gives up results. You reassess and move on. Unhealthy faith, clung to desperately and untested by experience, is just another form of willful ignorance, built on fear. By believing it holds the truth, it corrupts it. Embrace the tenets and traditions of Buddhism as much as you want, but you can’t brush your doubts under the carpet and then claim to follow in his footsteps.


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17 responses to “The Power of Doubt”

  1. Linda Blanchard

    “Whether or not the character is fictional, the power lies in the myth as much as the doctrine.”

    Really? I’m doubtful.

    If by “the power” you mean “the power of understanding what we find in Buddhist literature to have a good effect on your life” (you don’t specify — I’m thinking you’re not saying ‘the power of doubt’ in that phrase) then I disagree. You could couch what’s being said (in Pali and in myths) in an entirely different framework (in science, if you like, or psychology, or some other culture’s myths) and it would work just as well. What makes it powerful is that it’s a very useful way of looking at the world, and seeing it that way makes us able to make better choices. It has nothing to do with the myth, on the whole — though certain individuals may find the setting helps them understand better.

    Even reasoning from within the myth itself, it cannot be true that the power lies as much in the myth as the doctrine, because the Buddha experienced the power without the myth.

  2. Ralph Chidiac

    Never believed in any one person having the ultimate answers to any life matters.

    An individual triggers a “meme/ideology” that ends up collecting momentum with the passage of time and the constant amending by great minds. The problem becomes when ALL is attributed to the one individual.

    Life IS flux, therefore, movement and change are unavoidable. Leeway for adjustments, and reconfigurations are compulsory for survival, which can only come from DOUBT. Dogma is for non-thinkers, always preferred the word supporter over follower, the former denotes understanding, the latter blinders.

    Your blog is definitely an eye and mind opener, especially after having been where you were.

    Kudos to you sir.

  3. Keren Dar

    Buddha also taught a middle road;

    between faith and doubt.

    May our faith and doubt both be Noble

    it is a razor’s edge walk where we keep checking ourselves in our habitual behaviour and where it needs adjusting, A sangha is a good mirror that helps with polishing.

    Sogyal Rinpoche in his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying a discussion on this noble doubt issue.

    *The Buddha summons us to a different kind of doubt, “like analyzing gold, scorching, cutting and rubbing it to test its purity.” For this form of doubt really exposes us to the truth if we follow it to the end, but we have neither the insight, the courage, nor the training. We have been schooled in a sterile addiction to contradiction that has robbed us repeatedly of all real openness to any more expansive and ennobling truth.

    In the place of our contemporary nihilistic form of doubt I would ask you to put what I call a “noble doubt,” the kind that is an integral part of the path toward enlightenment. The vast truth of the mystical teachings handed down to us is not something that our endangered world can afford to dismiss. Instead of doubting them, why don’t we doubt ourselves: our ignorance, our assumption that we understand everything already, our grasping and evasion, our passion for so-called explanations of reality that have about them nothing of the awe-inspiring and all-encompassing wisdom of what the masters, the messengers of Reality, have told us?

    as has Pema Chodron on Faith

    Faith and Doubt

    Faith and doubt are supposed to be opposites, but the Sensei says “if we have no faith, we have no doubt.” I would say, also, that true faith requires true doubt; without doubt, faith is not faith.

    This kind of faith is not the same thing as certainty; it is more like trust (shraddha). This kind of doubt is not about denial and disbelief. And you can find this same understanding of faith and doubt in the writing of scholars and mystics of other religions if you look for it, even though these days we mostly hear from absolutists and dogmatists.

    Faith and doubt in the religious sense are both about openness. Faith is about living in an open-hearted and courageous way and not a closed up, self-protecting way. Faith helps us overcome our fear of pain, grief and disappointment and stay open to new experience and understanding. The other kind of faith, which is a head filled up with certainty, is closed.

    Pema Chodron said, “We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.” Faith is being open to what scares us.

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