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]

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.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

17 thoughts on “The Power of Doubt”

  1. “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.

    1. Linda: I was thinking of the power of myth.

      You speak of couching Buddhist theory in an “entirely different framework” as if the myths of other frameworks were irrelevant, but we lean on them whether we like it or not. Today we accept “scientific” facts that few of us can explain or even understand. It’s an act of faith. Scientists may practice scientific method, but they’re also excitable human beings. Highly trained researchers are “proving” various Buddhist methods, even though they’re fatally biased by their agenda as faithful believers. I’d call this dishonest, but not an aberration. It’s normal human behavior.

      I believe language formed in our ancestors’ minds in response to the need to exchange stories around the communal hearth. Those that carried lasting weight became myths. Stories are fundamental units of meaning. Reason came long afterwards, and is enmeshed with myth.

      Having said that, I’m not sure we fundamentally disagree. Perhaps our differences are semantic. However, you make the extraordinary statement that “the Buddha experienced the power without the myth.” What does that mean, exactly? Are you suggesting that he functioned beyond the human sphere, as some Buddhists believe?

      1. But the power to do what, Stephen, that’s my question, not what has the power, but what the power does.

        I’m not sure why you’d think I believe that myths in other frameworks are irrelevant; I don’t. In fact my point was that framing the same point in another framework would be *just as* relevant. I agree that science is the same thing.

        Doesn’t “dishonesty” require that you are aware that you aren’t being honest? Isn’t it more like “delusion”? We think we are seeing clearly; we are operating from a set of assumptions we think are true and accurate and so any mistakes we make are not “dishonest” but based on false premises?

        You said, “However, you make the extraordinary statement that ‘the Buddha experienced the power without the myth.’ What does that mean, exactly? ”

        My understanding was that we were talking about the myths of Buddhism having power to put across what the Buddha saw in a way that affects us now. What I was saying was that the Buddha did not experience because of the myths of Buddhism, which had not been invented yet. I understood you to be saying that we understand as well as we do, as much because of the myths of Buddhism as because of the doctrine. My point was that he had understood the doctrine without knowing those myths that had not been created yet. My point was “another myth might do as well” be it another’s culture, or science, or philosophy. This tells me the power is not in the way we convey it, but in the understanding itself.

        1. Hi Linda: What does the power do? The power of myth is that it enables us to act—against entropy, automaticity, awakening if you like.

          The fine line between delusion and dishonesty: Delusions are often, perhaps usually, dishonest. Not-knowing is excusable, but avidyā is willful ignorance. That’s what always seems to turn up at the root of my own confusion. I’ve rationalized myself into countless dead-ends, only to look back in the knowledge that I knew all along, “I shouldn’t have done that.” Insight is not discovering new knowledge; it’s dropping the pretense of knowing. How could a scientist rationalize away an ulterior motive while not knowing of it? The fact that most delusion is constructed subconsciously doesn’t make it less dishonest.

          Yes, any myth will do, as long as it makes us act. Still, the Buddha myth seems particularly relatable to our life and times.

          1. Stephen, you wrote: “What does the power do? The power of myth is that it enables us to act—against entropy, automaticity, awakening if you like.”

            It sounds like you’re getting awfully close to saying that all knowlege is myth, which would certainly be postmodern of you. But while human mythmaking may precede human reason, there must be a world, and there must be some way of knowing something about it, or else I’m not writing and you’re not reading. I think what Linda might be getting at is that the ultimate guarantor of the dharma’s truth is that it is a cogent description of the mental apparatus of the human animal; and the reason for its longevity is that the human animal is largely the same in all times and cultures. Scientists who meditate may have problems researching meditation, but either self-directed neuroplasticity is real or it isn’t, and it does not depend on stories for its reality (although we cannot talk about it without a discursive medium that will have certain myths built into it).

          2. I’m not that far gone Mark, though I appreciate you keeping an eye out for me :). No, myth is not a replacement for knowledge. However, it is a catalyst that enables us to put knowledge to work. We all know how easy it is to cogently, consistently, thoroughly know something and still remain stranded by our own inaction. Myth gives us heart.

          3. Well said, Mark, thanks. That is my point.

            As for avijja, it definitely includes conscious dishonesty, but as part of the larger package of delusions about the self and how accurate is our understanding of the world, and who we are, and how the two relate. The assumptions we make, all unaware that we’re doing it, can be just as dangerous (especially for being less obvious) than the ones we have to look away from to avoid seeing so we can continue to engage in them.

          4. I understand why that was hard to follow; it’s taken me a few days to work out just what it is I’m saying and why, myself!

            The ignorance that’s described in the Pali canon as being a curable cause of our problems is ignorance of how we cause those problems, that we can do something about it, and how to go about it. (Ignorance of the ennobling truths.)

            Strictly speaking, that sort of ignorance can’t ever be “dishonest” because the ability to be honest requires that we know “the truth” (or at least what passes for “truth”), and if we’re ignorant, then the behavior that results doesn’t come from not facing the truth, but simply from not really understanding what’s going on. Behavior that is dishonest is a choice made, one that attempts to ignore the facts (to pretend we are ignorant of the facts). That’s your “willful ignorance”.

            So, for example, in the beginning of a Buddhist practice, we’re taught about right speech, action, and livelihood, and how to be mindful, and meditate, and we begin to understand how all the pieces fit together, and we see the sense in them. When we come to the point where we see that it’s true that we cause our own problems with certain behavior, we set the intention to do better. And we try, but things get in our way. Meditation is a challenge and we are busy. Living within our means and honestly is tough — maybe we think Walmart is a harmful force in our world but we shop there anyway because, after all, we’re on a tight budget — lots of little compromises which we try not to examine too closely. We work at learning to speak skillfully, but when we’re tired, things slip out — maybe they were better said than left unsaid anyway. All these involve that willful ignorance, that self-justification, that way we have of letting our thoughts slide away from what we are doing and the consequences, so that we can continue behaving the way we always have/the way we want to. It’s hard work to stick to our convictions, to set intentions and carry through.

            But that way our eyes have of sliding away from watching the unskillful acts unfold, the way we manage to find reasons for not carrying through so that we can live with our less-than-ideal selves — that willful ignorance — isn’t the ignorance the Buddha talks about as the source of the problem. It’s just a symptom of it; it’s the ignorance “made visible”. The underlying source of the problem is the drive for self-protection (in the Buddha’s parlance it’s actually the drive for self-creation and self-knowledge, the two being one and the same — that’s what he means when he talks about “craving for existence” — it’s that “existence of the self” he’s talking about). What we are ignorant of is not the “willful ignorance that talking ourselves out of meditation is not in our best interests”, but we are ignorant of our reasons for doing talking ourselves out of it: because some part of us wants to maintain the status quo, keep the self as it is, not change (change is so frightening! it means a death of self).

            What powers our ability to change might come to us via myths or lessons from some suitable framework, but which myth or framework is far less important than understanding what they point to, because it’s understanding what drives the whole process that’s the key to breaking the cycle. We are ignorant — most of us, most of the time — about what we’re doing and why we do it on a very deep and subtle level. That’s the ignorance the Buddha pointed out as the problem, and it’s genuine ignorance, not a false “willful” ignorance. Really understanding it and seeing it is difficult because the part of us we’re trying to do away with — the greedy, hateful part — is very good at keeping us blind to the lessons being taught and the way they play out in our lives.

            It might be tempting to see that part of us as the bit that’s being willfully ignorant, but it’s not. It’s not fooling itself, it’s fooling the part of us that is not greedy and hateful. It knows what it’s doing (it is protecting its self) but manages to keep the part of us that is consciously trying to change from seeing what’s going on. (I see this as internal processes doing battle; that’s my personal myth for it.)

            The Buddha’s skill in using the myths of his day to point this problem out still stuns me. His classic 12-step rendition of dependent arising uses the creation myth of Prajapati to very precisely describe the way our desire to create, maintain, and know “self” is the underlying problem. I can imagine how well that myth worked to get the point across, to enable people to see and understand, and therefore to act. The loss of that myth as part of the structure — a loss that must have come quite early on — brings us, now, to a confused and fuzzy understanding of that core lesson, which causes his whole teaching to have less power. I believe this makes your point — that myth enables us to act? — even if I’m talking about a different myth than the one you discussed in your article.

            I disagree with a couple of your points. That, “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.” You seem to have built a straw argument there, assuming that when I say that I have faith it’s because of the impeccable doctrine then I have first understood the doctrine, then gained the faith — as if it was in just those two steps. But in fact, that faith comes little-by-little with understanding and puttingthe understanding into practice. And it’s really confidence, not faith. That is how humans make decisions, by testing and slowly increasing confidence in their understanding. When I reach the point that I have reached, where I say I am confident because the doctrine is impeccable, it’s because I have worked hard to understand it and test it — and because I’ve seen the way the pieces fit together and it really is beautifully constructed.

            Then there’s “No one will take his teachings personally unless they’re inspired by the life of the man Siddhattha.” I disagree there, too. I care very little about his story, particularly because it is so overlaid with myth (likely a lot of it of his own making). I am confident if the story were entirely different but the lesson the same, I’d still take it personally, let it change my life. But then again, that’s what I’m saying: the myth helps convey the lesson, but it’s the lesson that carries the actual power.

          5. Linda, I value this exchange, but just can’t keep up with all this. I’d like to focus on honesty.

            Like you, my interest is to reproduce the Buddha’s experience and express it in plain language. I believe that craving, taṇhā, is a reaction to our learning about the world and discovering there is no security. We know this at a very early age, I suspect even before we think with language. Recognizing that life is groundless, we hang on for dear life, upādāna, and don’t let go. This may become inchoate and unconscious, but it’s still an attempt to refuse our own experience. It is our fundamental ignorance and it’s a conscious reaction that we quickly push into the most remote reaches of our minds.

            I appreciate your distinction between conscious and unconscious denial, but I can’t see how any knowledge originates in the subconscious. We know it first, then push it down there out of fear or preoccupation. How else would it get there? You may claim it’s unfinished karma from former lives, but then the argument becomes improvable either way.

            In a nutshell, I see Buddhist practice as a process of rediscovering the truths we know and have turned away from. Awakening, bodhi, is the acceptance of what was right before our eyes all along.

            I believe your distinction is between conscious and unconscious denial. Both are denial. I find myself in the unusual position of drawing on the notion of karma as divine retribution, and ask why we should have to pay for our unconscious dishonesty if it isn’t deliberate? But pay we do.

          6. I think we’re going to have a problem with just how conscious “conscious” is, which, for me, is what draws the line between dishonest and honest. I don’t see that I can directly affect what’s happening on an unconscious level if I’m not aware of it, except perhaps inadvertently. So, for example, setting the intention to Do Better In My Practice might lead me to see the world (consciously) differently and this might end up affecting processing on an unconscious level. But that’s not the same as me understanding what’s going on at an unconscious level and being able to directly affect it. If I am not aware of why I am doing something, then I deem that “unconscious” and if I’m fouling things up because of unconscious processes, I can’t see that it is dishonesty. Maybe the original assumptions were dishonest — you suggest they might have been formed by a child, in childhood? — but if the way the assumptions got made is long gone from my awareness and understanding, how am I being dishonest in *this* moment when I act on old assumptions?

            Anyway, I don’t see that it matters, all that much, how the drive to deny that world is-as-it-is came about. It makes no different to my need to deal with it, whether it is something I learned in my youth and now have to unlearn, or it is part of an instinctual drive and I now have to learn how to get around it. The end result is the same to me.

            The only place I see that sort of distinction making a difference is in terms of a larger worldview of how people work. Some might well say that we are in the situation we are in because of Past Evil (an individual’s or the human race’s) and that might make a difference to how we treat people (including ourselves) — the “he deserves it, it’s his past karma” problem. But as I understand it (and as I see the Buddha describing it) we do what we do because that’s what people do — we have no evidence that it’s a punishment that we tend to behave this way; all evidence points to it just being our nature.

          7. I’m using consciousness in the classic abhidharma sense: synonymous with mind, knowing, etc. I sometimes wonder if I’m being simplistic in accepting that old approach, but it works well, tried and tested as it is by millennia of subjective empiricists (Buddhist meditators). I’ve discussed this definition with several students who are also psychologists. They gravitate towards it quite enthusiastically. Western constructs are so complicated by comparison; even abstruse.

          8. Perhaps, then, we need to choose a different word to translate vinnana, then, because I don’t see that the Buddha was defining it in the modern way we define “consciousness”. I use “awareness” to refer to it but I really mean “hungry awareness” because that’s what the myth he drew on is talking about. The aim of practice is to replace that hungry awareness with mindful awareness.

  2. 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.

    1. It’s hard to leave behind the cultural baggage in which we’re raised, but almost impossible to ignore the questions that that baggage is meant to satisfy. This blog is in part an attempt to exorcise the faith I put in those questions. It’s a hit-and-miss affair, but very satisfying.

  3. 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.

  4. Hi Keren: I’m not clear which parts of your comment are yours, and which are third-party quotes. Could you copy and re-paste with quotation marks? Even better, leave out the quotes and give us the fruits of your own experience.

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