The Great Doubt

Unlike Dogen, who, in the 13th century, had founded the Soto Zen school, Hakuin, who came after five centuries of Rinzai Zen practice in Japan, is said to have “revived” the Rinzai tradition which in his time was “in a stage of deep spiritual stagnation and decline.” So while Dogen is also regarded as the greatest religious thinker in ancient Japan, Hakuin, by and large, accepted the Rinzai teachings going back to Linji, in China, and focused his attention on promoting a new more intense form of practice which contrasted with what he saw as the “do-nothing Zen” of Soto practitioners of shikantaza as well as that of the Rinzai practitioners of Bankei’s Unborn Zen. He spent the last forty years of his life holding intensive retreats at his home temple, and traveling extensively throughout Japan to promote his uniquely intense training methods to both monastics and lay people. Norman Waddell says that Hakuin “excelled as a writer, painter, and calligrapher and used these talents fully over the final decades of his life as he tried to devise new ways of spreading the Zen teachings among people of all classes and walks of life.” The panic that had gripped him as a child when he heard a Nichiren priest describe “in great detail the terrible punishments inflicted upon sinners who fell into one of the Eight Hot Hells,” appears to have fueled Hakuin’s search for more dynamic training methods based on a new way of using koans for introspection and the triggering of kensho, as well as a successful proselytising activity in the second half of his life.

Thomas Kasulis describes Hakuin’s lifelong engagement with Zen practice as follows: “Hakuin resuscitated the intensity of Rinzai Zen training in line with its ninth-century Chinese founder, Linji Yixuan. Hakuin’s dynamic training tactics were all-or-nothing every minute of everyday was to be an intense focus on practice so as to realize a sudden breakthrough into realization. We could say, following the slogan of Bunan (who was Hakuin’s teacher’s teacher), it was “dying while living … Hakuin claimed that no master could bring a student to enlightenment, but through the master’s badgering, yelling, hitting, presenting koans, and intimidating, the disciple could reach the point of the “Great Doubt” in which all conceptual discourse and analysis would freeze up. Then, only then, could the student break through into the Great Death which would be the opening into the Great Joy of enlightenment.”

Although the Great Doubt, as the trigger of the Great Death, goes back to the Chinese Chan tradition – especially Nanyue (677-744), a disciple of the Sixth Patriarch and the teacher of Mazu -, it is so fundamental to the dynamics of Japanese koan Zen that it is now widely associated with Hakuin. It is vividly presented in a passage from the Sermons of Takusui, a disciple of Hakuin:

Daruma (Bodhidharma) by Hakuin Ekaku (Indianapolis Museum of Art).

“The method to be practiced is as follows: you are to doubt regarding the subject in you that hears all sounds. All sounds are heard at a given moment because there is certainly a subject in you that hears. Although you may hear the sounds with your ears, the holes in your ears are not the subject that hears. If they were, dead men would also hear sounds … You must doubt deeply, again and again, asking yourself what the subject of hearing could be. Pay no attention to the various illusory thoughts that may occur to you. Only doubt more and more deeply, gathering together in yourself all the strength that is in you, without aiming at anything or expecting anything in advance, without intending to be enlightened and without even intending not to intend to be enlightened; become like a child within your own breast … but however you go on doubting, you will find it impossible to locate the subject that hears. Doubt deeply in a state of singlemindedness, looking neither ahead nor behind, neither right nor left, becoming completely like a dead man, unaware even of the presence of your own person. When this method is practiced more and more deeply, you will arrive at a state of being completely self-oblivious and empty. But even then you must bring up the Great Doubt, “What is the subject that hears?” and doubts still further, all the time being like a dead man. And after that, when you are no longer aware of your being completely like a dead man, and are no more conscious of the procedure of the Great Doubt but become yourself, through and through, a great mass of doubt, there will come a moment, all of a sudden, at which you emerge into a transcendence called the Great Enlightenment, as it you had awoken from a great dream, or as if, having been completely dead, you had suddenly revived.”

Zen philosopher Nishitani Keiji (1900-1990) quotes Takusui’s text in the context of a comparison between Descartes’s “methodical doubt” and the Zen concept of Great Doubt, and explains, in modern philosophical language: “The Great Doubt comes to light from the ground of our existence only when we press our doubts (What am I? why do I exist?) to their limits as conscious acts of the doubting self. The Great Doubt represents not only the apex of the doubting self but also the point of its “passing away” and ceasing to be “self.” It is like the bean whose seed and shell break apart as it ripens: the shell is the tiny ego, and the seed the infinity of the Great Doubt that encompasses the whole world. It is the moment at which self is at the same time the nothingness of self, the moment that is the “locus” of nothingness of where conversion beyond the Great Doubt takes place. For the Great Doubt always emerges as the opening up of the locus of nothingness as the field of conversion from the Great Doubt itself. This is why it is ‘Great’.”

“This is also why it can be called the “Great Death.” There are numerous sayings referring to that conversion in such terms, for example: “In the Great Death heaven and earth become new,” and “Beneath the Great Death, the Great Enlightenment.” As in the case of doubt, this enlightenment must be an enlightenment of the self, but at the same time it must signal a “dropping off” of the mode of being in which “self” is seen as agent. It is something that presents itself as real from the one ground of the self and all things. It is the true reality of the self and all things, in which everything is present just as it is, in its suchness.”

In Hakuin’s new approach to koan practice, the “initial barrier” Mu koan in particular is used to build up this “great ball of doubt” within the practitioners, and eventually trigger the kensho that will allow them to “pass” the koan. In the Mu koan, which is the first case of the Gateless Barrier, a monk asks Zhaozhou whether or not a dog has Buddha-nature. Zhaozhou answers “Mu.” Though “mu” in Japanese, as well as “wu” in Chinese, normally means “no,” here it points beyond all oppositions. Hakuin also created a new “initial barrier” koan – “the sound of one hand” – which, likewise, points beyond the sound of two hands clapping (dualism) to the non-dualism of suchness.

Bret Davis quotes Hakuin’s experience of the Mu koan: “When a person faces the great doubt, before him there is in all directions only a vast and empty land without birth and without death, like a huge plain of ice extending ten thousand miles. As though seated within a vase of lapis lazuli surrounded by absolute purity, without his senses he sits and forgets to stand, stands and forgets to sit. Within his heart there is not the slightest thought or emotion, only the single word Mu. It is just as though he was standing in complete emptiness. At this time no fears arise, no thoughts creep in, and when he advances single-mindedly without retrogression, suddenly it will be as though a sheet of ice were broken or a jade tower had fallen. He will experience great joy.”

Norman Waddell – “Wild Ivy – The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin”
Thomas P. Kasulis – “Engaging Japanese Philosophy”
Nishitani Keiji – “Religion and Nothingness”
Bret W. Davis – “Zen Pathways – An Introduction to the Philosophy and Practice of Zen Buddhism”