Filed in Vajrayana, Tibetan

Necessary Doubt

Ani Tenzin Palmo teaches that doubt is an essential tool on the path to enlightenment.

Ani Tenzin Palmo

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© Paul Richer

Perhaps because of our Judeo-Christian background, we have a tendency to regard doubt as something shameful, almost as an enemy. We feel that if we have doubts, it means that we are denying the teachings and that we should really have unquestioning faith. Now in certain religions, unquestioning faith is considered a desirable quality. But in the Buddha-dharma, this is not necessarily so. Referring to the dharma, the Buddha said, “ehi passiko,” which means “come and see,” or “come and investigate,” not “come and believe.” An open, questioning mind is not regarded as a drawback to followers of the Buddha-dharma. However, a mind that says, “This is not part of my mental framework, therefore I don’t believe it,” is a closed mind, and such an attitude is a great disadvantage for those who aspire to follow any spiritual path. But an open mind, which questions and doesn’t accept things simply because they are said, is no problem at all.

A famous sutra tells of a group of villagers who came to visit the Buddha. They said to him, “Many teachers come through here. Each has his own doctrine. Each claims that his particular philosophy and practice is the truth, but they all contradict each other. Now we’re totally confused. What do we do?” Doesn’t this story sound modern? Yet this was twenty-five hundred years ago. Same problems. The Buddha replied, “You have a right to be confused. This is a confusing situation. Do not take anything on trust merely because it has passed down through tradition, or because your teachers say it, or because your elders have taught you, or because it’s written in some famous scripture. When you have seen it and experienced it for yourself to be right and true, then you can accept it.”

Now that was quite a revolutionary statement, because the Buddha was certainly saying that about his own doctrine, too. All through the ages it has been understood that the doctrine is there to be investigated and experienced by each individual. So one should not be afraid to doubt. In fact, Buddhist writer Stephen Batchelor wrote a dharma book entitled The Faith to Doubt. It is right for us to question. But we need to question with an open heart and an open mind, not with the idea that everything that fits our preconceived notions is right and anything that does not is automatically wrong. The latter attitude is like the bed of Procrustes. You have a set pattern in place, and everything you come across must either be stretched out or cut down to fit it. This just distorts everything and prevents learning.

If we come across certain things that we find difficult to accept even after careful investigation, that doesn’t mean the whole dharma has to be thrown overboard. Even now, after all these years, I still find certain things in the Tibetan dharma that I’m not sure about at all. I used to go to my lama and ask him about some of these things, and he would say, “That’s fine. Obviously, you don’t really have a connection with that particular doctrine. It doesn’t matter. Just put it aside. Don’t say, 'No, it’s not true.’ Just say, 'At this point, my mind does not embrace this.’ Maybe later you’ll appreciate it, or maybe you won’t. It’s not important.”

When we come across a concept that we find difficult to accept, the first thing we should do, especially if it’s something that is integral to the dharma, is to look into it with an unprejudiced mind. We should read everything we can on the subject, not just from the point of view of Buddha-dharma, but if there are other approaches to it, we need to read about them, too. We need to ask ourselves how they connect with other parts of the doctrine. We have to bring our intelligence into this. At the same time, we should realize that at the moment, our level of intelligence is quite mundane. We do not yet have an all-encompassing mind. We have a very limited view. So there are definitely going to be things that our ordinary mundane consciousness cannot experience directly. But that does not mean these things do not exist.

© Paul RicherHere again, it is important to keep an open mind. If other people with deeper experiences and vaster minds say they have experienced something, then we should at least be able to say, “Perhaps it might be so.” We should not take our limited, ignorant minds as the norm. But we must remember that these limited, ignorant minds of ours can be transformed.

That’s what the path is all about. Our minds do become more open and increasingly vast as we progress. We do begin to see things more clearly, and as a result they slowly begin to fit into place. We need to be patient. We should not expect to understand the profound expositions of an enlightened mind in our first encounter with them. I’m sure we all know certain books of wisdom that we can read and reread over the years, and each time it seems like we are reading them for the first time. This is because as our minds open up, we begin to discover deeper and deeper layers of meaning we couldn’t see the time before. It’s like that with a true spiritual path. It has layer upon layer of meaning, and we can only understand those concepts that are accessible to our present level of mind.

I think people have different sticking points. I know that things some people find very difficult to grasp were extremely simple for me. I already believed many of the teachings before I came to the Buddha-dharma. On the other hand, some things that were difficult for me, others find simple to understand and accept. We are all coming from different backgrounds, and so we each have our own special problems. But the important thing is to realize that this is no big deal. It doesn’t matter. Our doubting and questioning spur us on and keep us intellectually alert.

There have been times when my whole spiritual life was one great big question mark. But instead of suppressing the questions, I brought up the things I questioned and examined them one by one. When I came out the other end, I realized that it simply didn’t matter. We can be quite happy with a question mark. It’s not a problem at all, actually, as long as we don’t solidify it or base our whole life on feeling threatened by it. We need to develop confidence in our innate qualities and believe that these can be brought to fruition. We all have Buddha-nature. We have all the qualities needed for the path. If we don’t believe this, it will be very difficult for us to embark because we have no foundation from which to go forth. It’s really very simple. The Buddha-dharma is not based on dogma.

But why is it so difficult for us? Basically it’s because of our state of mind, because we lack knowledge of who we are and our role here in this life. Because we don’t know who we are, we feel separate from everybody else. There’s this sense of “me” that creates all our fears, angers, attachments, jealousies, and uncertainties. But the Buddha said that it doesn’t have to be like that. Our inherent nature is pure. All we have to do is rediscover who we really are, and that’s what the path is for. It’s very simple. It’s not based on faith, but rather on experiments and experience leading to realization. It’s not a matter of learning what this lama says, or what that tradition says, and then believing it’s going to save us. It’s not going to save us. Of course we need to know what the Buddha said. We need to know what great teachers in the past have said, because they have been there ahead of us and have laid down maps for us to follow. But it’s a bit like reading a travel book. You can read a travel book and feel you’re already there, but in reality you’re not there. These are somebody else’s travel experiences. And when you do go there, you will have your own unique experiences. Following the path is about experiencing it for ourselves. It’s not taking on what other people have described. It’s not based on blind faith. Of course, you need a certain amount of confidence to buy a ticket and start on your journey. You have to believe that the country exists and that it’s worthwhile to go there. But beyond that, the important thing is just to go. And as you go, you can say to yourself, “Yes, that’s just the way they described it. That’s right. It does look like that.”

Born in London, Ani Tenzin Palmo was one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun and gained an international reputation for spending twelve years in retreat in a Himalayan cave. From Reflections on a Mountain Lake by Ani Tenzin Palmo, © 2002. Used with permission of Snow Lion Publications,

Images 1&2: © Paul Richer.

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This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.'s picture

For me becoming a Father was a lot this way. It left me with a big question mark, as if to say what does that mean. Will I always be humble and vulnerable. To me the only definition of my being a parent is that it is conscious and consciousness raising. In my present life I am not able to provide financially for a family, but still I choose to reinforce those values of respect and dignity by providing service. Being a single gay Father may have a lot to say about attachments, detaching, dependencies, and independency. Yet my own definition is that we are one, without clear rules or boundaries. Somehow we acknowledge a power greater than ourselves. If for today that means motivating ourselves to overcome depression than the happiness, sadness, fear and anxiety of being thought of in consideration of our own motivation and individuation, is a blessing we receive from the Judeo-Christian world, but also from the Buddha who has called on us to see, wait and see, and to restore us to faith and to sanity about what we may choose to believe.

JKH's picture

I haved doubted organized religion most of my life. The reason I believe in the Buddha's teachings is because I sat....and I continue to sit. Thank you, Universe, for this precious human existence.'s picture

"All we have to do is just sit, just come back to the silent world and the vastness of existence. Even though you don't understand. When you come back, there is total trust, total trust because you are silent. This is called 'right faith'. Faith does not mean belief. Right faith means you must just be there, soaking in the silence and the vastness of existence. This faith is called trust. Then, when you really feel something through this practice, temporarily, we call it 'faith'. If you don't trust this silence and the vastness of existence, how can you trust yourself? How can you trust others? How can you deal with human life. No matter how long you try to study the sutras, you will never understand. Even though you say, 'I understand', that understanding is not understanding. If you want to understand the Buddha's teaching or the sutras as a finger pointing at the moon, with your wholeheartedness, jump into the silence and vastness of existence. Then you can get a hint of where the real moon is. Don't discuss superiority or inferiority. All we have to do is study the scriptures with wholeheartedness and jump into the silence and vastness of existence. At that time, the scriptures become light through which you can see many things. On the basis of silence and the vastness of existence, your life blooms, the beauty of existence blooms" (Dainin Katagiri)

oliverhow's picture

thank you..... richard

pianobernat's picture

I liked this piece very much, and agree with what it says. Still, I find it peculiar how some of the things said in it are often used by some to perpetuate dogmatic positions and undermine critical investigation. The article mentions Stephen Batchelor, so I thought about rebirth and some attitudes towards the emerging Secular Buddhism.
Some Buddhist teachers and writers have indeed enquired about rebirth with an open mind, without dismissing it from the beginning; have read on the subject from the point of view of the dharma and from other approaches too; have thought about its relationship to other parts of the doctrines; and have found that it can be dispensed of without throwing the whole dharma overboard.
Now of course, one may or may not agree with this approach. But that's different from discrediting it. A lot of the people who do resonate with it are certainly aware of their own limited knowledge and, rather than denying rebirth, simply do not affirm it, considering that the practice of the dharma is still the best way to lead this existence and end suffering.
But so often this idea of "limited, ignorant minds" is used simply to dismiss the ideas of those who think differently, as a great shortcut to reaffirming an orthodox position. If some disagree, they are sometimes automatically labeled as 'people who reject all doctrines that do not fit their prejudices', although maybe they actually investigated their doubts with an open mind and nevertheless came to a different conclusion. In that sense, having a limited, ignorant mind would be used as a synonym of "disagreeing." If the argument of 'being still deluded' is mechanically applied to all those who disagree with an orthodoxy, what is then the value of the previous step of encouraging investigation – or we could coin the term 'kalamasutting' ?

I'm not replying to Tenzin Palmo's ideas; I agree with what she says, but was just reflecting on how some of the arguments are often used – in my humble opinion, unfairly and inconsistently.

buddhasukha's picture

This is one of the main reasons I was drawn to Buddhism in the first place!

goodwillrunning's picture

Thank you for reminding us of this truth...

Dominic Gomez's picture

One symbol of a buddha is the lion: bringing forth courage when faced with doubt.

awd-s's picture

That's why this web-site is valuable. Tricycle is non-sectarian, giving readers information from all the Buddhist traditions. Readers can test and make up their own minds about the material offered. Of particular value is the Daily Dharma, at least it is to me, that provides each day a short article drawn from the collection; every day I read something new; some articles resonate, others don't. I try to read with an open mind. Daily Dharma is my continuous education.

Rodrigo Daien's picture