A while back I heard something about the 'Great Doubt'. I think it is a Zen thing? Does anyone know what it is and how it might compare to the doubt that all human beings feel from time to time?

Many Thanks

  • 3
    This paper gives pretty good explanation between 'Great Doubt' vs. regular doubt: terebess.hu/zen/great_doubt.pdf
    – santa100
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 3:03
  • @santa100 I agree and would upvote that answer if you gave it.
    – OyaMist
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 15:42
  • Just please don't post a link as an answer - extract the most relevant quotes and tie them together with your summary.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 15:53
  • See Dark Night of the Soul. It's a moment that happens to everyone on a spiritual journey. Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 17:02

4 Answers 4


I think Stephanie of Treeleaf puts it well:

I used to feel very confused as to what set "Great Doubt," the virtue, apart from "skeptical doubt," one of the traditional Five Hindrances of Buddhism. I have since learned from my experience that skeptical doubt is more of an automatic resistance to things, a destructive tendency to pick apart and reject even what is good, that bats away and refuses to entertain anything that comes along and does not fit within parameters of what has been determined to be acceptable or true. Whereas Great Doubt is the presence of a question or questions that push us beyond the normal boundaries of our thought processes, beyond the answers that usually comfort and reassure us.

This matches my own experience. Regular doubt is based on fear. It is the lack of trust or courage to let go of our conceptual/emotional ground and to go all the way into the quest for Truth. In contrast, Great Doubt (Japanese "gidan" or "dai-gidan"; Chinese "yituan"/"dayituan") is suspending one's judgement and giving up all grasping to certainty, all attachment to preconceived notions - including one's assumptions about the nature of dharma, the goal, everything.

Regular doubt is the mind of "I know", the mind of calculation and negotiation, the "setting sun" mind, flat mind, logical mind, wavering mind.

Great Doubt is the mind of "only don't know", is the "beginner's mind", the ego-less mind, the "Great Eastern Sun", the vulnerable mind, the mind that is completely open, the mind combining the opposites.

Regular doubt is an obstacle on the path, Great Doubt is the door to Freedom.

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    I must respectfully disagree with Stephanie: what she calls "skeptical doubt" is actually encouraged by the Buddha in the Avatamsaka Sutra. It is also what Buddhism has in common with the scientific method.It can hardly be argued that skeptical thinking does not take us out of our "box", otherwise mankind would never have discovered Evolution, Quantum Mechanics or Relativity. Otherwise, according to her definition, we would have to state that Darwin, Einstein and Heisenberg experienced Great Doubt since their theories clearly go beyond "the answers that usually comfort and reassure us".
    – Codosaur
    Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 13:52
  • @AndreiVolkov. Thank you for the reference and the answer. That feels helpful. Stephanie's post talks of spiritual despair - is that a synonym for the 'Great Doubt' do you think? Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 23:10
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    @CrabBucket I think they are related - but not as synonyms. It's more like, spiritual despair is a temporary stop on the road to Great Doubt. With G.D. one can't despair, because despair requires being certain that one is screwed, but with G.D. you can't really tell - perhaps you are the happiest person of all. Which only makes it even more frustrating, because you can't even complain. (In my experience; YMMV)
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 1:31

Great Doubt: Getting Stuck & Breaking Through -- The Real Koan by Jeff Shore is a lecture on that topic.

Some quotes from its introduction:

  • In Zen practice, the essential point is to arouse Doubt. What is this Doubt? For example, when you are born, where do you come from? You cannot help but remain in doubt about this. When you die, where do you go? Again, you cannot help but remain in doubt. Since you cannot pierce this barrier of life-and-death, suddenly the Doubt will coalesce right before your eyes. Try to put it down, you cannot; try to push it away, you cannot. Eventually this Doubt Block will be broken through and you’ll realize what a worthless notion is life-and-death – ha! As the old worthies said: “Great Doubt, Great Awakening; small doubt, small awakening; no doubt, no awakening.”

  • Perhaps Great Doubt can be considered an essential element of any religious practice – without it, why practice? It’s clearly central to Buddhism: look at the life of Gotama (Skt.: Gautama) Buddha, his great renunciation or leaving home, his struggle and Awakening. Through it all, his quest to resolve it is unmistakable.

  • [...] Japanese Zen master Bankei[盤珪 1622-93] is not criticizing Great Doubt – he himself was spurred on by it since childhood. He is criticizing unnatural, forced, contrived, made-up doubt based on someone else’s words or experience.


"the great doubt" is what an 'i' feels when every thought; every impulse is understood fully to flow from a desire to move, through time. one sees that every thought and action is calculated on some level merely to achieve and progress the self. to refine. become more than i am now. the great doubt happens at the end of this game, after one is able turn in every direction - and understand that, in thought, no unique direction exists.

the great doubt is an intellectual paralysis. 南無阿彌陀佛


The Great Doubt in Zen is what the Buddha would call disenchantment and dispassion for which there are many such references in the suttas. The mind, having seen the drawbacks of conditionality, cannot find a familiarity in the domain of form due to the insights that have arisen regarding impermanence, suffering and not-self. This can evoke a sense of hopelessness, hence The Great Doubt.

Some Zen masters see the great doubt as a coveted attainment meaning that, when a practitioner informs his master of the presence of Great Doubt, the master responds positively although in true Zen-style that might sound something like, "Gooood goood. Keep going".

The point here is that the great doubt is not cast into any negative frame of reference - like generalized societal doubt is - because the master sees its potential for spiritual growth and that growth comes from the recognition of the great doubt and the perceptual/feeling components that it comprises. This is what the Buddha called 'knowing' in satipatthana and this leads to disenchantment and dispassion of even that of itself.

Now, you mentioned the other type of doubt; a doubt that humans feel from time to time. The comparison between the two is like night and day. These are mostly doubts about specific things in life, situations, people and general worldly affairs. The great doubt is much more fundamentally significant for a Buddhist practitioner, reaching far beyond the mundane world and into the very essence of mind, identity and reality. It is a fearless challenge to the regular run-of-the-mill appearance of things which can, at times, create a deep sense of loneliness and hopelessness. If held correctly and in the right way (yoniso manasikara) we can emerge into a greater and fulfilling understanding of reality.

In summary, regular worldly doubt is concerned about things only within the boundaries of what we think we know. The great doubt is that which informs us about the true extent of what we think we know about reality, which is nothing, and pushes us to know something from a very different place. At best, I could say a non-conceptual place.

  • Concise, very well put sir.
    – Beau. D
    Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 11:06
  • Good afternoon, Beau. ;-)
    – user17652
    Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 12:49

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