The Zen monk Hakuin said that 3 things are essential to practice

great faith, great doubt, and great resolve

I can see how faith and resolve would be essential but I don't see why doubt would be? Also wouldn't faith and doubt contradict each other unless they occur separately at different times.


4 Answers 4


This doubt is a byproduct of really paying attention to details. As you pick up bits and pieces here and there, some of them don't fit together. So you put them aside and keep going. Then, later, some of them fit together, but others still don't. You have great faith in three jewels, and great resolve to walk the path. At the same time you have no choice but to suspend your judgement on some things that don't make sense. The further you go, the more this happens. But only if you really pay attention, and only if you don't get discouraged by logical inconsistencies, and only if you are determined to follow through. Somewhere along the way you get unwavering certainty on some points, even if they contradict other, equally authoritative points. Because you are certain about these things, you can give up some other things you would never have dreamt of giving up, even though your heart sinks as you do it. You keep doing it in the name of "no hope, no fear" until you lose all ground and fall through space. This is the great doubt, the flip side of your faith and determination. It's not the goal, it's a thing you have to go through. It's not something that can or should be induced artificially though. As Master Bankei said:

What’s worse, they [the false teachers] tell practitioners that unless they can raise a “great ball of doubt” and then break through it, there can’t be any progress in Zen. Instead of teaching them to live by the unborn Buddha-mind, they start by forcing them to raise this ball of doubt any way they can. People who don’t have a doubt are now saddled with one. They’ve turned their Buddha-minds into “balls of doubt.” It’s absolutely wrong.

So doubt must be natural to be real. That's why even though Master Hakuin is right in listing it as one of three essential things, I now say it is secondary to paying attention properly, taking note of facts and how they fit together or not.

  • 1
    Your answer doesn't say explicitly what Bankei thought about koans. I looked using google.com/search?q=bankei+koan and the first few references (for example ref and ref) suggest he wasn't a fan of koans. But sometimes some of what he said is itself presented as or called a 'koan'.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 10:44

In reverse order:

"wouldn't faith and doubt contradict each other unless they occur separately at different times"

...or unless they are directed to different things: Great faith [on the approach], great doubt [about Truth]. Great resolve: the act of persevering on the approach to penetrate the Truth.

"I can see how faith and resolve would be essential but I don't see why doubt would be?"

Great doubt can be seen as the catalyzer that creates motivation to make one go through great lengths to reach something so hard to reach. It can also be seen as "The Doubt among the doubts", a fundamental, deep and honest question, greater than any other, that no superficial answer would satisfy it, settle it, or make it rest.

  • I wonder whether 'doubt' is similar to 'suffering' in this context.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 10:51
  • @ChrisW I feel that flavor to it too. In that respect, I see the quote mirroring the Noble Truths.
    – user382
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 17:57
  • Then there is also Descartes' kind of doubt, which is indispensible for philosophical enquiry. People who doubt too little tend to end up believing things for the sake of convenience or personal preference, Doubt makes us dig and keep digging.
    – user14119
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 11:34

This has been explained by Yashutani Roshi in his 10th lecture. The relevance of doubt (Dai-gidan among faith aka dai-shinkon & strong resolution aka dai-funshi) has been explained by him as follows -

The second indispensable quality is a feeling of strong doubt. Not a simple doubt, mind you, but a "doubt-mass" and this inevitably stems from strong faith. It is a doubt as to why we and the world should appear so imperfect, so full of anxiety, strife, and suffering, when in fact our deep faith tells us exactly the opposite is true. It is a doubt which leaves us no rest. It is as though we knew perfectly well we were millionaires and yet inexplicably found ourselves in dire need without a penny in our pockets. Strong doubt, therefore, exists in proportion to strong faith.
I can illustrate this state of mind with a simple example. Take a man who has been sitting smoking and suddenly finds that the pipe which was in his hand a moment before has disappeared. He begins to search for it in the complete certainty of finding it. It was there a moment ago, no one has been near, it cannot have disappeared. The longer he fails to find it, the greater the energy and determination with which he hunts for it. - Page 81, The three pillars of Zen.


Case 28 of the Mumonkan
Ryûtan Blows Out the Candle

Tokusan asked Ryûtan about Zen far into the night.
At last Ryûtan said, "The night is late. Why don't you retire?"
Tokusan made his bows and lifted the blinds to withdraw, but he was met by darkness. Turning back to Ryûtan, he said, "It is dark outside."
Ryûtan lit a paper candle and handed it to him. Tokusan was about to take it when Ryûtan blew it out. At this, all of a sudden, Tokusan went through a deep experience and made bows.
Ryûtan said, "What sort of realization do you have?"
"From now on," said Tokusan, "I will not doubt the words of an old oshõ who is renowned everywhere under the sun."
The next day Ryûtan ascended the rostrum and said, "I see a fellow among you. His fangs are like the sword tree. His mouth is like a blood bowl. Strike him with a stick, and he won't turn his head to look at you. Someday or other, he will climb the highest of the peaks and establish our Way there."
Tokusan brought his notes on the Diamond Sutra to the front of the hall, pointed to them with a torch, and said, "Even though you have exhausted the abtruse doctrines, it is like placing a hair in a vast space. Even though you have learned all the secrets of the world, it is like a drop of water dripped on the great ocean."
And he burned all his notes.
Then, making bows, he took his leave of his teacher.

Faith and doubt are dependent on each other. The one is useless without the other. I don't know if you've ever had this experience before, but how fresh and significant is the landscape when you are utterly lost? Everything appears as it is. You don't see that cedar tree where that raccoon was last spring. You don't see that hollow where your brother fell in the river. Instead, every rill in the landscape, every tree, every rock, stands out in bold relief revealing something like its true nature. It's fresh and undistorted by memory and preconception. This is beginners mind, but there's also this visceral, existential doubt, right? I mean, we're lost for godsakes. We have to find our way out! Our very lives are on the line! How are we going to do that when we have no idea where we are and no idea where we're going? This is the great doubt of Zen. Within it, we are lost, exposed, and utterly without direction.

Case 5 of the Mumokan
Kyõgen's "Man up in a Tree"

Kyõgen Oshõ said, "It is like a man up in a tree hanging from a branch with his mouth; his hands grasp no bough, his feet rest on no limb.

Someone appears under the tree and asks him, 'What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?' If he does not answer, he fails to respond to the question. If he does answer, he will lose his life.

What would you do in such a situation?"

Mumon's Comment

Even if your eloquence flows like a river, it is of no avail. Though you can expound the whole of Buddhist literature, it is of no use. If you solve this problem, you will give life to the way that has been dead until this moment and destroy the way that has been alive up to now.

Otherwise you must wait for Maitreya Buddha and ask him.

Mumon's Verse

Kyõgen is truly thoughtless;
His vice and poison are endless.
He stops up the mouths of the monks,
And devil's eyes sprout from their bodies.

Getting lost is not fun. No one likes being in a state of uncertainty. We like having something to lean on whether it's our map, the sutras, etc. When we lose that safety blanket, we lose our desire to go on. When we're lost, great faith is picking a direction no matter how wrong it may seem. Great faith is trusting that we'll eventually figure things out. Great faith is letting go, even if doing so may destroy us. Great faith is the decision to trudge headlong into doubt.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .