Great doubt

“Only don’t know!”

In modern times there have been several Buddhists who have favored a skeptical approach to Buddhism. I suppose one of them would be myself, for I wrote a book of essays with the subtitle “Reflections of a sceptical Buddhist.” (I prefer the spelling “skeptical,” but the British publishers preferred “sceptical,” and I had no grounds to warrant my preference.) Two others who come to mind are the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn Sunim, who was famous for bellowing “Only don’t know!”, which was his invitation to stop claiming to know things, stop trying to be in control, stop interpreting all your experiences and just be with your experiences as they arise and pass away. Seung Sahn wrote:

Most people have a deluded view of the world. They don’t see it as it is; they don’t understand the truth. What is good, what is bad? Who makes good, who makes bad? They cling to their opinions with all their might. But everybody’s opinion is different. How can you say that your opinion is correct and somebody else’s is wrong? This is delusion.

If you want to understand the truth, you must let go of your situation, your condition, and all your opinions. Then you mind will be before thinking. “Before thinking” is clear mind. Clear mind has no inside and no outside. It is just like this. “Just like this” is the truth.1

Yet another modern Buddhist author whose works reflect a skeptical bent is Stephen Batchelor, although he prefers to think of himself as an agnostic or an ironic atheist. In several of his books he has posed provocative challenges to the standard doctrines associated with traditional Buddhism and has invited his readers to ask themselves to what extent those doctrines are warranted. In his book The Faith to Doubt, Batchelor writes about his time as a Buddhist monk studying traditional Buddhist epistemology and logic in a Gelug-pa (dGe-lugs-pa) monastery. About this study he says:

Inevitably it gave rise to further doubts about the claims of the Tibetans. For I had naively started this course in logic and debate through heeding the claims of the lamas that reason alone could prove the truth of many Buddhist axioms: the infallibility of the Buddha, rebirth, emptiness, and so on.

What I realized in the end was that, despite all the claims, reason was subordinate to faith. In other words: you only set out to prove what you have already decided to believe.2

Disenchanted with the scholastic emphasis on the selective use of reason to establish what one has already decided to believe, Batchelor eventually turned to the Korean Zen tradition and the “Great doubt” cultivated by Zen practice. Reflecting years late on that transition from Tibetan scholasticism to Korean Zen, Batchelor wrote:

”When there is great doubt,” says a Zen aphorism that Kusan Sunim kept repeating, “then there is great awakening.” This is the key. The depth of any understanding is intimately correlated with the depth of one’s confusion. Great awakening resonates at the same “pitch” as great doubt. So rather than negate such doubt by replacing it with belief, which is the standard religious procedure, Zen encourages you to cultivate that doubt until it “coagulates” into a vivid mass of perplexity. … Great doubt is not a purely mental or spiritual state: it reverberates throughout your body and your world. It throws everything into question. In developing such doubt, you are to to question “with the marrow of your bones and the pores of your skin.” You are exhorted to “be totally without understanding, like a three-year-old child.”3


  1. Stephen Mitchell, ed. Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn. (New York: Grove Press: distributed by Random House, 1976.) xi–xii. ↩︎
  2. Batchelor, Stephen. The Faith to Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty. (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1990), 12. ↩︎
  3. Stephen Batchelor. Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010), 65. ↩︎

Works cited

  • Batchelor, Stephen. The Faith to Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1990.
  • ________. Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010.
  • Hayes, Richard P. Land of No Buddha: Reflections of a Sceptical Buddhist. Birmingham, England: Windhorse Publications, 1998.
  • Stephen Mitchell, ed. Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn. New York: Grove Press: distributed by Random House, 1976.