I’m going to talk about them and I’m going to share some verses from a text from the Korean Tradition, The Mirror of Zen: The Classic Guide to Buddhist Practice by Master So Sahn. It’s a text I really like a lot, and I’m going to share with you some verses from it that go into what I’m talking about, The Three Essentials. This is the most revered text in the Korean Chan tradition and I highly recommend it.
I’m going to share a couple of verses from this text and I’m going to unpack them a little.
First, Verse 13, “You should meditate with total determination. Like your life depends on it. Only with great determination can you penetrate great doubt.”
The author is saying determination is what helps us get through doubt. He’s saying we have to be diligent. Those who only practice a little are not likely to get very far. We have to be determined to get into our practice and stay there. If we’re not determined, if we don’t have a great determination, then when we start to think, “Oh, this isn’t working,” we’re going to stop practicing.
We all go through those phases where we start to think, “This isn’t really doing anything for me, I don’t believe in myself, I’m not sure if meditation even works.” We all go through phases like that, and it’s great determination that keeps us going, because we need to keep going. It is hard. There are many things around to discourage us, and it just takes determination.
That doubt that we’re talking about that we’re trying to penetrate is doubt in ourselves, mainly, but also doubt in the practice. Like, “Not only am I not good enough to do this,” on the one hand but also, “maybe this doesn’t work,” on the other hand. Those are the two kinds of doubt that we’re wrestling with. That’s what So Sahn, in this text, is saying. We need great determination to handle our great doubt.
He goes on to say in Verse 14, “There are three essential things in your practice. They are great faith, great determination, and great doubt. If any of these practices are missing, it’s like a table missing a leg.”
So, he just said we need to get around our great doubt, but then he also goes on to say that great doubt is essential in our practice - and it is.
In all of these I think there is a good side and a bad side, so I’m going to talk about The Three Essentials now, that’s what this list is: great faith, great determination, and great doubt. These are called The Three Essentials of Chan practice, and by some they are considered to be the greatest and most important virtues that we could possibly have.
Great faith means a few different things, but really to me, it means having faith in our mind and our ability to recognize our true nature. We might bring baggage to the word faith, and we probably do, so I like to think of this as faith in yourself. Some people like to use the word confidence, and I think that’s a really good substitute. If faith is a word you struggle with, I think we could say confidence, determination, and doubt. Confidence. We might have baggage with the word confidence too, though, right? You might think of a confident person as kind of a jerk, so I don’t know if there’s really a good answer.
The point is it means faith in yourself, holding onto the belief that Buddha nature is present within you, that you are good enough. Just reading these Buddhist stories and knowing that Buddha was a man and we can do that too, because he was just a person like us. That’s an aspect of faith, too. Just knowing, “Why not me? I can do this,” and really believing that you can. Because you can. When it seems impossible to keep practicing, you can. We can still get to where we need to go, we can still bring ourselves back to the cushion, we can still try. And that’s what great faith is.
Great doubt is sometimes compared to the scientific method. It means, “Don’t believe anything unless it makes sense. Unless we can determine the truths for ourselves.” All of our beliefs and our practices should be examined and re-examined, and accepted or rejected based on our judgment and our experience. We shouldn’t be doing something just because a spiritual teacher told us it works, we should be doing it because it makes sense and we see little bits of progress in it.
Great doubt kind of tempers our great faith. We don’t want to have a sort of blind faith where we aren’t looking at the results of things, where we aren’t seeing what’s happening, and where we’re sticking to things just because we were told these are the good things. We don’t want that. We want great faith, but we want it to be coloured by great doubt. We don’t want to do things that don’t work, we don’t want to waste our time. And ideas that we find unhelpful should be rejected.
We shouldn’t believe things because someone told us, that’s really important in the Chan tradition, and in most Buddhist traditions, actually, but especially Zen. We don’t follow our religious teachers blindly, we want to check every belief against our own knowledge and experience. We need a healthy amount of scepticism.
It might seem like great faith and great doubt are at odds, but the truth is we need a healthy amount of doubt to temper our faith or our confidence. We need that to help us. We don’t want to be overconfident or blindly faithful. We need a little bit of doubt to help us see things as they really are. That’s what great doubt is about, not going overboard with our faith. It’s about really seeing things as they are, and really caring about seeing things as they are rather than just being told what to see.
I think the Buddha’s story is really reflective of this, he saw the dominant religious practices of his day and he didn’t think they were bringing anyone any real spiritual truth. He didn’t think they were doing anything, so he went into the woods and found some weirdo spiritual teachers and studied with them, too. And even with these weirdos, he still didn’t really feel like he was getting the spiritual truth. He found a little bit of calming down his mind, but he didn’t find any real spiritual truth, so he cast aside most of their beliefs, too. And that was his great doubt. He needed great doubt to create the practice that we call Buddhism. He had a great faith in himself and he needed a great doubt as well.
Great determination, which I talked about a little at the top, I’m going to talk about again now, is our firm resolution to go forward in our practice. It’s about staying on the path, it’s about doing whatever we need to do to avoid getting discouraged. It’s about avoiding getting lazy, it’s easy to get lazy. It’s about cultivating so much patience and self-discipline that we keep doing what we’re doing, and we don’t get swayed away from the path when it’s not easy or when we’re bored. It’s really important to have great determination because it’s really easy to stop meditating, to stop practicing. It’s really easy to just not practice. And we need a determination to bring us back over and over, especially when things are hard, when we’re bored.
A lot of times, I like to compare meditation to flossing. Because flossing is something that we know is good for us, and we know we should do, and yet we don’t do it, right? At least we don’t do it as often as our dentist recommends. If we’re lucky, we do it sometimes. A lot of people don’t do it at all, right? Meditation is the same thing. We really know that we should be doing it. We should be doing it at least a couple times a week, hopefully more, but we don’t want to, so a lot of the time we don’t. We just don’t. We don’t want to do this thing that we know is good for us so we just don’t do it. It’s the same as flossing, right?
We have to have great determination to keep coming back, again, and again, and again. Even when we really don’t want to. Even when we’d rather be watching Netflix, or even when we’d rather be doing something we should do, like cleaning our house. We’ve got to have that meditation practice as well. That is what great determination is for. That is why we really need it. It’s not just great faith and great doubt, although those are really important, we have to be determined to come back to the practice. Even though the practice seems really simple and in the greater scheme of things it doesn’t have to take up a lot of our time, we still have to be determined to do it because it’s so...boring. Maybe boring’s not the right word, but we feel like we deserve to be entertained all the time, I think, and what meditation is not is entertaining.
We have to have determination and resolve to keep doing it again and again. When we don’t want to, that’s probably when we really need to. When we really find ourselves resisting a lot, that’s probably when we really need it.