Why Sharing your Questions and Doubts is Essential

A member of the Yahoo group online Sangha "True Shin Buddhism" recently shared the following with us all: 

I must admit, I do get SERIOUSLY FRUSTRATED WITH BEING A BOMBU DOUBTER!!! I guess that I can attribute my "iron-will doubting" to being raised in a strict, fundamentalist Southern Baptist Christian home,"Just believe in Jesus and you will be saved".

There was a lot of talk about heaven, but when I looked around, the facts just didn't add up. My horrible experiences in that culture burned a sense of distrust in me concerning ANY type of "heaven". I guess my subconscious mind is always warning me "If it sounds too good to be true, it definitely is."

I don't say this to be contrary but to put my nagging doubts under Amida's Infinitely Shining Light. You said to discuss any doubts we had...well, here's mine. I do hope that Amida can/will remove them.


Here is my response:

I really appreciate you stepping up and sharing your honest doubts.  I think that this is a critical part of the process of listening deeply.  For your sake, and for everyone else's too, I want to discuss WHY I think that.

So here are three great benefits of actually sharing doubts directly, rather than keeping silent about them.:

One of the most BASIC ideas of Buddhism is that who we REALLY are is not the sum and substance of this particular identity in this particular life.  Shakyamuni taught clearly that in any given lifetime, various karmic causes from the unknowable past create the matrix of culture in which we are born, the formative experiences we have, and the personality, thought and feeling structures in our consciousness.  These SEEM to be very real - but in fact, they are totally ephemeral - and will simply cease to be when we leave this body, and this life.  In our next body and our next life an entirely different set of structures - call them the FIVE SKANDAS in classical Buddhist teachings - or call them some other names in biology and psychology - will emerge.

Their IMPERMANENCE is critical.  This is what it means when we hear the idea that "all dharmas are empty"...or "all dharmas are like a magical dream".  The word "dharmas" in this case isn't about the Buddha-Dharma, it's about the experience of the five skandas that create this immense MATRIX of thought, feeling and perception that we live our lives in, unconscious (mostly) that it even exists - just as the proverbial fish is not even conscious of the water in which it swims.

Thus, one of the most BASIC functions of all of the various self-power practices is to enable us to actually step OUT of the matrix, and simply to OBSERVE it from a distance, rather than mindlessly and unconsciously thinking that we actually ARE the matrix.

Of course, we are not.  

The matrix (if I can use that term here) is a manifestation of the "small s" self - our ego-self - that thing that gives us a temporary sense of grounding and identity.  It is this thing that Gotama himself found - his very last discovery underneath the Bodhi Tree as he transitioned from being a seeker of enlightenment to being The Enlightened One - The Buddha.

Somehow, in that moment, he not only recognized this "small s" self - which he called "the builder of this house" - but he found a way to extinguish it entirely, as one would extinguish a flame on a candle.

The flame is gone - but the candle remains.  And even though His "small s" self was now gone - once and for all - something still remained.  For this discussion, we can call it the "BIG S" Self.  We can also call it His Buddha nature. 

On His deathbed, in the Pari-Nirvana Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha was STILL explaining this idea to the monks who were His closest disciples, because they were STILL confused about it.  And that confusion remains in much of the larger Sangha right up until today.

Now...we cannot do what Gotama did.  Even if we take a big step back, and begin to recognize the matrix of thoughts, feelings and perceptions that the "small s" self creates, and even if we can actually look at it with right view for a few moments, or a few hours, in some meditative and mindful state, we simply cannot extinguish it as Gotama did.

And not only can we not extinguish it, but we cannot keep our distance from it. 

Over the course of years (indeed beginning many years before when I was a Christian reading Christian mystics) I became adept at a number of different sorts of meditative techniques.  And long after I had left Christianity behind, and made my own personal "journey to the east", and became comfortable with the direct apperception of non-dual reality (a.k.a. emptiness or "Shunyata"), I could never stabilize that view.  So - I'd spend some time in meditation and experience some amount of blissful awareness by simply slipping off the clothing of the ego and experiencing a (relatively) pure, naked state of consciousness.  

But then I had to get up, and meet life once again.  And the most mundane sorts of things - like somebody being a rude idiot in the heavy NYC area traffic - would cause my consciousness to collapse completely back into my egoic "small s" self.

So...I could get a little way up the mountain of enlightenment - and get a little bit of experience of the "view" that all Buddhas have.  I could get there, but I could not STAY there.

And I found out, through the years, that neither could anyone else.  Even the greatest and most famous Buddhist teachers, or teachers in other non-dual schools of awakening, had these same experiences of contraction of consciousness.  The good and honest ones admitted it freely - and the not so good and not so honest ones tried to pretend that they had stabilized their experience of expansive consciousness, when clearly they had not.

I didn't understand WHY this was so, until I actually found Master Shinran's teachings back in 2002.  And the reason I even went LOOKING for his teachings was that in the aftermath of my brother's suicide, with all the drama of it, and all the drama of the events leading up to it, I was was so shaken, and so contracted in my consciousness, that I literally couldn't think straight, much less do any sort of meditation whatsoever.

So...what does this all have to do with the BENEFITS that I believe comes from actually publicly SHARING one's questions or doubts with others in the Shin Sangha - whether it's done publicly in our group, or at a meeting at a temple, or wherever - or done one-on-one via a private email to someone, or over a quiet cup of coffee, or whatever?


The FIRST benefit is this:  When you share your questions or your doubts, you are actually stepping into that "observer space" that is so basic to Buddhist understanding.  As long as you keep your questions or your doubts to yourself - because you have some egoic need NOT to share them - embarrassment, fear, wanting to look good in front of others, wanting approval, whatever - you experience your questions and your doubts as an essential part of YOU.

But when you share them, all of a sudden there is a shift, however subtle, in perspective.  All of a sudden you are examining and describing and naming and defining some thought, some idea, some BELIEF - and in that very act, you are creating a space between YOU...and IT.

In Master Shinran's writings, we don't hear him encouraging or exhorting seekers in the Sangha to share their questions and their doubts, though he spends a tremendous amount of time and energy in his pastoral letters responding to them.

But in Master Rennyo's letters, we hear very direct encouragement and exhortation.  He really makes it sound that for many people, actually stepping up and sharing their questions and doubts is not just acceptable, but ESSENTIAL as part of the life of the Shin Sangha, and the process of listening deeply.


The SECOND benefit of such sharing is this:  I really mentioned it directly above, but will highlight it here.  The fact is, most of us are carrying a neurotic pants load of crap around in our heads.  Our egotism is an endless source of real "dis-ease", that is both a cause of and and expression of our suffering.   And a huge part of our suffering has to do with our socialized experience of being childish (not "child-like") - of actually reacting to our childhood experience by either embracing the posture of being a "compliant child" or a "rebellious child".

This is a human universal. It manifests as the fruit of our egoic monkey mind in all times, all places, all cultures.  For many this CRAVING - this ATTACHMENT - this NEED for social approval from others - or (flip side of the same coin) avoiding the social DISAPPROVAL of others - defines their whole life subtly and mostly unconsciously.   People carry this horrible baggage into the Sangha, and so (again, mostly unconsciously) behave in such a way so as to gain the approval of the group, and particularly the leaders.

This is common as mud, not just among individuals here in our Sangha, and not just among individuals in the global Sangha, but in the lives of individual in all sorts of spiritual and religious communities.

And then, there is the equal an opposite problem:   People react (rather than respond) to their childhood experience by having a rebellious stance towards society in general, any sort of shared group experience, and indeed any sort of life experience that would call them to temporarily set aside their own ideas, and tentatively and thoughtfully consider that other ideas might actually serve them better.  Once again, this is a CRAVING or an AVERSION (depending on how you look at it) - an ATTACHMENT - and a rebellious NEED that is a childish left-over that so many carry, again mostly unconsciously, into adulthood.

So...the benefit of sharing one's questions and doubts is that we simply bypass and avoid and ignore both of these sorts of dark, childish, egoic forces.  Finally, we stop caring about social approval or social disapproval - whether as compliant children or rebellious ones.  Finally, we're entering into life - and the exploration of truth - simply as adults, with open hearts, open minds, and no hidden agendas or social pressures to react to.


And now, let's talk about the THIRD benefit of sharing one's questions and doubts.

The hard truth is - and I have seen this over and over again, in my own life experience and my work with others as a teacher - that someone who is not a person of SHINJIN cannot even understand the Dharma message properly, much less teach and transmit it to another person.

Without the gift of Amida's Shinjin, the darkness of the egoic mind simply makes this Dharma message INCOMPREHENSIBLE.

Yes, you can read and even study the words of our Dharma masters, and the Seven Pure Land Masters, and the Three Pure Land Sutras, and the basic teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha on such essential topics as karma and rebirth.

But no matter how long and hard you study, or how much you ruminate and contemplate and meditate, or how many times you say the Nembutsu - it will not come together in your own mind and heart.

To use an analogy, it's like having a box with all the various parts of a computer before you.  You're not going to the capacity to use those parts will let you get onto the internet, or use a word processor, or a spreadsheet.

Now - please don't get me wrong here.  I am not, not, NOT saying that you shouldn't read or study, or contemplate the Dharma before receiving Amida's gift of Shinjin.  Anybody who hangs around our global online Sangha knows that I make reading and studying recommendations ALL THE TIME - and indeed, I will make some below.

But, until you become a person of Shinjin, you really need someone who IS a person of Shinjin to provide you guidance, insight, wisdom and, yes, correction.   You really do.

Occassionally - VERY occassionally - someone gets the message right without help from another living person who can serve as a true teacher.  Master Honen, young Shinran's own teacher, was such a person.  But he was also (unknown to him as he started on the Path of the Pure Land in that life) a great Bodhisattva who had actually been with Shakyamuni Buddha that day on Vulture Peak, and was now in his THIRD Bodhisattvic incarnation, and clearly the one who was called to do the work of transmitting the Dharma to young Shinran - who then transmitted it to the world.

I'm not that kind of guy - and (in all probability) neither are you.  I needed direct contact with someone who actually could serve me as a true teacher - someone to whom I could ask my questions, and (most important) hear his answers.

And (once again) the fact that we NEED to be able to do that - to have that sort of interaction with someone who is actually capable of being a TRUE teacher - short circuits our intractable egotism.  If you're a do-it-yourself type of person - well, you finally hit a wall, because when it comes to Dharma transmission and receiving Amida's incomparable gift - you probably just can't do it yourself.  

We are ALL links in Amida's Golden Chain, and you (like me, like Rick, like Eiken Kobai Sensei, like Master Shinran) need to depend on someone else to be a link for you.

The CRAVING to do it all yourself, and the AVERSION to allowing anyone to be a "teacher" in your life, is just another egocentric ATTACHMENT.   And deconstructing our ego attachments - whether to our independence, or our craving for approval, or our need to rebel against authority figures, or our need to think we figured it all out by ourselves, or WHATEVER - is part of what NATURALLY happens when we actually follow the instructions of our Dharma masters, and get serious about LISTENING DEEPLY.

Again, I've seen all this so many times already, that I know that this is deep and profound Dharma truth.

So - to recap - these are three great BENEFITS of sharing your questions and your doubts with the Sangha - and particularly with those who are already people of settled Shinjin - even if they are totally illiterate - so that they can serve you, and help you, and be conduits of Amida's life and light.

That's why I always encourage and exhort people to do such sharing, just like Master Rennyo encouraged and exhorted people to do.  Sometimes I quote him directly, sometimes I just use my own words...but the meaning, and the reason, is the same.

All we want is to help those being called by Amida - in THIS body, and in THIS life - to respond to Amida's call (not ours!!!) - so that they too can complete their journey of countess lives - lives lived immersed in one form or another of ignorance, darkness, suffering, sickness and (ultimately) death.

And, of course, it is not just about the end of suffering - about extinguishing that flame on that candle - about the snuffing out of something.   It is about so much more than that.  It is about the true and complete EMERGENCE of that which you REALLY are - beneath and beyond the five skandas, the personality of this life, the small thing that your existence has been up until now.  It is about the emergence of your TRUE nature - your BUDDHA nature - that emergence that you yearn for in the deepest depth of your being.

So...thank you for stepping up here, and being brave - braver than you have been up until now.  I will follow this up with a second post, addressing your particular questions and doubts DIRECTLY and FORTHRIGHTLY, and I hope it will be useful to you.