Why Sharing your Questions and Doubts is
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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
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
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
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
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