During my involvement here at Treeleaf, I was struck again and again by the strong feeling that for all I liked about Treeleaf, there was some essential difference in my approach to practice and the one taught here that was not a matter of something I was "doing wrong." But up until some months ago - long after my departure as a member of the sangha - I was not able to articulate what that was. My instinctive reaction was that the practice at Treeleaf was "too soft," but I have since come to the conclusion that is not what it was.
It may very well be a softer approach was exactly what I needed at a time so much else around me was hard and unforgiving. But what I realize I was instinctively reacting against was attempts to shut down the process of questioning that brought me to a point of what I would describe as spiritual despair. To me - and to Chet, who served as my guide through the darkness - this point of despair was an opportunity, an opening for further questioning, not an "illness" to be medicated or a place to flee or avoid. And because I was able to embrace and go deeper into the darkness, I ultimately came out freer and more healed than had I tried to turn away from it or let it go.
I know, thankfully, my journey is just that - my journey - and not a way everyone must follow. But what I think was more significant than my affinity for, and willingness to push into, this darkness, was another component of what was going on then - what I have learned to recognize as the Zen virtue of "Great Doubt." I used to feel very confused as to what set "Great Doubt," the virtue, apart from "skeptical doubt," one of the traditional Five Hindrances of Buddhism. I have since learned from my experience that skeptical doubt is more of an automatic resistance to things, a destructive tendency to pick apart and reject even what is good, that bats away and refuses to entertain anything that comes along and does not fit within parameters of what has been determined to be acceptable or true. Whereas Great Doubt is the presence of a question or questions that push us beyond the normal boundaries of our thought processes, beyond the answers that usually comfort and reassure us.
I now like to think of "Great Doubt" as "The Question" - a turn of phrase I picked up from a John Daido Loori talk. Chet likes to use a turn of phrase he said he picked up from Steve Hagen: "the pure interrogative." These phrases point to the part of us that, restless, pushes us deeper into inquiry. The Question is what saves us from inertia, like a golf ball that only rolled half way down the Putt-Putt green and has no additional force to keep it rolling. Daido Roshi said that without this "Question," a spiritual practice is dead. This Question is like a beast that stalks you; it can chase you out of your house and eat all of your money and possessions. When stalked by a Question powerful enough, you can quite easily walk out of your home and walk away from everything you know. This is what the Buddha did.
I have come to see koans as expressions of The Question that were personally meaningful to the ones asking and dealing with them. The traditional questions poised in the classic koans may or may not connect with the forms and phrases that we would use today to express our experiences of The Question. But while I do not formally practice with koans, I can see the value of a practice that keeps the Great Doubt alive and working in you, in which you gulp Mumon's "red hot iron ball that you cannot swallow or spit out."
Being in the midst of "Great Doubt" is unnerving; I have come to believe that much of religion is made of the answers we come up with to reassure ourselves when faced with The Question. But I don't believe our attempts to hold it at bay ever fully resolve it, which is why so often the people we see who insist they have found "The Answer" later reveal themselves to have acted opposite to their expressed convictions, or seem so driven to convince others of their version of the truth.
I wonder if this is where "Western Buddhism" is getting it wrong in general - churning out ream after ream of reassurance, of platitudes and comforting words, when the true way to freedom is stirring up, and making a person confront and inquire into, her own mind, her own doubt, her own Question. I think that the quality of "grit" it takes to face the hordes of Mara is a much underrated virtue in modern, Western Zen.
We all love answers. We love it when someone else seems to offer us one, and perhaps love it even more when we can rattle off a nice sounding answer of our own. But I think this is something Buddhism gives us an opportunity to go beyond, allowing us to see the folly in our hunger for answers to the ultimate questions of life - questions that do not permit us to give an answer without leaping into conjecture, hope, and wishful thinking. Worldly answers are wonderful - they can give us keys for how to live in our world - but spiritual answers often act to kill in us the very thing that draws us to the spiritual path in the first place. The more I live and practice, the more I see that The Question must always be lived; it can never truly be resolved. It is that uneasy fire that makes us come alive in what we do, that makes us truly look at what is before us and wonder.
A teacher once told me that simply sitting in the posture of zazen is the expression of a question. I agree that The Question can come just as much alive in shikantaza as in formal koan practice. But I do not believe this is always the way shikantaza is taught. Sometimes, it is taught in a way that abandons the fire of inquiry and instead settles into passivity. And this is the "flavor" I get here at Treeleaf, where Jundo will offer paragraph after paragraph of lovely explication, with the result of tranquilizing those stalking questions. I have seen little here of the Great Doubt being raised, though it does happen sometimes; yet, when it does happen, it seems it is quickly abandoned.
I have wondered if my thoughts in this area are similar to those that drove some of the raging debates between students of the Rinzai and Soto schools throughout the years, with me leaning more toward the Rinzai point of view. I have found in my own life that habit or routine or gentle faith in the activity of sitting is not enough to sustain my practice - which is just as well, as it is only when I sit with the Question that something is alive on the cushion.