Great doubt, great awakening; no doubt, no awakening!
This week's Zen story is case 15 in the Gateless Barrier, 'Threescore Blows'. And once again we have a mysterious encounter, in which a teacher threatens a student with violence, and apparently this is helpful. But why?
Decoding the koan
The story opens with a student, Dongshan - who we will later see in case 18 as a full-fledged Zen master - coming to train with Master Yunmen, who will also show up several more times in this collection (including next week, in case 16).
In their first meeting, Yunmen asks Dongshan some questions to test his level of understanding. Often, the questions a Zen teacher asks can be interpreted on many levels, from the superficial to the profound, as a way of testing to see whether someone is just starting out, has some level of understanding, or is themselves a master.
In this case, Dongshan takes the questions at face value. 'Where you are from?' is one of the koans used at the Breakthrough to Zen retreats organised by the sangha I belong to, Zenways, and, like all breakthrough koans, it can take us all the way to the experience of kensho, or seeing our true nature. If Dongshan had some experience of this, he might have interpreted the question in a deeper, more existential way, but instead he simply says 'Chadu'. Some scholars interpret this as the name of a forgotten Chinese town, so perhaps he's simply saying the equivalent of 'I'm from Birmingham', but the characters making up the word can (apparently) be interpreted as something like 'the ferry crossing', so perhaps Dongshan was saying 'I just got off the boat.'
At this point, Yunmen may not have been entirely sure whether Dongshan was the total beginner he appeared to be, or whether his answer actually reveals an understanding so deep and profound that it is indistinguishable from ordinariness. Because, as weird as it sounds, the ultimate goal of the Zen path isn't to become magical and mysterious and float off on a cloud - it's to integrate one's wisdom into one's being so completely that no trace of 'specialness' remains.
So Yunmen asks more questions... but Dongshan continues to answer them at face value. The question about the summer is a reference to a traditional 90-day training period, which Dongshan spent at a well-regarded monastery in the heartland of Zen - equivalent to doing a three-month retreat with Pa Auk Sayadaw, perhaps. Yet, despite having had access to this marvellous training environment, Dongshan displays no sign of having learnt anything.
Hence Yunmen's next statement, 'I forgive you threescore blows' - today we might say something like 'I oughtta give you a damn good thrashing.' (In case the term is unfamiliar, threescore is an old-fashioned way of saying sixty.) So Yunmen dismisses Dongshan with this rather ominous threat of violence - giving poor old Dongshan no clue about what he might have done wrong.
And, indeed, Dongshan comes right back the next day with exactly this complaint. 'You said you oughtta give me a damn good thrashing, but I have no idea what I did wrong!' But rather than explain his words, Yunmen blows up at him. 'You rice bag!' - good for nothing but consuming rice. Again, today we might say something like 'You waste of space!' Then Yunmen lists the places that Dongshan has travelled through - we know he spent the summer in Henan province, and Jiangxi is between Henan and Yunmen's monastery. Both were, at the time, considered the strongest Zen training places in all of China. Yunmen is saying 'You've had access to all of this, and you've learnt nothing at all - you're a hopeless case! Get out of here!'
And yet, at that very moment, Dongshan is greatly enlightened. But why?
The role of negative reinforcement
How should one teach? Is it better to praise a student when they do well, and encourage them to continue? Or is it better to withhold your praise and highlight their mistakes, spurring them on to overcome their failings? Should one be kind, or strict? Generous, or severe?
I doubt there's any one right answer - different approaches work for different people, and probably at different times too. Personally, I've never been big on negative reinforcement (goading and criticising students to spur them on to working harder) - when teachers have used that approach on me, it generally just annoys me and makes me want to quit, and as a result I tend not to use the approach myself either. (This is, no doubt, a personal weakness, and a potential area for growth. Nevertheless, it does mean that teachers whose primary style is critical rather than encouraging have not been a good fit for me, and students who need that kind of spur probably won't get it from me.) On the other hand, my Tai Chi teacher is the opposite - he thrives on negative reinforcement, and has told many stories of his own teacher's often contemptuous attitude toward him. He even said one time that he had no idea how to 'encourage' people to train because he'd never either received or needed encouragement from someone else.
Criticism has a tendency to create doubt. 'I thought I was doing OK, but now I'm not so sure.' And this doubt can be a double-edged sword. Harnessed correctly, it becomes a powerful fuel for practice. Misused, it becomes a corrosive force that can totally undermine the practice. So let's take a closer look at these two kinds of doubt and see if we can get clear about the distinction, so that when we experience doubt ourselves, we can tell whether it's ultimately going to help us or get in our way.
Two kinds of doubt
In a previous article I've written about the Five Hindrances - sense desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt. (Often the Hindrance of doubt is called 'sceptical doubt', and that's the term I'll use for the rest of this article, to distinguish it from the second kind of doubt that we'll discuss momentarily, 'Great Doubt'.)
Sceptical doubt is the kind of doubt that says 'I'm not sure about this. I don't know whether I should practise in this way or that way. Nothing seems to be working for me. Maybe I'm just not cut out for this! Look at all those other people, meditating away peacefully while I'm wrestling with my turbulent thoughts. My knees hurt, my back aches, I hate it. I'm not achieving anything here, and even the teacher thinks I'm useless - he told me this morning that he oughtta give me a damn good thrashing, and I don't even know what I did wrong! This is pointless, my Mum was right, I should never have left home to come here, I'm just wasting my time. I'm going to get my things and go home in the morning.'
Sceptical doubt is overcome to some extent when we start to see the effects of our practice. Traditionally, the first stage of awakening (called 'stream entry' in early Buddhism, basically equivalent to the kensho I mentioned earlier) is said to eradicate sceptical doubt forever, and it's certainly true that after you've had a significant shift of perspective it's very difficult to deny that the practice works, because you know it so clearly in your own experience. Nevertheless, and especially if you're prone to self-criticism, the insidious whispers of doubt can still creep back into our practice after a while. 'Maybe that wasn't it after all. Maybe I'm just kidding myself.' Talking to a teacher can be helpful at this stage - provided that teacher isn't the kind who only uses negative reinforcement!
The second kind of doubt, Great Doubt, is seen as central to the Zen path - so much so that there's a popular saying in Zen circles: 'Great Doubt, great awakening. Small Doubt, small awakening. No Doubt, no awakening!'
Really, 'Doubt' is a bit of a tricky word for this quality, and some modern teachers (e.g. Stephen and Martine Batchelor) prefer to translate it as 'Great Questioning' instead. The whole point of insight meditation (whatever style you like to practise, whether early Buddhist, Zen or something else) is to give us tools to examine our subjective experience and discover the extent to which our conventional way of seeing the world doesn't tell the whole story. In order to progress in insight meditation, we must be able to question everything, no matter how obvious or true it appears to be. To the extent that we're able to do that, we have the potential to break free of our existing views and habits and discover something new. The greater the questioning we can cultivate, the greater the potential breakthrough when the practice matures.
Koans aim to spark Great Doubt quite directly, by giving us what appears at first to be an impenetrable mystery. The teacher tells us that there's great wisdom buried in here somewhere, but from the outside the koan appears totally opaque. As we continue to investigate it, we go through a series of stages of generating deeper and deeper questioning, until finally our Great Doubt shatters and insight arises - when viewed from the 'inside', the koan is seen to be no 'problem' at all.
Great Doubt can be frustrating at times! Sitting down to work on an insight practice for the hundredth time, it can feel like you're banging your head against a brick wall. When is the insight going to come? But - at least on a good day - Great Doubt will be fuelled by a kind of curiosity, a sense of wanting to know what's really going on here, and that curiosity will keep you coming back, whereas sceptical doubt is more likely to lead in the other direction - what's sometimes called the 'rolling up the mat' stage of practice.
Coming back to the koan
So Dongshan arrives at the monastery, fresh-faced, having spent the summer training hard but not really getting anywhere. Yunmen asks him some questions, which he does his best to answer, but then the teacher says 'I oughtta give you a damn good thrashing!' and sends him back to his room. Poor old Dongshan is probably pretty dismayed at this point. He's just arrived at a new place, and somehow he's already pissed off his new teacher - and he doesn't even know what he's done wrong! What kind of hellhole is this new monastery anyway?
But something in Dongshan remains deeply committed to this mysterious Zen path, even if he doesn't yet have the first idea what it's really all about. And so, determined to do better next time, he stays up all night, going over and over that meeting with the teacher, trying to work out where he went wrong. What if he'd said something different? Or was it the way he said it? What was it? What was it?
As Dongshan pours his energy into this questioning, he is cultivating Great Doubt. Given that he's just come off a three-month retreat, his mind is probably pretty focused, which amplifies the power of the whole process - in the space of one night he's able to go deep into the particular kind of samadhi that arises when we focus uninterruptedly on a koan.
The next morning, he goes to see the teacher again, without having resolved his central matter. We might imagine him either so lost in questioning that he's barely even aware of Yunmen in front of him, or alternatively so distressed that he's at breaking point. And at this pivotal moment, when Dongshan is deeply focused on resolving this problem, and far removed from his usual complacent state, the teacher explodes at him, giving him the verbal equivalent of a sudden slap - which shatters Dongshan's Great Doubt and catapults him into awakening.
(Those of you who've been following this series of articles may notice a similarity with the servant boy's awakening when Zen master Judi cuts off his finger in case 3.)
Generating some Great Doubt of your own
If you'd like to explore this theme in your own practice - which I would highly recommend - one way is to take Yunmen's first question to Dongshan, and work with 'Where am I from?' as a koan.
However, there's possibly a better approach if you already have some spiritual matter which is of great interest to you. Zen master Bankei was very critical of the use of koans, feeling that they could lead to the cultivation of an 'inauthentic' Great Doubt in which practitioners were just going through the motions for the sake of tradition. On the other hand, Bankei was himself powerfully motivated to investigate from a very early age when he encountered a striking phrase in a Confucian classic - 'The way of great learning lies in clarifying bright virtue' - and so his life became a mission to discover the meaning of the text.
Bankei didn't need a classical Zen koan because he'd already found something that served the equivalent purpose for him. Maybe you have too - in which case, take it and run with it! But if not, you could do worse than start with 'Where am I from?'
May your doubts be great rather than sceptical!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.