First: great faith; second: great doubt; third: great determination. These are like the three legs of a tripod. It is uncertain whether we can accomplish the dharma if one of these three legs is missing. If all three are present, however, we would be more likely to miss the ground with a hammer than we would be to miss enlightenment.

The first condition, great faith, means believing, without any doubt, that you are intrinsically awake, that “all beings are intrinsically awake.” You also believe that seeing into your own nature means discovering something that you have already been using from morning to night without even realizing it. Because seeing into your own nature is you discovering yourself, you cannot fail to experience it. Great faith also means believing that every person is in the process of eventually achieving supreme enlightenment, and trusting that if we ask for help from the three treasures [Buddha, dharma, sangha], we will definitely get it. Lastly, great faith means that we believe in the teaching of our Zen teacher.

This great root of faith is not just a tepid faith. It is a thoroughgoing belief that will settle for nothing less than complete awakening, and is rooted firmly in the ground like a huge tree, immovable in the face of even the strongest gale. When the root of faith is present, there is nowhere for demons to get a foothold.

Now, what is great doubt? The type of doubt being referred to here is not intellectual doubt, such as we have when asking about the meaning of a koan. Instead, we can think of great doubt as utterly becoming one with our practice—whether we are counting the breath or practicing with the koan “mu”—to the point that our entire body and mind are like a single mass of inquiry. When practicing with mu, for example, as long as we think that there is something called “ourselves” that is practicing, we have not quite achieved great doubt. When we become truly meditatively absorbed in mu, then mu itself is practicing mu. But if we are still aware of this, it is still not fully great doubt. Harada Roshi used to say, “mu mu-s mu.” We shouldn’t think about the meaning of the word “mu”; just the sound is enough: “mu-u-u, mu-u-u, mu-u-u.” Nothing else—no thought of becoming enlightened or of not becoming enlightened—there is only mu, completely naked and exposed. We must continue to practice like this, urging ourselves on, asking ourselves why we can’t understand it, even though it’s plainly in view. Our whole being must completely become a single moment of mu. We must become a ball of mu, our spiritual energy solidified into an immovable mass of questioning.

The great root of faith naturally activates this great ball of doubt. If the root of faith appears, the great ball of doubt will arise without fail. Spurred on by great doubt, we continue the practice of mu, without seeking or expecting awakening. The quickest way to awaken when completely absorbed in mu is to throwaway all thoughts about it. Awakening has nothing to do with any kind of intellectual knowledge or discrimination.

Ekai Osho, author of The Gateless Gate, practiced at Manjuji, where he received the koan “Does a dog have buddha-nature?” from his master Getsurin Shikan Zenji. He worked on this koan for six years and, at the end of the most painful practice, he finally achieved great enlightenment. His commentary on the first case of The Gateless Gate is an account of his own experience, expressed in words that are filled with conviction:

Concentrate your whole self, with its 360 bones and 84,000 pores, into mu, making your whole body a solid lump of doubt. Keep digging into it day and night, without pause, but don’t mistake it for “nothingness,” “being,” or “non-being.” It must be like a red-hot iron ball that you’ve swallowed, which you try to vomit out, but can’t. You must extinguish all delusive thoughts and feelings that you have cherished until the present. After a period of such efforts mu will bear fruit, and inside and out will naturally become one. You will become like a dumb man who has had a dream: you will know yourself and for yourself only. Then mu will suddenly break open, astonish the heavens, and shake the earth.

When the great root of faith and the great ball of doubt are present, great determination will arise. Great determination is a strong resolve that wells up from the bottom of our gut and spurs us on. We already believe that we ourselves are intrinsically awake; we only need discover what is within us. We ask ourselves why we can’t realize it. It must be possible! With great determination we continue to practice mu single-mindedly, but mountains of silver and walls of iron rise up before us and we can’t break through. Still, we must continue to goad ourselves on, “There’s no reason I can’t do what others have done!”

Bassui Zenji says:

What obstructs realization? Nothing but our own halfhearted desire for truth. Think of this and exert yourself to the utmost.

The 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra says:

And when the living have become faithful,
Honest and upright and gentle,
And wholeheartedly want to see the Buddha,
Even at the cost of their own lives . . .

To meet the true Buddha within us, we must be ready to give up our lives.

People often tell me that although they have participated in many intensive meditation retreats and seem to have progressed in their practice, they find it impossible to take the final step. Although there is nothing to be afraid of, they are afraid in spite of themselves, wondering what might happen next, fearing that perhaps their awareness of themselves will be destroyed. Here is the dividing line between success and failure. You must summon up a reckless resolve to break through, no matter what, and throw yourself away. When you break through, you realize great life. I have never heard of anyone who died from practicing mu. Remember that great determination is the deciding factor.

When deep faith, unbounded practice, and great determination are present, there is in fact already no self; our entire bodies are just mu. When self and mu have truly become one, then mu suddenly appears and we finally come face to face with our original selves.

No matter how high the mountains of the great dharma are, no matter how deep the sea of ignorance is, they will be as nothing before a boundless spirit of determination. Regardless of what happens, your self is, from the beginning, the spontaneous self-nature of Buddha.

From Zen: The Authentic Gate, by Koun Yamada, © 2015. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications.

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