Perhaps because of our Judeo-Christian background, we have a tendency to regard doubt as something shameful, almost as an enemy. We feel that if we have doubts, it means that we are denying the teachings and that we should really have unquestioning faith. Now in certain religions, unquestioning faith is considered a desirable quality. But in the Buddha-dharma, this is not necessarily so. Referring to the dharma, the Buddha said, “ehi passiko,” which means “come and see,” or “come and investigate,” not “come and believe.” An open, questioning mind is not regarded as a drawback to followers of the Buddha-dharma. However, a mind that says, “This is not part of my mental framework, therefore I don’t believe it,” is a closed mind, and such an attitude is a great disadvantage for those who aspire to follow any spiritual path. But an open mind, which questions and doesn’t accept things simply because they are said, is no problem at all.
A famous sutra tells of a group of villagers who came to visit the Buddha. They said to him, “Many teachers come through here. Each has his own doctrine. Each claims that his particular philosophy and practice is the truth, but they all contradict each other. Now we’re totally confused. What do we do?” Doesn’t this story sound modern? Yet this was twenty-five hundred years ago. Same problems. The Buddha replied, “You have a right to be confused. This is a confusing situation. Do not take anything on trust merely because it has passed down through tradition, or because your teachers say it, or because your elders have taught you, or because it’s written in some famous scripture. When you have seen it and experienced it for yourself to be right and true, then you can accept it.”
Now that was quite a revolutionary statement, because the Buddha was certainly saying that about his own doctrine, too. All through the ages it has been understood that the doctrine is there to be investigated and experienced by each individual. So one should not be afraid to doubt. In fact, Buddhist writer Stephen Batchelor wrote a dharma book entitled The Faith to Doubt. It is right for us to question. But we need to question with an open heart and an open mind, not with the idea that everything that fits our preconceived notions is right and anything that does not is automatically wrong. The latter attitude is like the bed of Procrustes. You have a set pattern in place, and everything you come across must either be stretched out or cut down to fit it. This just distorts everything and prevents learning.
If we come across certain things that we find difficult to accept even after careful investigation, that doesn’t mean the whole dharma has to be thrown overboard. Even now, after all these years, I still find certain things in the Tibetan dharma that I’m not sure about at all. I used to go to my lama and ask him about some of these things, and he would say, “That’s fine. Obviously, you don’t really have a connection with that particular doctrine. It doesn’t matter. Just put it aside. Don’t say, ‘No, it’s not true.’ Just say, ‘At this point, my mind does not embrace this.’ Maybe later you’ll appreciate it, or maybe you won’t. It’s not important.”
When we come across a concept that we find difficult to accept, the first thing we should do, especially if it’s something that is integral to the dharma, is to look into it with an unprejudiced mind. We should read everything we can on the subject, not just from the point of view of Buddha-dharma, but if there are other approaches to it, we need to read about them, too. We need to ask ourselves how they connect with other parts of the doctrine. We have to bring our intelligence into this. At the same time, we should realize that at the moment, our level of intelligence is quite mundane. We do not yet have an all-encompassing mind. We have a very limited view. So there are definitely going to be things that our ordinary mundane consciousness cannot experience directly. But that does not mean these things do not exist.
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