Ask the Teachers: How do I deal with doubt?

The teachers are asked, “how do I deal with doubt?”

By Lion’s Roar

Question: I’ve been a Buddhist practitioner for many decades, and for the past several years I’ve been dealing with a lot of doubt regarding my practice, my sangha, and even my teacher. There’s been a falling out in my sangha and some of my friends have left, in part because they have lost confidence in our teacher. I want to believe in my teacher, my sangha, and my path, but I can’t overcome the doubt. I feel stuck. How do I deal with this?

Narayan Helen Liebenson: It’s difficult to answer your question because I don’t know the reasons for the falling out in your sangha, but I will try. My experience is that when doubt arises about a teacher and a sangha, it cuts deeply because of the immense value we place in the dharma. This can easily affect our practice. The challenge is to not see this difficulty and your practice as separate, but rather as one and the same.

The truth is that a sangha can break down, a teacher can disappoint, and it doesn’t have to affect your trust in your own practice or in the teachings of the Buddha. Situations like this can be brought into one’s practice through a willingness to explore feelings of doubt. The basic principle is to use what is triggered by a difficult experience as a way to deepen in the dharma. Instead of looking outward to your friends and your teacher, encourage yourself to look within in a sustained way.

When our trust is challenged, a delicate investigation needs to occur. You have clearly stuck with this situation throughout a period of great change. Is this because of attachment or because of wisdom? Why have your friends lost confidence? Do you feel their reasons for leaving are insignificant, or has the teacher lost the confidence of his or her students because of unethical actions? Do you experience the sangha as overly rigid, or has a blind eye been turned to real problems? If it’s the latter situation, you may need to find the courage and clarity to leave as well.

The Buddha’s final instructions were to be a lamp unto oneself. This situation, as difficult as it sounds, may be a needed nudge, inviting you to look within.

Blind belief without wisdom doesn’t serve oneself or others. There need to be grounds for trust and faith, based on your own experiences. In situations like this, our past experiences of having been let down can be triggered and easily cloud our vision. Is a previous history of mistrust—having nothing to do with the merits of the situation now—having an undue impact on the present?

The Buddha’s final instructions were to be a lamp unto oneself. This situation, as difficult as it sounds, may be a needed nudge, inviting you to look within. The deepening of inner confidence that this brings doesn’t mean that you will no longer want or need a sangha or a teacher; it means developing the discernment to know for yourself whether the relationships you’re engaged in are unhealthy or positive.

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: In the Tibetan Bön Buddhist tradition we have a guru yoga prayer with the final line: “Grant your blessings so that I may recognize my own true nature as buddha.” This means the purpose of dharma practice is to discover and know yourself as buddha. The purpose of the teacher is to provide instruction to guide the student from suffering—the perceptions and actions that arise from the failure to recognize one’s true nature—to the recognition of one’s inherent buddhanature. To recognize the nature of mind and have confidence and trust in that recognition is both the goal and the path. Once you have a glimpse of this experience, it is important to increase familiarity and trust in it through the practice of meditation. As you gain confidence, there is less chance that you will project your needs onto others, the way children do with their parents. Meditation is a path where you connect with your inherent wisdom and therefore do not become dependent upon someone outside yourself.

On the path, whenever you are separated from yourself, you will experience discomfort and doubt within your mindstream. When your doubt is triggered, it is important to bring it to the practice of meditation and look directly at the mind experiencing the doubt, rather than following your endless thoughts. In this way, you will discover that the nature of mind is clear and open. In Buddhism we don’t “believe” in our teacher any more than we “believe” in the Buddha. Rather, the instruction is to discover the buddha inherent in one’s own mind.

As long as you perceive yourself as dependent you will generate mundane and samsaric expectations toward your teacher as well as the sangha. As with any expectations, sooner or later they will not be fulfilled. When we are disappointed, this is an excellent opportunity to examine one’s experience by turning one’s attention inward and looking directly at the one who is disturbed. In this way, it is possible to reconnect with the open and clear nature of mind. Unfortunately, instead of turning inward we continue to generate thoughts and gossip and further posit that the cause of our discomfort is “out there” in the behavior of the teacher or our fellow practitioners. Also, we then doubt our own practice. This is the case because we simply haven’t looked nakedly at our own experience long enough to recognize the nature of mind.

When we are disappointed, this is an excellent opportunity to examine one’s experience by turning one’s attention inward and looking directly at the one who is disturbed.

In Tibetan there is a saying, “To keep a little distance from one’s family and the teacher is a good thing.” It is because of our weakness that we need this distance. We can be shaken by the emotions of others and certainly disappointed if our expectations are not fulfilled. When you have a teacher–student relationship, the teacher is giving dharma instruction and you open and receive the teachings with respect and devotion. Are you strong enough to engage in other dimensions of the relationship? If you are strong and clear, organizational work and working with the sangha can expand your practice. You will not be shaken by these activities or the actions of others. So if you have enough ground in yourself you can become involved in more activities than formal study and practice. But if you become shaken, you should withdraw your participation and strengthen your practice until you feel grounded again and can re-engage.

I am familiar with problems that students experience when expectations develop toward me, the teacher, and when those expectations are not fulfilled. Some have even thought, “Oh, I am not with the right teacher.” It is the responsibility of the student to develop their own pure, clear vision of the preciousness of the teachings and to maintain a pure relationship with the teacher. Of course, if there is abuse on the part of the teacher, that should not be tolerated.

You said, “I want to believe in my teacher,” but it is more important to believe in yourself! Through the honest and openhearted examination of your behaviors of body, speech, and mind and through diligent meditation, you will find the ground of doubtlessness in yourself. From that open and pure place, you will then find a healthy relationship with the teacher and the sangha.

Grace Schireson: Since you have been a practitioner for several decades, you most likely have already weathered many storms, so I imagine this one is somehow more troubling. It doesn’t sound like you doubt practice itself, but that you’re caught between your teacher and the friends who have lost confidence in him or her, and you’re wondering who to believe and what to do.

Unfortunately you cannot rely on your friends’ opinions or count on a conflict-free sangha; you cannot even rely entirely on your teacher. You will need to develop confidence in your own understanding.

From the Zen perspective, three forces drive practice to a deeper level and may help you to develop confidence in your perception: faith, effort, and doubt. Practice develops through the dynamic interaction between these three forces.

The doubt you are experiencing may motivate you to look more closely at how and why you feel stuck, engaging both faith and effort in the process. You may also engage faith by reflecting on your decades of meditation and the discernment and intention that you have brought to practice.

The difficulties facing your sangha enable you to engage your effort. To work with doubt, you may need to practice more, either with your sangha or at another place of practice. Strengthening your equanimity through practice is like finding your balance on a ship rocking in a stormy sea.

It’s important to turn toward this situation and ask why others have lost confidence in the teacher. Was there misconduct? Was there a power play among senior students? Or did the teacher have a blind spot? Look closely and calmly at the situation. Turning toward the conflict without judgment and discomfort, you may develop confidence, trust and ultimately faith in your own practice and the ability to know what is right for you.

Strengthening your equanimity through practice is like finding your balance on a ship rocking in a stormy sea.

Buddhism does not rely on blind faith; it relies on experiential faith. Ask questions of your teacher and your friends, and then observe for yourself. Investigate whether the conflict that resulted in your friends leaving your teacher evokes thoughts of past family separations for you. Such memories could exaggerate your suffering, increase your doubt, and may even require the attention of a therapist.

In one sense, you don’t ever overcome doubt. Instead, you face the conflict at hand to develop a more stable view that tolerates these less than perfect circumstances until you can see for yourself what is occurring, and you can develop your own course of action.

Grace Schireson is the founder of Empty Nest Zendo.

Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder in the Bön tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and the spiritual director of Ligmincha Institute, based in Nelson County, Virginia. His latest book is Awakening the Sacred Body.

Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Centre.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

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