Great Doubt

Today my program went to Mt. Hiei, the Tendai headquarters where Dogen trained as a teenager. Tendai Buddhism put forth the doctrine of inherent enlightenment, and it was practicing at Mt. Hiei that Dogen first articulated the question that would eventually drive him to go to China: if all humans posses inherent enlightenment, why is it necessary for Buddhas to practice and make effort? No one could answer his question, so he felt compelled to seek answers in other places. Walking among the same temples where Dogen trained as a young monk, and where he first asked these questions, I felt compelled to honor Dogen with some questions of my own, in the form of an open letter.

Dear Old Time Religion,
First, I want you to know that I think you’re beautiful. I really do. There’s nothing quite so beautiful to me as an old, quiet room, filled with the smell of incense. I think the old wood is beautiful, and the stone pathways are beautiful, and the high mountains where you build your churches and temples are beautiful. The tankas and paintings are beautiful, and the altars— the gold candle holders, the offerings of flowers and fruit, the statues— it’s all beautiful to me. I need quiet, routine, concentration, and a certain level of seriousness in my life that I can’t get anywhere else, so I’m drawn to you. 

But I have to ask, is there anything there? When you descend the steps to the inner sanctum, in the spaces where only certain monks can go, to wash important graves and keep the candles lit, is there anything there at all other than old wood and old stone? In the gold lanterns and candle holders, in the flower arrangements, in the long hallways and shrines— what’s inside of them? Is there anything you can actually give me?

Are you actually interested in my questions? Everyone tells me, “If you have great doubt, you will have great enlightenment,” but do you really mean this? Is it only safe to ask questions if I am also following along with the schedule? If I chose to define and live my life the way I want to, in a way that doesn’t fit the proscribed form, are my questions still valid? If there’s really no answer outside of myself, why do I need you at all? Why shouldn’t I just go out into the desert, into the forest, alone?

Are you really concerned with questions, or are you mostly concerned with preserving yourself? Is your most important priority just transmitting yourself? Is your most important priority actually to stay the same, to not change? Is your most important priority to cultivate and empower people who care primarily about preserving and transmitting your tradition? 

I’ve started reading the literature again that I was reading when I first became interested in Buddhism, at age nineteen. At that time in my life before Buddhism, I was mostly interested in social justice. When I really looked into justice, when I really began examining how transformation of society is made possible, it became clear to me that love had to be a part of that transformation. Reading bell hooks helped. She was the first person I ever read who spoke about ending racial injustice and compassion in the same paragraph. She writes about the need for love to inform political change: “A culture of domination is anti-love. It requires violence to sustain itself. To choose love is to go against the prevailing values of the culture.” 

So I have to ask, without domination, could you survive? Without power? What if I was your equal in this? Could you still exist? 

What happens if I trust myself? What if I chose not to follow? If I trust myself, do you think you can teach me anything? Can you only teach me something if I inherently do not trust myself? Can you only teach me something if I hate myself, if I am afraid of myself and my own intuition? Is the transformation you promise contingent on my own self-effacement? 

Because usually I think I can’t do this alone. Usually I think I need help, I need community, I need guidance, I need a path, I need a curriculum, I need rules, I need shape, I need form. And that’s what you offer me. Handrails. A container. A way to stop listening to myself. A way to forget myself.

You write, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be enlightened by ten thousand things.”

What does that mean?

I'm still wearing your clothes. I'm still shaving my head. I get up every morning and sit zazen. But I have to ask. 


  1. My teacher Joko Beck, thought, ( my words here ) that Zen came to America wrapped in beautiful Japanese paper. She thought we should keep the Zen, but not the paper wrapping.

  2. Different locks need different keys but all open locks are equally useless!

  3. Anonymous, I'm interested in that question. Is there a discussion about this somewhere? Would you like to start one?

    I'm thinking about this Norman Fischer talk titled "This Practice is Japanese", where he outlines the Japanese cultural aspects of Zen practice (sort of) in relation to American Zen. I thought it was a very interesting talk, and I don't think it contradicts Joko Beck's idea. I'm enough of a Japanophile that I have some work to do here.,10&pageid=2161

    My apologies to Gessin for the tangent.

  4. Dear Gesshin, My first response didn't post...try again. I love your blog, your honest voice, and your open-hearted intimacy. While I do see/feel that the "non-sentient can preach the dharma" and am guided by non-sentients everywhere about, but as Sangha is the Third Treasure I'm grateful you are my sangha sister. Thank you for your questions and practice. With love, Shoju

  5. Hello,

    It is a good idea to take off Japanese paper wrapping. Because it is a mere expression of something that doesn't have a usual form. It is a Zen proverb not to watch a finger that indicates at the moon. But if one peels an onion there remains no core. Does Buddhism have the core other than expression? Yes it does.

    People created many styles of Buddhism. But some people made it comlicated and pedantic. Buddhism may be very simple. Today people are educated and used to intellectual logic. People take complexity for simplicity. We regarg difficult things to be more important.

    In Asian tradition it has been very important. However it is different from what people expect. It is not useful. It rather makes people poor that actually contracicts desire of today's society. We unconsciouly avoid useless part of Buddhism and only take useful part like mental therapy. Buddhism is meaningful for the West in many senses ,useful or cntradicting, because it is quite new for the West.
    Take off Japanese wrpping and also intellectual comlpication.

  6. Yeah... there's no onion without its layers. And no egg without the shell. Without the shell, the egg would just splatter everywhere.

  7. An egg without the shell? It is not an egg. Without cultural expression one can not understand the existence of Buddhism. But expression is not Buddhism itself.
    Buddhism is in every sense how one lives a life, what life one lives.

    There is diversity of Buddhism. There may be no authenticity or orthodoxy. If Buddhism were dogmatic it would be more clear for the intelligent. Distust of verbal expression is its usual attitude..

    A big question surely brings you a big answer. Enthusiasm brings you a big answer. Catch it.

  8. Wow. I've been wondering the exact same things here in America for over a year:

    "Are you really concerned with questions, or are you mostly concerned with preserving yourself? Is your most important priority just transmitting yourself? Is your most important priority actually to stay the same, to not change? Is your most important priority to cultivate and empower people who care primarily about preserving and transmitting your tradition?"

    I think I AM going to go to the desert. Thanks for the suggestion. I'll check back later.

  9. Gesshin,

    Looks like I should have signed in with Google before I tried to enter my comment. If this is a dupe, I apologize.

    I'll summarize: I sympathize with your original intent, although rather than social justice it was environmental justice that caught my heart.

    Something on Dogen's practice that I hope is different is here:

    The unauthorized, incomplete commentary.

    Yours truly,


  10. It sometimes takes awhile to find one's own Path and Place. There are sometimes great doubts along the Way. All spiritual folks in all religions go through times of doubt and questioning, all through life and times of clarity in fact. Hang in there.

    Gassho, Jundo Cohen, Treeleaf Sangha

  11. Thank you for your posts, Ms. Gesshin. They provide an interesting look through the looking glass. I am another 1986 baby, and I also lived in Japan for two years. But I was there with the United States Marine Corps, an organization that could not possibly be less interested in love or social justice. I'm back in North America now, still trying to hold on to some shambling semblance of a zen practice, and your posts help me remember that there is a world out there beyond the ignorance and cruelty I see every day, a world where great wisdom and great doubt coexist and contemplation of this contradiction is not completely verboten.

    Keep doing what you do, please! Namasate.

  12. How much is culture, how much is Zen? Is there even a duality at all? I like Toni Packer's approach more and more the longer I look at the question. I personally find Japanese things to be quite beautiful and I often wonder whether all that beauty is getting in the way. Sometimes I look at the eastern forms, which really have little to do with the teaching, and wonder whether American Zen has morphed into some strange cargo cult. And yet.


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