What is Doubting Meditation?
Doubting meditation? It sounds a little bit strange, isn’t it? Is it a newly invented meditation technique? Doubt on what and for what? Can people just doubt to enlightenment? If so, is there any reference?
Doubting meditation is one of the main techniques applied in Chinese Zen community and known as Huatou in Chinese Chan tradition, Wato in Japanese Zen tradition, and Hwadu (or Gwanhwa) in Korean Seon tradition. Originally huatou means a phrase or a very short sentence in the Chinese language. In Huatou meditation, the phrase (huatou) is regarded as a question or an interrogative sentence, and practitioners are supposed to keep asking himself/herself that question (huatou) to generate a kind of doubt sensation (Chn. yiqing) or a feeling of ” I don’t know.” It was widely proved that focus on this kind of doubt sensation will lead practitioners to go through different meditation levels, deepen their Zen experience, and find out their true nature or get enlightened.
Because the key point of Huatou meditation is to generate and focus on the doubt sensation, we use the term “doubting meditation (rather than huatou)” in our Center to make this meditation technique more accessible to people nowadays.
What does the huatou (phrase)/ question that applied in doubting meditation look like? And what is the doubt sensation? Let’s take the doubting question (huatou) we used in our Center as an example. In our Center, we use “no self” as our huatou (phrase) and turn it into ” what is no self? ” or ” no self?” as our doubting question. No self or selflessness is a phrase which refers to our true nature. See：What is Zen?) Theoretically, since the true nature of you is no self, there won’t be a “selfness” of yours; you are no self. But how come there is a “You” waking up at 7 am, having an apple for breakfast, and wearing a blue shirt to support the bullying prevention movement and yet laughing at your co-workers for their inevitable mistakes at 3 pm? There is always a “Your Self or You ” doing this or that, thinking of this or that. Even when you are sleeping at night, the “You” are there resting, dreaming and snoring. Anyhow “You” are always there, aren’t you? Then how come the true nature of you is no self? How come when you are you, you are no self? What is no self? Are you no self? No self?
You feel so confused that on one hand, you kind of agree with the Zen idea or theory of no self/ selflessness; on the other hand, from your life experience, it seems “Your self is no self” cannot be true. From your experience (not your intellectual understanding, nor the Zen theory), you don’t know how come your self is no self, you don’t know what no self is, and at a certain point, you want to know what no self is. And this is the doubt sensation—- knowing that you don’t know what no self is and you want to know it.
Doubting meditation requires you to focus on your doubt sensation and keep on doubting through self inquiring: What is no self? No self? No self? When you are so concentrated on your doubt, you will enter and get through various levels of stillness, just like applying other meditation techniques. When you are so mindful on your doubt, you will see through the various forms of all beings and experience the selflessness directly because the doubt itself is pointing to your true nature, no-self, straightforwardly.
People tend to attribute the method of doubting meditation to Dahui Zonggao (AD 1089 ~ 1163, Song dynasty) and regard Dahui as the founding master of doubting meditation. However, the first teaching of doubting meditation in Chinese Zen history is instructed by the 6th generation Zen teacher Huineng (AD 637~ 713, Tang dynasty), which is also the first time that Huineng taught meditation in the recorded history. Huineng taught his fellow student Ming by asking, “While not thinking of the good and bad, what is your original face ( your true nature) ?” According to the Platform Sutra, Ming got enlightened because of that question.
If we are not abode to the wordings or forms of questions, the teaching of doubting meditation can be even traced back to Bodhidharma (around AD500), an Indian Zen master credited as the founding or first generation teacher of Chinese Zen tradition. Huike (AD 487~ 593, Tang dynasty) asked his teacher Bodhidharma, “My mind is unsettling. Master, can you please help me to set my mind”, Bodhidharma answered, “Bring your mind to me, I’ll have it settled.”
Bodhidharma’s teaching “Bring your mind to me, I’ll have it settled.” sounds like a declarative sentence, but to students of doubting meditation, it is more like throwing a piece of stone into our minds and causing a ripple of questions and doubts, “What? How can I bring my mind to you? Where is my mind? What is my mind? Is there a mind? What is no mind?”
It took Huike a while. When he penetrated the forms of mind, he answered his teacher with “I look after for my mind but couldn’t find any.” The true nature is always-changing. Huike did not dwell on nor deny the forms of mind/no-mind. The teacher Bodhidharma replied, “I have your mind settled.” Later on, Bodhidharma approved Huike’s enlightenment and gave Dharma transmission to him, which made Huike the 2nd generation Zen master of Chinese Zen tradition.
This meditation technique was not invented by Bodhidharma. Earlier before Bodhidharma came to China, this method had been regarded as one of the four ways to liberation, as addressed in Anguttara Nikaya:
“…whatever monks or nuns declare before me that they have attained the final knowledge of arahanship, all these do so in one of the four ways. What four? ….a monk’s mind is seized by agitation about the teaching. But there comes a time when his mind becomes internally steadied, composed, unified, and concentrated; then the path arises in him…” (AN 4: 170; II 156-57, Pali Text Society’s edition).
If we compare the story of Bodhidharma and Huike with the method mentioned in Anguttara Nikaya, we may find that “bring your mind to me” was the teaching which agitated and seized Huike’s mind. When Huike’s mind became internal steadied and concentrated, he penetrated the forms of mind and no-mind; the path arose in him.
People also tend to attribute doubting meditation as a teaching of Linji (Jpn. Rinzai) school and forget that Dongshan Liangjie (AD 807 ~ 869, Tang dynasty), the founding master of Caodong (Jpn. Soto) school, started his Zen practice from doubting meditation. At the age of five, when first time Dongshan heard about Heart Sutra, he asked his teacher, “I indeed do have eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind, how come Heart Sutra says no-eyes, no-ears, no-nose, no-tongue, no-body, no-mind? What is no-eyes? no-ears? no-…? ” Also, one of the most important doctrines of doubting meditation, Monk Boshan’s Advices on Zen Practice, is a recorded sayings of Boshan Yuanlai (AD 1575 ~ 1630, Ming dynasty), a great Zen master from Caodong school.
Does doubting meditation sound less strange now? You have learned about Huike’s doubt of mind/no-mind and Dongshan’s doubt of eyes/ no-eyes, how about yours? Are you always-changing? If so, how come there is a “You” who is reading this line and keeps thinking? Is this “You” no self? Are you no self? What is no-self?