What is Doubting Meditation?
Doubting meditation? It sounds a little bit strange, doesn’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 record of this?
Doubting meditation is one of the main techniques applied in the Chinese Zen community, and is known as Huatou in the Chinese Chan tradition, Wato in the Japanese Zen tradition, and Hwadu (or Ganhwa) in the 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 themselves that question (huatou) to generate a kind of doubt sensation (Chn. yiqing) or a feeling of “I don’t know.” It has been widely proven that focus on this kind of doubt sensation will lead practitioners through different meditation levels, deepen their Zen experience, and find their true nature (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 modern people.
What does the huatou (phrase/question) applied in doubting meditation look like? And what is the doubt sensation? Let’s take the doubting question (huatou) we use 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 isn’t a “selfness” of yours—you are no self. But how come there is a “you” waking up at 7am, eating an apple for breakfast, and dressing in a blue shirt to support the bullying-prevention movement, yet laughing at your coworkers for their inevitable mistakes at 3pm? There is always a “your self” or “you” doing this or that, thinking of this or that. Even when you are asleep at night, the “you” is there resting, dreaming, and snoring. “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 since, on one hand, you kind of agree with the Zen theory of no self/selflessness, but 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, not 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. This is the doubt sensation—knowing that you don’t know what no self is, and wanting to know.
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 progress through various levels of stillness, just like applying other meditation techniques. When you are so mindful of your doubt, you will see through the various forms of all beings and experience the selflessness directly, since the doubt itself is pointing to your true nature of no-self, straightforwardly.
People tend to attribute the method of doubting meditation to Dahui Zonggao (1089 to 1163 AD, Song Dynasty) and regard Dahui as the founding master of doubting meditation. However, the first teaching of doubting meditation in Chinese Zen history comes from the 6th generation Zen teacher, Huineng (637 to 713 AD, Tang Dynasty), and was also the first time that Huineng taught meditation in 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 this question.
If we are not attached to the wordings or forms of questions, the teaching of doubting meditation can even be traced back to Bodhidharma (circa 500 AD), an Indian Zen master credited as the founder or first-generation teacher of the Chinese Zen tradition. Huike (487-593 AD, Tang Dynasty) asked his teacher Bodhidharma, “My mind is unsettled. Master, can you please help me to settle 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, but when he penetrated the forms of mind, he answered his teacher, “I looked for my mind, but couldn’t find any.” The true nature is always-changing. Huike did not dwell on or deny the forms of mind/no-mind. The teacher Bodhidharma replied, “I have settled your mind.” Later on, Bodhidharma approved Huike’s enlightenment and gave Dharma transmission to him, which made Huike the 2nd generation Zen master of the 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 edition).
If we compare the story of Bodhidharma and Huike with the method mentioned in Anguttara Nikaya, we 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 the Linji (Jpn. Rinzai) school and forget that Dongshan Liangjie (AD 807 ~ 869, Tang Dynasty), the founding master of the Caodong (Jpn. Soto) school, started his Zen practice from doubting meditation. At the age of five, the first time Dongshan heard about the Heart Sutra, he asked his teacher, “I indeed do have eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. How come the 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 Advice on Investigating Zen, is the discourses of Boshan Yuanlai (1575-1630 AD, 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?