Discussion Notes for “Great Doubt: Practicing Zen in the World”

By Gretchen Neuwald, Dharma Teacher

[We thought we’d share notes that Gretchen Neuwald compiled for a recent discussion of the book, “Great Doubt: Practicing Zen in the World,” by Boshan (translated by Jeff Stone).]

Boshan Yuanali was a Chinese Zen Master of the Ming Dynasty, who lived from AD 1575 – 1630. His two texts, “Exhortation for Those Who Don’t Rouse Doubt” and “Exhortations for Those Who Do Rouse Doubt,” have been called some of the most important doctrines of doubt meditaion.

Jeff Stone is a professor of Zen in the Modern World at Hanazono University in Kyoto.

The book “Great Doubt Great Enlightenment” (Seon Masters Gou, Muyeo, Hyeguk, Uijeong and Seoru) was read in concert with Stone’s book and provided a great deal of background on the central role doubt meditation holds in Korean Zen, or “Ganhwa Seon.”

Great Doubt and Ganhwa Seon.  What is Ganhwa Seon?

Arousing great doubt or question in meditation is one of the main techniques used in Chinese Zen. This technique is known as Huatou in Chinese Chan tradition, Wato in Japanese Zen tradition, and Hwadu (Hwado) in Korean Seon tradition.  The translation of “hwadu” literally means “word head” or “before speech” and refers to a phrase or a very short sentence. “Gan” means to observe or see and “Seon” is the Korean word for Zen, so Ganhwa Seon means “investigating Hwadu Zen.” This type of meditation is considered by some to be a shorter, more direct path to enlightenment than other forms of meditation.

Many credit the Chinese Zen master Dahui, (1089-1163), a member of the Linji school, with developing this technique. Dahui used hwadu in part to counteract the intellectualism that had begun to creep into kongan practice. He was also interested in teaching the lay community, particularly the Chinese scholar officials. Their support was crucial  for the survival of his school because these lay officials controlled the appointments of abbots to public monasteries. Dahui maintained that  hwadu meditation “can be carried out by layman in the midst of their daily activities.”

Even though Dahui was the first to formalize doubting meditaion, the first teaching can be said to go back to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng (AD 637-713). Huineng taught his fellow student Ming by asking “While not thinking of good or bad, what is your original face (true nature)?” According to the Platform Sutra, Ming got enlightened because of that question.

Zen and Doubt Meditation came to Korea by way of the disciples of Huineng. Korean Zen Master Chinul (1158-1210) is considered to be the most influential figure in the formation of Korean Zen. Like Dahui, he promoted formal Hwadu practice in Korea. He was so successful in popularizing this practice, that it continues to play a central role in Korean Zen today, as it does in China and Japan.

What is Hwadu?

Hwadu is a short question or phrase that is used as a subject of meditation to focus the mind and arouse doubt. Hwadu’s are based on the encounters between Chinese Zen masters and their students (public cases known as kongans), except hwadu’s are shorter phrases than the actual kongans.

A hwadu is used to cut through the pathways of language and thought so that you awaken to your original mind. In Hwadu practice, you investigate and focus on the doubt sensation brought on by the hwadu. You, the practitioner, do not try to answer the question intellectually or with conceptual thinking. Instead, you bring your whole being to focus on the doubt brought on by the question. If you continue to hold this doubt, it will cause the cessation of thought. In continuing to take up the hwadu, unceasingly, it will build and build until it forms a great mass or “block of doubt,” in which you “can’t go forward, can’t go backward.” Once you become one with this doubt and completely surrender to it, it is said to  “explode.”  At this point, your mind opens and you obtain your true nature.

Some examples of hwadu’s are: “What am I?,” “What is this?,” “Dried shit stick,” “Original face?,” “What is Mu?”  Whatever the hwadu, they all point to the same thing, the one big question-  the question of our ultimate reality.  “What is life and death?,” “Why do I suffer?”- all boil down to “Who is this asking this question” or “What am I?” And isn’t this the very question, that brought us to this practice in the first place? So holding this question, this sensation of suffering or dis-ease, keeps us in beginner’s mind and reminds us of the pressing matter of our own life and death. As Chinese master Gaofeng states “The thousand doubts, the ten thousand doubts are just this one doubt. Resolve this doubt and no doubt remains.”

The intensive nature of this practice might seem more suitable for monastics, but Dahui maintained just the opposite. He said that monks like himself, “are on the outside breaking in; lay people are on the inside breaking out. The power of the one on the outside breaking in is weak; the power of the one on the inside breaking out is strong.” Dahui and other Zen masters stress that it is important to carry the hwadu in daily life- eating meals, going to work, talking with friends; however, you may be unable to take up the hwadu when concentrating wholly on a task. In that case your mind should naturally return to it when the task is finished. (Zen Master Seung Sahn compared taking up Great Doubt to a hen sitting on her eggs or a mother whose son is away fighting in a war.) Both Dahui and Boshan stress the importance of seeking the guidance of a good Teacher and Dharma friends when embarking on this practice.

So in today’s discussion we will be using the book “Great Doubt: Practicing Zen in the World” that offers the translation and commentary of two short texts authored by Boshan (1575-1630), one of the leading Zen masters if the Ming dynasty. The texts are “Exhortations for Those Who Don’t Rouse Doubt” and “Exhortations for Those Who Do Rouse Doubt.” Boshan like many Zen masters, took the name of the mountain, Mount Bo, where he was active. He is also known as Wuxi Yaunlai and Dayi.

Boshan left home as a teenager to study and practice Buddhism. After five years of intensive study, he received full ordination. He then became the student of a very demanding teacher who consistently rejected Boshan’s insights. One day, while sitting meditation on a rock, he heard a crash from a statue falling nearby and had a sudden realization. The following year he was greatly awakened when watching a person climb a tree. After taking Bodhisatva precepts, he taught at several monasteries before settling at Mount Bo. He was one of Wuming Huijing’s four Dharma heirs. He died in 1630, leaving behind several Dharma heirs and lay disciples.

Boshan wrote these “Exhortations,” part of a much larger work, when he has 36. In his writings he emphasizes the importance of great doubt:

“In Zen practice, the essential point is to rouse doubt. What is this doubt? When you are born, for example, where do you come from? You cannot help but remain in doubt about this. When you die, where do you go? Again, you cannot help but remain in doubt. Since you cannot pierce this barrier of life and death, suddenly doubt will coalesce right before your eyes. Try to put it down, you cannot; try to push it away, you cannot. Eventually you will break through this doubt block and realize what a worthless notion life and death is—Ha!  As the old worthies said: Great doubt, great awakening; small doubt, small awakening; no doubt, no awakening.”