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A Place for Doubt

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The 9/11 terrorist attacks were fostered in no small measure by the certitude of a handful of religious zealots that their religious beliefs alone were right and all others wrong. In early Buddhist texts like the Atthakavagga (The Octets), the Buddha bemoaned the pernicious hold that extremist views, and especially religious blind faith, have on people. By presuming that only my beliefs, practices, and perceptions are correct and unassailable implies that all others ipso facto are incorrect and controvertible.

As the tenth anniversary of this heinous act of religious terror approaches, it is perhaps refreshing that an eminent figure in a tradition that places doubt at the very core of religious teaching and practice will be visiting New York City. He is Ven. Jinje Seonsa, the leading Korean Zen (Seon) master of his generation.

In Buddhism, by abandoning the personal point of view that is the self (atman), the Buddhist experiences a state that transcends dichotomies such as enemy and friend, orthodox and heretical, and thus clings to nothing from this conditioned world. Even attachment to "Buddhism" itself, the Buddha says, must ultimately be abandoned to truly understand Buddhism. Attachment to views is considered to be the root source of the disputes that separate one group from another and lead to conflict, a position certainly taken to the extreme by the 9/11 attackers.

But it doesn't take a terrorist to operate from viewpoints of prejudice, hate, or misunderstanding. We are all impeded by thoughts and emotions that affect our understanding and actions. But if we are willing to cut through those value judgments by deploying the tool of doubt, we can experience that fundamental nature that transcends all dichotomies and inequalities.

The Korean Seon tradition places pride of place in doubt rather than faith and the teachings of Seon Master Jinje epitomize the sense of questioning that, he insists, is at the core of authentic religious practice.

Remember those colorful if not blasphemous sayings of the Zen masters?

"'What is the Buddha?' 'A dried sh** stick.'" (Yunmen)
"If you meet the Buddha, kill him!" (Linji).
"'Why did Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, come from the West?' 'A cypress tree is in the courtyard.'" (Zhaozhou)

These kinds of enigmatic statements of the masters of old are specifically intended to help overcome the attachment to views, even the view of what constitutes "Buddhism" or the "Buddha" himself. The Korean Seon tradition uses these kinds of statements as "topics of inquiry" (hwadu) in order to raise that sense of questioning, which the Koreans call technically "the sensation of doubt" (uijeong).

This Korean technique is akin to the Japanese Rinzai Zen training in koans (Zen "cases"), which is better known in the West, but Korean Ganhwa Seon developed prior to, and completely independently from, the Japanese Zen traditions. In Seon Master Jinje's presentation of Ganhwa Seon, this questioning component is paramount and is what distinguishes this Korean style of meditation from other forms of Buddhist meditation such as vipassana (insight meditation).

Such hwadu challenge one's most deeply held beliefs, including those about religion, by engendering questioning. This sensation of doubt eventually becomes so intense that the mind becomes utterly absorbed in the topic of inquiry. The meditator becomes oblivious to everything in one's life except this questioning, which becomes so second-nature that it flows effortlessly and continuously in one's mind, like water running downstream.

Seon Master Jinje commonly teaches neophytes to Ganhwa Seon practice to contemplate the hwadu "What is your original face before your parents gave birth to you?" By asking this fundamental existential question about what "we" were before we were even conceived, this question opens up a whole series of further questions about what constitutes ourselves if "we" are not our physical bodies, thoughts, emotions, and experiences. The intensity of this questioning eventually creates such pressure in the mind that the doubt shatters, removing the limiting point of view that is the self and leaving the mind receptive to the influence of the unconditioned and open to the boundless perspective that is enlightenment.

On the heels of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I think it is fitting that we all open our minds to the value of doubt. By challenging our own fundamental beliefs, challenging our own understanding of self and other, right and wrong, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and enemy and friend, Korean questioning meditation thus opens the possibility of a entirely new way of perceiving the things of this world, a new way of thinking in which clinging to our own views alone does not hold sway.

According to Korean Seon teachings, this is the ultimate paradox of religion: to truly have certitude one must first have doubt.

For more information about Seon Master Jinje's visit to New York City: jinje.us.