Full Moon Day: Overcoming Doubt

February 11, 2009



Inside Venerable Ajahn Chah’s stupa on January 16th

– the anniversary of his passing.


Overcoming Doubt


Doubt is the fifth of the five hindrances to the development of meditation and wisdom. Of the five doubt is in many ways the most disabling. Its milder form is easily waved aside; its most virulent is like a disease: it can spread to every part of your mind, undermining every positive thought and crippling every effort. So be careful, and keep it in check.

People new to Buddhism naturally question doubt as a hindrance: “ Surely if you are saying that doubt is an enemy to progress on the Buddhist path you’re promoting blind belief?” That’s not the case and that’s why it is very important to make the distinction between a healthy scepticism and the cancerous doubt that prevents you from doing anything at all.

The Buddha encouraged us to investigate and to probe both his person and his teachings: “Don’t just believe what I say.” We examine the character of the Buddha and we find a person who, it must be said, is impossible to fault. The fact that he advises us to question his teachings is a clear sign that he has no hidden agenda. So when we investigate the Buddha with a keen mind our confidence increases.

And what happens when we probe his teachings? Of course there are elements that some find difficult: the teachings on rebirth perhaps being an example. And so here is something that may cause doubt to arise. But as the Buddha taught us to scrutinize what he said we do not feel pressured to believe things that don’t quite make sense to us yet and so we place them on the top shelf out of view, possibly with a faint intention to have another look later. It is therefore no great concern that we might have difficulty with some teachings. And as for the others? Well, what can you say? This is why we love Buddhism – because the teachings are so clear, so practical, so relevant, so inspiring, and so immediate: the Four Noble Truths, the emphasis on wisdom, on loving-kindness, on compassion, on generosity, on patience… need I go on? And so a healthy dose of scepticism is crucial: it will enable us to separate the gold from the ore.

But where does scepticism end and doubt begin? A good question. Why did the Buddha teach us? So that we practise. The Noble Eightfold Path is, above all, a practical path. It is not something that people are meant to rumble on about in a cafe over a glass of red wine. It is something that needs to be practised on the pavement, in your office, and on your cushion. So we could say that scepticism becomes doubt when it hinders your ability to practise the path of Buddhism. Doubt, then, stops one from effectively doing the practice. Window shopping on Spiritual Street is common these days. Some people even travel the globe searching for the perfect monastery in which to ordain. But many never find that perfect monastery, and so they fail to get on with the task.

Doubt is that mental quality that causes practice to grind to a halt. The Buddha likened the mind shrouded in doubt to a jar of water that is turbid, unsettled, muddy and placed in the dark. Being stuck at cross roads in the desert is another of his well known analogies. Doubt is a hindrance that can plague some people and not others. It is likely though that many of us will endure patches of doubt, when it takes precedence over all other obstacles. This last point needs to be understood so that we are not surprised when doubt arises. Doubt is a natural mental state, but it does need to be dealt with swiftly. Doubt comes in a number of guises in the context of this path: doubt in the Buddha, his Teachings, the Sangha, and one’s ability to succeed.

Speaking from my own experience I have never really doubted the Buddha and his teachings, but in terms of my meditation practice and my ability to succeed on this path I’ve had my fair share of whacks with the doubt stick. Now do I wish it was different for me? Do I wish my practice was, and will be, a doubt free experience? Nah – I’d be lost without it.

So I’ll now focus on what seem to me to be the two most common types of doubt: doubt in the efficacy of your chosen meditation technique, and doubt in your ability to succeed on this path. 

“Is this meditation method I am using suited to my temperament?” This is a valid question, but it is usually rooted in impatience: we don’t get results as quickly as we’d like so we want to have a pop at something else. This experience is very common in meditation and in most cases it should be disregarded. The thought of the perfect technique will elude you as the tail the jaw of the spinning dog: you will never quite reach it.

I heard of a man who had once had a very good meditation practice. There was certainly no need for him to have looked for something else. But then, one day, as he was flicking through a magazine or a book or something like that, his curiosity was aroused: he had encountered a new technique. Tempted by the prospects of superior experiences he thought he’d have a crack. And the initial results were good; but they were short lived, and consequently he was left in doubt. Thinking that he might have better luck elsewhere he started with another method. But the same thing happened and the doubt began to spread. Little did he know he had now mounted that ride that is so difficult to escape: the helter-skelter of relentlessly switching technique. “Which is the one for me?” he would keep asking himself, desperate for some peace. But he didn’t know and he couldn’t choose and so the switching didn’t stop. Eventually he went to speak to an experienced monk about his problem. The monk explained that this was simply the hindrance of doubt and that – within reason – it really didn’t matter which technique the man used as long as he dedicated himself to one; for the essence of concentration is the act of concentrating itself. At first the man listened, but as the monk continued to speak the man’s eyes glazed over as the fog of doubt filled his mind. Every word spoken by that monk was contaminated by the man’s doubt. He became incapable of taking advice. He couldn’t help but doubt it all…..   I’m not sure what happened to him after that.

Sooo, that’s a bit of a doubt horror story but it’s one that we should remember. Because doubt is terrible once it has begun to spread.  

I underwent a period of doubt concerning whether or not I had broken a precept. I knew that I hadn’t and common sense was behind me. But there was a part of my mind that kept doubting. It hounded and hounded me: “Did I break the precept? Did I? Did I? Did I?” On and on it would go. Nowadays I flick thoughts like that into oblivion because I know where they can take me. But I didn’t know then. I do not joke when I say that that doubt rapidly turned my mind into a raging inferno that took a considerable amount of time to cool down. This is the power of thoughts when they are tangled with doubt.

So how do we best deal with the doubt that persuades us our meditation technique is not the one for us? Well, usually these thoughts have no basis in reality. If it’s a simple technique that the Buddha taught we can’t really go wrong and so we keep at it. We keep digging away.

There was once a man who went in search of water. He took his spade into a field and began to dig. It went well for a few minutes. “Whooppee – success!” he thought. But what happened after a while? He struck some clay. So what did he do? He jumped out of his hole and trotted over to another patch and began another hole. But the same thing happened, though this time it was gravel. “Difficult. I don’t think I’ll get water by digging here.” So he began another hole. This time things went really well. Finally his goal was to be achieved. Finally he was going to find water. Wrong. A rock made sure of that. Now, did our friend determine to find a way round the rock? No, of course not. He climbed out of his respectably-sized hole and went somewhere else. Before he knew it his field was peppered with holes but he had no water. What should that man have done with the clay, gravel and rock? He should have bored, blasted, and bulldozed his way through. Meditation is the same. We are bound to hit the gravel, the clay and the rock. But these various layers we encounter are there for us to go through, round, under, and over. We will experience them no matter which technique we use. They are part of the practice. Do not doubt it, just keep going!

When I first began meditating I didn’t know anything except how to watch the breath. Samatha and vipassana? Theravada and Mahayana? Forest Tradition and other? I had never heard of any of them; I was totally ignorant of anything except the simple practice of breath meditation. So I was lucky because it was simple for me. Simplicity is crucial. Doubt arises when we think too much, read too much, listen to too many talks by different teachers, and look around too much. Keep it simple: the practice of meditation is straightforward, just keep at it.

(A note on experimentation: this is all right at times and providing you don’t switch hastily. I’ve known people try ten techniques in ten minutes (well, almost). It did them no good at all. So the key when experimenting is to be sensible and restrained. For instance you might like to see whether the sensation of the breath at the nose tip is clearer to you than at the abdomen. Have a look – but don’t try it for thirty seconds and then go back: this is not a good habit to instil in the mind. Determine to focus on the nose tip for at least a few sessions, just to get a reasonable taste. If sensations at the nose tip are consistently clearer and you can focus on them with less difficulty then determine to focus there for a few weeks, and proceed like that. Regarding switching subject altogether: the same principle applies. Don’t bounce from method to method like a chimpanzee on steroids. Restraint and patience are essential. You must give the new technique a fair chance. If the new one is not more suited to you go back to your original one for a good while. Then maybe a few months later you can experiment with something else.)

Possibly the most common type of doubt is self-doubt. The vital thing to remember here is that these doubts are only thoughts. That is all they are: empty, fleeting, insubstantial thoughts. But these thoughts can be powerful if we believe in them and they can paralyze our development. That which is related to doubt and is healthy – as well as wholesome scepticism – is a questioning attitude concerning your practice; in moderate amounts it ensures you are continually monitoring your practice with wisdom and making suitable adjustments: “Is my meditation going as well as it could? How can I improve it?” And so on. A gentle trickle of thoughts like this as your companion is very helpful. But the doubt that is classified as a hindrance is that which threatens to bring practice to a halt: “I can’t do this. I’m no good. Blah, blah, blah.” Self-doubt needs to be dealt with and learnt from.

These days psychotherapy seems to have a bit of a hold in some Buddhist circles. Is this a bad thing? If the sense of self is being reinforced – yes. What do people speak to psychotherapists about? They talk about ‘ME’. ‘MY’ problems. ‘MY’ thoughts. ‘MY’ difficult childhood, etc, etc. As a teen I was troubled by low self-esteem. Desperate to overcome my unhappiness and self-doubt I at one point turned to a counsellor for help. Amongst the various methods that very friendly lady taught me was a mantra: “I’m OK. I’m OK. I’m OK.” It didn’t help. In most cases counsellors and therapists aim to bolster the sense of self, to promote self-confidence and self-esteem. On one level this is commendable: they are trying to help people. But it is not healthy. Because, according to the Buddha, when you are building the sense of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ you are building something that isn’t real: you are building a delusion, a façade, a hollow mental construction. Can you depend on something that is not real? Of course not! It is destined to fall, to be undermined, to be shattered. And when that happens terrible suffering for the individual follows.

So how do we overcome self-doubt? We overcome it by using the tool of mindfulness: something we can rely on. When we are mindful of self-doubt we do not indulge in those thoughts and feelings. We do not identify with them; we do not give them meaning. Thoughts of doubt will only have meaning if you give them meaning. If you sit in a big squidgy leather chair and verbalize the thoughts that say how hopeless you are, and how your mother neglected to do something crucial when you were a child and how you’ve wanted to meditate for thirty years and now you want to start but you can’t because you feel guilty that you didn’t start thirty years ago, then all that mental jumble is being jam-packed with meaning. If you go on like that you definitely will need help! So we don’t give those thoughts meaning – we try simply to do this: Recognize them, Observe them, and Let them Pass. 

Ajahn Chah said these thoughts are like a little pussy-cat that comes to the window begging for food: it keeps meowing, hoping you’ll feed him. But you don’t and he goes away. He returns the following evening, but as you don’t feed him he again disappears. He tries several more times, but on each occasion you ignore him. After a few days he understands that he will never win you over and so he disappears forever. Our thoughts, and doubts, are the same. Do not indulge – just watch and wait. They will go. You are not hopeless. Be mindful and patient; that is all you need to be free of self-doubt.

So different situations may call for different approaches. If you know a doubt is an unjust one, as in my doubt about my precepts, then squash it before it starts spinning like a Tasmanian devil on crack. If you are doubting your meditation just keep at it and recognise the benefits you have reaped all ready. If you are doubting your ability or whether your ‘defective’ character can succeed with such a wonderful path as Buddhism remember: we are all ‘defective’ – we are unenlightened beings, the Buddha before his enlightenment included. This is why we are practising: to overcome our flaws and limitations, to overcome self-doubt. So be mindful. Do not identify with self-doubt. Watch and learn and see that those thoughts are nothing; that they only become something when you make them into something. And as for doubt in the Buddha and his teachings? Well, have a good look at the Pali Canon and your doubts will be washed away.


The next teaching will be on:

The new moon day, Monday 23rd February



1. I have a page that tells me what people ‘Google’ to get to Dhamma Diary. A very common search includes the words ‘God’, ‘soul’ and ‘Buddhism’. Typing them in brings up my ‘Buddhism: No God; No Soul’ piece. So they read that. Seeing that it’s being read quite a bit I had a good look at it and found that, in some instances, I sound a little arrogant. So I’ve given it an overhaul, aware that there may be people reading it who don’t share my passion for the no god, no soul teachings – people who just want an unbiased angle on the subject. I can’t say I’m unbiased (seems like a no-brainer to me!) but I have tried to be reasonable and polite.

2. I have put up some photos of my trip to Thailand.

3. I have put up a recording of my talk in Warwick last week on that trip. Stories include a close encounter with a bear!


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