It may seem strange to talk about the topic of doubt in a satsang; we generally come to satsang to have our faith refreshed and renewed. However, doubt can be a productive phase on the spiritual path. Baba Ji encourages us to keep our thoughts positive, but sometimes we have doubts, and we worry that entertaining doubts is the opposite of positive thinking. But we can be a very positive person and still have doubts; we can hold doubt and positive thinking in our minds at the same time.
In fact, the three foundations of Zen Buddhism are Great Faith, Great Doubt, and Great Determination. They are viewed as three legs of a stool because all three are needed to keep our balance while leading a spiritual life. In this framework, doubt is not the opposite of faith but rather a complement to faith. The American writer Anne Lamott said:
The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. 1
This quote illustrates that our problem is often not doubt, but certainty. In the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki Roshi said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s there are few.”2 Periods of doubt can help bring us back to our beginner’s mind so that we re-examine our understanding of the teachings of Sant Mat and, in doing so, face our misconceptions, illusions and superstitions.
Doubt is a natural part of the spiritual path. We don’t need to suppress it, and we have never been asked to have blind faith in the teachings. In the book A Wake Up Call, the authors say, “Sant Mat is a spiritual path and has no need to lean on the crutches of blind faith.”3 However, when the winds of doubt blow through our lives, we do need to hold our seat in meditation – to perservere. That way doubt is bookended by faith and determination. What we may find, if we continue to do our meditation, is that once a period of doubt has passed, our faith is deepened and our determination is strengthened.
The mystics write about doubt because they know that it something that we experience when we attempt to following the spiritual path. When Rumi realized that his beloved Friend, Shams-e Tabrizi, was gone and would never return, he wrote:
I am that black night, angry at the moon.
I am that naked beggar, angry at the king.
The grace of that Peerless One
was calling me home,
but I made an excuse, angry at the path!4
There may be times when we feel “angry at the path,” but it is important to remember that after this period in his life, Rumi went on to write some of the most profound and beautiful spiritual poetry every written. In Sar Bachan Poetry, Soami Ji sometimes wrote from the perspective of the disciple talking to the master or the soul talking to the Lord. In one poem, he said:
Day and night I call out to you –
Why do you not listen to my cries?
I just cannot understand the working of your will….
You do not protect and save me,
even though I’ve always lived in your company.5
In another poem, he wrote:
... though I try
I cannot follow the path leading to (my Beloved).
Dark and fearsome is the uphill path
and no one is there to hear my cries of pain.
I do not know what else to do;
I feel demoralized,
for I cannot win my Beloved’s heart.…
I cannot even practice the path of Surat Shabd
that has been granted to me.6
In these poems, Soami Ji shows deep compassion for the disciple who is mired in doubt, perplexed about the master’s will, feels that it is impossible to follow the path, and demoralized by failure in the practice of meditation.
One of the benefits of doubt is that it helps us to let go of the burden of being attached to ideas and concepts that we actually know nothing about. And Baba Ji has said that we don’t know anything about Sant Mat! Our doubts are often about our misconceptions and superstitions rather than the teachings themselves. Isn’t it a good thing if we doubt our misconceptions and superstitions? Doesn’t this help to deepen our understanding of the true nature of Sant Mat? In the book From self to Shabd, the author wrote, “Beware of beliefs that can turn a true spiritual path into a religion of superstition.”7
Joseph Goldstein, a well-known American Buddhist teacher, spent seven years in India during the late 1960s and early 1970s studying Theravada Buddhism. A key figure in these teachings was Sariputra, the chief disciple of the Buddha. He was considered to be a fully enlightened being who would not reincarnate again in this world. When Goldstein returned to the United States after his time in India, he was teaching at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He saw a poster on the wall about a talk to be given by a Tibetan Rinpoche who was known to be a great and enlightened being, and who was also apparently, according to the poster, the incarnation of Sariputra. Goldstein wrote that when he saw this, his mind just stopped. He wondered, How could this be? According to the teachings he had dedicated himself to, Sariputra was definitely not reincarnating. In the book One Dharma, he wrote:
As I struggled with this dilemma, I had a certain epiphany. I realized that I had no idea whether or not Rinpoche was the incarnation of Sariputra, and since I didn’t know I really had no need to have an opinion about it. It was an amazing and immediate relief, and I understood the tremendous burden of being attached to opinions and views that were not part of my direct experience.8
In the book When Things Fall Apart, the author Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun, explains what can happen when the conceptual framework we have about our spiritual path falls apart. She calls this experience – this phase of doubt – “being squeezed.”
We continually find ourselves in that squeeze. It’s a place where we look for alternatives to just being there. It’s an uncomfortable, embarrassing place, and it’s often the place where people like ourselves give up. We liked meditation and the teachings when we felt inspired and in touch with ourselves and on the right path. But what about when it begins to feel like a burden, like we made the wrong choice and it’s not living up to our expectations at all? The people we are meeting are not all that sane. In fact, they seem pretty confused. The way the place is run is not up to par. Even the teacher is questionable.9
How often has Baba Ji asked us: How do you know I’m not a fraud? Chödrön goes on to say that this is the very place where we learn the most:
This place of the squeeze is the very point in our meditation and in our lives where we can really learn something....This is the place where we begin to learn the meaning behind the concepts and the words.10
Isn’t this what Baba Ji has been trying to get us to do? To learn the meaning “behind the concepts and the words”? To go beyond our concepts to a deeper experience of the spiritual path?
Kabir talks about the same thing through poetry and metaphorical language. In this poem he seems to be having a conversation with himself, referring to himself as a “wanting creature.” And this is what we are: wanting creatures.
I said to the wanting-creature inside me:
What is this river you want to cross?
In other words, what is your idea of becoming enlightened? We seem to think that enlightenment is over there, across the river, and we want to get across the river in order to experience it. But he goes on to say:
There are no travelers on the river-road,
and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank,
There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no tow rope either, and no one to pull it.
There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford!
And there is no body and no mind! …
Just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things,
and stand firm in that which you are.11
In this poem, we see the three foundations of Great Faith, Great Doubt, and Great Determination. Great Faith is wanting to cross the river, wanting to become enlightened. If we have embarked upon a spiritual path, we have this faith. Great Doubt is realizing that there is no river, that we have to let go of our conceptual framework in which we believe that enlightenment is across the river, somewhere external and separate. Great Determination is standing firm in what we truly are. And what are we? Baba Ji says that Nam is our identity.
Ultimately we are beings of love. This whole path that we are trying to travel is all about the heart and the spirit, our attention turning inward toward love, opening up to love. But for some reason, we have great difficulty with this; it is hard for us to turn toward love even though, as Baba Ji says, love is the core of our being.
The experience of doubt can help us to “throw away all thoughts of imaginary things,” as Kabir says – to let go of what we think we know and to turn our attention toward our true self, our true home. As Soami Ji said, “Let us turn homewards, friend – why linger in this alien land?” 12
The American writer, Annie Dillard, wrote:
We are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at all. We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if we ever wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of light uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it’s time to break our necks for home.
There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times.13
And Baba Ji has said, “The only thing that matters is going within. All the rest is a story.”14
Baba Ji seems to enjoy his role as Confuser in Chief. He carries it out with a lot of humour, but what he is doing is very important: he is chipping away at a conceptual framework that is holding us back – our misconceptions, illusions, and superstitions. He is putting the squeeze on us, as Pema Chödrön might say, and when this framework falls apart, he is there with open arms to hold us in a vast ocean of love.
In the poem “Surrender,” Rumi wrote:
The Beloved won’t let you stay
loyal or disloyal,
in acceptance or in denial.
Wherever you put your heart,
He will pull it disapprovingly,
so don’t put yourself anywhere, O heart –
and don’t insist …
O brother, don’t you know
who you’re dealing with?15
- Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, p. 257
- Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, Prologue, p.2
- Radha Soami Satsang Beas, From self to Shabd, p.102, p. 9
- Radha Soami Satsang Beas, Jalal al-Din Rumi, p.279
- Soami Ji, Sar Bachan Poetry, p.321
- Ibid., p.309
- Radha Soami Satsang Beas, From self to Shabd, p.102
- Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism, HarperOne, 2003, pp.136-37
- Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart – Heart Advice for Difficult Times, pp.116-17
- Ibid., p.117
- Robert Bly, ed., The Kabir Book: Forty-Four of the Ecstatic Poems of Kabir, Poem #14
- Soami Ji, Sar Bachan Poetry, p.219
- Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm, p.62
- Radha Soami Satsang Beas, Essential Sant Mat, p.9
- Radha Soami Satsang Beas, Jalal al-Din Rumi, p.219