The fifth of five hindrances to concentration

This talk was given during the White Tara Winter Retreat at Sravasti Abbey.

  • The mind that is unsure of itself
  • We should practice the part of the Dharma that makes sense and benefits us
  • Doubt that is honest questioning and curiosity is good
  • Having confidence in our own abilities

White Tara Retreat 28: Concentration hindrance of doubt (download)

The last of the five hindrances is doubt. This is the mind that is unsure of itself. We have doubt in many different areas of our life. But here the difficult kind of doubt is when we doubt the Dharma teachings, or when we doubt our own ability, or we doubt whether the path brings the result. That kind of doubt immobilizes us.

They say that if you have a needle with two points, you can’t sew with it because it doesn’t go this way and it doesn’t go this way. When we have doubt about the teachings, about our own ability, about the path, these kinds of things—then we are really stuck. It becomes a very big distraction in our meditation because then we sit there and we go, “What am I doing here?” If we doubt ourselves then our mind goes, “Well, I am doing retreat but maybe I should be studying more.” Then if we go study we think, “Well, I am studying but maybe I should do more social service and engaged Buddhism.” Then we do that and say, “Oh, I am so busy doing that, I need to do more retreat.” Whatever we do we remain in a state of doubt—so we don’t do what we do with our whole heart.

That clearly saps our energy and it saps the purity of our motivation. We’re not whole-hearted in it, “Maybe I shouldn’t—maybe I shouldn’t be ordained.” If you are not ordained, “Well, maybe I should ordain.” Then we scratch our head with doubt about the teachings. “Did the Buddha really teach rebirth? I don’t know. I think this is a pretty strange thing. And so-and-so in his book said Buddha didn’t teach it.” Well, that person I don’t know, but I find much evidence in the [Buddhist] canon to the opposite. The Buddha quite definitely taught it. But we get stuck in this doubt, “I don’t know if I believe in rebirth or not.” It’s not essential that you decide today that you believe in rebirth. Rather than get stuck in the doubt, think about all the reasons that are explained for the existence of rebirth. Really think about it with an open mind. If it still does not make a lot of sense to you, put it on the back burner. That’s okay. Come back to it later.

Practice the part of the Dharma that really makes sense to you and benefits you. Going ahead like that is much better than getting stuck in the doubt that doesn’t get anywhere. Of course, when we are studying and learning there’s so many questions that come up. That kind of doubt is really good. That type is going to encourage us to do more research, think, learn more, and meditate on the teachings. That kind of curiosity is not what I am calling doubt. Here, what I am calling doubt is really when we get quite stuck, and we don’t try and study and find an answer, or we study and we don’t really think about what we heard with an open mind, or we just sit there puzzling without doing anything. That is the kind of doubt that I am talking about.

The remedy to that is, first of all, to realize that this is a hindrance on the path. Instead of believing that this is a virtuous mind, recognize it as the ego throwing a wrench in the engine, so that we don’t get caught up in it. Instead, we really investigate. We learn, we think about, and we bring some resolution to our doubts. Is that clear?

I especially want to emphasize that we should have some confidence in our own ability. We call it “practice Dharma” for a reason. Practice means that it is something we do again and again and again, which means that we don’t start the practice having completed everything and knowing how to do everything perfectly. That’s not how we begin. Instead of doubting ourselves thinking, “Oh, I don’t understand this. I’m so stupid. Is this going to get me anywhere anyway?” Instead of that just think, “Look, I have the Buddha nature. I have the potential to become a fully enlightened being. Of course there’s going to be hindrances from my mind and my karma but that’s nothing new. As long as I have faith, and aspiration, and interest, and joyous effort, and eagerness, and I am willing to put my energy in then, of course, I can get somewhere.” That kind of faith in ourselves is really important.

We shouldn’t feel beat down by life. “Oh, my life is just one big hindrance, one big obstacle. I want to do so many virtuous things but I can’t. Poor me.” That doesn’t get us anywhere. We should have an optimistic mind and then just go for it. A lot of the things that we consider hindrances are not hindrances. It’s just our mind making up stupid stories. If we really try, we’ll see that what we consider a huge obstacle might actually fade away without very much effort. If we try. If we tell ourselves it’s impossible from the get go, then it will be. Okay. Go for it!

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.