David Foster Wallace, a contemporary author, in describing his appreciation of the function of art and of what he hoped his art could contribute, said that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. The same should be expected of any genuine spiritual path. The disturbance to our comforts arises in the teachings, our interactions with the teachers, and our willingness to remain open to the observable and undeniable truth of impermanence. And it also rests in our ability to locate and exercise the power of our doubt, and to identify so completely with our questions that we free ourselves from any tethers. To enter a koan, for example, is to enter doubt. It is to make friends with doubt, to see it as an ally, a revealer.
In this koan, Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor, emerges out of the forest—where he spent some fifteen years—to disturb the comfortable. He breaks up a discussion that has spiraled into an impasse. Two monks are debating, looking at a flag flapping in the wind, asking what is actually moving: the flag or the wind, and responding with their views. There seems to be an inquiry. But as it frequently happens, the question quickly transforms into a certainty, a conviction that merges with the fiber of the body and mind of the one who holds an opinion. And everything comes to a grinding halt. Comfortable unrest ensues. It is the flag. It is the wind. It is the flag. It is the wind... This can go on for a very long time. Lifetimes, generations, across cultures.
Doubt contains questions, but not every question is an expression of doubt. We can question mechanically, mouthing something but unable to open to the uncertainty implicit in every question. We question to assert ourselves against another position, not so much interested in seeing anything clearly but simply to remain in a challenging relatedness with authority. We question to draw attention to ourselves, to hear ourselves. We ask questions that deflect us from questions that are more disturbing and disquieting. And we often settle for already available, tested and accepted responses. To locate and stay within the tension of a real question is demanding. It takes clear intent and skill. It involves practice. Practice rests and is fueled by inquiry.
The first two items in the phrasing of the Eightfold Path are right understanding and right thought, or more specifically, right intention. These two strands of the “right” life are traditionally presented as belonging to the prajna group of teachings. Right speech, action and livelihood address the sila, the moral and ethical dimension of the path, while eight effort, mindfulness and concentration apply to samadhi, or training of the mind. Where there are plenty of directives and explicit instruction on how to take up the practice and training of sila and samadhi, there are fewer ways of deliberately engaging the practices pertaining to prajna, non-dual wisdom. Learning how to cultivate doubt is one method that allows us to turn toward wisdom directly. The element of doubt within our zazen is already an expression of prajna.