Doubt – the fifth hindrance

Gil Fronsdal has useful things to say about the hindrance of doubt:

Without a dedication to practicing with the hindrances, any one of them can derail a person from practice. This is especially so for doubt, the fifth and final hindrance. Whereas the other four can arise from concerns about anything, doubt as a hindrance is directly related to the practice itself. When one’s uncertainty about the practice or about one’s own ability is strong enough, it is possible to give up on the practice.

Doubt as a hindrance is a mental preoccupation involving indecision, uncertainty, and lack of confidence. It causes a person to hesitate, vacillate, and not settle into meditation practice. Its simplest manifestation can be a lack of clarity about the meditation instruction, which may be settled quickly with further instruction. More dramatically, doubt can involve deep, fiery inner conflicts and fears stirred up by the practice. All along the spectrum, doubt can keep the mind agitated, perhaps simmering in discursive thought and feelings of inadequacy. Alternatively it can deflate the mind, robbing it of interest and energy.

“Hindering doubt” is not the same as “questioning doubt.” Doubt as a hindrance leads to inaction and giving up. Questioning doubt inspires action and the impulse to understand. It can, in fact, be helpful for mindfulness practice. A questioning attitude encourages deeper investigation. It is a healthy doubt that can overcome complacency and loosen preconceived ideas.

Doubt can be a hindrance to our everyday mindfulness practice as well as to sitting meditation. If we don’t have at least some faith that the Buddha’s instructions can and will lead us toward freedom from suffering, then why bother? One way to approach this sort of doubt is to ask ourselves: what’s the alternative? Do we have a better plan for our lives? Where are we trying to go? How do we envision ourselves in old age, looking back on what our life has become? Do we think that having any direction in life is impossible, or too confining?

Questioning is wholesome; giving up without investigating is unwholesome. The Buddha invited us to “come and see” what life is like when we develop our virtues, restrain our unwholesome impulses, and attempt to calm and focus our minds. This is not a theoretical proposition; we have to actually attempt to walk the path in order to gain direct experience and faith that it’s working. Discussion alone will never persuade us that the Buddha’s path is for us.

This quote from the Pali canon describes the elation we might feel when we overcome doubt in the practice:

From DN2 (translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi):
“Again, great king, suppose a man with wealth and possessions were travelling along a desert road where food was scarce and dangers were many. After some time he would cross over the desert and arrive safely at a village which is safe and free from danger. He would reflect on this, and as a result he would become glad and experience joy.

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
This entry was posted in Causes and results, Hindrances, Mindfulness, Patience, Wisdom and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Doubt – the fifth hindrance

  1. Patrick Cole says:

    Love this post, Lynn; especially the clarification between hindering and questioning doubt. While the “flower sermon” works for some, a bodhisattva must be prepared to appreciate and respond to questions. 🙂

  2. beforewisdomapikeyaccount says:

    “The Buddha invited us to “come and see” what life is like when we develop our virtues, restrain our unwholesome impulses, and attempt to calm and focus our minds.”

    For decades I have seen people post similar quotes in Buddhist spaces on the Internet or post links to the Kalama Sutta. Shortly after they do you can count on someone posting an essay from a translator amounting to a denial that the Buddha meant that you could think for yourself. In other words, to “come and see”, and if you don’t see, you don’t believe.

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