Chih-i on Removing the Screen of Doubt

It’s said that Chih-i wrote Chih-kuan for Beginners for the benefit of his brother-in-law who was a general in the Chinese army. But it is also held that Chih-i did not write anything down himself, but rather his students compiled his teachings after he had passed away. In any case, even though it is supposed to be a manual for novice practitioners, it is really quite an advanced text.

Chih-kuan is the Chinese translation of samatha-vipasanna or “stopping and seeing” (concentration and insight), the bedrock of Buddhist meditation. A ‘stopping and seeing’ method was systematized by Chih-i (538-597 CE), the founder of the T’ien-‘tai (Celestial Terrace) school, which resulted in several meditation manuals, the first produced by Chinese Buddhists.

This passage is from the Section 3 of Chih-kuan for Beginners entitled “Removal of Screens.” Chih-i highlights five major ‘screens’ or hindrances to meditation practice that should be removed: desire, hatred, sleep and drowsiness, restlessness and grief, and finally, doubt.

This is my own version, based partly on the translation by Charles Luk in The Secrets of Chinese Meditation.


Removing the screen of doubt.

When doubt veils the mind, it is difficult to open any dharma doors. Because the mind of faith is lacking, little benefit can be obtained from practicing Buddha Dharma. This is like a man with no hands who comes upon a mountain of jewels and is unable to carry any away with him.

Doubt comes in many forms, however not all of them hinder meditation practice. The three kinds of doubt that do obstruct are:

1. Doubt about oneself.

When a practitioner thinks: “I am a person with a dull mind and heavy karma. How can I do this?” When doubt such as this is at the forefront of one’s mind, the chih-kuan dharma door is closed, and therefore, realization is unobtainable.  Practitioners should not harbor these doubts because no one knows the true nature of their karma from the past.

2. Doubt about the teacher.

A student may think: “The teacher’s appearance and demeanor is such that I cannot believe he or she has attained anything, so how can this person teach me?” Harboring doubt and contempt in this way will only hinder one’s practice. The key to removing doubt and contempt is taught in the Mahavibhasa Sastra which says, “One does throw away a bag of gold just because the pouch has a foul smell.” In the same manner, even though the teacher is not perfect, the student should still regard this person as a Buddha.

3. Doubt about the Dharma.

Most people are attached to their own notions and have no trust or confidence in the Dharma they have been taught and which they cannot accept and practice with sincerity. The Dharma cannot penetrate the mind of a practitioner who constantly doubts it. Why is this so? The following verse clearly explains the hindrance of doubt:

It is just as if a person arrives at a crossroads
And out of hesitation cannot decide to go one way or the other.
Thus in regards of the dharma of the true nature of things,
Doubt functions in the same way.
When seeking truth, ignorance manifests itself as doubt,
And this is one of the worst evils.
Within both good and bad Dharmas,
Throughout both samsara and nirvana,
There is an actual and truthful Dharma
That you should never doubt.
If you cling to the delusion of doubt,
The judges from the courts of Hell will bind you up
Like a deer captured by a lion with no hope of escape.
One should embrace virtuous Dharmas,
Just as when one arrives at a crossroads
And chooses the best path to follow.

It is faith such as this that opens the Buddha’s Dharma Doors and without this mind of faith there is no entry. Therefore, when a practitioner realizes that doubt is unprofitable, he or she should no longer indulge in it, and cast it away.


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