By John Pendall
“The finger pointing at the moon,” is a well-known Zen expression.
Great Doubt: Practicing Zen in the World by Jeff Shore is a finger pointing at you. Great Doubt is the burning need to answer such questions as, “Who am I?” “Where do I go when I die?” “Where was I before I was born?” The need to answer these questions consumes the student over time, and eventually the student’s mind cracks open like an egg.
This short book is Shore’s translation and commentary on Chan Master Boshan’s exhortations on the Great Doubt. This work is a cautionary tale to all Zen practitioners. Its overall message is, “No matter what, do not cling or think that you know what you’re doing.” I felt constantly criticized by Boshan and Shore while reading this book. I saw the slip-ups I’ve made, both past and present.
I guarantee that you will see yourself somewhere in this book. You’ll either smile and feel grateful for the advice, or feel very insulted and sulk in the corner. Great Doubt was a wake-up call for me. I was like a monkey jumping from one branch to another for no apparent reason. Then Jeff Shore came along and sawed off the branch I was diving for.
Even though the Great Doubt isn’t exclusive to Rinzai Zen, this book has a particularly Rinzai flavor. Shore and Boshan both write assertively and directly. Jeff Shore is a longtime Zen practitioner and academic; he knows his stuff. I wouldn’t recommend this book to students who have just begun practicing Zen.
Shore’s writing style appeals to the intellectual in me, and he references several other Zen Masters along the way. Shore’s blunt and intellectual style make his moments of humor all the more charming. His commentary on Exhortations for Those Who Rouse Doubt has some particularly playful moments.
I would recommend Jeff Shore’s Great Doubt to anyone who practices Rinzai, enjoys intellectual pursuits, and feels like they could use a good whack from the kyosaku now and then.
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”
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