Dark nights and all that...

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  • Lynn
    • Oct 2007
    • 180

    Dark nights and all that...

    Hi all!

    Well, a friend and I are having a very interesting email tennis match over this topic: What makes Buddhism a religion for some but not for others? (He is of the Stephen Batchelor agnostic Buddhist path, and I have actually dabbled with a monastic path and hold a more "religious" frame of Buddhism.)

    We kind of came up with the following theory: All the Judeo-Christian religions classified as religions (Christianity, Islam, etc.) had their historical figureheads confront a "dark night of the soul" whereby their faith in was tested. It seems that nowhere in the story of the historical Gotama Buddha did he ever have such a dark night. He had his final battle with Mara but we can't quite decide if this qualifies. It seems the closest thing. He comes out on the other end of the tunnel with enlightenment. But is that the same as what we find in other religions? Did the Buddha have to dip into a faith frame of mind? If so...what does a Buddhist have faith in since we do not have a concept of soul or God?

    Did Dogen have a dark night? I don't know that I have heard of such.

    For those of you who have had dark nights as Buddhists...what pulled you through? Even if it was "just sitting," what about "just sitting" helped?

    All right...off to work I go...

    May you all be well.

    In Gassho~

    When we wish to teach and enlighten all things by ourselves, we are deluded; when all things teach and enlighten us, we are enlightened. ~Dogen "Genjo Koan"
  • Hans
    • Mar 2007
    • 1853

    Hi Lynn!

    The concepts of Karma and Rebirth (as presented in different Nikayas) cannot be verified through reason alone but have to be trusted/believed up to a certain degree. Anyone who says that all there is to Karma is just "cause and effect" relationships does so in spite of most of the scriptural "evidence". Should we believe in/trust the scriptures? That's a different question in my opinion.

    To me, the concept of a dark night of the soul (which doesn't exist btw ), [not exclusively in the sense of St. John of the Cross who coined the term] often describes the birth- and growing pains of a new "reality tunnel" trying to manifest itself. The clash of the former reality tunnel with the new one creates a certain kind of friction that can lead to extreme doubt, pain, suffering, depression etc. It's the moment, where one is forced to empty one's cup so to speak.

    When Siddartha met with sickness, age, and death for the first time, that was his dark night of the soul (IMHO!!!). Once he had left the palace, entered the stream, whatever, all the other events just had to unfold.

    Dark nights are great (afterwards), as long as one has completely surrendered to the Bodaishin, the ultimate drive to see things as they are, and not in the way we'd like them to be. They can peel loads of self-inflicted bullshit layers off one's outlook on reality like a damascene knife peeling potatoes.

    Just my two cents. great topic.




    • Rev R
      • Jul 2007
      • 457

      I figure I'll tackle the scripture question first.

      My take on scripture is the same as my take on lessons provided by a "recognized teacher".

      Do we accept a teaching just because it's written a certain way in a certain sutra or given by a Buddhist Master, or do we accept a teaching because we discover it to be true in our own lives?

      If the Gautama had done things just because some authority said that this is what X means and this is exactly how it should be done, then he never would have left the palace and we wouldn't be having this conversation at the Treeleaf Zendo.

      but that's just me.



      • Jundo
        Treeleaf Founder and Priest
        • Apr 2006
        • 39474

        Hi Lynn,

        I would concur in much of what has been said. I do not think that a 'dark night' need be one, but can be spread over years filled with many dark nights. Certainly, many folks have come down paths much like Shakymuni's long quest for truth, filled with doubt, suffering, fear, and a search for answers from various teachers and practices until finding the answer right for him or her. Master Dogen, from the time he was orphaned as a young boy, tells a similar story of his life, and of his many doubts, right until the time he found his answer in Shikantaza practice with Master Ju Ching in China (I will be talking about that a bit more when I begin talks about Shobogenzo - Genjo Koan on the 'sit-a-longs' very soon). If you read the thread of this Forum in which folks relate their personal stories of coming to Zen practice, you will find many of us came down like paths [I'm sure one of them]:


        Is 'Just Sitting' good medicine for this? I certainly believe it is (It marked the end of my long dark night). With its perspectives dropping judgments, with nothing to search for, no separate 'self' to do the searching nor 'other' to be found, no path that can be left even as we walk along it, 'life' and 'death' and 'time' fallen from mind, questions answered or dropped away ... good medicine!

        What we have to have faith in, I believe, is this Practice until the point that it proves itself in our lives. It is much like a child that must have faith that she too can swim, and trust the adults trying to teach her, until the moment she can swim for herself. From that moment, it is not so much a matter of faith in swimming as moving the arms and kicking the feet.

        We must have faith that there is a world and that we exist in it (that is not so hard to have faith in). We must also have faith that said world and our self are not two (that takes a bit more faith at first, as it is not seen though our day to day eyes). Once we see this, kick kick, swim swim.

        I also think that we must have a certain faith and trust in the universe, much as an infant has to the shadows over its bed that keeps placing food in its mouth ... We do not know that the universe has any reason or purpose for placing us here, at least not a purpose that our little intelligences can grasp if any purpose at all. But we must trust that things will just go where they will be going. The universe sure seems to have gone to a lot of trouble to push us, kicking and screaming, into this icy pool. So, all I can do is kick kick, swim swim.

        Gassho, Jundo


        • will
          • Jun 2007
          • 2331

          Jundo pretty much said it all. I'll add my two cents.

          I think the question is why do people look to religion? For most of us,maybe, there is a understanding that there must be something more. Sometimes our own conclusions don't really answer this question, so we turn to religion. Sometimes religion turns into a definite answer about the universe ie. various gods control the universe and if we give sacrifices to the gods, we will become pregnant or yeild a good crop. We don't really have the answers so we trust that our priest is right.

          I like to think of Jesus as just another person who was also looking for the answers and he found some. He had an understanding of how to live a good life and those who were looking for this, trusted what he had to say and followed his teaching with the hope of being free. Perhaps, as well, their religion was founded on somewhat the same belief structure as they had been accustom to ie. Roman rituals.

          So, some people stick to one religion. There are others (like the buddha) who give all their faith to something and in not finding any true answer, or seeing past the Hocus Pocus, move on to something else. One underlining belief is that of salvation, which a lot of religions have. Maybe some of us do have dark nights and look to religion to relieve this, and, perhaps, some of us are just looking for the answers to the big questions.

          People might come to religion for different reasons. I came to Soto Zen, because I wanted to get rid of all the bad feelings and crap. I wanted to be a "better" person. Soto Zen emphasized practice, which was more appealing than the belief that I'll go to hell if I do something wrong. I also had a faith that the teacher knew what he was talking about. There were so many people doing this. They seemed to be good people, so I stuck with it. However, I didn't just have faith in sitting. I wandered here and there trying this out and that out, but I came back to Soto Zen. I think, perhaps, the answer to this question can probably be found in our own experience.

          Maybe my 3 cents. .

          Gassho Will
          To save all sentient beings, though beings are numberless.
          To penetrate reality, though reality is boundless.
          To transform all delusion, though delusions are immeasurable.
          To attain the enlightened way, a way non-attainable.


          • Stephanie

            Lovely thread and thoughts here. I have been through many a dark night and may be in something of one now. Sometimes my happiest times co-occur with the 'dark nights' in an orgy of joy and sadness that makes no sense whatsoever. Seems to me even when a dark night is characterized by deep sadness or hurt, the primary quality is almost always bewilderment. The old entrenched self just doesn't know what to do with itself any more. So it wanders in sadness and confusion until it gets carried away by the winds.

            Ultimately, one thing has always gotten me through the dark nights: love. Not always the same flavor. But agape is consistently the most powerful source of happiness, peace, and joy in the wake of a dark night. Someone else's act of kindness, or even my own on those occasions when life draws it out of me, just completely does away with the darkness. Or a child's laugh or an adult's tears. At the end of the day, if hell is other people, so is heaven.

            Patty Griffin sings:

            And when the last bird falls and the last siren sounds
            Someone will say what's been said before
            It's only love we were looking for

            And perhaps my all-time favorite quote, which I got from one of those Daily Zen calendars:

            An old Hasidic rabbi asked his pupils how to tell when night ended and the morning began, which is the time for certain holy prayers.

            “Is it when you see an animal in the distance and know whether it’s a sheep or a dog?”

            “No,” the rabbi answered.

            “Is it when you can look at a tree and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a pear tree?”

            “No,” the rabbi answered again.

            After a few more tries, the pupils said, “Then tell us, what is it?”

            “It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and know that they are your sister or brother. Until then, it is still night.”

            HASIDIC MONDO