Mindfulness of Dhammas: The Hindrances: Doubt

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (pp.125-134)

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (pp. 163-168) 

“And how, monks, does he in regard to dhammas abide contemplating dhammas? Here in regard to dhammas he abides contemplating dhammas in terms of five hindrances. And how does he in regard to dhammas abide contemplating dhammas in terms of the five hindrances?  “If doubt is present in him, he knows ‘There is doubt in me’; if doubt is not present in him, he knows ‘There is no doubt in me’; and he knows how unarisen doubt can arise, how arisen doubt can be removed, and how a future arising of the removed doubt can be prevented.

The Hindrances

The hindrances have an unwholesome effect on our minds.  It is necessary to abandon them before moving on to the next dhammas.  “He (the Buddha) said that when attended to carelessly, “these five hindrances are makers of blindness, causing lack of vision, causing lack of knowledge, detrimental to wisdom, tending to vexation, leading away from nibbāna.” But when we attend to these states carefully, we learn to see into their empty, transparent nature and no longer get so caught up in their seductive power. They then become the focus of our mindfulness and the very vehicle of our awakening.”  Goldstein, Joseph. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

The hindrances are phenomena that obscure our perception.  The Buddha used the following simile to describe how each hindrance obscures the mind:

There is a pool of clear water that reflects our image.

When sense desire is present in the mind, it is as if the pool were suffused with a colored dye.

Desires color our perceptions.

When aversion is present, it is like boiling water. We can’t see clearly.

When we’re heated up by anger, we’re in a state of turbulence.

Sloth and torpor are like the pool overgrown with algae.

There is a stagnation of mind that prevents us from seeing clearly.

Restlessness and worry are like water when it is stirred up by the wind.

The mind is tossed about by agitation.

And doubt is like muddy water, where we can’t see to the bottom,

and everything is obscured.

–SN 46.55 Sangaravo Sutta


There are two kinds of doubt.  The first is a skepticism that leads to inquiry and investigation.  In the case of the teachings, this kind of doubt is wholesome. The Buddha encouraged all to investigate for themselves and to discard what was not true for them.  The second kind of doubt is the unwholesome mind states of uncertainty, wavering and indecision that immobilize us.  With these mind states, we don’t have the motivation to inquire and investigate.  Instead we remain stuck and our practice can be at a standstill or even abandoned.

Manifestations of doubt as it applies to our practice

Doubt in the relevance of the teachings – the Buddha taught over 2600 years ago and we might wonder if his teachings are relevant in the times in which we live.  The Buddha asked us to look and see. The hindrance of doubt can lead us to give up rather than investigate.

Doubt in the path of practice –We may have doubt about various aspects of our practice such as the benefit of paying attention to the breath or following the five precepts.   Like doubt in the relevance of practice, we need to investigate.  If we broaden our perspective and can see that all practices done skillfully can help to free the mind in some way, we can erase the doubt.

Goldstein notes:  “One of the strongest examples of doubt in my practice came as I was just beginning to

learn about Tibetan Dzogchen teachings. Having practiced for so many years in the Burmese tradition of vipassanā, my mind was tormented by the question, “Which tradition is right?” I would go back and forth, playing the lawyer for both sides. Finally, after a month of this relentless doubting mind, I realized that I was asking the wrong question. It was not a matter of which tradition was right, but rather, coming to the understanding that all the teachings were skillful means for liberation. If we take teachings as statements of some absolute metaphysical truth, then different and often contradictory teachings become a big obstacle. If, though, we see metaphysics as skillful means, then the only relevant question is: Does this teaching help to free the mind? With this perspective, it’s quite possible to find different teachings helpful at different times. Goldstein, Joseph. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (p. 165).

Doubt in our ability to practice – We can have doubt about how we practice.  “Am I meditating correctly?” or “This is too hard!”  Overcoming this doubt is to build strong intention and not judge ourselves.

Conditions that lead to the arising of doubt

Unwise attention

Thoughts continually arise and fall away.  If we aren’t mindful of this process, we pay unwise (undue) attention to the thoughts of doubt and let uncertainty build.  This careless attention is not seeing and recognizing the thoughts that give way to doubt.  We lose our ability to discern what is wholesome and unwholesome.

Conditions that lead to the removal of doubt

Practicing Mindfulness

We practice mindfulness so that we can know when doubt is present.  Knowing that uncertainty is present, we can the being to remove doubt is by investigation.   Whatever we are skeptical about, we ask “Is this wholesome?”  If it is, we can continue our practice.  If not, we abandon it.  We remain in the present and do not get stuck.

In the case of doubt in the relevance of the teachings –look and see if the teachings are beneficial for you.

In the case of doubt in the path of practice, investigate asking “does this teaching help to free the mind?”  Broaden your perspective to see that all practices done skillfully can help to free the mind in some way.

In the case of doubt in our ability to practice, build strong intention and do not judge yourself.

Preventing the arising of doubt

“Just as unwise attention gives rise to doubt, we can overcome this hindrance and prevent its arising by cultivating wise attention, not only in our meditation practice but also in our lives. It’s interesting to note that the very opposite of doubt is the beautiful mental factor of faith. Bhikkhu Bodhi describes the function of faith as clarifying the mind, in the same way a water-clearing gem causes muddy water to clear. Through hearing and studying the teachings, and then through our own investigation of them, we develop a growing confidence in the Buddha, in the Dharma, in the Sangha, and in ourselves. At a certain point, we’re no longer beset by the wavering of doubt, and even when we face difficulties and challenges, this confidence gives us the strength and determination to persevere. The gradual overcoming of doubt gives greater meaning and power to the taking of refuge, because, at least to some extent, it is verified in our own experience, leading onward through all the stages of awakening.” Goldstein, Joseph. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (p. 168)


  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.
  • Observe the arising of doubt in your life, when it is present or absent, the conditions that cause it to arise and the conditions that cause it to fall away. Practice mindful prevention. Can you experience when strong desire hinders your present enjoyment?


  • Meditate using the mindfulness of the breath technique and focus your insight meditation on states of mind.

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