Faith III

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, May 17, 2011
Faith Part III: Devotion

Not to associate with fools,
to associate with the wise,
to honor those who are worthy of honor.
this is the highest blessing.

To reside in a suitable locality,
to have done meritorious actions in the past,
to set oneself on the right course.
this is the highest blessing.

Vast-learning, handicraft,
a highly-trained discipline,
pleasant speech.
this is the highest blessing.

Supporting father and mother,
cherishing wife and children,
peaceful occupations.
this is the highest blessing.

Liberality, righteous conduct,
the helping of relatives,
blameless actions.
this is the highest blessing.

To cease and abstain from evil,
forbearance with respect to intoxicants,
steadfastness in virtue.
this is the highest blessing.

Reverence, humility,
contentment, gratitude,
opportune hearing of the Dhamma.
This is the highest blessing.

Patience, accommodation,
seeing renunciants,
religious discussions at due times.
This is the highest blessing.

Self control, the holy life,
perception of the Noble Truths,
The realization of Nibbana.
This is the highest blessing.

He whose mind does not flutter
by contact with worldly contingencies,
sorrowless, stainless, and secure.
This is the highest blessing

— Mangala Sutta

Belief is the smaller part of faith, devotion is the greater part. Recall that faith informs our activities and decisions on a basis other than what we know, on a basis other than discernment and sound reasoning. Our undermost motives will be found neither in beliefs nor in knowledge, but rather in where we decide to place our hearts. This is in what we embrace as values, whom and what we respect, what aspirations we set for ourselves, the meanings we discover in things, our understanding of how we meet each new day. Without this kind of faith there is nothing to get you out of bed in the morning.

The opening quote is from the famous Mangala Sutta in which the Buddha enumerates thirty-eight blessings, values that have been cherished by Buddhists ever since, personal attributes or activities to be encouraged in daily life. Looking around in our very pluralistic culture, you have to be struck by how extreme the variations in people’s values are. I could compose a Mangala Sutta that negates virtually every blessing the Buddha lists and produce something very consistent with quite conventional modern American values. In fact, … I think I will:

Not to associate with the meek,
to associate with celebrities,
to watch others grovel.
this is the highest blessing.

To reside in splendor,
to have accumulated great wealth,
to look stunning.
this is the highest blessing.

Vast-earning, craftiness,
a highly-trained staff,
biting speech.
this is the highest blessing.

Not having to support father and mother,
not burdened by the nagging of wife and children,
undemanding occupations, shopping.
this is the highest blessing.

Conservatility, being right,
elevating oneself,
ing others.
this is the highest blessing.

To enjoy what the wise discredit,
wine, women and song,
getting what one wants.
this is the highest blessing.

Being awesome,
getting more, instant gratification,
being a cut above the rest.
This is the highest blessing.

Never being put on hold,
sneaking intoxicants,
avoiding religious discussions.
This is the highest blessing.

Control, the worldly life,
vague references to the Noble Truths,
Acting like you’re enlightened.
This is the highest blessing.

He who tirelessly achieves personal advantage
under all worldly contingencies,
admired, dominant, and secure.
This is the highest blessing.

A complete list of Buddhist values that supplement those of the Mangala Sutta would have to include the Brahma Viharas of Kindness, Compassion, Appreciation of others’ good fortune (I’ll be darned if anyone has found a good English word for this; it is simply “mudita” in Pali) and Equnimity; the objects of the Three Trainings of the Noble Eightfold Path of Wisdom, Virtue and Serenity; the objects of Right Resolve of Renunciation, Kindness and Generosity; the opposites of the Three Poisons, which would be non-Greed, non-Hatred and non-Delusion; and so on. Other values, many non-Buddhist, that people embrace, are Fatherhood, Motherhood and Family, Personal Charm, Nation, Race, Class, Friendship, Loyalty, Honesty, Aggressiveness, Hard Work, Personal Responsibility, Leisure, Freedom, Health, Youth, Old Age, Mother Earth, Power, Duty, Pride, Fun, Sexuality, Democracy, Free Market Capitalism, Human Rights, the Bill of Rights, Intelligence, Not Being Too Smart, Having Cool Shoes, Happiness, Fame.

It is often observed that Christianity in particular puts a stronger effort on belief than most other religions although on devotion as well. Karen Armstrong maintains, however, that that is a misunderstanding. In English, in any case, the word “belief” comes from a source that meant hold dear, and is actually related to the world “love.” This is a meaning more closely related to devotion than certitude regarding a propositional truth. Her suggestion is that where it occurs in the King James Bible it should be read with its earlier meaning. In any case, you can quickly see that religions, though each advocates some set of values, are not the only, or even primary source of values. Many are culturally determined even for the non-religious, some such as happiness, safety and health are virtually universal.

Values, unlike beliefs, are strictly speaking beyond the reach of discernment or reason; they are not true nor false, though they can be evaluated only in terms of other values.You can embrace any value you want without fear of illogic, though sometimes embracing two values can lead to contradiction. My brother, who is quite irreligious, delights when a group of door-to-door evangelicals visits because of a game plan he has discovered. They inevitably try to establish a connection by appeal some value that the bathrobed or pajamaed host is likely to share, such as, “Don’t you despair of the level of violence in today’s world?” to which my brother pauses pregnantly, looks into the distance with a contemplative demeanor then replies wistfully, “No.” They never have a counterargument.

However, embracing values does have consequences for our behaviors and states of mind, and to a large extent is a consequence of human psychology and evolutionary history. In this way values are subject rational understanding, and that understanding can inform our choice of values. For instance, you might value drinking with buddies but discover that it leads to drunkenness, addiction, irresponsibility and ultimately impinges adversely on family and happiness, which you value even more. If you are wise you will give up the value you place in drinking with friends. Essentially one of the things the Buddha did was to work out rationally the consequences of the range of potential values, the factors of mind, personality and social intercourse to isolate those that together are conducive to well-being. The Buddha described his teachings as as “Against the Stream” because they come up with a set of values that are often counter to uninformed human nature, though grounding these in a very reasoned way in human psychology.

Related to values is the respect or devotion we place on certain people, institutions and practices. Respect for the wise, for those you want to emulate, for instance, for Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, or Sarah Palin, and for those we choose to care for, is an important part of personal development. Respect for the Buddha, the Dhamma and Buddhist teachers is the starting place of Buddhist practice. Respect for the various Buddhist practices includes their encouragement and support in others. Friendship is a kind of mutually shared faith in each other.

A life without these devotional aspects of faith in various forms, most typically not religious, is unthinkable. It would be a life devoid of meaning or worth. Even with them it has plenty of trouble acquiring meaning or worth. A property of devotion and values is wholeheartedness, which includes steadfastness or unwavering adherence. One of the ways we establish or strengthen wholeheartedness is through vow, sometimes performed publicly and ceremonially, so that if you forget your vow your friends will be sure to remind you. A major vow is what initiates marriage. I entered an important turning point in my own Buddhist understanding and practice upon reading in Uchiyama Roshi’s Seven Points of Zen Practice in Opening the Hand of Thought,

Live by Vow, and root it deeply.

I had before that early time, after a failed marriage, simply thought of vow as the unstrategic error of cutting off my options, of burning my bridges behind me. So the encounter with this short phrase shocked me at first but subsequently my thoughts kept returning to it;it would not let go. I began to realize that what was truly worthwhile in my life, including my incipient Buddhist practice, was already cobbled together from many vows big and small, most of which were implicit. The mass of small implicit vows is how I understand devotion (“devotion” is simply an inflection of the root “vow”). An option, after all,  becomes useful only once the alternatives are cut off. Understanding this seems to open my mind to embrace the many aspects of Buddha’s teachings more readily as a matter faith

Next week, rather than jumping directly into the Buddha’s Kalama Sutta and the supplementary Canki Sutta, I would like to discuss where all these different and varying kinds of faith, whether in the form of belief or devotion; in the area of religion, science, politics, entertainment; useful or problematic, come from. Why do we get it into our heads, in the absence of proper evidence, discernible and reasoned, to take something on faith? Given that we understand that we all inevitably do it, what is it that informs or inspires our faith? If this whole discussion of faith seems a bit confused, you can look forward to the clear light of understanding that the Buddha shines on this dark and misunderstood realm.

One Response to “Faith III”

  1. Randy Baker Says:

    Having come from Christian roots and decades ago discovering their “belief” had nothing to do with mental assent opened my eyes also. Good article.


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