Wielding Faith II
Last week we discussed faith as a quality of mind that serves Buddhism well and that it is important to cultivate and develop as a part of Buddhist practice. I described faith as representing the explorer’s mindset in that it is bold, resolute and secure. I would like to discuss in more detail what these three properties entail.
Bold faith. This is the quality illustrated by the village chief plunging into the rising river to lead the villagers to safety. Buddhist practice likewise requires courage, starting out on the path is a bold step, undertaken without really knowing what we are getting ourselves into. And many bold steps stand before us on the way, entrusting ourselves to a teacher, attending our first long meditation retreat, examining qualities of mind and reality that we were comfortably in denial of. Small steps also require a corresponding level of boldness, such as doing your first bows (you will never understand the practice of bowing by examining it from the outside; on the other hand, maybe they are snickering at you in the other room), or trying out, even as a what-if, rebirth as a working assumption and seeing what your practice feels like in that context.
Boldness must be tempered by discernment. The chief must have made the best assessment he could under the circumstances before plunging into the mighty waters. A seeker really should read what Buddhism is about and talk with a few wise teachers before flying to Taiwan to shave her hair off and ordain as a nun. It would be bold to drive your car like James Bond but stupid. Always investigate as much as circumstances allow.
More problematic however is the opposite, seeking such an unachievable level of certitude that we freeze into inaction, thereby destroying a sense of adventure necessary for Buddhist practice and important in almost everything else we do in life. This makes for picky eaters, afraid of food poisoning, or of failure to balance carbs with lipoids. We will never get out of the house if we worry too much about stroke of heat, bite of frost, crash of car, sting of bee or bird dropping from tree. We see this very commonly among Westerners who will not venture beyond a very narrow range of Buddhist practices that are not too weird or unfamiliar and are fully justifiable in terms of their beginner’s notion of Buddhism. Naturally we do experience apprehension before we enter one of these steps due to the uncertainty; we don’t really know what we are getting ourselves into. However, without bold faith we fail to take the recommended step at all and further progress in our practice is closed to us. And they remain beginners. All this is Doubt, an unskillful mental factor, one of the five Hindrances to our practice.
Bold faith is encouraged and developed by having good friends and teachers in the Dhamma, studying their examples and learning of their experience.
As he was seated to one side, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”
“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.” – SN 45.2
In Buddhism as in most religions various devotional and communal practices seem to serve the purpose of inspiring and strengthening faith, for instance contemplating the qualities of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Overt expressions of respect likewise support a respectful mindset and encourage placing faith in wise individuals. Expressions of respect, beginning with bringing the palms together in anjali or gassho, is particularly characteristic of Buddhism.
Resolute faith. This is the quality of wholeheartedness and consistency. Faith is a decision we make and it is important we stick with it and run with it if the benefits of our faith are to be realized. Consider the way a lion hunts (you can watch your cat Fluff doing the same, but on a smaller scale). A lion stalks a zebra because the gain is great and it has faith that it might just succeed. Once it has made its decision, it puts its entire concentration and all the strength of its body into the effort, even though most of the time it will fail. A lion hunting a mouse, where the potential gain is small, puts its entire concentration and all the strength of its body into the effort. in exactly the same way. The lion is not half-hearted because there is only a 50% chance of success of only half a meal at stake, nor quarter-hearted because there is a 25% chance or portion. The lion is always whole-hearted. This is resolution. The village chief, even if he thinks it unlikely that he and the villagers will make it alive across the river, must have that same resolution, or else it will be certain that they will not make it. Being pessimistic or disheartened are not options, once we’ve decided doubt has no place. Resolution imitates certainty. At the same time, in the common cases in which our faith is in an outcome, it produces the greatest chances for success.
Without resolution we visit our original decision over and over. Imagine you are at a crossroads, out of water, you need to get to the spring. Which path to take? Once you make choice you should embrace your choice, plunge into it and proceed, exactly as if you really knew what you were doing. The alternative is doubt, apathy and despair that will sap your energy, make you unwilling to struggle through the brambles and overgrowth, climb up hills, ford the streams, retrace if you lose the path and persevere on what may be a long journey. Worse than that, you might decide to turn back to return to the crossroads, no wiser, and much more tired than you were before, about which decision is correct. Again, this is Doubt, the last of the Five Hindrances.
Resolute Faith is encouraged and developed through Vow, or its little sister Devotion (both word are variants of the same root). Precepts are vows to behave ethically. We establish our meditation practice by committing to a schedule of practice and then displaying resolution. Vow is not how we close options, it is how we manifest them at the most fundamental level, it is how we give our lives form, create the world we choose to live in, bring meaning into our lives. Realizing this opened up dimensions in my practice that I did scarcely knew were there, and led eventually to my bold and resolute ordination as a monk.
Secure Faith. The bold step of entering into Buddhist life is traditionally marked by a ceremonial expression of faith call the Triple Treasure, Triple Gem or Three Refuges, by uttering the words,
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.
When we place our faith in this way, we allow our actions, our values, our mindset, to be informed by these three sources of guidance. Hopefully we do that boldly and resolutely. The word “refuge,” however, refers to this third aspect of Buddhist faith, our opportunity to abide in this faith serene, seeing clearly and selfless. Dogen wrote, “Just as a child throws himself into his father’s arms, we should throw ourselves into the Three Treasures.” Just as a child relies on her parents to protect her from an uncertain world she barely comprehends, we can enjoy the same sense of security in our Buddhist faith.
This is not a matter of reassurance, a type of faith used to override discernment when things look bleak. In many religions reassurance takes the form of faith in an external agent or force that is at work with our interests in mind, much like parents in real life. God, Jesus, angles and nature spirits often serve in this role. For the Buddha we are the agents responsible for our own destiny through our practice, and yet in Mahayana Buddhism people often call on Avalokiteshvara (Guan Yin) for protection from dangers, and in Theravada chant special suttas, the Parittas, to offer such protection, much as Catholics use images of saints for different forms of protection. Because of their strong appeal it was inevitable that these would creep into Buddhism. But secure faith, or refuge, is another matter.
Rather secure faith arises when bold faith and resolute faith play right into the hands of Buddhist practice. In Buddhist practice we develop serenity, which lead to equanimity and samadhi, which support clarity of perception and selflessness. Faith not only enables us to enter into Buddhist practice, but also gives us a boost in the direction just described. Under natural circumstances serenity, clarity and selflessness are illusive because we engage the world seeking personal advantage. This keeps the mind in a state of agitation as schemes are laid, options considered, obstacles encountered and dealt with, justifications forged, outcomes fretted over, perspectives shifted in service to selfish motives. Buddhist faith replaces this with a framework that informs behavior based on other principles. Faith determines what is appropriate and resolution holds you to that. The scheming, misleading, fretting, waffling and the rest in the name of personal advantage becomes irrelevant, simply wheel-spinning. We tend to spin our wheels anyway, given the chance, but without the imperative to do so, we have the tools within Buddhist practice to quickly remove this tendency. We can relax into our faith with clarity and selflessness; problems disappear.
Vow is the easiest place to see this principle at work, and they can be wholesome vows of any sort, not necessarily connected with Buddhist practice. For instance, solidly married people, who take their vows seriously, generally find an ease in life much greater than single people on the prowl. They are almost always sexually or romantically attracted to others, but backed by resolution they are out of the habit of doing anything about it. If they succeed reasonably well in letting go of the impulses that might pop them out of their vows, their path becomes clear of underbrush and rubble and they can let go of self-interest. They experience a sense of liberation, not by getting to do what to some degree they might want to, but by not needing to.
Let me give two more examples that underscore the way this works. First, ritual has a natural meditative quality, which probably explains why it is almost universal in religious practice. Ritual prescribes a fixed and formalized set of behaviors in a certain context. No matter what impulses may be running around in our heads, they become irrelevant to the performance of a ritual. This makes ritual an opportunity to let go of these wheel-spinning impulses and settle down into the ritual with mindfulness, selfless, serene, clear and secure. Often, especially at the beginning, self-serving impulses may arise actually in close association with the ritual, for instance concern of mis-performance and making a fool of ourselves in front of an audience or showing off and trying to make a good impression on someone. But ultimately, with routine, about the time the ritual should be getting really boring, the ritual remarkably starts doing itself: The incense offers itself, the bows do themselves, the bells ring themselves. Mindfulness and clarity are the, the mind is silent, and the self simply disappears. This quality of rituals is exploited to good effect in East Asian Buddhism, for instance in Zen. For Dogen even meditation practice is treated as a ritual.
The second example has to do with the process of dying. A common phase in the dying process is denial, sometimes holding onto unreasonable hopes, for instance in a new breakthrough miracle drug that has just been developed. During this difficult phase the mind is agitated, exploring options internally, rebelling against doctors, in the interests of self-preservation. The fortunate enter a new phase when they totally give up any hope and face their impending death head-on. The change in their disposition can be quite remarkable: the troubles lift, they relax, their sense of humor returns and they become quite light-hearted. They have transitioned from uncertainty to certainty. Although the certainty does not bring good news, it does make the agitation, rebelling, hoping for a miracle, superfluous. They have the opportunity at that point to let go of the struggle and ease for a short while into a peaceful, aware unproblematic existence. This is like finding a refuge in faith, except the refuge in this case is in discernment, certainty, knowing. Recall the resolute faith imitates certainty.
Next week I will summarize and conclude this discussion of Faith.