Awe and Faith

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, August 25, 2012

This week I have been rewriting a thematic thread that runs through my life story. I thought I would represent three excerpts here. The first concerns my childhood, the second my graduate studies in linguistics and the third my early Zen career.


A bloke enters unexplored bush, bold and resolute, not knowing to what dangers to expect, but nevertheless resolved not to high-tail it home the first time he sees a crocodile. A bespectacled wissenschaftler meets each distractable moment of the day deep in thought, walking looking at his feet or drafting and reckoning with his pencil, wrestling with some obscure enigma sometimes late into the night, determined to get this small part of the world to submit to reason. A young bohemian, Henri, paints little cards postales to sell to tourists, earning just enough to purchase paint and canvas which he carries to his garret to produce real ouvres d’art, ones that will as likely as not never see the light of day.  Alyosha becomes a novice at the Orthodox monastery moved by immense conviction in a loving God and a personal love for mankind and capacity to do good.

These are four people of awe, the most fortunate of people. A bit less than rational, they delight in new possibilities, exhibit a degree of carefree foolhardiness as they plunge with full faith into the unknown, enjoy mystery and wonder, and experience a heartfelt  devotion to something disconnected from the concerns of personal advantage, something bigger and easily tainted by such concerns. Awe underlies the best part of religion. It also underlies academic or artistic pursuits such as science or history, sculpture or music composition; it even underlies hobbies such as birdwatching or model railroading. It sculpts the lives of those who possess it. People of wonder are easily recognized by their irrationally selfless passion and by their foolishness in the eyes of almost everyone else. They are a bit crazy.

I feel I’ve been fortunate throughout my life to have always been almost continuously in awe of something to which I’ve been willing to give myself over with delight and devotion. This has been an intrinsic part of my glob of karmic heritage.

Science was my first love, and very early on it directed my gaze skyward. My first experience in scientific research followed upon a chance observation. Already for some time I had been finger-painting the sky as a blue line across the top of my sheet of newsprint art paper, leaving what was directly below that, but above the roof tops and trees, as an enigmatic blank space that began to puzzle me. What I observed, unprecedented for all I knew in the annals of science, was that the sky is not just up there, it is also over there. In fact it seemed to come all the way down to the ground, and indeed somewhere behind Nasan Avenue Hill (El Cerrito)! Not only did this discovery improve my artistic composition, but I became curious to see exactly where the blue sky came down, to touch it and knock on it to see what it was like. I set off on foot to find the intersection of earth and sky, only to return home discouraged, exhausted and thirsty half an hour later. Science is a lot of work. Sometimes the ocean fog would roll in and darken the sky. At this age whenever grownups talked about the fog I thought they were saying “frog,” and pictured a giant frog hopping over our house, and when I looked up I thought indeed I could see its gray belly. But its legs seemed to come down too far away for me to see them, probably they were near where the sky touches the ground.

My father occasionally took us kids outside where he would set up his surveyor’s telescope on the sidewalk and point it skyward, usually toward the moon, where we could see craters and mountains. Our babysitter, Pam, would take us out to lay on the front lawn where on our backs we would gaze skyward. She once remarked how the starry sky was like a blanket enveloping us all. Indeed the stars also seemed to come down behind Nasan Hill. In 1957 my father took us outside one evening to see something special: The Soviets had just launched an artificial satellite into outer space and it was in “orbit” around the earth! This was a mind-dazzling concept and the whole country was buzzing with bewilderment. “What keeps it up?” “Why would they want to do such a thing?” “Why didn’t we think of that first?” “Where were our scientists when this was happening?” “Spies! They want to spy on us, mark my words!” My dad had read in the newspaper that if you look skyward in a particular direction at a particular time, you could see Sputnik! So at that time and in that direction four little faces gazed upward, and we did see it! It was like a faint little star, but moving slowly and steadily across the sky. We watched it for a long time then all at once … it disappeared! vanished completely! We speculated that it had blown up, or that the U.S. Army had shot it down, but I later learned it had gone into the Earth’s shadow.

This was the beginning of the Space Race, history’s most spectacular sports event, between the World’s two great superpowers and ideological adversaries, in one corner the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and in the other the United States of America. This game never ended officially, but practically it ended eleven years later. The first few years were catchup for the good guys: We would put up a satellite, the Ruskies would put a dog into space. We would put a monkey into space, the Reds would put up a cosmonaut. We would put up an astronaut, the Commies would put up a cosmonaut and keep him up there for days on end.

The American space launches were always publicly scheduled, for like four in the morning PST at Cape Canaveral in Florida, and covered on all three networks, and I was always up at that crisp hour to watch, while the rest of the family and the rest of Larkspur slept, alternately switching between ABC, NBC and CBS, to see on each occasion a capsule-tipped rocket produce the thrust necessary to escape worldly existence. One day President Kennedy gave a quite dramatic speech in which he declared that America would “Put a Man on the Moon by the End of the Decade” (the 1960’s). The Russians were actually clocking far more time in space, and probably doing a lot more science there, but the USA was going right for the big prize. This culminated in an flustered Niel Armstrong mis-uttering his historic line from the surface of the moon about the Big Step that would puzzle posterity forevermore.

This was a matter of American pride. After Sputnik funding for education increased throughout the United States, new curricula were developed such as “New Math” for high schools. The nation was determined to have the world’s best science, mathematics and engineering, and America had the material means and the German scientists to make it happen. My dad, always wanting to instill an interest in science and engineering in his children, to which my older brother Arthur and I responded most favorably, would occasionally take the family, kids filling the back of his pickup, up Mt. Hamilton near San Jose to Lick Observatory, at that time home of the second biggest telescope in the world.

I had by that time become quite a book worm buying many books from the Tides Bookstore in Sausalito. I read not only science, but literature and philosophy as well. The world was so rich with knowledge! I read things like Darwin’s Origin of Species and Goethe’s Faust.  We were largely a family of readers, especially Arthur, who could not put a book down until he finished it, often at three in the morning … on a school night. But pacing myself, I was the systematic student. For instance, I got interested in “Existentialism” and so read a good selection of what people seemed to consider representative of that way of thinking: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Camus, Sartre’s Age of Reason, and so on. I got interested in playing Chess and read many books on the subject, tracing through Bobby Fischer’s or Alexander Alekhine’s games. I also considered it my duty to learn Esperanto, since it was to be the international language that would make world peace possible, and for a time I belonged to an International Esperanto Postal Chess Club.

Having read Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov I turned my copy over to James, who curiously remarked that the brother Alyosha Karamazov was just like me. At the beginning of the book Alyosha is a novice at the Orthodox monastery. He is described as having immense faith in a loving God, love for mankind and a capacity to do good. I don’t know which part of that James thought applied to me, but I suppose it is a complement especially coming from a little brother, who would normally have expected to be an object of abuse in the hands of a big brother (I left that up to Arthur).

I got interested in electronics, and built a radio from parts and modified a war surplus WWII Command Receiver from an airplane to run on 120 VAC, and accidentally gave myself a 400 V. zap from the transformer I had put into it, when I forgot to unplug it in the middle of testing. In these days most radios ran on vacuum tubes. My brother Arthur became infected with my interest in electronics and would make that his life’s work. More than anything I read many books on Astronomy and Physics, and had quite a personal library on these topics. I was in awe.

Awe turns to accomplishment and accomplishment turns sadly to pride. I began to pride myself on my knowledge of Astronomy in particular and used these visits to Lick Observatory to show off my knowledge during the public tours and nightly viewing opportunities. Once a large group of us was taking turns looking at the moon through one of the old but respectable refractor telescopes, and someone asked the guide, certainly a graduate student,

“How far away is the Moon?”

The guide answered, “About a quarter of a million miles away!”

As various people gasped, I chimed in, “239,000 miles, to be exact.”

The current term for annoying people like me at that time was “smart alec,” now it would be “nerd” or “dweeb.”

On one trip my father was explaining to another guide that I wanted to be an astronomer when I grew up, and the guide turned to me and said, emphatically articulating each word, “Then You’ve Got to Study Math.” I would remember that in high school, taking math every semester and making sure to get an “A” every time, preparing myself to enter UC Berkeley, where my father had studied. I also studied German for two years in high school, because I thought German was the language of science. My boldness got me in over my head and I earned a D- the first term, but then my resolve set in and I earned a B+ the second and A’s after that.

I had from the earliest age the selfless awe of a good monk, even if differently manifested. At some point it even occurred to me that academics are the modern monastic order, that they live with a certain distance from worldly life, with a pure and detached mind, capable of reflection from outside the box, and observant of a precise code of ethics. That appealed to me and attracted me to  a prospective academic career. I would one day discover that the ideal was far from the true when I would get to know enough real academics, but the monk does share with the scientist or academic a wonder for something of value that transcends the concerns of a petty self. A reserve of such self-disinterested energy, such awe, would be a near-constant throughout my life, often directing itself in unexpected channels, but consistently sustaining an explorer’s mind, bold and resolute. I’ve always been glad of that. Decades in the future it would even provide the energy behind my rediscovery and embrace of Buddhism.

Graduate Student Days

During this period I participated in two casual conversations concerning my chosen field of study but which also anticipated what I would years later recognize was the nature of my Buddhist faith. The first conversation was with someone I just happened to meet in a non-academic setting. It went something like this;

“So, what do you do?”

“I am a linguistics graduate student.”

“Oh? What is linguistics?”

“Well, …,” I very briefly explained what linguistics was and how  it fascinated me.

“Is it, um, something you can make a lot of money doing?” he asked.

“Hmmm, I’ve never thought about it. I suppose not.”

“Why would you do something that takes so much work if you can’t make a lot of money? And why would you not think about it?”

Why indeed? Nothing I said from that point on made the least sense to him. What he said made sense to me, but had a twisted logic to it, and the conversation quickly devolved into mutual bewilderment.

How could he go through life without awe, without finding meaning and wonder in something just because it’s there? This was Language we were talking about here: the very center of human culture, the primary locus of ethnic and national identity, the chief channel for insight into the human mind and for its outward expression, the medium that Shakespeare and Goethe brought to mastery, living history in which almost every word or turn of phrase is the product an elaborate and ancient tale that began long before the pyramids were built, a system of mapping between sounds and meanings in such an intricately refined and contextually sophisticated way that humans were now just barely beginning to comprehend this product of their own minds. What do I and my petty personal interests have to do with it? Looking back I see that my astonishment spoke of the degree of my linguistic awe and devotion.

The second conversation was with one of my classmates right after we had taken our oral examinations. Upon completing two years of graduate studies a student had to demonstrate his or her proficiency and general knowledge orally before two panels of about four professors each. One quizzed the student on syntax and the other on phonology. They could ask anything, and generally probed deeply. Their aim was to determine if the student had the wherewithal to complete the doctoral program and become an independent researcher, or if he or she should instead be granted a conciliatory MA degree and dismissed from the program.

Every one of these professors was razor sharp and wanted not only to know if the student was thoroughly familiar with the research literature, but also if they could examine it critically and be able to defend a particular theoretical position, against which the professors would often play devil’s advocate to the surprise and dismay of the student.  I went in to the orals feeling confident and prepared and was more or less satisfied with the results.
Naturally the students in my class compared their experiences of the orals after they were all completed. A number of students felt dejected and soon were no longer with us in the program. Phil, a personal friend of mine, apparently barely squeaked through, but would nonetheless go on to have a very successful career in linguistics. At this point, however, when I asked him how his orals had gone, he replied:

“Well, I don’t know. The syntax one was really hard. They asked me something that didn’t seem fair. They asked me to argue for or against the validity of transformational grammar! What was I supposed to say? We have to assume Chomsky and the other people know what they are talking about!”

Do we indeed? This made less sense to me than the other guy. This was carrying faith too far, to passively give allegiance to the prevailing paradigm and its originators. I had thought that as future independent researchers questioning the paradigm was the main thing we should be doing above all else, the one thing that we should bear constantly in mind. Not to reject it out of hand, but to check out how it was working for us. My own inclination by this time would have been to poke a few holes the paradigm where I was beginning to detect problems, even though that would have elicited a hornets’ nest of detailed counterarguments, rather than a mere swarm of follow-up questions, as four of the most brilliant syntacticians in the world would have taken me to task point by point. But they would have, I presume, respected my willingness and ability to take a stand on this issue. I doubt that unquestioned faith in the teachings was not what they were looking for.

Again, I was astonished. Looking back I see that my astonishment speaks of the discernment that accompanied my awe for linguistic science. It was the explorer’s awe and had nothing to do with blind faith. Blind faith is in fact very common in science, but reverence, devotion and faith do not require checking one’s wisdom or discernment in at the door.

Faith often gets a bad rap, but it is actually an unavoidable part of human cognition: It is how we humans deal with the fundamental uncertainty of our existence. Faith fills the gap between what we know — which is really very little, like a narrow strip of beach —, and what we need to know — which is really a  lot, like a vast jungle. Lest we are stranded in a narrow and timid strip of certainty we need faith, in fact bold and resolute faith, the willingness to give ourselves trustingly over to something that we do not fully understand and that therefore is not fully within the scope of our rational certainty, and that we will not understand until we’ve explored it. Awe inevitably sets one up for bold faith. Faith sometimes gets a bad rap because it has become publicly identified with a particular and extremely limiting strategy for facing the unknown. This is the faith of the timid, it is blind faith and fundamentalism. It is the insistence on an impossible certainty, it is recourse to a false sense of knowing. It is faith without admission that we don’t know what we are doing, without the mystery and wonder and delight in possibilities that otherwise drive us to explore the unknown boldly and resolutely. Bold faith opens up rather than closes possibilities. I would one day discover in Buddhism that same bold faith.

Upon Returning Home from a Zen Retreat in Culture Shock

In contemplating the challenge to my cultural sensibilities and natural inclination toward the casual, during the subsequent weeks I came up not so much with a resolution as with a way of arriving at one. The easiest response to my discomfort would have been,

Balderdash! Ritual forms are nonsense, they are a perversion of real Buddhism, of real Zen, or … or else a cultural artifact of the East Asian cultures in which these ritual forms arose that are of little relevance in the critical-thinking West. Ha!

With this response in hand I would have been free to seek out retreat centers that loosened up on this nonsense. I did not know at the time of the ubiquitousness of such Buddhist meditation centers, largely to satisfy the demands of the thriving “balderdash” community. But the “balderdash” response was not good enough: How would I know that the response is correct?

In what for me was an almost unprecedented display of good judgment, of smarts and wisdom, I chose the opposite response: I accepted as a working assumption that there is a purpose for all of these ritual forms and related nonsense that I simply had yet to fathom. How could something persist generation after generation with no purpose? For this reason I make the decision to begin sitting every week with … Flint Spark’s group at the Clear Spring Zendo, the group infamous for its bows and ritual forms that until then had inhibited my participation.

I did not yet know it, but this is the moment when I fully aligned myself with Buddhism, the moment when I acquired Buddhist “faith” and in return relinquished the arrogant assumption that I already knew what I was doing. I had already learned in my career as a scientist that there was little danger in such a leap of faith as long as one did not thereby relinquish wisdom and discernment as well. I had given myself over to Generative Grammar on a similar basis as a linguistics student, and in fact came eventually around to rejecting it rather soundly, yet in the meantime developed quickly into a scholar. If the ritual and bowing thing did not work out, I would simply give it up and be all the wiser for it. What I did now was to establish a general policy to accept with a degree of wholeheartedness whatever I was taught by respected Buddhist teachers or texts, at least until I got to the bottom of it in my own experience. This policy would serve me well in the years to come and sustain an explorer’s sense of curiosity throughout my career of training.

In Buddhism we talk about the Three Refuges, which are the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha, as the beginnings of Buddhist faith. We are like the explorer, entrusting ourselves to the unknown terrain of the mind, but we have the advantage of a map to get us started, even if it is smudged and sometimes difficult to interpret: It is the teachings, a deep trust in the originator of those teachings and the advice of living interpreters and more seasoned explorers. We have hopes of liberation from worldly woe, but mixed in are less rational aspects that fuel the boldness and resolve Buddhist practice demands, including delight in new possibilities, a capacity for awe, deep reverence, and a bit of foolhardiness. Buddhist practice is not for the timid.

Faith is an often misunderstood thing. You might, as I did, think of yourself as a person of reason as opposed to a person of faith, but faith is not like that. We are all persons of faith all the time, not just in matters religious but in everything, in our consumer habits, in our relationships, in our hobbies. Whether we are rational or not we have no choice! The reason is that we live in an inherently and exceedingly uncertain world and yet need to make decisions in that world. The persistent gap between what we know and what we need to know is huge; faith in all its guises is that which leaps over that gap. But although we have no choice about whether or not to have faith, we do have a choice about how deliberate and discerning we are in our faith, or what or whom we allow to inform out faith.

For instance, in the choice I made to embrace ritual and bowing I did not become more a person of faith, I only traded one faith for another in choosing to let experienced Buddhist practitioners rather than uninformed prejudice inform my faith. The balderdash alternative would have rested on faith as well, which would have been the set of tacit unexamined assumptions that had inclined me so readily toward the “balderdash” response in the first place. What were those assumptions? Where did they come from? What is it that would have informed my faith in that case and why would that have been better than where I now decided to place my faith? Let’s look at that a moment. …

One Response to “Awe and Faith”

  1. rockjdog Says:

    Bhante Cintita,
    I have read a lot of your story and I am really jealous, I think I have that small tiny piece of awe you speak of but I seem to need to prove every aspect of a spiritual teaching. I usually fail and am miserable. I then tend to nitpick at any teaching I come across because I don’t want to come across something I cant prove. I wish I had your ability. The Buddhist life seems to be so natural for you. For me to learn to let go of anything I need to get burned by a blowtorch a 100 times then get run over by a truck a few times and then I might agree to let go…but I will still keep the idea in mind. Sorry I have not had a chance to change my log in name yet.

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