Archive for the ‘faith’ Category

Uposatha Day 11/21/2012 (a little late)

November 23, 2012

Shining Through

I have been reading a lot of “Gombrich” lately. Richard Gombrich is a very respected British scholar of Buddhism. Scholars of Buddhism generally fall into two categories, Buddhists and non-Buddhists, and I think which one is at hand makes a significant difference in the nature of the scholarship. Practioners of Buddhism also fall into two categories, scholars and non-scholars, but which one is at hand does not make such a significant difference in the nature of the practice. My experience is that scholar non-Buddhists tend to engage with a sterile view of their subject matter, a bit like disecting a dead frog, while scholar Buddhists tend to engage with an organic view of their subject matter, a bit like playing with a frolicking kitten. Scholars of Buddhism are in either case useful at putting Buddhism in its historical social and conceptual context, in analyzing texts for authenticity and hidden meanings, in discovering influences and in insisting on the relevance of Western philosophy.

Gombrich claims to be a scholar non-Buddhist, but I am not sure I believe it. Many scholars of religion hide their religious affiliations as if a scholar Buddhist would be considered tainted by Buddhism or a scholar Christian would be considered tainted by Christianity. For Gombrich Buddhism is quite alive and this comes across his is great appreciation for the genius of the Buddha. He writes, “My admiration is for the Buddha, whom I consider to be one of the greatest thinkers — and greatest personalities — of whom we have record in human history.” Many scholar non-Buddhists treat Buddhism as a list of unrelated tenets and mark the beginning of Buddist history as the point at which these were first written down. For them everything else is prehistory and we have no direct evidence for when or with whom a particular tenet arose, or even if there was an actual person (the Buddha) who is responsible for many of the tenets. For Gombrich this is absurd because it fails to recognize the singular genius that shines through in what are alleged in the ancient traditions to be the most ancient texts. Scholars are inclined to ignore the cheesecake in the room.

I think this idea of the genius, the systematic thinker behind the ancient teachings, and the internal coherence of these teachings is a part of what makes us Buddhists and allows us to engage, understand and internalize the most subtle and sophisticated teachings, even while the ancient Suttas and the Vinaya are very unreliable texts, having passed through both oral and orthographic transmissions and suffering from faults of memory, embellishment, insertions, deletions and other edits along the way. In fact the combinations of the teachings themselves, the recognition of how the (bulk of the) teachings fit together into a whole and how they are verified in practice are what allow us to triangulate the teachings and recognize what is actually authentic.

Modern techniques of textual analysis are useful in sorting the authentic from the inauthentic but no particular passage can ever be proven to be original. Nonetheless the adept reader of the suttas will at some point recognize a clear system behind the passages. It is as if he is piecing together a jigsaw puzzle in which some pieces are missing and in which other pieces have been mixed in from other jigsaw puzzles, but at some point clearly recognized, “Oh, I get it: This is the Golden Gate Bridge. There is no doubt about it whatever.” This is what it means for a particular interpretation to shine forth. Although it cannot be proven, the convergence of evidence from different sources is overwhelming. And the actual Buddhist practitioner will more readily witness this shining through than the mere scholar because his own experience can provide decisively confirming evidence from direct experience. He is like the jigsaw enthusiast who has actually been on the Golden Gate Bridge, who is already familiar with its features and the contours of the land- and sea-scape around it.

As we read the scriptures we still find passages that seem at least at first sight not to accord, either with what we think shines through or with our own preconceptions. One way to account for them is to dismiss them an inauthentic. Similarly the jigsaw puzzler, once the Golden Gate Bridged has shined through, might throw out all loose pieces that do not look like the Golden Gate Bridge, seeing them as intruders from someone else’s cockamamie jigsaw puzzle. However, the danger of simply attributing perplexing passages to someone else’s jigsaw puzzle is that it may be wrong. One might also be perplexed with pieces that suggest skateboards and lions even as the Golden Gate Bridge is clearly shining through, only to discover that the photographer has captured a kid in a T-shirt in the foreground of the bridge. It is in this way that we continue to work with the scriptures with a mind fearlessly more open-minded than the extend of our current understanding.

Giving and Receiving the Dhamma

September 23, 2012

Uposatha First Quarter Moon, September 23, 2012

How far must the teacher and the student each reach? At what place do they meet?

Reverse Proselytizing.

(Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, January 2002.) Tassajara has an initiation tradition for incoming monks, a kind of five-day Zen hazing, called tangaryo. Tangaryo has an ancient history. As the reader may be aware Buddhists are not renowned proselytizers, quite the opposite: Buddhist monks and nuns generally teach only if asked, and only if the would-be student shows due respect for the Three Jewels. In the forests and mountains of China this assumed a new dimension:

Imagine a pair of Bodhidharma’s Witnesses, going from house to house through a quaint and picturesque farming village in their short-sleaved white shirts and khaki pants carrying copies of Watchpagoda magazine. One of them knocks on a door [knock knock], a young man named Wu Wei opens the door [fwoop]:

“Yes, can I help you?” Wu Wei asks.

“We are just passing through your quaint and picturesque farming village introducing ourselves. Have you thought much about … the Buddha?”

“Can’t say that I have. What’s he got for me?”

“Vast emptiness. Nothing holy!”

“Uh, …, O…. K. Who are you guys anyway?”

“We don’t know!”

“Get outta here!” [Slam]

Traditionally if a young man wanted to become a monk he would knock on the monastery door. A couple of years later Wu Wei, in spite of his unpromising first encounter with the Dharma, has decided to leave home, shave his head and lead the holy life.

[Knock knock. Fwoop.] “Whadya want?”

“I would like to leave home, shave my head and lead the holy life.”

“No holiness here!” [Slam]

[Knock knock. Fwoop.] “Can I become a monk, just like you?”

“No room! Only vast emptiness!” [Slam]

Determined, not taking “Mu” for an answer, Wu Wei sits in front of the monastery gate in meditation posture … for hours. In the evening monks appear in the window to taunt him, pelt him with tomatoes and otherwise make him feel unwelcome. He ignores them and continues to sit.

The next day is no different, although a kindly old man appears with a bowl of rice gruel at dawn, and again just before noon with a bowl of rice and pickled radish. The following day is just the same, but a determined Wu Wei continues to sit, relentlessly. After five days and nights of this the door opens unexpectedly and Wu Wei feels an unanticipated hand on his shoulder. He is invited inside, the monks congratulate him, shave his head and give him robes.

“We had to make sure you were worthy!”

This is roughly the origin of tangaryo as I understand it. With time, perhaps with the ordination of large numbers of of monks, this process began to be regulated. At Tassajara tangaryo consistently lasts five days and nights, the monk actually sits in the zendo, receives meals in the zendo, and is given a real bed to sleep in, from nine at night to three fifty the next morning. Otherwise the would-be monk has to be on his allocated cushion, facing the wall, except to use the restroom, never bathing or shaving, while other, established, monks come and go into and out of the zendo, to sit zazen, practice chanting and ringing bells and to clean the zendo, a little too cheerfully for my taste. Also, because monks arrive just prior to the practice period there is generally a small group of them on the same schedule. There were about fifteen of us, the women sitting on one side of the zendo, the men on the other.

Tangaryo is perhaps the most difficult thing I have ever done on purpose. It was impossible to actually sit zazen the whole time; apparently nobody ever does. I would start off OK for a few of hours, then would have to relax and think about something, remember favorite songs, daydream.

If you find that your mind has drifted away from the daydream just bring it gently back, letting go naturally of whatever distraction has arisen and returning to the daydream.

Later I would return to actual zazen for a couple of more hours, then try to recall my most interesting distraction thus far. With my meal I would drink as much liquid as I could so that I would have to go to the restroom more often, and then drink as much water as I could on the way back to the zendo. I would furtively glance at the women tangaryians facing the wall in their baggy robes on my way back to my seat, the greatest external thrill I could squeeze out of the day, except maybe for lunch; the women seemed much stiller to me than the men I was sitting next to, certainly than myself.

Finally just short of one hundred and twenty hours of this a voice congratulated us, asked us to walk up the hill to the hot springs, bathe, to put on clean robes and to join the practice period as full-fledged participants. All fifteen of us had sat it out, though I would learn of would-be monks of the past who had given up and gone home in a huff and with a sigh.

The Buddha did not make it so hard in the early days to begin Buddhist practice, even for nuns and monks, but he did expect anyone who came to a nun or monk for teachings to show proper respect and deference. Monastics were and are in fact prohibited from teaching someone who was unwilling to show these.

Why Not Aggressively Convert People?

(Austin, September 2012) I can say have found great happiness and meaning in my life and attribute much of the to the ardency with which I have followed the Buddhist Path, even starting relatively late in life. As I have walked along this path I have felt increasingly compelled to share it with others because I see in the shadows of the world much suffering, harm and ignorance that I know the light of Buddhism would illuminate. In fact trying to shine this light in the dark corners of my own land is the most ardent task I have set for myself for the remainder of this life. But this task is accomplished only gradually.

So why not proselytize if the results might be as beneficial for others as they have been for me? Why not proselytize like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Evangelists, tent revivalists do? If I had taken every opportunity to turn my brother Arthur (see last week’s post) toward Buddhism would he be alive today? I might have used some of the following pick-up lines:

“That reminds me of a story about the Buddha…”

“We Buddhists don’t have that problem! Do you want to know why?”

“It’s all karma, man! You know about karma, right?”

“Oh, quit not being empty of independent existence!”

“Have you thought much about … the Buddha?”

I think the reason Buddhists generally don’t reach out in this way is because the teaching runs so deep. To encounter the teachings requires that the student meet the teacher half way. To succeed in her endeavors the student must already possess bold faith, that is a willingness to leap headlong into something without knowing ahead of time exactly what it is or where it will lead. Without this bold faith there will be no reserve of energy or willingness to try to understand what is difficult to understand nor practice what is difficult to practice. Beginning a meditation practice, renouncing what need to be renounced, trying to make out what the heck emptiness or dependent co-arising is, or how there can not be a self, these things are entered into only with the bold faith that they will be fruitful.

If instead the student does not go half-way then the teacher willing to go all the way ends up with students of timid faith, students swayed by personality or drawn to a welcoming community, but unwilling to leap into something incomprehensible or hard. These are students who expect easy answers or fix blindly onto whatever answers are offered with no reflection. Such a student is not willing to be challenged; her faith is not strong enough. The form the teachings must take in order to retain the student’s attention will have to be very thin and might as a consequence gradually lose their integrity altogether. There is a third category in addition to those moved by bold faith or by timid faith, which is that of those who are unmoved. The unmoved are of even more timid faith that clings to what has become most familiar at an early age, those who will not be converted at any level. There are, by the way, no people of no faith; there is no such thing because we live in a world of such uncertainty that our every movement requires a degree of faith. There is no such thing as the rational or objective as opposed to the faithful; this is a silly myth. The Buddhist principle of ehipassiko (“come and see”) is the closest we get: “come” is bold faith, “see” is the opportunity to verify that our faith is well placed. Science works on the same principle.

In Buddhism we talk of fields of merit. Our generosity is better expended one place rather than another just as seeds are best planted in fertile ground rather than in barren. The student who approaches the teacher with bold faith (along with a proper sense of discernment) is a very fertile field of merit indeed. A student of the second or third kind, of timid faith, is a barren field. My brother Arthur was of the third kind, a very hard nut to crack. Not that he could not have developed beyond that with proper inspiration.

So, how does bold faith arise? I think it arises from awe. And awe arises in three ways. First, awe might be a natural (karmic) disposition. Second, awe might be taught, particularly at a very young age. Third, awe might be inspired through the experience of something or somebody awe-inspiring. It might also arise from two or all three sources. Good scientists or artists arise in a similar way. In Buddhism awe arises in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha and is natural, taught or inspired, or ideally all three. I feel personally fortunate to have a strong natural disposition for awe. I also feel personally fortunate to have found great inspiration in Buddhist teachings and in the many people, particularly teachers, I have encountered who have provided shining examples of the Buddhist lives, sometimes merely in their bearing, sometimes in their virtue and good works, sometimes in their great wisdom, always in their strong practice.

Oh, but if only I were taught awe for the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha at a young age! This is the primary difference between the Western and the Asian Buddhist. For instance, Burmese generally learn to embody respect and deference for the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, as well as for parents and teachers at the earliest age. They also have a ubiquitous Sangha and enjoy the presence of many people of great attainment, even arahants among them. Their pumps are primed for Buddhist practice and study. Although I have learned to embrace much of this training in awe, I recognize in my daily encounter with devout Burmese Buddhists that they have internalized a solid support at a young age that I will never completely realize.

This essay began as a response to my dear supporter’s U Aung Koe’s comment to last week’s post:

I think you better share your insight knowledge of Buddha teaching to your siblings and relatives before they pass away …”

I share U Aung Koe’s heartfelt wish. However, we live here in the Wild West of Buddhism, where much is barren wasteland but punctuated by very fertile valleys and fields of merit. I have no doubt about the American capacity for awe (it is why we have produced so many scientists and artists). But relatively few are primed from a young age for Buddhist practice, primed to meet the teacher half-way, and will not be until something deeply inspires them. I have deep gratitude for those exceptional people who are able reach out to me as a teacher as I reach out to them. I only wish my brother had been one of them.




Awe and Faith

August 25, 2012

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. …

New Episode: “Through the Looking Glass”

August 11, 2011

“Devoted Adept”

The latest installment in the autobiographical series advising how to become a monk or nun. Little Johnny exhibits Faith as part of the glob of karma he inherited from his previous life. Find this episode


Lay Buddhist Practice 1

July 7, 2011

Uposatta Day, July 8 (Index to Series)

Energetic and heedful in his tasks,
Wisely administering his wealth,
He lives a balanced life,
Protecting what he has amassed.

Endowed with faith and virtue too,
Generous he is and free from avarice;
He ever works to clear the path
That leads to weal in future life.

Thus to the layman full of faith,
By him, so truly named ‘Enlightened,’
These eight conditions have been told
Which now and after lead to bliss.

AN 8.54

Lay Practice is consistently contrasted with Monastic Practice in the ancient Buddhist texts, throughout Buddhist history, and in all Buddhist countries and almost all traditions in Asia. Segmenting the religious community into a monastic and a lay component is a peculiarity of Buddhism, along with some sects of Hinduism and certain Christian sects. In the West we generally do not appreciate how deeply embedded this is in virtually all Buddhist societies in Asia, though we generally are aware that the Buddha and his closest disciples were monastics and that most of his teachings were given to monastics. Is this bifurcation necessary, or even desirable in the democratic West?

The core of Buddhist practice, what really distinguishes Buddhism from other religious practices, is the Noble Eightfold Path. Notably, the Eightfold Noble Path makes no distinction between Lay and Monastic, each is fully capable of observing all eight noble steps and neither is exempt from following all eight noble steps in the attainment of the highest goal. So, what is it that makes Lay Practice different from Monastic Practice?

Not a cookie-cutter religion. Practice obligations tend to be quite uniform in probably most of the worlds religions. Islam is a primary example because the daily obligations are well defined for all. Quakers are another; their governance is even highly democratic, and includes no clergy. Probably most Protestant sects can be included. I call these “cookie-cutter religions,” because a uniform definition of what is expected of the adherent, that they live according to a certain moral code, that they except a certain creed, that they follow certain daily ritual practices, would be expected to produce similar results. Of course people everywhere inevitably distinguish themselves in terms of level of commitment or laxness, but there is a lot of communal strength and conceptual appeal in the uniformity of the cookie-cutter paradigm.

Buddhism in its pure form could never be a cookie-cutter religion. Buddhism has an unusually sophisticated and deep-reaching system of practice with many interconnected parts, and a very long and rigorous path of practice passing through many different stages of development, generally conceptualized as proceeding through many lifetimes, and culminating in complete awakening. Because of the potential extreme depth of systematic Buddhist practice it is generally defined conceptually in terms of an ideal, in terms of what the most whole-hearted, committed and fortunate will undertake but few even of them will attain, in this lifetime.

Virtually everyone falls short of the Buddhist ideal, and to wildly varying degrees. It is recognized from the get-go that its adherents will differentiate themselves on the basis of faith, commitment, obligations and interests outside of Buddhist practice, preferences as well within Buddhist practice, zeal, opportunities for inspiration and instruction from others, and so on. As a result, some adherents will meditate, but not follow precepts, some will follow precepts and practice generosity, but fail to approach contentment in sensual matters. In short, in Buddhism there is very little uniformity of practice, and correspondingly there is little obligation to maintain some agreed standard of practice. The amount and nature of Buddhist practice are ultimately matters of personal choice and opportunity and correspondingly there is a great tolerance for a variety of personal choices.

Setting out on the Buddhist path is like taking a hike with a large and very mixed group of people of every age, state of health, type of footwear, backpack size, degree of inebriation, and so on. Such a group will spread out along the path, with the strongest, healthiest, be-hiking-booted, light-backpacked, boldest, most persistent and most enterprising leading the way. In the middle there might be a mutually infatuated teenage couple that keeps up in spurts, but keeps getting side-tracked and disappearing from the path for minutes at a time, some chubby middle-aged people who huff and puff, along with some fit but ancient birdwatchers. Falling way back are parents and their little kids who “cannot walk another step,” a couple of people sitting on a rock drinking beer, an elderly gentleman watching fire ants devour his cane that he had to abandon upright after it sank into a soft spot in the ground, and a lady who broke a heal upon encountering the first rock. The Buddhist path is defined with the leaders at the head in mind and the rest of us try our best to keep up but straggling to varying degrees; we do what we can, and often the accomplishments of the leaders, and tales of views from lofty heights inspire us to try a bit harder. The field guides, trail maps and high-tech hiking boots are generally designed with the leaders in mind.

No, the monastics are not necessarily the leaders. However, individually people do make practice commitments at different points in the mix, often very rigorous commitments, and Buddhism does provide standards and communal support at many different levels depending on individual commitment. The Refuges bring with them a certain incentive. There are various sets of Precepts, from five to over three hundred, that one can take for life or on special occasions. There are communal ritual practices, Dharma talks, meditation and other events to encourage structure in one’s practice. Working with a teacher can support a strong personal practice. Monastic practice is a particularly strong standard supported within the Buddhist community. The point is that Buddhism has its cookie cutters but a lot of different cookie cutters, including one that turns out nuns and monks, but also many adherents that aren’t cut to size by any of them.

The jugglers fallacy. A normal worldling life is full of different activities and commitments, obligations and worries. Many things we do are not chosen as a part of our Buddhist practice, or might even go against good practice. For instance, we do one thing because it is a family obligation or because it is our job and the boss says we have to do it. We do another thing because it seems like fun, even though it is not conducive to serenity and is of questionable virtue. We would rather gossip, listen to loud music, watch an adventure show, make love or sleep than meditate. These are all life-style choices. We each value different things and not all of our values come from the Buddha. I am a monk, so it is a good guess that my most of my values are in line with Buddhist teachings. However, I am also the father of grown children, and am fully aware of how meaningful and rewarding parenthood can be. Most people juggle a lot of things along with their Buddhist practice.

This issue of juggling is more thorny than most realize: Suppose we find our lives are divided between our Buddhist practice and other things at at a ratio of maybe 10%, to 90%. So, we calculate: “Hmm, if I practiced 100% I could become enlightened in 1 year. It follows that if I practice the way I am now doing, at 10%, I could become enlightened in 10 years; that seems both reasonable and acceptable.” This same logic is commonly used to compute time until completion for various tasks, for instance, for building a house when only weekends are available for working on it, or for attending night classes toward a college degree. However this logic is a fallacy when applied to Buddhist practice, what I will call the Juggler’s Fallacy. Why the logic of the Juggler’s Fallacy fails is that everything we do is relevant to our practice, potentially setting it forward or backward or into a tailspin. It doesn’t matter if we call it practice or not, nothing is ever excluded from practice, whether it is right practice, wrong practice or something in between.

The reason nothing is excluded from practice is that karma is the stuff of our practice, which is to say, our character and destiny develop according to our intentional actions of body, speech and mind. If this were not the case, practice would be fruitless. However, we are producing karma all the time, not just during the 10% of the time that we are “practicing Buddhism.” In fact, the 90% of the time we are doing something other than “practicing Buddhism” is bound to dominate our progress. This is, for instance, why Right Livelihood is so important; 40 hours working in a slaughter house is a lot of cumulative karma in a week, enough to overwhelm one hour of daily meditation regardless how many years, or in which jhanas, we meditate. We cannot even begin to make a separation between our practice and the rest of our life. Everything we juggle in our lives influences the progress we make along the path.

Monastic life is a life of not juggling. Monastic life is most supportive of Buddhist practice because it has nothing visibly in it, only our own untamed thoughts, that contradicts personal development, and because it has much that supports it. In fact almost every element of the monastic life is there because it is sound Buddhist practice. Even if my meditation is lax and my mindfulness sloppy, as I adhere to the monastic lifestyle, development will at least not regress. I might be like the chubby middle-aged people huffing and puffing, but will make progress. If my practice is ardent, as I adhere to the monastic lifestyle, progress along the Buddhist path will be very rapid indeed, and I could be up front strong and fit, and with high-tech hiking boots. The monastic life was carefully formulated and described in the Vinaya by the Buddha, who used elements of ascetic practices common in Buddha’s India. It is a life of renunciation, but not extreme asceticism. that pares away everything that I would otherwise have to juggle.

The Juggler’s Life. The Lay life is the juggler’s life, and most people will prefer to juggle many things that a monastic would turn away from. To begin with people’s values are informed through many influences, not all of which are Buddhist, and those values may be difficult to give up. Secondly, people vary in faith and may not be convinced about Buddhist values or that the monastic life is as advertised. Third, many people have family obligations, debts, etc. that keep them locked into the juggler;s life. The most notable deal-breaker for most is that monastics are strictly celibate! They also minimize family responsibilities, refrain from accumulating wealth or doing any kind of business or conducting a conventional livelihood. They restrain the senses by not going to shows, listening to music, and so on. Monastic life is simple, and believe-it-or-not quite joyful, but does not enjoy universal appeal.

Lay Practice is the art of juggling. Lay practitioners follow the Noble Eightfold Path just like monastics, but in addition must follow the extremely challenging ninth practice of Right Juggling in order to shape and balance your life in such a way that the less Buddhist aspects of your life are not overwhelming or neutralizing the benefits of Buddhist practice. Lay practice is challenging, but not limited in its potential to achieve the highest attainments of Buddhist practice. What is worrisome about the Western lay life is that so few people realize that there is an art to juggling, that if not mastered can make progress on the path all but impossible. I’ve often seen Buddhist practice accordingly end in frustration. I hope that the series I am herewith beginning will help readers master the Art of Lay Practice.

Let me present the Art in brief, but in metaphorical terms that may be cryptic enough to keep you in suspense until next week, but suggestive enough to inspire you to think about Lay Practice between now and then.

The Art of Juggling.

Select. Choose your balls carefully. Choose a set of balls that feel just right for you, that are the right size, weight and appearance, and that are not too great in number.

Reject. Get rid of balls that are defective or unjuggleable. This is a check on the result of the first step. You may have been captivated by a ball because of its appearance, for instance, but overlooked its drawbacks. Throw it out if it is really too heavy, light, small to be usable.

Balance. Have a wholesome, balanced relationship to your balls. Don’t be captivated by, nor proud of, the new shiny golden ball as it whizzes by. Your task is to juggle it faithfully and skillfully.

Simplify. Don’t juggle things that aren’t balls. That is, while you have, say, six balls in the air, don’t at the same time try to answer your cell phone, smoke, drink coffee or flirt with a member of the audience.

Faith IX

June 30, 2011

Uposatha Day, New Moon, June 30, 2011

Summary and Conclusion

Modern Buddhist commentators have not settled on an English translation for the Pali word “saddha,” often choosing a word like “confidence” or “conviction” to disassociate Buddhist faith from faith as it is uncomfortably understood in Western religion, and particularly from blind faith. I have chosen to use the word “faith” because I want to underscore that there is a commonality here, and in fact one that underlies virtually all human reasoning, religious or otherwise. Faith is what we need to deal with uncertainty, when we need to know more than we in fact do. Faith is the stuff of assumptions and beliefs, but also of values and aspirations. In an uncertain world, faith is not only a prominent part of human cognition, but an essential part of human cognition, necessary for getting out of bed in the morning, brushing your teeth, selecting a bottle of fine wine, applying for a job, watching a movie or becoming a Buddhist practitioner. There is not much difference in kind, for instance, between religious faith and political opinion, and in fact blind faith is quite alive in current popular political, social and economic thought.

However, Buddhist faith distinguishes itself within the whole realm of religious and non-religious faith. It has some affinity with scientific faith in working in close collaboration with discernment or knowing. As faith it jumps beyond what we know, but hopping rather than leaping is encouraged. Accordingly our faith will be limited as we start Buddhist practice, but it will grow as we begin to verify teachings in out own experience and begin to recognize in the Dhamma a very good track record. We are also encouraged to keep track of what we know as opposed to what we accept on faith, all the while investigating and challenging what we accept on faith to better ground it in knowing. This is why Sariputta could respond as he does in the following:

The Buddha asked Sariputta, “Do you take it on faith that these five strengths — faith, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment— lead to the deathless?”

Sariputta answered, “No, I don’t take it on faith. I know.”

As our practice reaches higher levels of attainment, and we verify more and more of the Dhamma in our own experience, knowing will replace faith. In contrast to science, however, the primary criterion that we place on faith is not, “Is it true?” but rather, “Is it of benefit.” (History has shown that science might have done well to keep the same question in mind.)

Discernment alone is sterile, has no zeal or values, it belongs to an impoverished world extending no further than our front porch. Faith alone is a bit whimsical, off the wall and often dangerous. Balancing the two entails living and acting resolutely in faith, while actively examining and trying to understand what we have faith in with a discerning mind. Doubt is a disruption of this balance when discernment eats away at resolution without offering anything better to replace our faith with. Buddhist faith is a skillful mental faculty which requires care in cultivation and development as a part of practice. In Buddhism we need to explore deep into our own minds, often into uncharted territory, including dark areas that we may have intentionally ignored. Accordingly, our faith requires an explorer’s boldness and resolution. Vow and devotion are primary manifestations of this that embrace what we choose to regard as valuable and meaningful.

Skillful faith brings with it a delight, a sense of certitude, as the we relax into our informed choices. Our perspective flips as our values and aspirations are no longer pursued for some originating motive, but for themselves. Sir Edmund Hilary when asked why he climbed Mt. Everest could only answer, “Because it’s there!” He might of answered, “So I can get famous,” “So I can write books, give lectures and make a lot of money,” or “So I can get a date,” but he didn’t. Instead he has what it Buddhism is a noble motive, doing something for its own sake with no personal stake in the outcome. Selfless devotion, also common among hobbyists such as birdwatchers and people who make ferris wheels out of toothpicks, faith at its best, creates strong marriages and serene and unwavering Buddhist practitioners.


This concludes the series on faith. After much response to my request for topics I have chosen to take up “Lay Buddhist Practice” next. I will keep the other suggestions in mind, but this important topic seems to be most stimulating of thoughts right now.


Faith VIII

June 23, 2011

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, June 24, 2011

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.

Faith VII

June 15, 2011

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, June 16, 2011

Wielding Faith I

We live in a world of overwhelming uncertainty, and at the same time we need to live our lives, set goals, act in the world. There are some things we know, or pretty reliably know, from direct experience, but really not very much. The rest of what we have to go on is this guesswork we call faith. This world is pregnant with possibilities, and indeed of two kinds: First there are all the propositions that might turn out to be true or to be false. How do we choose? Second, as active agents we have a degree of creative control over the world, there are things we can will to be true or false. What do we value? As we all know we can make some really dumb choices on both counts. This is why we must learn the skill of faith.

One of the first things we can do is extend the range of the known by relying on others, but that requires putting our faith in someone else. We all do this. Faith in others occurs in all areas of human interest. What news sources do we put your faith in? Which friends are reliable sources of information about movies to watch? In the corner of our world of possibilities we have science, concerned at an expert level with expanding the range of the known. Do we have faith in those guys?

Even upon expanding the range of the known in this way, we do not have enough information to act in the world. What is worth doing? We do have basic instinctual drives, for instance for nourishment, procreation, and so on, that are wired into us. I don’t suspect most animals need to think about what are the worthwhile things to do in the world (“Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly …”), and many people are the essentially the same (“… and I gotta love one man ’til I diiiiee”). But humans can question these motivations on the one hand, and look for higher or more satisfactory motivations on the other. Buddhism does this all over the place. At this level the realm faith becomes an adventure, inviting exploration, pregnant with possibilities.

So we populate our worlds with values, with what is worthy, or unworthy, of our attention. Scientists value solving mysteries, discovering truth; this is part of their faith and they allow that to inform their life’s activities. Christians value obeying God’s will. Others value sensual pleasures. The U.S. Marine Corps values courage and honor (according to some billboards I’ve seen), whereas the Army seems to value being all that you can be. Many of the Burmese I know who live in America express surprise at American values, “Everyone seems to just care about money.” As we choose values, we are still in the realm of uncertainty but with creative control, however still unable to predict the consequences of acting according to those values, along with the beliefs or working assumptions we’ve acquired. Our values get us into a lot of trouble, and conflict with each other, when we try to manifest them. There is a world of possibilities to explore.

The Buddha took great care to ensure that Buddhist faith is skillful. Faith at the most fundamental level is placed, as we have seen in the Kalama Sutta, in the value welfare and happiness and the avoidance harm and suffering, for all beings. (Buddhism is about virtue to the core.) The rest of faith must support this value. We have seen that this places a strong constraint on faith that protects us from its abuses. It is also important to put our faith in the wise and then have faith in what they seem to know, and he provides criteria for recognizing the wise.

Additionally the Buddha asks us to put as much reason and discernment behind faith as possible, so that faith comes for the most part in little hops rather than in great leaps, to see for yourself, and if your vision is blurry now to keep trying so that you will see in the future. In the Inquirer Sutta (MN 47) he even provides the example of faith in his own enlightenment and walks through what direct evidence the disciple can discern to support this hop of faith. Eventually reason and discernment should replace Buddhist faith entirely as these develop. Although the Buddha accepts that before that point we need to work with working assumptions on faith, he asks us to be clear that we don’t confuse faith with discernment, that we know where we stand. He also accepts that working assumptions have a practical value independent of whether they are actually true or not. In the Incontrovertible Teaching Sutta (MN 60) he explores the value of the working assumption in more detail than we have here.

If you walk around the monastery where I live in Texas you will find various cottages (kutis) for retreatants, each one named after a Buddhist value. There is Metta (kindness), Karuna (compassion, that is where I dwell), Mudita (joy in the good fortune of others), Uppekha (equanimity), Sila (virtue), Pannya (wisdom), Samadhi (concentration), Sacca (truth), Khema (security), Dana (generosity) and Satipatthana (establishment of mindfulness). These are all personal qualities that are encouraged in practice. We will someday have about fifty cottages, but will not run out of Buddhist values and will probably at some point have a cottage named Saddha (faith).

Faith is on many of the Buddhist lists, such as the Five Faculties and the Five Strengths. Faith is also said to become unshakable when one attains stream-entry. Faith is a condition leading through ease, joy, serenity, and concentration. The opposite of faith, doubt (vicikiccha) is likewise on the lists of Five Hindrances and Ten Fetters. However, according to our discussion so far, faith as a value might seem a bit out of place. First, faith as a general component of human reasoning is as likely, maybe more likely, to be unskillful as skillful; it often gets us in a peck of trouble. Second, including it as a value among values would seem redundant, like including “Obey all rules” as a rule among rules. So why do we value faith?

Saddha in Buddhism is generally taken in the sense of skillful faith, specifically the Buddhist take on faith. Moreover faith is a personal quality subject to cultivation and development in itself, one that has an energy, an emotive property of its own. I’ve described faith as opening up a world of possibilities for us to explore.

In brief, faith in Buddhism is the explorer’s mindset, with these properties:

Faith is bold. It carries discernment as far as it can, wide open to the possibilities, then makes its decision and plunges forth.

Faith is resolute. It sticks with its decision as if it were certain, unless it discerns a serious blunder.

Faith is secure. It relaxes into its resolution, does not waffle or argue with itself, it is a refuge.

Doubt, on the other hand, is the home-body’s mindset. It is wimpy, wishy-washy and nervous. It falters in an uncertain world. This is why in Buddhism faith is a virtue and doubt a hidrance. As states of mind faith and doubt are subject to Right Effort, we try to ensure the arising of faith that has not yet arisen and the maintenance of faith that has already arisen. We try to guard against the arising of doubt that has not yet arisen and to remove the doubt that has already arisen. Devotional practices aid us in the effort.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu in his essay “Faith in Awakening” describes what is at stake:

As in science, faith in the Buddha’s Awakening acts like a working hypothesis, but the test of that hypothesis requires an honesty deeper and more radical than anything science requires. You have to commit yourself — every variation of who you feel you are — totally to the test. Only when you take apart all clinging to your inner and outer senses can you prove whether the activity of clinging is what hides the deathless.

The Buddha also spoke (AN 4.34):

Those who have joyous faith in the highest, the highest fruit will be theirs.

In our next and final week I want to take up the psychology of faith in a bit more detail, and in fact to discuss these three properties of being bold, resolute and secure, why these properties are important and how they play out in Buddhist practice.

Faith VI

June 8, 2011

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, June 9, 2011

Kalama Sutta Workbook

Last week we discussed the Buddha’s advice on faith offered in the Kalama and Canki Suttas, what or who to believe in. In very brief summary:

Don’t place faith blindly in:

(1) Religious tradition (when this is conveyed without knowing).

(2) Inference and logic (when this gets abstract).

Do place your faith in:

(3) What is skillful, blameless, leading to welfare and happiness.

(4) What is approved by the wise (those who are said to know, and who are above any greed, hate or delusion that could lead them to mislead).

I would like, in this post to consider some examples. These examples are not limited to Buddhism or even to religion; I think the Buddha’s advice is quite far reaching. Religion is a Western concept in any case; whereas in the West we seem to organize human affairs into neat disciplines, such as religion, philosophy and science, at the Buddha’s time these distinctions would not hve been intelligible. My strategy will be simply to introduce an example of faith, and the comment on it from what I understand as the Buddha’s perspective, then move on to the next example.

Faith in the Buddha’s Enlightenment. This is said to be the basis of all Buddhist practice, so it is a good starting point.

Clearly faith in the Buddha’s enlightenment is communicated in a religious tradition (1), attested in ancient scriptures that have been communicated from generation to generation. Although the Buddha’s enlightenment can by no means be proven, it has been reproduced in the direct experience, that is, knowledge, of practitioners throughout the history of Buddhism into the present day. In this sense it is outside the criticism of the blind leading the blind. Although enlightenment is relatively rare nowadays (and those who are enlightened will rarely tell you so), the glimpse of enlightenment available to many adepts, those whose understanding allows them to verify the reality of the ultimate goal if not actually achieve it. Such adepts are called stream enterers.

Faith in the Buddha’s enlightenment is beneficial as an incentive to practice, and practice develops qualities that are skillful, beneficial and blameless (3). There are many very wise people who approve of faith in the Buddha’s enlightenment (4). Of course one should take great care that one understands the motives of teachers we have direct contact with, however we can also consider the testimony of many publicly known teachers, like the Dalai Lama, and many historical figures.

The Buddha discusses the difference between faith and knowing with respect to this specific object of faith in the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint (MN 27). The simile is that of a woodsman who initially sees a footprint, then bank scrapings and so on, accumulating evidence about what it is he is chasing, but should not conclude that he knows what he is after until he actually sees it. So faith lives alongside healthy skepticism. We will see next week that neither entail absence of doubt.

In summary, faith in the Buddha’s enlightenment is a working assumption that arises from faith in certain people of wisdom, that is properly recognized as faith and not knowledge until such time as it may be seen directly in one’s own experience, and which is verifiably skillful and beneficial even if not verified to be factual. Similar things could be said about the many other foundations of Buddhism, such as the Four Noble Truths and the Triple Gem.

Religious Fundamentalism. This is a phenomenon first identified in certain sects of Christianity, but also well attested in Islam and Judaism, and probably found in many minor faiths as well. I am alarmed that much that characterizes religious fundamentalism seems to be replicated in the New Atheism (e.g., of Christipher Hitchens and Sam Harris). We should be on guard for any leaning in this direction within Buddhism, for the following reasons.

Fundamentalism generally involves a strict unyielding interpretation of scriptural authority, seemingly with little recognition of the not so subtle difference between knowing and faith, literal and figurative. It is therefore subject to the fallacy of the blind leading the blind (1). Interestingly even the scriptural authority is often bogus. It seems subject to readily generating inferences to create a world view that often seems at odds with what the original scriptures were reasonably trying to say (2). For some reason this often takes the form of a strict demarcation of Good and Evil as forces at work in opposing populations.

Fundamentalist faith tends to be placed in leaders who don’t rank among the wise, insofar as they tend to display a lot of hatred and anger, often greed for fame and wealth, and sometimes an insanely deluded worldview (4). Religious fundamentalism responsible for a great deal of harm, including militant violence (3). In sum, Fundamentalism suffers under the Buddha’s criteria, at least in its most visible forms, in every possible way. This might be why the tendency to fundamentalism has been so weak in Buddhism.

Political and economic discourse is full of -isms that are often accepted on faith with an uncritical fervor characteristic of religious fundamentalism. Often they go back to a scriptural source (like Das Kapital or Wealth of Nations) (1). Interestingly the views attributed to the source are often bogus (Karl Marx announced famously in his later years that he was not a Marxist, Adam Smith, contrary to what most people think, was clear about the essential role of government in regulating business to protect the proper functioning of the free market from the cleverness of big businesses, and to provide an infrastructure that is necessary but unprofitable for the private sector). Often an viewpoint evolves that sees such perfection in theory that the needs of actually people are overlooked (2).

Harm results as loyalty to, or confidence in the benefit of, the theory overrides the compassion that would respond to observable needs (3). The various -isms are often promulgated by pundits who display hatred and anger, mislead, and have greedy motives, or are employed by those with greedy motives (4). For Buddhists this message should be clear: Be very careful and sparse in your views and hold them lightly, seek out the truly wise, and never, never, never let go of compassion.

Boldly plunging into the rushing river. This is a theoretical example I introduced in the onset of this series. Because this serves well, I think, to improve our understanding of the boldness of faith, let me restate the example:

The flood waters are rising and huts at the river’s edge are already being swept away. The villagers panic as they recognize the foolishness of building their village against a sheer cliff. Most of them begin running frantically back and then forth along the river bank. The chief, on the other hand, grabbing up his youngest daughter in one hand and his embellished staff of authority in the other, shouts, “Follow me, gang!” and plunges into the water. Many others follow immediately. Still others, the more timid, wait until they ascertain the chief’s ascent up the opposite river bank, but many of these are swept away in the still rising waters for having hesitated.

Faith here does not have a scriptural basis (1). It also involves a judgment call, but no complex inferences or derivation of a viewpoint (2). Interestingly, if the chief were to get caught up in thinking about what he is doing he might get cold feet (the other kind of cold feet), lose his boldness and fail to act in the required way.

As I have told the story, welfare and happiness results as a result of this leap of faith (3), at least for most of the villagers. However, at the time the chief made his decisions that was not a predictable result. What is telling about this example is the degree of uncertainty in contrast with the urgency of a decision. Even if the result was less fortunate, the alternative of not making a decision would almost certainly lead to at least as much harm and suffering. Passivity would have been death. This is a clear case, for the rest of the people, of following the wise (4). We can presume if the chief did not have a reputation for wisdom many more would have perished.

Faith in Rebirth. Rebirth in its relationship to karma raises skeptical eyebrows in the West, sometimes through the roof. It is perhaps the sole core supposition of Buddhism that elicits this response, and even in the Buddha’s day seems to have been a matter of contention.

In the Buddha’s day it did not have the best scriptural pedigree; apparently it is not part of early Vedic thought. And the Buddha tinkered quite a bit with the model of rebirth current in his day. Today, of course, it falls under the authority of the Buddhist scriptures (1). But for the Buddha that is not good enough.

The importance of rebirth for Buddhism in in terms of the what it does for the timescale of Buddhist training, and the development of the human character that ensues. A human life is very brief and progress within a human life is typically limited. When we conceive of the practice and the fruits of the practice extending indefinitely into the future, the significance and urgency of our practice is multiplied a thousandfold. This is the benefit of faith in rebirth (3). It is not so important that we know that rebirth is actually true as that we accept it as a working assumption or a mindset that informs our practice. At the end of the Kalama Sutta the Buddha takes up this very issue and tells the Kalamas:

“‘Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.’ This is the first solace found by him.

“‘Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.’ This is the second solace found by him.

In other words, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by living and practicing with rebirth in mind. This is analogous to plunging into the rushing river. Or, for that matter, in praying to God, just in case. It is also analogous to borrowing, spending, repaying and earning money, even though money does not exist except as a conceptual construct. Rebirth is also approved by the wise, beginning with the Buddha, and remarkably continuing to the present day in the teachings of many Western practitioners of advanced attainment (4).

The important point here is that the criteria the Buddha placed on faith is a pragmatic one; it is not one of verifiable truth, even while he sees faith evolving into knowing with the progress of one’s practice. Faith is something we can try on for size, loose fitting clothes we can check out to see what the style and the fit do for us. In contrast to narrow restrictive rigid belief, the kind fundamenalists endorse, Buddhist faith is expansive. Salzburg in her book on Buddhist faith writes,

Faith, … is … an active, open state that makes us willing to explore. While beliefs come to us from outside—from another person or a tradition or a heritage, faith comes from within, from our alive participation in the process of discovery.


Alan Watts similarly once wrote, “Belief clings. Faith lets go.

But will faith in rebirth someday intersect with knowing? Do the enlightened see rebirth directly? If you are at the point in your practice in which this matters, you do not need someone else to answer this. But the question is an interesting one and, though speculative, perhaps usefully explored by those who cannot help but reject it out of hand. Luckily for you I’ve written a previous series of posts on the matter, I suspect with more philosophical speculation and pondering of views than the Buddha would endorse. They are linked from this page.

Consumerism. David Loy calls consumerism the dominant religion in Western society. It provides us with a set of values and principles that inform our behavior at the deepest level. The result has been that it has tended to displace conventional religions, and conventional religions have often responded by adapting (modernizing) their teachings to fit a consumerist mindset. This has been a struggle for Buddhism in Asia as societies modernize. Consumerism is based in the faith that, in spite of what the wise have consistently told us throughout history, we can buy happiness.

Some scriptural passages is Buddhism and Christianity and presumably other religions extol abundance or material comfort (1). In the story of Buddha’s enlightenment it is significant that the Buddha just prior to his enlightenment backed off of severe ascetic practice and indulged in the luxury of being well fed. This is the origin of the Middle Way, tuning one’s practice like a lute to be not too tight and not too loose. However this has little to do with the volume of modern consumerism, and Buddhist scriptures underscore repeatedly the dangers of greed, lust, seeking wealth and fame, all of that. Consumerism has so embedded itself in modern thought that the desirability of economic growth is generally a given in economic theory and policy. By inference this then becomes a further justification of consumerism, since it is on the basis of ever increasing levels of consumption that economic growth is possible (2).

That consumerism is skillful, harmless and leads to well-being and happiness is a natural assumption given that unexamined human impulses seem to work on that principle. However almost any other evidence points the other way if we bother to look at it (3). Consider, who do you know who is truly happy? Something quite striking in my experience is how much happier people are in Burma, one of the poorest countries in the world, than typical middle class Americans. Buddhist monastics, that font of wisdom (4), bely the faith of consumerism in that their lives are based on the exact opposite assumption, yet they are as a group the happiest people I know.

In summary, the Buddha gives us some handy criteria for evaluating where we should place our faith. I have presented a small set of examples to illustrate these wise teachings. These examples could be multiplied at will. Next week, perhaps the end of this series, in a post I thought I would call Wielding Faith, I want to consider faith as a kind of energy or power that is cultivated for its own sake in Buddhist practice, one that has an emotive component, is a motivator of practice, and offsets the Hidrance of Doubt.


Faith V

May 31, 2011

Uposatha Day, New Moon, June 1, 2011

The Buddha on Faith

The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. The trite subjects of human efforts, possessions, outward success, luxury have always seemed to me contemptible. — Albert Einstein.

The Buddha had a lot to say about faith, but the broadest overview is afforded by two discourses delivered in response to people not already on the Buddhist path. These are the Kalama Sutta and the Canki Sutta. The first concerns a people called the Kalamas who live in a town called Kesaputta. They are confused by the bewildering variety of religious views and the certainty of their advocates. The sutta suggests that the immediate source of confusion are the questions of karma and rebirth, which confuses people to this day, but the Buddha’s answer answers a far more general question, How does one know where to place one’s faith? The Buddha was, apparently, the latest in a series of religious teachers to pass through Kesaputta, so they challenged him:

“Lord, there are some priests & contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. And then other priests & contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt: Which of these venerable priests & contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”

This is a question that makes perfect sense in modern America, in fact not only in the religious realm but, with a little tweaking of the wording, in others as well; consider politics. Here is the Buddha’s oft-quoted response.

“Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering” — then you should abandon them.

The last part of this is later stated in its positive form:

When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness” — then you should enter & remain in them.

The Buddha then introduces by way of example greed, Aversion and Delusion (the Three Poisons in Buddhism) and non-greed, non-aversion and non-delusion as qualities to test, and the Kalamas agree that each of the first group leads to harm and suffering, while the each of the second to welfare and happiness. Along similar lines the Buddha then extols the qualities of kindness, compassion, appreciation and equanimity (the Brahmaviharas in Buddhism) as sources of welfare and happiness.

The “don’t go by” list and the “when you know for yourselves” lists should be studied carefully. They use reason and discernment, in the midst of uncertainty, to sort out faith.

The don’t go by” list can be broken into two primary parts: The Buddha disparages unquestioned faith in religious tradition on the one hand, and in inference and logic on the other.

Against religious tradition. The Buddha’s position is states as, “don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, …, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’” In the Canki Sutta (MN 95) a whippersnapper of a brahmin, a sixteen-year-old master of the Vedic literature, asks the Buddha directly:

“Master Gotama, with regard to the ancient hymns of the brahmans — passed down through oral transmission & included in their canon — the brahmans have come to the definite conclusion that ‘Only this is true; anything else is worthless.’ What does Master Gotama have to say to this?”

The Buddha begins his answer with a counter question:

“Tell me, Bharadvaja, is there among the brahmans even one brahman who says, ‘This I know; this I see; only this is true; anything else is worthless?'”

“No, Master Gotama.”

The Buddha is concerned here with discernment, direct seeing, knowing for oneself, in contrast to accepting something purely on faith. He then explains the problem of religious tradition with the analogy of the blind leading the blind, each great teacher taking the word of the preceding teacher rather than seeing the truth directly for himself, such that no one no matter how far back you look actually knows, sees with his own eyes. He concludes that brahmins can reliably discern, “I have faith in this,” and preserve truth, but not “Only this is true; anything else is worthless.”

This applies to Buddhism as well. One can preserve a belief, for instance, for many generations, without anyone directly knowing it is true. And in practice this happens. The difference is the emphasis the Buddhism as a matter of principle puts on turning faith eventually into directly seeing for oneself. The Buddha is not disparaging faith, only emphasizing that it should be recognized for what it is. For instance, a student of the Buddha might have in faith the belief that suffering arises from craving, but not yet be able to see it directly for herself. Nevertheless, the faith functions as a working assumption which is to be investigated and even challenged, until it is seen directly. Buddhism is preserved as long as there are in every generation people who know the core teachings directly. Others follow along in faith. Modern science also operates under a remarkably similar application of faith.

Against inference and logic. The Buddha’s position is stated as, “don’t go by … logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, …” In the Canki Sutta the Buddha declares,

Some things are well-reasoned and yet vain, empty, & false. Some things are not well-reasoned, and yet they are genuine, factual, & unmistaken. Some things are well-pondered and yet vain, empty, & false. Some things are not well-pondered, and yet they are genuine, factual, & unmistaken. In these cases it isn’t proper for a knowledgeable person who safeguards the truth to come to a definite conclusion, ‘Only this is true; anything else is worthless.’

Keep in mind, the Buddha was a very clear and rational thinker and wielded this skill himself to promote understanding; he could not have meant to disparage all rational thought. I think, rather, the principle here is, Keep it Simple. A common expression of the Buddha was, “a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views.” First, inference and logic produces conclusions that are no better than the premises one starts with, which themselves are mostly based in faith. Moreover there is a strong tendency to move systems of thought toward abstraction to get them to work and thereby away from what is directly discernible, and then to become so infatuated with systems of thought that they become your reality. Finally, we seem to be very adept at rationalization, that is, reverse-engineering our reasoning to derive the conclusions we were already determined to derive for unreasonable purposes. At some point reasoning overwhelms and obscures discernment.

For instance, it is advisable when considering a political issue — maybe a congressman has introduced a bill and you are pondering whether to endorse it personally — to keep in mind: Who are the stakeholders? Who suffers if it is enacted? Who suffers if it is not enacted? Is there a mechanism that will be there counter the suffering? In view of compassion, ideology — whether Marxist, capitalist, libertarian, or whatever — often becomes remarkably specious.

The when you know for yourselves” list also can be broken into two parts. The Buddha recommends entering and remaining in any quality that is both skillful, beneficial or blameless on the one hand, and approved by wise people on the other.

In favor of benefit. The Buddha’s position is stated as, “When you know for yourselves that ‘These qualities are unskillfulblameworthy … when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering‘… then you should abandon them,” and, “When you know for yourselves that ‘These qualities are skillfulblameless … when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness‘… then you should enter & remain in them.”

When you know for yourselves …,” shows that the Buddha trusts the determination of this substantially to individual discernment. This, along with the mistrust of religious tradition, gives the Kalama Sutta its reputation as a license to free thought, or even to design your own religion. Notice, however, that the criteria are rather rigorous. First, “knowing for yourselves” is a strong obligation that few are capable of. Furthermore, this recommends that faith should be based on purely ethical criteria; in fact, no mention is made that you must discern that something is true, only that we discern it to be virtuous. The various terms used here are described in many places in the Suttas, but the Buddha’s advice to his own novice son, Rahula, is probably the best known source (MN 61). Skillfulness has to do with not being rooted in Greed, Hate and Delusion. The harm and suffering means for self and other, which in the Buddha’s ethics coincide remarkably.

In favor of approval by the wise. The Buddha’s position is stated as, “[If]… these qualities are criticized by the wise … then you should abandon them,” and, “[If]… these qualities are praised by the wise … then you should enter & remain in them.”

If we have let loose traditional doctrine, who are these wise guys? Since benefit has such a strong criterion for discernment, sometimes in matters that are deep and hard to see, and the untrained mind has such poor discernment, few of us can determine what to abandon or to remain and abide in on our own, unless we have great attainment in the practice. We need help. The problem the Buddha pointed to in traditional religious faith is that it loses its grounding in knowing. The wise are exactly those grounded in knowing, those who see things as they really are, who discern directly and accurately, not people who merely memorize scripture. Recall the Buddha’s recommendation in the Mangala (Blessing) Sutta:

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

The question then becomes, How do we recognize the wise? This includes the perennial question, How do we find a teacher? The Buddha gives this answer in the Canki Sutta:

“There is the case, Bharadvaja, where a monk lives in dependence on a certain village or town. Then a householder or householder’s son goes to him and observes him with regard to three mental qualities — qualities based on greed, qualities based on aversion, qualities based on delusion: ‘Are there in this venerable one any such qualities based on [ greed / aversion / delusion] that, with his mind overcome by these qualities, he might say, “I know,” while not knowing, or say, “I see,” while not seeing; or that he might urge another to act in a way that was for his/her long-term harm & pain?’ As he observes him, he comes to know, ‘There are in this venerable one no such qualities based on [ greed / aversion / delusion] … His bodily behavior & verbal behavior are those of one not [ greedy / aversive / deluded ]. And the Dhamma he teaches is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. This Dhamma can’t easily be taught by a person who’s [ greedy / aversive / deluded ].

Once again the Buddha underscores the importance of Greed, Aversion and Delusion and their opposites in discerning human intentionality. These are powerful criteria. For instance, consider that a teacher might be acting under the motivation to secure wealth or reputation, or sex, all instances of Greed and all conflicts of interest in his teaching role. If a teacher harbors prejudice or ill-will toward someone or some group of people, or fear of competing doctrines (all Aversion), or has fixed understandings and strong dogmatic views (Delusion) this should raise red flags. Probably less visible is the depth of the teachers understanding, but time and experience in working with a teacher will either establish confidence or, if the student feels she has repeatedly been unable to verify what is being taught in her own experience then confidence might diminish. Faith in the teacher is a kind of faith and therefore one that should be evaluated ultimately in terms of whether the student is developing in a skillful, harmless way for the benefit and happiness of all.

Notice that in the Buddha’s exposition he has not proved anything wholly in terms of reason and discernment. To accept the Buddha’s account of faith itself requires faith, for instance faith in virtue as a worthy human value, faith in the unskillfulness of greed, aversion and delusion and the skillfulness of non-greed, non-aversion and non-delusion. In modern terms, these faith in these few elements bootstrap the rest of faith. This is a reasoned and discerning understanding of faith.

Next week I would like to provide examples of this systematic accounting of faith, as a kind of workbook to go along with this main text. In the following week I intend to discuss Wielding Faith, that is, how it is used as a faculty, with a strong emotive element, in support of our practice and development.