Faith vs. Great Doubt

By: Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor, Sensei

Our Buddhist practice is one of seeking – seeking the inner spirit and in wonder, which is gifted to us by our very human natures. It requires committed action, with determined intent to find a place of this wonder, that promotes our mental state at peace and in harmony with all that surrounds us in this marvelous universe. We are called to deeply examine our lives from a position that will lead us to ask deeply profound questions about how this body-mind of ours functions in relationship to our personal needs, but also how we live together with others. The Buddhist Precepts that are condensed from the Four Noble Truths, and reflected in the bodhisattva ideals, require and challenges us to seriously consider how we can live a life that manifests our unique universal expression, which is the manifestation of our source for harmony and happiness. We may be the only sentient beings that has this capacity for seeking a wider understanding of how we can awaken to this unique nature of ours that has the potential for us to become awakened beings. Because, as I see it, when we come to realize this capacity for developing the body-mind state of perfected wisdom and insight, we have stepped onto the path to awakening. But there is a challenge.

Master Dogen in Shinjingakudo (Realization of the Way through the Body and Mind), said, “The sun, moon, and stars as seen by humans and by devas are not the same, and the views of various beings differ widely.” But these views are nothing but thinking. If this is true, then all phenomena that fill our sense consciousness can be considered differently by different beings by how the mind processes the concepts inherent in what the senses present to it. Does this mean that everyone’s view is correct? Does it mean that everyone’s view is somehow wrong? Does it mean that there is no right or wrong, that it is all relative? Given this, how can we possibly live together in harmony if each of us adopts a different view of this world from how we perceive objects through our filters of dispositions and personal preferences?

We only need to look at the current news and the commentary giving varied views on cause and consequences to know that there is a lot of talk about moral/ethical values and the need to cultivate civilized behaviors based on the roles we play in our communities, government and politics, and in our educational and religious institutions. These ideas and notions are then going to find their way into the creation of policies that find their way too into the schoolroom that influences what is being taught, and how we understand things from contemporary scientific discoveries as well as our understanding of democratic values that shift as our cultural values shift. We find those in authority expounding on the right action necessary to address current day social challenges, and often with a convincing voice. I don’t doubt their convictions or sincerity (well some perhaps). However, we need only to wait for the briefest moment to hear a rebuttal, and another view expounding what is right and giving us the “real” correct value according to that worldview. We are being ask to have faith and trust that a given action is best for a specific situation. We only need to believe. These various claims to authority lead to arguments, hatred, and sometimes violence. All in the name of what is “right”.

This has led me to consider how faith is to be considered in my Buddhist practice. In the Webster’s University Dictionary, faith is defined as a belief not based on logical proof or material evidence. It is related to words like hope, trust, or promise. In the Kitagriri Sutta found in the Majjhima Nkiaya # 70: verse 19, the Buddha is believed to have said, “What kind of person is one liberated by faith? Here some person does not contact with the body and abide in those liberation’s that are peaceful and immaterial, transcending forms, but some of his taints are destroyed by his seeing with wisdom, and his faith is planted, rooted, and established in the (Buddha). This kind of person is called one liberated by faith, I say of such a monk that he still has work to do with diligence.” The Buddha goes on to say in the 27th verse, “For a faithful disciple who is intent on fathoming the Teacher’s Dispensation, one of two fruits may be expected: either final knowledge here and now or, if there is a trace of clinging left, non-return.” Notice how Siddhartha Gotama is using the word “faithful” here, which is different than saying “I use faith to know what is real.” So Siddhartha is telling us that faith is not enough. We must seek diligently, by study, observations, and meditation practice, in order to use our own ability to verify our experiences against what we come to be awakened to. It is not faith, but wisdom achieved over time from our studied experiences, that will open our eyes from delusion to degrees of clarity.

I can not think of a more appropriate example of this principle at work than to use the experience of the Wright Brothers in their quest for achieving human flight. They were not alone. It was a race among nations at that time to make this happen. While there were many ideas on design, all those involved used a single set of engineering formulas to determine thrust and lift developed by a world renown and respected scientist. The Wright Brothers used these equations faithfully too. But they did not achieve expected results, over and over again, no matter how hard they tried. So they worked to change their design, assuming that the formulas were sound. But over time they came to question whether these faithful equations might be wrong, and they set our to do their own verifications. Trust but verify must have been on their minds. They were practicing great doubt. As a result, they found the correct mathematical solutions, and when applied, they became the first to achieve human flight. Their work is still recognized as a true principle upon which to base an aspect of aeronautical engineering. They won the race and we are all beneficiaries of their insight, dedication, and their willingness to doubt the common wisdom of the day. Dharma works this way.

So likewise, we must practice with great doubt too. This is not easy, and can be a cause of body-mind stress. In Zen, we say “We have a fire in the pit of our belly.” In the Kalama Sutta translated here by Thomas Cleary in the The Blue Cliff Records, the Buddha said, “It is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, Look you monks, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: ‘this is our teacher’. But, O monks, when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.” What a personal challenge Siddhartha confounds us with. One thing that becomes abundantly clear to me when reading this is that the Buddhist path is only a means to an end. As in the beautiful parable of the raft, our dharma lessons are merely a temporary device to get us from one side of the shore to the other. Their meaning is completely distorted if they are raised to the status of an end in themselves. Now listen to this account of doubt given by the 17th century Japanese Zen Master Takayuki: “You must doubt deeply, again and again, asking yourself what the subject of hearing could be. Pay no attention to the various illusory thoughts and ideas that may occur to you. Only doubt more and more deeply, gathering together in yourself all the strength that is in you, without aiming at anything or expecting anything in advance, without intending to be enlightened and without even intending not to be enlightened.” What all this is saying to me is, let the scholars and Buddhist philosophers argue the merits of various meanings in the Buddhist Canon, but the principal lessons of the Four Noble Truths, the Eight Fold Path, and the Three Pure Precepts, pointing the way to harmony and happiness, are what should be fundamental to our Buddhist practice, a place to begin the exploration of the dharma, and in great doubt. Then as your knowledge of the dharma develops, adventure into the more difficult Zen material, but with great caution too.

This is not to say that we should not believe and have faith that our practice will promote human flourishing, it is to say that it is not sufficient in and of itself. In the end, faith can be wholly separate from practice, divorced from what we actually do. This ultimately comes down to skillfulness. If a word, a thought, an action is helpful, if it promotes what is good and just, if it releases the bondage we experience as a result of our own negative attachments, if it helps to bring clarity, then it is skillful, and we should adopt it into our practice. If it does not, then we should not. But how do we then take into account Dogen’s teaching, that the views of various beings differ widely? Certainly Buddhism recognizes this view. It is something that we also have to recognize.

Master Dogen begins his lesson by speaking of the various aspects of mind that must be considered: the mind of thought, personal preference, and experience. Ultimately our practice challenges us to see our own thought process, and our views that vary so widely with others. Our views are just thoughts. What we practice, how we act, the decisions we make, the relationships we form should be guided and tested against encompassing and corrective intent. Does this alleviate unsatisfactoriness? Does it help? Are our decisions, our relationships, our actions based on self-clinging, or on a practice of generosity? The danger here, considering the nature of our causal universe, is that once something is brought to life, we can not control its effects. However, we know that something that arises out of greed, confusion, self indulgence, or just plane ignorance, has the power to activate the same in others, and to compound it over time. This is why we must be aware of the intent of our actions. Others that see us as teachers, or authorities figures, or experts in our fields, can transfer meaning to our actions that may not be intended. This I call “unintended faith arising”. When a belief is taken up with conviction and is not challenged, it has the potential to become a very dangerous idea. This is because in our culture, beliefs are held to a different standard, a lesser standard actually, then others are. Yet in our contemporary culture we still expect them to be reasonable. Seen from this point of view, a leap of faith is a kind of myth. Because when we take a leap of faith it is always based on what we consider a reasonable amount of evidence which reassures us that the leap is well founded.

As Buddhists we are challenged to go further and realize the reality for ourselves and then embody it in our thoughts, words and actions in such a way that greed, anger and delusion are transformed into generosity, and transformative wisdom. This is how we verify the reality of that which we have belief in. It is this foundation upon which we stand when we practice situational ethics, and why we place such importance on the principle thoughts and values reflected in Buddhism’s moral and ethical precepts. Isn’t this what Siddhartha constantly asked of his students who eagerly sought the dharma and listened to his teachings? I can just imagine that he saw in some of his students, and disciples for that matter, that they were just satisfied with simply hearing the dharma, having faith in it, trusting in their teacher as they witnessed his wisdom and compassion, rather than resolving to bring the teachings to life within themselves. So it was that the Buddha would constantly and persistently demand of his students that rather than be comforted by his profound insights, or worship him as a transcendent being, they turn the spot light back upon themselves and awaken their own minds. In other words, he would ask them to question and then verify what they saw in him was true within themselves. The lesson of the Forth Noble Truth. Practice has to become very honest and very real. We are challenged to experience the teachings for ourselves in order to make them real. This we call experiential verification.

This is why so much of what we call practice is confronting, understanding, and then working to resolve what is blocking our own path to harmony and happiness. Even if your practice has not yet warmed up and your mind is dull and your spirit weak, follow the examples of what other more experienced practitioners can share, along with the guidance of a recognized teacher, and know that they too were where you are now, and persevere to awaken your true nature. It requires hard work and commitment. Just having faith is not it. We look at the lives of Siddhartha and the many Bodhisattvas that invoked wisdom, compassion, patience, and concern in order that others will find the lessons reflected in their lives, and we work to manifest it as our own. These are the virtues that are required to realize this path. In this way, we practice with the undivided mind.

Understand that this body-mind of ours is a microcosm of the entire universe. And we are expressions of it. This body of ours, what we feel, what we see, what we experience, what we think, how we act, is undivided by self and other. As Buddhists, we should test our practice against this reality. If it does not measure up, it is not yet the practice of this dharma. The Buddha was very clear on this point. We should measure it against the teachings by asking ourselves, are we actually practicing authentic dharma? Over time, with a committed practice, and with help, we will begin to be more clear on how to answer this question. Then we should measure it in our everyday lives. What we come to understand about this body-mind and the universe itself should be in harmony with how we live our lives. What we aspire and do in our lives can not be two different things. To the extent that they are, there is conflict.

This is the great challenge that we have knowingly or unknowingly entered into. It is a real one. It is what makes this practice uncomfortable. Ultimately, it does not comfort us to try to console ourselves with someone else’s truth, to feel good because there is dharma in the world, or that we have a Buddha to worship, even because the dharma is somehow a part of our lives. Dogen’s phrased it this way, “Now penetrate the ten directions within one particle of dust, but do not confine them to one particle of dust.” In one moment, one sound, one thought, is the whole universe, if we come to realize it. And yet, he says, do not confine the whole universe to that one moment. Do not confine it to anything. That is why belief and faith alone is not sufficient: because it is confining. The teachings of the Buddha are not meant to be confining, but to be liberating. The path is to freedom. This is why motivation is so important. If we are satisfied to easily, or we are just looking for a little bit of comfort, if we just want to feel good by holding onto a piece of the truth, then we are handicapping ourselves. There is so much more we need to discover.

So, if your state of practice is still clinging to faith, then have the wisdom to develop faith to doubt.

 

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