For the Toolbox: Faith
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
A field sparrow nest is in the pine tree right outside the office window. Eggs were laid and hatched and a fresh cycle of life began. The parent birds first brought food and held it over the two hungry hatchlings open mouths until the young peeped and were given a tasty bug. It wasn’t long before the hatchlings peeped and then the parent brought food. Feathers grew out fluffy and the chicks got stronger. Then came the big day . . . first flight. One young bird experienced flight and found that it could gather its own food. The other crouched on the branch certain its chirping would result in being fed.
It is your choice whether you rely on the words and doctrines told to you, or whether you put those words and doctrines into use and find out for yourself if they are useful. Will you choose to put your faith in the hands of others, or take that faith firmly in hand and turn it into a useful tool in your Life Toolbox? It is ultimately your choice.
Religion and spiritual pursuit relies on faith, the initial acceptance that what is being taught is real. Some teach that a practitioner must continue to believe what is not, or cannot be proven. This can lead to an overzealous faith that suffocates intelligent exploration and questioning. People who believe without any attempt to prove will likely discover dogma rather than accrue knowledge. There is a great disservice to the individual and society if faith replaces the motivation to investigate and to experience personally the efficacy of any teaching or knowledge.
The practice of the majority of theistic religions demands unwavering acceptance of metaphysical doctrine and a belief in a pre-determined fate or plan. The believer does just that . . . believes . . . without proof or experience. Viewing that spiritual path differently Saint Augustine (354-430) a bishop and ‘Doctor of the Church’ went against this concept when he spoke about “knowing God” not through faith or simple belief in his existence but in coming face-to-face with God, actually experiencing him through contemplative insight. Salvation was not by faith alone, but by both faith and works.
With this in mind there is the concept of faith (sraddha) in Buddhist practice. Nagarjuna said, “When one’s mind is grounded in faith, one escapes doubt and regret. Then the power of faith is strong, one can seize and espouse the dharma; and this is called dharmaksanti: tolerance of the dharma, patient acceptance of the teachings about the nature of reality even though they are not yet within your grasp.”
The Buddha’s teachings do not begin with a leap of faith to affirm a metaphysical doctrine or theory but draw our attention to something we care deeply about: we don’t want to suffer. The Buddha’s teachings don’t ask us to solely believe, or have faith. Trust in the dharma, or “faith” is useful, allows the practitioner to continue practicing, studying, thinking and meditating even when one hasn’t yet realized how worthwhile the effort is. A mature practice though goes beyond faith in the Buddha’s teachings to faith in the practitioner’s own experience gained from practice and mindfulness. Buddhist practice doesn’t ask you to just accept anything, even the reality of suffering. It offers teachings about the nature of reality while also offering ways that you can verify it for yourself.
Doubt and regret can arise at any level of Buddhist practice, the feeling that you just aren’t getting it; that you’re not seeing results. Meditation practice is where this is likely to first manifest. You meditate each day for twenty minutes and don’t recognize any benefit. You don’t feel more aware, it doesn’t feel like that part of your brain is getting bigger. You recognize the arising of emotions but still don’t seem able to control them. Everything else might be impermanent but you still feel like the same old you. There is doubt that what you are doing is of value and you develop a sense of regret that practice is wasted effort.
A sense of faith enables you the space to make the effort necessary to come to the realization that ideals like impermanence, not-self and suffering are real. That those same realizations can lead to a more positive personal character. Acting with compassion and selflessness may not have immediate recognizable positive results, faith allows you the time to develop the encompassing awareness to realize them.
The concept of faith in Buddhism is not complete with touching on the metaphysical ideals and practices in some Buddhist traditions. Faith in rebirth and karma as they relate to reincarnation, that some Zen Masters gain the ability to move instantaneously from one place to another, that a Vajrayana lama can control the weather, or the legendary birth stories of Siddhartha Guatama is up to the individual practitioner. For others an agnostic approach to the metaphysical may have more value. Setting those concepts aside they focus on those practices that have practical moment-to-moment value while remaining open to the possibility of altering their view through direct experience.
Will you choose to put your faith in the hands of others, or take that faith firmly in hand and turn it into a useful tool in your Life Toolbox? Actuallizing a faith that allows the arising of patience and endurance works as a tool in the Life Toolbox. It can be the clamp that holds you together while the glue dries.