On Having Faith

Though you often approach your life as a problem that needs to be solved or something that needs to be controlled, when you live a Zen-inspired life you begin to appreciate that your life is a calling that needs to be experienced and lived fully. This calling arises in different ways. Sometimes it arrives as a serious illness or crisis. Sometimes it arrives from a regular practice of meditation. However it arrives, how you answer this call will have an important and lasting effect on the rest of your life. If you discount this call. If you turn away from its challenge, your life will be significantly diminished in countless and tragic ways. So it's important to have faith in this call and how you answer it.

Much of your life is taken up with doing but this calling has something to do with allowing yourself to be. It's hard to trust this. So another way of saying that is that you must have faith in this kind of being. You must have faith that your life is unfolding and that the universe will bring you the answers in it's on way, in it's own time. Trusting this larger unfolding requires enormous faith in the sacred nature of your world and your own sanity. It requires that you leave behind the small stories of who you think you are and begin living a larger spiritual journey of epic, mythic and heroic proportions.

So this may seem strange to speak of faith and zen in the same breath. For faith often implies that you must believe in some dogma or religious formula to be complete. This ends up being an act where you relinquish your own sensibilities and your own power. So obviously, that is not what I mean here. I am speaking of having faith as a kind of trust you can have in your own direct experience. What you are trusting is your own basic goodness and sanity and the sacred nature of the world you live in. This is not really a matter of adopting a belief so much as it is having a new perception of yourself and the world around you.

You don't come by this faith easily. It etches its way into your bones slowly. For you stray from the path. You fail. You are filled with loathing and self-doubt and are convinced you are not worthy to answer the call. You slip into a depression. It seems that part of the alchemy of this spiritual journey is that you must lose your way to find it. This faith comes slowly, born from your own failures.

Seven centuries ago, Dante Alighieri began his epic Commedia with these words:

In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.

He says so much with so few words. The journey always begins where you are standing. In Case 42 of the Blue Cliff Record, the lay teacher Ho is leaving a Zen temple. As ten monks see him to the gate, the snow is falling and the lay teacher points to the falling snow and says, "Beautiful snow flakes! They don't fall on the other place."

You can spend a life time searching for success. You keep looking for it somewhere else, down the road, up ahead of you, but somehow, it never arrives. So one night you wake up in a dark wood, depressed, hung-over and sleepless. This is where faith is born. It has nothing to do with adopting a particular belief. It has much more to do with having the courage to face your own darkness and despair.

In Case 52 of the Blue Cliff Record a monk goes to visit Joshu. He has heard so much about Joshu's famous stone bridge. So he has come on a long, arduous journey, only to find a wooden and rickety bridge. When he expresses his dismay, Joshu replies, "You just see the log bridge; you don't see the stone bridge." And when the monk asks what the stone bridge is, Joshu replies, "It lets asses, cross; it lets horses cross."

So the spiritual journey doesn't conform to your expectations. Disappointment is one of the first teachers you meet on the path. When you are humbled by your own failures, you can walk across the bridge with the asses and the horses. And sharing this bridge with asses and horses is what saying yes to your calling looks like.

The characters in the story of your life have been too small, and you find that this larger journey you are on, doesn't need them anymore. As Blake said:

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.

In the crucible of your daily Zen practice, with a regular, ordinary and non-sensational practice of meditation, slowly, you grow in this faith. It dawns slowly in this way as a growing joy for the journey you are on. Poet Derek Walcott expresses it this way:

The time will come when, with elation, you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror, and each will smile at the other's welcome, and say, sit here. Eat. You will love again the stranger who was yourself. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.

Having faith is trusting this larger story of your life. Yours is a spiritual journey of epic proportions that heals suffering. And you don't need to have all the answers anymore. Life unfolds in its own mystery and the universe provides the answers you need when you need them.

There is an old story of a traveler who encounters two stonecutters. He asks the first one, "What are you doing?" and receives the reply, "Squaring the stone." He then asks the second stonecutter what he's doing and receives the reply, "I am building a cathedral." Both men are doing the same task but one is participating in a larger story.

by Robert Althouse