Keeping the Faith

I recently had a birthday. I usually meditate at home first thing after waking. But in a burst of birthday resolution, I got up earlier in the winter cold and went to the Zen Center for the 6 AM sitting. The center was dark, but then I made out a single candle burning. By its light I saw a handful of folks already meditating. I went in and sat and watched my breath. Gradually, the sky lightened (I'm not giving us credit!). By the time we left at seven, the sun was up. I went home and showered, dropped my daughter at school, and got to work on time. All day long, I felt a 'bump' in energy and clarity from having sat longer and with others. Since then I've wondered, why don't I go more often? After all, in fifteen years of regular meditation, I've almost never been sorry (I can think of only two times) when I exerted myself to extend my practice.  Whenever I've done extra evening mediation, give a dharma talk or written a blogpost like this one, I'm always glad I did it.

So then I really wondered, why don't I? Where's my faith?

You don't run into 'Faith' much in Buddhism. It's all over the place in Christianity. The Bible defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, conviction of things not seen”(Hebrews 11:1, ASV). With Buddhism, faith doesn't appear to enter into it. Buddha's last words were “Be a lamp unto yourself.” Another Buddhist saying is, “If you meet the Buddha on the path, kill him.” Being a little anarchist in disposition, I like that one. It means to trust yourself, your own, immediate experience. And Zen is all about not missing the forest—the present moment, indivisible reality—for the trees, all the concepts, duality, this and that.

Could these two traditions, Christianity and Buddhism, be any different? Is there no faith in Buddhism?

The Sakyong, the leader of the Tibetan Shambhala tradition, teaches that even when we don't sit on a cushion and count our breaths, we are still meditating. On what? On 'Me', the Sakong says: 'How can I get everything I want for Me—and avoid what I don't want?' All day long, year in and year out, we cling to this Me with religious, fanatical tenacity. Our most hard-wired faith is the concept of an unessential, unchanging Self which needs to be satisfied and defended. Intellectually, culturally, it's our single Big Idea: ego. Every day we struggle to win the zero-sum game of 'Me'.  But it's a rigged game. Because nothing is static; nothing is permanent. No 'thing' exists, not even Me.

Meditation tends to lessen the grip of 'Me.' How? In meditation, by constantly returning to the breath, the volume of noise in our mind gets turned down. We keep having thoughts, but they tend to slow down or don't hook us as often into neurotic narratives. If we keep at it, an interesting thing happens: 'Me' seems less solid. We are more genuine with ourselves and with others. We still have needs, but our ego-needs seem less urgent. We catch ourselves before we create dramas in our own minds—blaming others, worrying about recognition. We still have individuality, of course, but we perceive that 'Me' and 'I' are a mask, a useful social fiction, not something solid and eternal.

For me, this is not a sudden, clean switch, but a tendency to freedom and real choice, a definite change in how I go about life. In my experience meditation is dependable. You can have faith in it. After all, you're not actually changing anything; you're just seeing things as they already are: both distinct and indivisible, two and one.

And yet often I don't—have faith. I'm still trying to win Some Thing. I'm still making and taking ego excuses for not doing a practice which has clearly borne fruit in my life.

So what to do? Maybe this is where the leap of faith comes in. In Christianity, there's a willful attitude toward belief: if you only believe, if you only have faith, God will reward you with grace or salvation. Belief comes first. In fact, there is the story of Doubting Thomas—the apostle who put his fingers in Jesus' crucifixion wounds in order to accept that Jesus had arisen. Doubting Thomas is not a Christian role model; he's a more of a negative moral example. Jesus gently chided him, saying Thomas believed because he saw, but blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

Buddhists are encouraged to be like Doubting Thomas: don't take it on somebody's word, check it out yourself. Or, at their most directive, Buddhist teachers say something like: Try this. It's made others happy, over millennia. Maybe it will make you happy.

I'm like Doubting Thomas—after the fact. I got no excuses: I've doubted; I've checked it out. I've put my hand in my own wound, touched and tasted it—the experience of no-Me, of freedom, wisdom, and compassion.

Now the thing is simply to get to it, get serious. Leap. Practice and practice. Like the Heart Sutra says: go beyond, way beyond, beyond the beyond. Which I've resolved to do. On faith.

by Daniel Giloth