I had an interesting conversation about faith recently with Asma Elhuni. She is the lead organizer for the Upper Valley Interfaith Project (UVIP) [ http://www.unitedvalleyinterfaithproject.org/ourstaff/ ], the local interfaith social justice group of which Valley Insight is an active member organization. Asma is Muslim. New to the Upper Valley, she is the wife of the imam at Dartmouth College. Soon after she was hired last May, at a breakfast gathering meant to introduce her to local spiritual groups, Asma and I and a woman from a Lutheran community in Claremont engaged in an informal discussion about faith. Specifically, we asked: What might it mean to be called “people of faith,” if a group’s spiritual practice does not make reference to faith in a God?
Buddhism does not; so I was explaining faith from a nontheistic, Buddhist perspective. I said that our definition of faith held within it a sense of confidence. We have confidence that suffering (physical, emotional, and collective social pain, or dis-ease) and its causes exist; that the causes and, thereby, the strife itself can be alleviated; and that there is a way––not the only way but a well-documented way––to do that. Thus, we have confidence in the Dharma teachings and the practice as a way of reducing suffering in our own lives and in the life of the collective.
Asma said, “Oh, I understand. You are a people of confidence!”
“How wonderful!” I replied, with deeply felt gratitude for her insight.
It is true. We incline towards and aspire to be “people of confidence.” We know that this confidence is not based on blind faith in a Buddhist dogma, and we know that it is a work in progress; we may not be there yet. Our growing confidence will in no way ever mean that we have the exclusive “right way” and others don’t; nor does it mean that our way is the better way. It simply means that, with some degree of conviction, we are engaged in exploring a life that operates from the basic understanding of suffering in the context of the Four Noble Truths, as well as with the practices that evolve from that understanding. These “Truths” are not held as divinely inspired principles; instead, they are working hypotheses and, thereby, active parts of our endeavor. Stephen Batchelor refers to them as the Four Ennobling Tasks.
Batchelor has said, “Buddhism is not a set of beliefs; it is a life style.” We might also say that it is an experiment, which has as its premise that freedom from suffering is possible: a happier, more easeful life of human flourishing is possible for all if we will reexamine our guiding assumptions and change our behaviors. In keeping with the spirit of inquiry, we are encouraged to investigate the results of the shift in our understanding and in our practices. Are we actually becoming friendlier, more compassionate, happier, and a bit more balanced in our inner subjective world and in our day-to-day relationships? Or not? We should ponder this question often.
The story is told that the Buddha was once asked by a group of villagers, who had heard many different teachings from many great masters, “How do we know your teachings are the ones to believe?” He told them that they should, in fact, not believe in his words, but instead, put them into practice and see what happens. His word of reply, ehipassaka, literally means: “Come and see for yourself.” (Anguttara Nikaya 35.65)
In What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula wrote,
However you put it, faith or belief as understood by most religions has little to do with Buddhism. . . . The question of belief arises when there is no seeing––seeing in every sense of the word. The moment you see, the question of belief disappears. If I tell you that I have a gem hidden in the folded palm of my hand, the question of belief rises because you do not see it yourself. But if I unclench my fist and show you the gem, then you see it for yourself, and the question of belief does not arise. . . . It is always a question of knowing and seeing, and not that of believing. The teaching of the Buddha is qualified as ehi-passika, inviting you to ‘come and see,’ but not to come and believe.
In trying out the Buddhist way of life, we are turning against the stream of our consumer-based culture, and to begin to “see for ourselves,” we definitely need some training in seeing clearly and objectively. Modern neuroscience is confirming something we all already intuitively know: our default mode of seeing the world is colored by our very natural, human subjectivity and implicit bias. The function of our meditation practice is to calm and stabilize the mind enough to observe our cognitive processes, as well as to recognize and gradually clear out reactive habits and prejudices from our perceptual field.
This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, takes delight in attachment, rejoices in attachment.
The Buddha, Majjhima Nikaya, 26
Even to begin to experiment with this shift toward clear seeing and the promised transition in our levels of easeful happiness, we need a little confidence and some curiosity as well. For many of us, the journey into the change starts with a sense that there is something wrong in our own lives or in the lives of our family, friends, or society; there might be an illness, a loss, a depression, a pervading anxiety, or a general sense of unease. So we might already be looking for something other than an attitude of cynicism or despair to help us when somehow we hear about the teachings. Fortunately for us, there are lots of books and articles on Buddhism and mindfulness; and there are classes and meditation groups, where one can get instructions and meet others who are in process with this exploration in their own lives. In this culture, the scientific findings in neuroscience research also support our starting out. This initial level of confidence and courage is referred to as “bright faith.” We are inspired by the idea that perhaps we can do something to effect a change. There is energy in this basic level of engagement and also the stirrings of compassion.
As we begin to take the teachings seriously and work with them in our own lives, we may see that we are indeed slowly changing. Life is a bit more harmonious even though the incorporation of the practices may be difficult and create some initial turmoil. If indeed this new way is working for us at times, we enter a stage of what is called “verifying faith.” We are testing things out and seeing for ourselves. This stage may include times when there is a loss of faith, with an accompanying deep despair; yet as one returns again and again to the teachings, there is an emerging confidence and conviction. Slowly, we begin to feel more compassion, more joy, more energy, and a greater sense of alertness. As we continue to grow through the practices, we may eventually live our way into a deep sense of knowing, which is referred to as “abiding faith” or “unshakeable faith.” There is an embodied self-confidence that parallels the familiarity with and confidence in the path when we realize that we “know that we know.” We continue to study, discuss, and practice with teachers and with peers, and our knowledge and lived wisdom will continue to deepen––but now we are familiar enough with the teachings to trust our own understanding and insights. We are confident enough to share our ideas in conversation with others when appropriate.
The word in the Pali language for “confidence” as discussed in this essay is sadha. It literally means “to place one’s heart upon.” As our confidence grows, we know that we must and that we can safely “place our heart” upon whatever is happening right now. We can say Yes to our life as it ebbs and flows. In so doing, we become fully awake to it. Our faith and conviction is in this very moment––just as it is––and in our ability to know it and to meet it as a friend, kindly and wisely, while always knowing it will end. Over time, we become “people of confidence.”