Looking out at the green wadi of Ein Hod at a recent day of mindfulness, I felt my long-standing preoccupation with faith nudge me once again. Shir, one of the facilitators, gave a moving dharma talk, in which she discussed the Five Powers of Buddhism, (Thich Nhat Hahn — The Five Powers) – the first of which was “faith.” Shir told about losing the ground beneath her feet as a young child when traumatic changes in the family constellation occurred — and not regaining solid footing till she was a young adult and met her first teacher, Japanese Zen master, Tangen Harada Roshi Bukkokuj. When he explained to her how inextricable her connection was to everything in the universe, something in the sadness and shakiness she had felt for so many years transformed. She was no longer alone. While I appreciated Shir’s journey and awakening, and could even grasp the truth in her words, I knew I was still left with my own doubt about this thing called faith.
Growing up as a Jew, I was presented with a simple faith: It meant believing in God, and there were even liberal versions of this if you couldn’t stomach the idea of the old man in the sky. I was covetous of those who had bought the whole package. There was always something they had that I didn’t, especially those very observant Jews who believe that if you follow all the rules, you’ll get to paradise, and in the meantime you’ll be content to follow the rules. And I admit, I wanted it all – the glowing face and the knowing smile. It was all settled for them, and I was still left with a question mark.
My attraction to Buddhist practice was not initially about finding faith. It was about the practicality of making the concrete changes in myself and in my relationships that I hadn’t succeeded in making thus far. It was about a path with a toolkit that helped me deal with the variety of challenges I met in my life. The emphasis on “the way out of suffering” to happiness appealed to me. And quite soon into the path, I was seeing positive results in my life. But the question of faith still compelled me.
Thay’s take on this subject is first and foremost like Shir’s. He tells us that if we can only know how much everything in the universe is part of who we are, we will know that we are never alone, and need never fear death, because we have always “been” and we will always “be” in many forms. I’ve heard a sangha friend mention on various occasions, that when she hears Thay’s explanation of a wave that is both the water and the ocean, she relaxes; it releases her from the constriction of her narrow little life into something far more expansive and transcending. And though it really makes sense, the problem is that I don’t feel it at the core of my being, or maybe not yet.
Another sangha friend describes her experience of faith as a constant underlying sense of happiness. She says, “I can even be sad, and be happy at the same time. It’s always there; I can always touch it somehow.”
One of the challenges of having faith is that you need to have trust, which involves a kind of letting go. But our species, no different from the others, is wired for survival. From the moment we come into the world, we are taught how to survive, how to be perpetually on guard for any possible danger coming toward us – how to keep ourselves out of physical and emotional harm’s way. This is what our loving parents, desperate for us to survive, taught us with every fiber of their being.
And so… we do let go into the here and now, open to whatever is to come our way; but as soon as something negative hits us, the fear of the pain is too great and we immediately turn to all our habitual distractions. Trusting means unlearning the most primal instructions etched into the cells of our body.
All of this having been said, I guess I’ve come a ways since I first began investigating life inspired by a Buddhist world-view. I know, for example, that “mindfulness” which has become a flavor of the millennium like Beet Carpaccio — mindfulness, the current cure for whatever ails you — remains a gimmick without the other seven tenets of the Noble Eightfold Path or the way out of suffering. (Right View, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Thought, Right Action and Right Effort.) I have been fortunate to discover — more than just learning how to be more focused, relaxed and content — a path that offers something much deeper and richer. And I can feel myself closer and farther from this quality at different moments. And when I feel far from it, it’s also difficult to feel love. And when I’m close to it, there is something right, authentic and enduring.
That depth and richness are lodged in the knowledge that I, like everyone, have “my original nature” or “Buddha nature,” which is the potential to awaken. “Faith in our Buddha nature won’t crumble in adversity, won’t insist on rainbows fixing their position in the sky, won’t mistake the ungovernable elements in life for the underlying truths on which we can rely… knowing that it is constant, reflects a deeper truth, is unmarred by the drama being played out on the surface. This is where we discover the most enduring elements of our lives… the truths that echo throughout time, the truths that free us from depending on the roiling world.” (Sharon Salzberg, Faith)
So Thay says, (In the Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching) that our faith does not involve taking a leap. “In fact it is very concrete. It is formed by our own insight and wisdom. When we take refuge… we express our capacity to walk in the direction of beauty, truth and deep understanding based on the efficacy of the practice.“ In Hebrew, the word imun, meaning training or practice, shares the same root as ehmun faith or trust. It is only by practicing “coming back to the true home within ourselves,” that we can touch this expansive quality — the well from which understanding and deep insight spring.
A gatha for practicing going home:
Breathing in I go back to the island within myself
There are beautiful trees within the island.
There are cool streams of water.
There are birds, sunshine and fresh air
Breathing out I feel safe.