Thursday, February 18, 2010

What do I believe?

Light In The Window 2
Light In The Window, Helsinki, 2007

The question of belief and faith in connection with Buddhism pops up every once and again. A friend of mine asked how I can practice a religion when I'm sorely lacking in belief in the supernatural, and fundamentally a rationalist in my worldview. I've listened to or read a couple of really impressive teishos on the role of faith in Zen. Some people I've met in the Buddhoblogosphere appear to hold "right beliefs" in very high regard. I'm still rather confused about the whole mess, but some of it is starting to make some kind of sense.

NellaLou made a nice distinction between belief and faith in a conversation I had with her on her blog. By that distinction, belief simply means that you think some proposition is true, with some reasonable degree of confidence, whereas faith is about acting as if some proposition is true, even though you don't have the reasonable degree of confidence in it that you'd actually really believe in it. (And blind faith is believing some proposition is true simply because someone says so.)

That distinction suddenly made a lot of those teishos make sense.

Not having experienced awakening, I cannot know whether I'm capable of experiencing it. In fact, I can't even know what it is, any more than someone who's blind can know what the color red is. In other words, by the above definition, I do not believe that I can experience awakening. (Nor do I believe that I can't. The jury is out.)

However, if I don't practice as if I believed that I, too, am capable of awakening to my true nature, whatever that may mean, I would be seriously impeding my practice. Instead of sitting, I'd be wondering whether I'm worthy, whether I'm doing it right, and so on and so forth. So, in order to practice effectively, I have to have faith that I, too, can awaken to my true nature, despite the fact that the jury is out, and the fact that I really have fundamentally no idea what awakening to my true nature really is, beyond that I think it's something worth striving for.

So, in NellaLou's terms, I don't believe in awakening to my true self, not even understanding what it means, but I do have faith in it.

In a more conventional sense, what do I believe about Buddhism, then?

First off, I believe that my conventional beliefs are fundamentally unimportant. It really doesn't make any difference to my practice if it turned out that Siddhattha Gotama was a drunken lecher like Chögyam Trungpa, or completely mythical, or just some fundamentally ordinary bloke with perhaps a few special talents in some areas and some bright ideas. What matters is what I do and how I do it, and, of course, the support and guidance I get from people who have been doing it far longer and better than I have. Nevertheless, here's a small inventory of my beliefs vis a vis Buddhism. I have arrived at these beliefs in entirely conventional ways -- by doing a bit of study and attempting to sort out what's true and what's not, and all of these beliefs are subject to revision without notice. I'm not even particularly well-versed in any of it.

I believe that some two and a half millennia ago, someone probably in Northern India had a great realization into the human condition, or possibly even into the condition of being any sentient being. This in and of itself isn't that unusual -- people have been having such insights as long as there have been humans. What's unusual is that this individual was able to both understand and communicate how he had arrived at this realization, in such a way that other people could realize it too -- without having to rely on supernatural beliefs, reliance on someone they think is a prophet, incarnation of a god, or otherwise superhuman character. What's more, said individual lived long enough to communicate his teaching to a relatively large number of students clearly and coherently enough that they could continue where he left off.

I also believe that the core of the Buddhadharma was, in fact, articulated by this individual. Much of it -- ahimsa, the paramitas, meditation, and so on -- was already well known at the time, but some, such as the concept of sunyatta, is clearly original, and the whole of the core has a coherence that speaks of the work of a single genius rather than an accretion of tradition.

Whether this individual's name was Siddhattha Gotama, or if he really was the son of the king of Kapilavastu, or if he lived in a pleasure garden, or saw the sick man, the old man, and the dead man, or studied with the greatest yogis of his time and was asked by them to become their successor, or any of the rest of his biography, I honestly don't know. I have a feeling that most of the Tathagata's conventionally accepted biography must be heavily mythologized, and I find the supernatural bits... unlikely. Whether it happened or not I don't care; the ideas this biography attempts to communicate are far more interesting.

I don't know if the lineage chanted at my zendo is literally, historically true. In fact, I'm pretty sure that at least the beginning includes a bunch of mythical characters. It's also quite likely that some of the links in the chain never existed in historical reality, or that there are gaps between adjacent links in it. Did Bodhidharma really come from the West and get lippy with the Emperor of China? Was Hui-neng really given the bowl and kesa of the Buddha and subsequently had to run away to escape the vengeance of his jealous fellow monks? I don't know. It would be interesting to know, for sure, but, again, it doesn't make any difference to my practice. One way or the other, the Buddhadharma came from India to China, and was transformed into Zen. And just like with the stories about the Tathagata, the stories about Bodhidharma, Hui-neng, and the other patriarchs are interesting and instructive in their own light, whether they reflect historical reality or not.

I don't believe in rebirth after physical death of anything that I could call "me." The explanation that the small self is an illusion created by the five skandhas makes sense to me, and from that it follows that when the five skandhas go, the small self also goes. I do believe that the universe goes on after I die, and I also believe that I, just like everything and everyone else, is an expression of the universe. I also believe that a great deal of the fruit of my actions -- my karma, if you will -- will go on after I die, and continue to affect the life of other beings. I believe, however, that this karma will no longer be centered around any particular living individual; instead, it'll be picked up and carried on by others.

And I'm ready to entertain the possibility, at least, that the universe really is mind, in some more than metaphorical sense of the word. About that, I have no positive beliefs, though, and I don't even know how the matter could definitively be settled, one way or the other. Perhaps it will become clearer later. Perhaps not.

So in these rather oblique ways I do believe in rebirth after death -- only I don't believe that what is reborn is "me" in any meaningful sense of the word. Interestingly, nothing I've read from the Buddhist canon appears to contradict this belief, even if some Buddhists have rather strong and rather different views on it.

Finally, I do believe in awakening. I don't know what it is, but there are plenty of people, both past and present, who claim to have experienced it, who describe it in similar terms, who communicate about it to each other in terms that make sense to them but not so much to people who haven't experienced that awakening, and on whom it has had very similar, transformational effects. I don't know if I can get there too, nor how long it might take, but I not only have faith but also believe that it's there, somewhere, if I can only crack open the sesame seed and get at the oil inside.


  1. Those definitions of belief and faith are backwards. Faith in the English langauge is much more akin to trust, belief is holding some proposition to be true, with or without evidence. When she says belief is"With some degree of confidence" is just dead wrong. 'With some degree of confidence' is almost the exact definition of trust or faith.

    Though I am sure you realize she wrote that post stricktly as a knock against some bloggers. Funny how anger and anemosity will make one twist the false into the true just to protect the ego and be "RIGHT"

    But in the end they are all just sementics, just more definitions to hold on to and grasp. Belief, faith, just constructs of our mind, created with the purpose of holding some meaning in our mind.

  2. Perhaps -- but, as the immortal Humpty Dumpty so wisely put it, "words mean whatever we want them to mean, it's just a matter of who's to be master." I find NellaLou's definitions useful, even if they differ somewhat from the regular usage.

    I also find the matter of confidence in a belief to be highly important. I believe a large number of propositions to be true, but my degree of confidence in these beliefs varies greatly, and a simple, binary "yes/no" representation of these beliefs doesn't do them justice. I believe the sun will rise tomorrow, and I don't believe there's life on Mars, but my degree of confidence in each of these beliefs is vastly different.

  3. Sounds like you might not have a lot of faith in your beliefs then.

  4. I do my best not to -- and keep them all open to revision without notice.

  5. Hi Petteri
    The issues of faith, belief and blind faith are somewhat nebulous things. I'm still working out the fit for myself as everyone must.
    Your point about the binary "yes/no" is really important. Confidence in anything is foolish if given 100% at either end of the continuum.
    Am glad you found what I said useful.

  6. Hi Kyle
    There is no problem if our views are not aligned. That is unlikely to happen between any two people.
    However please don't attribute motives to me which you have no knowledge of.
    The original post I wrote had nothing to do with any bloggers other than Scott on whose blog I left the comment.
    What you or Jack or Gurudas or any other of your friends write or say is not a big concern to me. A comment now and then maybe, but my blog is not about reacting to every little ripple. I'm just too busy to engage with that in a time-consuming way.
    Do yourself a favor and just let go of anything I say since it's ultimately of very little importance.

  7. @NellaLou -- I find much of what you write interesting or useful. I much prefer to read intelligent and opinionated people who don't sugar-coat their opinions, even if they have the poor taste to sometimes hold ones different from mine.

    Perhaps you can even help me get over my intense dislike for French post-structuralist philosophers one of these days...

  8. @nellalou perhaps my American Mentality bothers you?

  9. And PS @NellaLou Gurudas is not my friend, not even fucking close to my friend, I think Petteri can more than vouch for that. So thanks for not putting motives upon me telling me who my friends are and who they aren't.

  10. Wow. Zen slapfight. On MY blog.

    I have *arrived.*

  11. Kyle I do not want to engage with you in any way shape or form in the future. I have tried to discuss issues with you on many occasions, I have tried to reason with you, I have tried to ignore you, however at present, I feel your constant personal attacks are somewhat unhealthy and obsessive and can only come to an unfortunate end. Please leave me alone. Thank you.

  12. And I was coming over here to get away from a sophomoric flame war elsewhere. Awesome irony.

    I like this entry, Prime J. As a confirmed agnostic, I see you wrestling with issues I've resolved by disengagement, and I applaud (if fail to desire to replicate)your attempts to do the opposite. Ultimately, it's about feeling comfortable in one's own skin, I think, and not being impregnated with the seed of others' agendas.

  13. Out of curiosity, why do you believe you want to awaken to your true self?

  14. To find out what it's like.

    (This is not the reason I practice Zen. That, I've detailed in some other posts here.)

  15. @NellaLou - Excuse me? Pot.Kettle.Black. I think you are a bit obsessive about me. It is a bit weird you troll my blog, then make little digs about it in your freaking long ass posts. If you don't like what I write, then stop reading it. I have no desire to engage in moronic conversation with you any longer....except...

    Your continuied ignorance shown against Americans is rather disturbing and as long as you keep preaching how ugly all Americans are I'll keep writing about how ignorant you are.

    Thank you.

  16. And sorry Petteri to have this little fight on your blog, it was not my intention to do this. So, I do apologize.

  17. The one wanting to find what the true self is like, would it be the false self?

    As a side note, the benefits of a regular practice of Buddhist meditation techniques are really evident. Those in the path of awakening consistently show a relaxed attitude, heightened empathy and total absence of hubris, among other desirable attributes; which is the reason why people believe in the effectivity of the Buddhist way, innit?

  18. @Kyle & NellaLou -- please, don't mind me. I'm always happy to serve as neutral territory on which to host peace conferences, even if they rarely go anywhere.

    @Anonymous: Yeah, probably something like that. I try not to think about it too hard, it gives me a headache. By your description, though, I clearly have some way to go before I'm on the path to awakening.

    What d'you think, Kyle, NellaLou? ;-)

  19. @Kyle
    One last time. I've not read your blog for many weeks so I have no idea what you are writing about. I am not affiliated with you on Twitter or Facebook. Sorry Kyle but you're just not that interesting. I've been writing about contemporary culture long before you even began to blog. I write about the effects of globalization among many other things and the predominant culture being globalized is American. Now if you are responsible for that then please feel free to take credit.
    I am certainly not the only one writing in this vein. Have you ever read AlterNet, Salon, Noam Chomsky, Al Gore or other alternative American news sources?
    And you know if you don't like what I write you are free not to read it. But if you want to spend your valuable time trying to correct my ignorant views that's your choice.

    So you'll have to excuse me now as I've got more alternative news to read.Maybe you could read some too and accuse them of stealing your thunder or whatever it is you are trying to blame me for. Here's a start.

  20. I very much hope you find some peace soon. Goodbye Marnie.