The Way of Faith

Rev. Kinrei Bassis

(This article was first published in the Journal of Shasta Abbey, July-August 1983. Parts of the article have been rewritten.)

The inextricable relationship between Buddhist meditation and faith is not always clearly understood. To many people, faith is a dirty word, a blind belief in some unprovable and unknowable doctrine. Our culture is permeated with the outlook of empirical science that requires that one have hard, provable evidence to support anything before it is accepted as true. Faith, however, does not argue with the empirical mind which wants to hold truth in the same way as one holds an object in one’s hand. Faith transcends this mind, and stands on the inner truth which lies at the core of all of us, the knowledge and call of our own Buddha Nature. The Buddha Heart is as real as the ground we stand on, but we gain certainty and knowledge of it only to the extent that we put the Buddhist teaching into practice and work at spiritual transformation. No one else’s certainty can become our own possession. When we train with faith in the Dharma, certainty arises naturally.

Meditation is sometimes misunderstood as being only a technique for concentrating and quieting the mind, which in turn helps us to better deal with our life and the world. Yet such a technique or mental exercise will not solve the larger problems of life such as the meaning of our birth and death. No technique can give the strength and determination to sit still and embrace the overwhelming fears and sorrows that life may bring. Similarly, the view that all one’s problems will “work themselves out” is untenable, for the world surrounds us with people who are overwhelmed by their suffering. True meditation requires the faith that within each of us there is an indestructible place which fulfills all our true needs and within the stillness of meditation and through our efforts of training in daily life, we are beckoning to and coming to know that indestructible spirtual place. Faith is pointing us to that naive mind that trusts that no problems or difficult conidtions can truly harm our real self.

Despair is the opposite of faith. In everyone’s heart is a deep rooted spiritual longing, and all those who ignore or deny that longing are unknowingly living with some despair. Yet despair takes other forms than just hard, outright denial. Many hear the teaching, recognize its inherent truth and still turn away. This sometimes comes from the feeling that, although the aim of religious life is the worthiest goal, “It is not for me. I am different from the Buddha’s and great Masters.” They see aspects of themselves or their lives as obstacles to their spiritual life rather than the very substance of Buddhist training. We all have our hidden and apparent flaws; history of mistakes and hurts, perhaps a memory of past vacillation and half-hearted efforts. Despair here is the voice that whispers, “They who have a real living spiritual life and are making progress are different from me.”

When I first began Buddhist training, faith was something mysterious to me. I thought it must be something which would support and comfort me when I was troubled, which would give me strength when my courage and will were failing. But where was it? I keenly felt its absence. My mistake was that I did not understand the close link between faith and the correct use of the will. Faith is not a passive state. Faith is to grasp the will and train wholeheartedly even in the midst of doubt and despair. It is through this effort that we turn The Wheel of the Law within ourselves, that our doubts are dispelled, and our hopes eventually fulfilled.

The seed of faith that brings each of us into Buddhism can be quite different. Some of us hear the call to train in the enlightened action of a teacher, others in the profundity of the Dharma, still others in their direct experience of the truth. The grounds of faith are not as important as our willingness to persevere no matter how much sorrow, despair, fear, or inadequacy plague us.

Faith itself is very simple: it is an underlying belief that there is a deep spiritual purpose and meaning in the unfolding of our lives. Life keeps having us face all sorts of internal difficult conditions such as despair, unwanted desires and fears. Life keeps giving us endless external conditions we do not want like relationship problems, unwanted criticism, and various ways of failing. The ongoing solution to each difficulty is to grasp our will, to try to sit still, to try to accept whatever happening with gratitude and to try to recognize each difficulty in our life as an opportunity to take refuge in the Three Treasures and deepen our training. Real faith is not demanding anything but trusting that whatever we need to know or do, “will arise naturally”.

Do not limit the true nature of faith by thinking of it just as an emotion. All the transient feelings of joy, gratitude, and peace are not the true refuge. All feelings belong to annica, the principle of impermanence which means everything is endlessly changing and transforming. The concept that emotional states of mind are permanent, unchanging entities is a common delusion and source of much suffering. People experience a great passionate love and become disappointed, bitter, empty when it passes away with time. Similarly, when the fruits of spiritual life are experienced and then disappear, it is easy to wonder if something has gone wrong. This doubt is intrinsic in despair, for despair is the feeling of hopelessness based on the belief that our present emotional state is our true identity and will not change. The faith that spiritual life needs to be based upon goes far deeper than any transient feeling, for it is founded in that still center within each of us in which dwells our Unborn Buddha Nature.

I have pointed out a distinction between faith and the emotions so that people will not mistakenly base their faith on a just a feeling which will always be changing. Yet the feelings that accompany true religious life do reinforce one’s faith. The longing to find this deep spirtual place, to experience insight into the Buddha’s path, and to feel deep gratitude, all these are invaluable aids in Buddhist training. They give us the strength to deal with many of the worldly desires and feelings which we need to face and convert. They help us move toward a deeper experience of faith, but they are not faith itself. When the feeling of gratitude fades, one must grasp one’s will and still express the gratitude even though one’s heart may now be cold and the path forward may not be clear.

True faith is based on all-acceptance: it is to take refuge in something deeper than any transient satisfactions that we all experience. When we take deep refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, this can frees us to see and experience the underlying purity that lies at the root of all our personal karma and all the world’s karma. When we fill our lives with external concerns, it just means we lacking in faith and we are not in touch with our heart’s deepest longing. It means we are seeking our treasure by wandering away from the true treasure house within ourselves.

The Jewish Hasidic Tradition has a beautiful story which illustrates this point: 

A King’s son rebelled against his father and was banished from the sight of his father’s face. After a time, the king was moved to pity for his son’s fate and bade messengers go in search of him. It was long before one of the messengers found him – far from home. The son was at a village inn, dancing barefoot and in a torn shirt in the midst of drunken peasants. The courtier bowed and said: “Your father has sent me to ask you what you desire. Whatever it may be, he is prepared to grant your wish.” The prince began to weep. “Oh,” said he, “if only I had warm clothing and a pair of stout shoes.”1

Faith is the key, for it is that which is necessary if we are to find that we are truly the children of Buddha. At our core, we all possess the heart of a Buddha. If we do not seek to find our Buddha heart, we will spend our lives seeking to satisfy some superficial desire, and we will never realize our true inheritance.

The key to training is faith, yet there can be the delusion that one may inherently lack faith. All that is needed for faith is the effort of not doubting. Great Master Dogen said, “One who would train in Buddhism must first believe completely therein and, in order to do so, one must believe that one has already found the Way, never having been lost, deluded, upside down, increasing or mistaken in the first place.”2 Do not allow your doubts to go unchecked and let them control your life. The Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha are the medicine for all your doubts. There is nothing special about your doubts, endless beings have had the same doubts you have and they choose to overcome their doubts and thus they found unshakable liberation. 

Buddhist training can seem to be the most difficult task imaginable. It asks us to cast aside all the desires the self has fed through years of unenlightened action, and to go forth to that which it does not even know. It goes against all the normal pattern of living in which we seek what is comfortable, easy and known. However, Buddhist training is the easiest path in that it finally puts us in alignment with our heart’s deepest desire. 

The effort of spiritual training can seem arduous, but avoiding training is much harder. When we live without faith, our only refuge is ourselves. We build walls of tension and fear around ourselves.  Old age, disease and death then just seem depressing and scary. Faith places our little self in the hands of the Buddha. It allows us to face our deepest fears and opens our heart so we can embrace unfolding of our life and the life of the whole world with open and  fearless heart.

Great Master Tendo Nyojo said, “we must train with the same energy we would employ if our hair were to catch fire.”  Yet very few of us come to Buddhism with this deep feeling of urgency. However, when we sees deeply into the true nature of our situation, the very truth of birth and death and the uncertainty of everything in the world, this perception can strike deeply into our hearts and create this urgency. When we see the deep suffering that our misguided actions have caused, then our desire to cleanse our hearts and minds is awakened. But do not put the cart before the horse. Faith is needed here, for very often, it is the effort to do Buddhist training when our hearts are cold, that helps to dissolve the obstacles and awaken us to the deepest truths. 

One calls and one answers. Never doubt your ability to answer the spiritual call in your heart, for each pure act of our spiritual life is our answer to this call and will bring us one step closer to finding unshakable peace and our true home.

1 Martin Buber, Ten Rungs; Hasidic Sayings¨ (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), p. 28

2 “Gakudo-Yojinshu: Important Aspects of Zazen,” of the Shobogenzo, in Zen is Eternal Life by Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett (Emeryville, CA: Dharma Publishing, 1976.), p.137.