In-depth series of teachings on The Jewel Ornament of Liberation and how practitioners in today’s world might approach traditional texts written hundreds of years ago.
Faith & Belief (This precious human body, part 2)Download
The rare combination of circumstances that allow for the opportunity to practice; students’ reports of experiences with faith and belief; defining faith (the willingness to open to whatever arises in experience) and belief (unchallengeable positions through which one filters experience); faith and experience; the three types of faith: trusting, longing, and clear; in what do we actually have faith?; trust the knowing; the ten factors that must be present for practice; the three types of motivation for practice. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 2.
Our last class we went through the first part of the discussion on the working basis—what we use, in a certain sense, for our spiritual practice in some state of existence. And in traditional discussion, it’s presented in terms of cycles of lives: past and future lives. And in that infinite sequence of lives a life in which all of the right conditions come together to make it possible to come to practice spiritually is regarded as something very, very rare.
I suggested that we could also look at this metaphorically and that the conditions in order to be able to practice in our own lives is actually very rare also. And the time when everything comes together for us to be able to bring our attention to these questions represents what is actually a very, very small percentage of our lives, very small. Either interpretation brings about a sense of urgency and as we’ll be getting into in the next chapter and a couple of chapters from now. While it’s very very difficult for these conditions to come together, it’s very easy for them to fall apart. All it takes is our breath, and when it stops we’re dead and then our opportunity to practice in this way is over. And if we interpret it less literally, more metaphorically, the times when conditions are ripe in our lives for us to practice—they come and go. Whenever they’re there, they’re there, but if we don’t make use of them, you know, something happens at work, something happens to somebody in our family or a friend, there’s some kind of event in our lives and everything can change very, very quickly.
There’s Taranatha who was a seventeenth century, eighteenth century teacher in Tibet, one of really great ones, said that he regards this whole area of contemplation on how precious this opportunity is as a special case of the teachings of impermanence and death. And I think that’s a fair reading.
This evening I want to focus on another theme in this chapter, and that’s what some people translate as confidence, some translate as faith. I don’t know many of you have had a chance to read the corresponding section in Words of My Perfect Teacher? Did anybody take a look at that? Some of it’s quoted in the footnotes here and so we can use that.
The subject of faith is a very important one today. Any of you read Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith? I don’t think it’s a very good book. But it certainly sold half a million copies, or something like that. So it certainly struck a chord in the population. And, one of the things that I disagree with is that he makes no distinction between faith and belief. That’s something I want to turn our attention to. And what I’d like to focus on this evening is the role of faith in practice. What is faith? How is it different from belief? Or can we make a distinction there? Is it worthwhile making a distinction?
It also links up with a bunch of other words: trust, confidence, even respect, because respect can be an expression of faith. And with all of these, in what do we have faith, in what do we believe, in what do we have confidence, in what do we trust? These are all very central questions. And in a certain sense these questions also link up with knowing. What’s the difference between knowing something and believing something? And it actually gets—I won’t say complex—but when people tell me something that they know, I always counter with, “Well, let’s say 600 years ago, or 700 years ago, everybody knew that the earth was flat.” Well, you may have to go back a little further before the Copernican revolution, before Galileo got into the picture, everybody knew that the earth was flat. But, of course, it wasn’t. So belief, faith, knowing, trust, confidence: these are all intimately related and I think it’s helpful. I think it’s actually quite important to look at them in terms of our spiritual practice.
So, let’s take a look at what’s said here. In Guenther’s translation it’s on page nineteen, about two-thirds of the way down the page. Oh, before we go there, just at the top of the page we have a wonderful quotation from Shantideva:
Standing in the boat of the human body, You should cross the great flood of misery. Since later this boat is difficult to get. Do not sleep now you fool.
This is the sense of urgency that I was talking about. And then about two-thirds of the way down: He who does so, must have confidence.
And that’s how Guenther chose to translate the Tibetan word which is depa. For those who are interested, it’s usually translated as faith.
He who does so must have confidence [or faith] without which positive qualities do not grow in our continuously changing stream of life.
And he has a quotation from one of the sutras:
Positive qualities do not grow In men [people] without confidence, Just as a green sprout Does not shoot from a burnt seed.
And at the very bottom of the page you see he describes it as three kinds: trusting, longing, and lucid faith, and then on page twenty he goes on to define those. And a comparable section in Konchog Gyaltsen’s translation starts on page sixty-five, basically, where he goes into the trusting, longing and clear faith.
Now one of the things I asked you to do in preparing for this class was to explore the question of faith versus belief. Anybody give this any consideration? Yes, microphone for Kate.
Kate: Okay the thing that kept happening for me when I entertained these questions in meditation was that whenever I meditated on faith, I felt an opening inside of myself and when I meditated on belief it felt the opposite—it felt kind of like a closing down.
Kate: And that was my main experience.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else have anything like this? You all did get my email didn’t you—in Facebook? This is important, this is preparation. I’ll just reiterate for those people who are listening on podcasts—on Facebook do a search for ThenandNow, without any spaces, and you’ll find the group for this and that’s where I’m putting the assignments, things to reflect on and read before the next class.
So, with belief it felt like something closing down, with faith opening. Anybody else? Diane, microphone right beside Harold there. It needs to be turned on, also, I think.
Diane: Yeah, it was similar for me. It was actually more like passive versus active.
Ken: Which was passive and which was active?
Diane: Belief was passive, and faith was active.
Ken: Okay. All right. Anybody else? Randye.
Randye: My experience was similar also but I think I found with faith depth, real depth, and with belief—almost nothing.
Molly: With faith I felt more of a sense of knowing. And with belief I felt a sense of doubt enter into. I felt there was some doubt in belief. Whereas in faith I didn’t feel that as much.
Ken: Okay. So, are there any differences? Anybody felt differently? Cara.
Cara: I felt kind of the opposite to Molly. That with belief, whenever I have historically believed something. I’ve always been maybe kind of pig-headed about it, and unrelenting and, and like unwavering, unwilling to doubt. And when I have faith in something, I always feel calm or still in that belief and—or in that faith—and am willing to have doubt and am willing to question. Because faith is, is so much more overarching for me.
Ken: Yeah. Actually, I don’t think you’re the opposite of Molly at all because in that rigidity with which you described faith—inside that rigidity there’s a hollowness of doubt.
Cara: You think that I’m rigid about faith?
Ken: No, belief, sorry. My mistake. That rigidity, which you described for belief, like pig-headed and things like that, actually when anybody’s pushing like that it usually masks a doubt that they’re carrying, and I think that’s what Molly was referring to.
Cara: Right, that’s what I mean. Like, I’m so steadfast about it that like, that’s all it is.
Ken: Yeah. So, for most people here then, these are very different experiences. Harold, did you want to say something here? Okay.
Harold: I would like to say something. I feel real bad—either I didn’t read your email right or I didn’t get that one. I didn’t do any homework.
Ken: Do you go to Facebook?
Harold: Yes, I got that but I don’t know where I was. I had a rough week. I had a rough week.
Ken: Okay, you can’t come ever again. [Laughter]
Harold: That’s happened to me before, I gotta tell you that. Could we just spend a minute defining faith and belief?
Ken: That’s just where I was going. Thank you. Now I probably should have taken some time and looked up dictionary definitions, and that would be interesting to do. But the way that I define belief—sorry, faith, let’s start with faith. And the way that I regard faith is that it is the willingness to open to whatever arises in experience. Now, that may need a little more explanation.
Some people will say, “Well, I have faith in my teacher,” or “I have faith in this tradition,” or “I have faith in God,” or what have you. But when a person is expressing that, what they’re often saying is that because of my relationship with this whether it’s a teacher, God, a body of teaching, whatever—the feeling that they get from that connection allows them to open to what’s arising in experience, if you see what I mean. Now, in all fairness, some people use belief in that way.
But I think a little more commonly, belief is associated, or the use of the word belief—like we have a set of beliefs, a belief system—these are things you believe about the world or believe about yourself. And they are in a sense unchallengeable statements, articles, I mean and sometimes the word faith is used in this thing. So, for instance, in the Catholic Church we have articles of faith, which are, in the way we’re talking about, beliefs. And when you have those then whatever arises in experience is interpreted to correspond or corroborate those beliefs. So for me there are two very different processes going on—one is a connection with something that allows one to open. And the other is a system or a frame through which everything is interpreted. So the definition I offer of belief it is the interpretation of experience to correspond to what is already held inside.
And this certainly fits with some of you were reporting, that when you thought of faith there is this kind of relaxation, opening, not without a component of fear and requiring courage and so forth—that can all be there as well. Whereas, when we entertained the word belief there was this feeling of closing down, of getting solid, or you used the word pig-headed and so forth. Really there are two different processes here. Now I do want to reiterate, some people will interchange the usage of this or not make these distinctions clear. But I think for our purposes what’s really important are these are two different processes. And with respect to belief it is a lack of opening, it’s an insistence on how things are. That’s what one says, “This is how it is.” And whatever arises you have to fit into that system. When we do that and we absolutely hold on to the system, we can become quite rigid. And that’s covering up a feeling of doubt, like without the system we wouldn’t know how to function. Which is why many people really like to have some kind of structure in their lives.
I think of a person that I’ve done quite a bit of coaching with who’s a very, very capable production executive in Hollywood. He goes a little nuts whenever there’s unstructured time. Whenever everything is ordered and there’s something to do, even if it’s very difficult and demanding, he’s happy. But when it’s just open, it’s like, “Not quite sure how to negotiate this.” And that’s a kind of analogy for how it is with belief. When we have to believe something or want it to be a certain way we aren’t quite sure who we would be if we weren’t holding on to those.
With faith, it’s a very, very different picture. With faith there’s a willingness to enter into the mystery of life, of being. And I want to contrast certain things. I think it’s a little easier to find in here. Yes. Here not to forsake the dharma out of greed means not to renounce it.
This is on page twenty, the last few paragraphs in the Guenther translation. Let’s see if Konchog Gyaltsen puts it into better English. Yes, it’s a little more straightforward on page sixty-five, bottom third of the page:
Not giving up dharma “through desire” means not abandoning the dharma out of attachment. For example, even if someone said, “If you give up dharma I will give you a great reward of wealth, a man or a woman, or royalty and so forth,” still you would not give it up.
Second, not giving up the dharma“ through aversion” means not forsaking the dharma through hatred. For example, if someone harmed you in the past , even if you continued to be harmed in the present, you would not give up the dharma.
Third, do not give up the dharma “through fear.” For example, someone may come up to you and say, “If you do not give up the dharma I will order three hundred soldiers to cut five ounces of meat from your body every day.” [Sort of Shylock revisited, right?] Even then you would not give up the dharma.
So here you have very dramatic imagery, and it could be very definitely interpreted as holding on to something. What’s being expressed here is that you have to hold on to your faith. That’s what it’s saying.
Many years ago a friend and colleague of mine called Stephen Batchelor wrote a book called The Faith to Doubt. And, the book’s a little uneven, but I like Stephen’s writing very much because he likes to explore these questions. And what he wanted to do is to explore the different attitudes towards faith and doubt within Buddhism. So I’ve just read you this section here where it’s really important to hold on to your faith. And that not to have faith is regarded as something bad. As it said right at the beginning, If you don’t have faith then no good qualities will arise just as a burnt seed will not produce a plant. That’s very clear.
But in the Zen tradition you have the following quotation, saying: Great doubt, great enlightenment; little doubt, little enlightenment; no doubt, no enlightenment.
And this seems to be the exact opposite. Now and then I’ll throw out another story which is a very popular one in the Tibetan tradition. It’s called The Dog’s Tooth. And the story is of a son who makes these trips to India. His mother is very, very devout, and she keeps asking him to bring back a relic from India so that she can honor it. And he always forgets. I mean he’s a typical son, he always forgets and won’t even do this for his mother. So she gets quite desperate and he’s leaving on yet another business trip to India and these were typical trips that take two or three years. She says, “If you don’t bring something this time I’ll kill myself right in front of you.” So he says, “Okay Mum, I’ll bring back something.”
So he sets off on his business trip and it’s a very successful business trip and, of course, he gets totally distracted and he doesn’t pick up any relic and he doesn’t even remember to pick up anything until he’s back in Tibet, and he’s about a week’s journey from his mother’s place. And he goes, “Oh, damn. What do I do?” And as he’s walking along he comes across this skeleton of a dog. He looks at it and he bends over and manages to loosen one of the teeth from the skull of the dog. And he wraps it up in a bit of silk that he’s picked up in India. He presents it to his mother and his mother says, “Well, did you remember anything?” And he says, “Yes, Mother, I did.” And he gives her this silk containing this dog’s tooth and says, “It was very difficult but with much effort I managed to get you a tooth of the Buddha.” And she’s just delighted. She is so happy. She takes this tooth, she puts it on her shrine, and every day she bows and she prays to this dog’s tooth. As time goes on light starts to shine from the tooth, and light shines from her, and it’s just wonderful. And when she dies she just dissolves into light.
Now, what do you make of this? It’s a very popular story in Tibet. You are cynical post-modernists, what do you make of it? Joe, right there.
Joe: It need not actually be the Buddha’s tooth to have the effect that you described. Whatever is happening is happening inside of her.
Ken: Okay. What’s happening inside of her?
Joe: I don’t know, but she’s shining from it. It’s a spiritual placebo effect. [Laughter]
Ken: I think we have to give it more credence or more substance than a placebo. A placebo actually does nothing.
Joe: Does it? Does it not?
Ken: Materially speaking it has no effect—that’s why it’s called a placebo, but the person’s attitude to it affects a lot of stuff. So again.
Ken: So, all right. you are using it in that sense, okay. So would this work for you ? I have this dog’s tooth here—I mean Buddha’s tooth.
Joe: No, it wouldn’t.
Ken: Why is that?
Joe: Because I could never believe or have faith in your attestation that it is the Buddha’s tooth. Or even if it was a Buddha’s tooth it probably wouldn’t have anything to do with it. It doesn’t move me.
Ken: I actually have back in my apartment a tiny bit of bone from Milarepa.
Ken: Would that that mean something to you?
Ken: You know who Milarepa is, right?
Joe: Yes, yeah.
Ken: Why not? That doesn’t arouse faith in you?
Joe: Arouse faith in me?
Ken: No, it seems not.
Joe: No, no, it doesn’t arouse faith in me.
Ken: So what does arouse faith?
Joe: Yeah, somebody suggests that this is an accurate picture of the world, or asks me if I think this is an accurate picture of the world. Is this how I experience things? And I look at my experience and I say yes. And they say, well you might want to try to do this, for example, practice; for example, meditate. I do that. I have an experience which is in line with what has been suggested and that gives me more confidence. It’s a process. It’s a—
Ken: So what, exactly, you have faith in?
Joe: I have faith in—
Ken: Suppose that happens twenty times in a row.
Ken: You talk with a person, they give you a suggestion, you go home and practice. And you go, wow! You go back to them and say this is what happens. They say, “Well why don’t you try this now?” And you go back, and you go, wow! This happens twenty times in a row so you have a lot of confidence, right?
Ken: Faith or whatever you want to call it. The twenty-first time you go back, and its just a disaster. What now?
Joe: It happens all the time. [Laughter]
Ken: Well, what now?
Joe: What now? Well, in this case what you have confidence in is the experience and that was your experience—that was my experience.
Ken: But it’s a disaster. I mean it doesn’t turn out—you end up just totally depressed. It’s a horrific experience. It doesn’t accord with anything like you were told. It’s just miserable. Where do you go now? No, I’m not letting him off the spot yet. [Laughter]
Joe: You stay with it, but your question is why do you, why do I stay with it? Your question is why do I stay with it?
Joe: Because there’s a balance of confidence. You know—
Ken: Okay, so three times it’s a disaster.
Joe: Well, the definition of disaster changes.
Ken: Every time you do what this person suggests, you end up in a more difficult, more claustrophobic state of mind. These last three times.
Joe: Well, hopefully I would change where I’m getting my suggestions from.
Ken: So you lose faith in him?
Joe: It’s not all coming from this source. It’s not all coming from—
Ken: No, no, I said you go twenty times—it works wonderfully twenty times and then you have three in a row that’s something else. I’m just asking, what do you do?
Joe: Then you keep at it.
Ken: Keep at what?
Joe: Whatever it is you’re doing.
Ken: Keep going back to that person?
Joe: That reveals your experience to you, that makes you more present to your experience, that wakes you up.
Ken: You’ve gone to this person for advice, and it’s worked, and then it hasn’t worked. Do you keep going back to that person for advice?
Joe: Okay, your definition of what works. I mean.
Ken: It was your definition. It’s that you have this experience which accords with what was suggested.
Joe: It’s not a specific experience. It can’t go wrong, in a sense.
Ken: Oh, it can. I’ve experienced that many times.
Joe: But it’s always your experience. You may not like it.
Ken: No, I haven’t—you’re quite right. But you’re shifting the ground here a little bit, which is fine, and I want to come back to that. Cara? You had something.
Cara: By your definition of faith, I mean, does faith always have to stay the same exactly?
Ken: I just wanted to explore that particular situation?
Cara: No, I know, but I’m asking you. Does it?
Ken: Well that’s one of the things I want to look at it here. Faith, as I’ve defined it, is the willingness to open to whatever arises in experience. And I think that’s probably where you were coming from just now. Joe, whatever arises you keep working with it.
Cara: But does it have to be a positive experience every time?
Ken: Oh, not necessarily.
Cara: No, so if you kept going back and it was negative, negative and negative, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should lose faith in the process, right?
Ken: I was just asking Joe what he would do.
Cara: But I have questions now.
Ken: You have questions.
Cara: I’m asking you, those are things that come up. Faith does seem like such a malleable thing sometimes.
Ken: Well, as you’ve probably read in here, Gampopa—and it’s not just Gampopa, these are very old classifications—distinguishes three kinds of faith. And I’d like to talk a bit about each of these.
They’re usually presented in the order—clear faith, longing faith, and trusting faith. But I’d like to start in the other order—start with the last one. The way that it was explained to me—this is faith that is based on a rational appreciation, which is along the lines you were talking about Joe, where you hear a teaching, and you go off and you think about it, or you do the practice and you go, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense. I can buy that.” Because it’s corroborated by your own experience, it actually makes sense. And when this is iterated over and over again it becomes a form of trust. Because you’re corroborating by your experience, but it makes sense. That’s one of the first things I appreciated about Buddhism: that it made sense and there’s a faith, or a confidence, that comes from that.
And in a certain sense, attraction to that kind of faith or that aspect of faith is connected to anger—or the energy of anger. Which you’ll notice that often when we’re angry we seek to explain everything very, very rationally—you know, we want to be right and prove that we’re right.
Cara: This is clear faith you’re talking about? Trusting faith?
Ken: Trusting faith, yeah. But I actually say it’s faith based on rational appreciation. It could easily be translated—you believe it—not in the sense of holding a belief but it makes sense. And it comes about through contemplation, through reflecting on these things. You go through this process, and you sort it all out, and it really does make sense to you. And that’s a very important thing for all of us to do as we’re working with this material. Does this make sense to me? Do I understand it? And to work through it until it really does make sense to us, and that we get a certain kind of confidence or faith from it.
The second, which is translated as longing faith—this is based much more on desire. When you want something very, very deeply, there’s a willingness to open and to endure a great deal based on that longing. So you’ll tolerate quite a bit of hardship, quite a bit of confusion. And as I’m thinking about this, it reminds me a bit of a book that I think I’ve mentioned before that I read recently that’s called Radical Hope. It’s about Plenty Coups, the last great Crow chief who died in 1932 or so. He would lead people because he could sense the good out there even though he didn’t know what it looked like. And he just paid attention to everything, trying to discern the shape or the direction in which that good lay and directing his people towards that. And to me this describes very, very much how we are in a spiritual practice. We sense there’s a possibility, some kind of good out there. We don’t know what it looks like. We don’t know exactly how to get there. We don’t know what its going to be like to form a relationship with it. We don’t know any of that, but it elicits a longing in us, and so we let that longing propel us towards it, and because of that longing, because of that sensing, we’re willing to open to whatever arises, and experience or explore the possibilities and so forth. So, this is like the longing faith.
And then the third faith which I regard and—let me back up just a second. From my experience, faith based on rational appreciation actually matures into that longing faith. That when we understand things, that make sense to us, then we want to move there, naturally. So that second kind of faith starts to arise. And then the third kind of faith is an experience of opening. One of the analogies is when you walk into a cathedral. How many have walked into one of the European cathedrals? What do you feel?
Ken: Yeah, it’s just like “huuuhhhh.” I was in Rome many, many years ago and one of the great things to do in Rome is to go to all of these little churches which have been places of worship for hundreds of years. And there’s all this beautiful art in them, but there’s such a feeling, and you just open to it. I also had that same experience the first time I went to Yosemite, which is like you walk into that valley, and it’s like a natural cathedral. Often people experience this when they come into connection, into contact with certain teachers, its just like “aaahhh.” Or certain people. The Anglican bishop that married my parents was a person like this. He could sit down anywhere, and people would just start coming around him and sitting at his feet quite literally. He was quite a remarkable person. And it can also happen when people hear certain teachings or a certain phrase. Now, this is not a rational process at all. It isn’t because there’s an intellectual or conceptual understanding. And it’s more than an emotional process, which is what the longing faith is—that’s much more emotional. This is something that goes much deeper than either of those. And there is just that open appreciation and that’s what the other two faiths, in my view, eventually mature into.
Now, some people have more relationship with the second faith, and so they’ll just go in that direction. Some people have more relationship with the third faith and just open that appreciation. I actually think it’s important to pick up all three, because I know people who long for something but it’s not very clear—they don’t understand what they’re doing at all. And that can create a certain kind of confusion, in the same way that people can have that open appreciation, but don’t really know where they’re going at all, or what they’re looking for, and that can create a certain kind of confusion.
So does my description of these tally with any experiences you’ve had? Am I making sense so far? Okay. Joe.
Joe: It does. What I always have to remember is that things like these lists and descriptions are descriptive rather than prescriptive.
Ken: This is really important, Joe. You’re absolutely right. And all of this stuff is description of people’s experiences. And many people interpret this as saying, “This is how you should feel.” How many of you recall our parents saying, “This is how you should feel? How did you feel about that? Urge to kill or something like that? It’s a complete undermining. No, you don’t feel this way about that—you should feel this way, that way. No, I’m happen to feel this way, thank you very much. And it’s very easy when you’re studying a formal tradition to think, “Oh this is what I should be feeling.” And I think this is where we come into Stephen Batchelor’s, The Faith to Doubt. “No, that’s not how I feel!” But can you continue your exploration? Maybe the tradition makes sense to you, but you don’t have that awe-inspiring openness. Okay, then you can you proceed on the basis of that first kind of faith. It does make sense to you and see what happens. Maybe you don’t know what you’re doing, but you can feel that there is something out there. That’s the second kind of faith, and you can proceed on the basis of that. So there are different ways of working here.
But now I want to—there’s two things I want to do. I want to turn back to these three examples. Now again, one can read these literally, or one can read them metaphorically. I’d like to explore them metaphorically. So You don’t give up the dharma through desire, means not abandoning the dharma out of attachment. For example even if someone said, “If you give up dharma I will give you great reward of wealth, a man or a woman, or royalty,” and so forth.
How many of you have decided not to go to a retreat because you have decided there is something else you wanted to do? Okay. How many of you have skipped a couple of meditation practices because there was something else you wanted to do? Okay. That’s giving up the dharma from desire. Lynea. You smiled when I opened this one up.
Lynea: Yeah, it’s very true. I’m wondering what the connection is—I don’t know what I’m wondering—between faith and knowing one’s true nature.
Ken: I’d like you to defer that for about ten minutes because I’m going to come exactly to that—or at least I’m going to try to approach that. Okay.
So, it’s not every day that we encounter someone who says, you know, “I have this wonderful spouse for you—you just have to give up the dharma, and you’ll be in love and live happily ever after.” That’s basically what they’re talking about here. But time and time again people give up the dharma for money. They say, “I don’t have time to meditate today, I have to work.” There it is. Or I have this big client coming in. Something like that happens.
What I want to do is invite you to look at these as not describing these big events, but actually describing what happens moment to moment in little ways in our lives all the time. You get up in the morning and you look at that meditation cushion and you go, “I think I’d like to catch up on the news.” Done. There it is. Now, maybe I’ll just check my email. Something like that.
Then, the second one: Not giving the dharma up because of anger. Well, you’re going to encounter disappointment in practice for a very simple reason. We all have an idea of what it means to be awake, or what life will be like when we’re awake. There’s one thing I can tell you about that picture or that idea—it’s wrong. It’s not going to be like that. And through your practice, at some point, you will discover that it’s wrong, and then you’re going to be disappointed. “Oh, it’s not like that.” I mean, it’s not going to make me invulnerable to illness. It’s not going to make me invulnerable to emotional pain. I thought I was going to be wonderfully happy all the time. You have all of these ideas. “You mean, I’m not going to know everything when I’m enlightened?” That’s a drag. That’s one area of disappointment that can lead to anger.
Also when we work with a teacher. If you never feel angry with your teacher, teacher is probably not pushing you enough. Because a teacher, one thing that a teacher does is keep pushing you into the areas of your life that you don’t want to face or you’d prefer to ignore and you don’t want to deal with. And every time you get pushed in that direction you’ve got to encounter stuff, so anger comes up and often it’s projected onto the teacher.
So what I think Gampopa is talking about here is when we encounter anger, from whatever source it comes through our practice, we don’t lose faith. We don’t just stop and say, “I don’t want to deal with that.”
And then the third one. Well, how many of you experienced three hundred soldiers being available to cut five ounces of flesh off your body every day? It’s not the kind of thing we run into very often. However, how many of you encountered in your practice areas that you are just scared to hell to go into? There’s your three hundred soldiers. So, that I think is what Gampopa, or one way of reading Gampopa is—here, is that’s what he’s talking about. Every time—not every time but frequently—we sit down to meditate or there’s some aspect of the teachings, it resonates with something in us and we just don’t want to go there. It’s too frightening. We have no idea how we’d function if we open to that. And this is where faith becomes very important because faith is what gives us the courage to actually be willing to go there. And that is why it is said that good qualities come from faith. Because it allows us to go into the areas where all of that darkness, or that confusion, or reactivity is, and bring some attention there so it sorts itself out.
And I think that this is what, or one thing that the Zen expression I quoted earlier is referring to, Great doubt, great enlightenment. That is, if there’s an area in you that just brings out huge doubt about you, your life, the Dharma, what you’re doing, etc., and you have the willingness to embrace that doubt, then there’s great potential for awakening very, very significantly. On the other hand, if you don’t doubt anything, and you just go on with how things are, then then nothing really changes.
One of my favorite quotes—and I can’t remember where I came across this now, maybe on Word for a Day. But it is, The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even dead fish go with the flow. And so if there is nothing there that stimulates or causes us to question anything about our lives, nothing is ever going to change. So I think this is one way of understanding that Great doubt, great enlightenment, no doubt, no enlightenment.
Now the last thing I want to touch on is: when it comes right down to it in what do we actually have faith? What do we actually trust? Anybody? Peri.
Peri: Absolutely nothing.
Ken: Big jump, care to fill in the gaps?
Peri: When when I look right at that, there’s nothing there.
Ken: So we’ve all heard about trusting the Three Jewels, buddha, dharma and sangha. Or trusting the teacher, or trusting the teaching. How do you go from there to trusting absolutely nothing?
Peri: Well, it’s no thing, it’s not nothing. It’s effulgent. Am I digging a big hole?
Ken: No, you’re not digging a big hole, but I’m not sure that you’re bridging the gap. So, let’s start with what’s much simpler, maybe a much simpler thing. How many of you have a friend that you trust? Okay. Describe that, anybody. You trust this friend. What does that mean, operationally?
Peri: I rely on them. I can—
Ken: That’s the result of the trusting but I’m talking about the trusting itself. When you say, “I trust Mary,” what’s actually happening right there?
Peri: That’s very mysterious.
Ken: [Laughter] Yes, I think it is mysterious, but we need to go here tonight.
Cara: I think that for me, when describing any of my best friends, but one in particular, I feel a pretty fair amount of faith that no matter what flies out of my mouth—be it appropriate or inappropriate—that I will still be loved, unconditionally.
Cara: And treated as, as precious.
Ken: So what are you trusting?
Cara: I don’t know. I don’t think that it’s nothing. I think when I have faith in things that I have faith in what I don’t know—in the mystery of everything.
Ken: Yeah, so here you have the friend and you think, well—there’s a sense that I can be completely nuts, and this person is still going to be there.
Cara: No, I think a really good friend is someone who will challenge you to grow—
Ken: Oh, sure. Yeah.
Cara: And who will—I can give you examples—like where I’ve been in uncomfortable situations with this friend, and then someone who I was attempting to date. And I said the exact same thing about my perception of the situation to each of them separately, in turn, and my best friend put his arm around me and was like, “Yeah, I know, my God.” And then we started talking about the weather or something. And I said, moments later to the person I was trying to date the exact same thing.
Ken: I love that phrase: trying to date. But we won’t go there tonight.
Cara: I don’t know—trying to figure out. I’m in my twenties. Help! help! Can anyone help me? It sucks. And I said to the guy that I was dating at the time—
Ken: Thank you. [Laughter]
Cara: I said, I was trying to make him do something. I said to the guy I was dating exactly what I had just said to my best friend, and he looked at me and lambasted me for being so negative, and basically called me a child. And then the debate ended up being like—you know, you know, like, I’m allowed to think things, I’m allowed to feel things, and it just turned into a nightmare.
Ken: Yeah. Okay. So—
Cara: I don’t have faith in him.
Ken: Yes. Yes. So you have those two contrasting experiences. So when you think, recall that feeling of trust, what are you actually trusting? This is not an easy question. Lynea?
Lynea: I’d be trusting this person’s capacity.
Ken: I’m going to be very ornery here. Okay? We say we’re trusting this person’s capacity, maybe we’re trusting their love, okay? But how do we know that capacity, how do we know that love, How do we know that quality?
Lynea: One’s own experience.
Ken: Yeah. So it comes back to we’re trusting something in our own experience. It’s not actually out there even though we may connect it or associate it with that person or that teaching or that. It’s not something out there. Okay? This brings us back to the dog’s tooth. Ah, you’re not finished yet. So what in your experience are you trusting?
Lynea: My own capacity to experience—anything.
Ken: You see, I think that’s right, and I think this connects with your experience, Cara. There’s something that happens in that interaction with that particular friend, something that opens in us. And we trust that opening. Does that make sense? Often we project it onto the other person, but it’s actually something in our own experience.
Now I want to go a step further. What is it in that opening that we trust? Chuck, then Molly.
Chuck: I think it’s more of a trust in ourselves that whatever happens we can get through it, rather than if the person disappoints us. We are able to stand there in our own knowing, you might say, and not really be blown away by it.
Ken: Umm hmm. Okay. Molly?
Molly: I don’t know. I was—now I don’t think what I—
Ken: Just go for it! Don’t pay any attention to what Chuck said. Just trust. Have faith, Molly! [Laughter]
Molly: When you asked what I trust, I keep telling myself that I trust my belief that she is not going to do me wrong.
Ken: Yes, but as we just went through with Lynea, that belief is all in you. And it’s fine.
Molly: But she could do anything, she could—
Ken: She could, but there’s a feeling in you that’s allowing you to open at that point. Okay?
Ken: That’s what I want. What’s that feeling?
Molly: It’s a complete letting go, because you have no control. You have no control over what happens.
Ken: Okay. So it’s a letting go, it’s like an opening.
Molly: Yeah, it’s like a dropping.
Ken: And what are you opening to?
Molly: I think it’s—
Ken: No, no, just take a look—I don’t want you to think here, I want you to see. This is really important. [Silence]
Molly: I saw nothing.
Ken: Okay. You ready to go again Peri? Just note what Molly said, “I saw nothing.” Okay.
Peri: Well, I’m not going to use “nothing” again. It’s confidence in my own nature. When I look at what that is, I see nothing.
Ken: Thank you. I was just going to say–confidence in your own nature—you’re much better off using nothing.
Peri: Oh, yeah, yeah, exactly.
Ken: Okay. This is my point. When we really look at faith deeply, and we take back, we work through the various layers and we take back, what is actually going on with that? We always find that there is this open, empty space which, for lack of a better word, we describe as nothing. And yet we trust it. [Laughter.] Go ahead, Cara.
Cara: I have this metaphor that’s just been banging around in my head, like all night, and I have to say it. I wasn’t raised in a church by any means, but when I got my degree in religion I had to get familiar with the Old Testament. One of the books we were thrown very early in my schooling was Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegard and I think the story of Abraham and Isaac just rings so true to all of this in that it covers every step of faith that we’ve been talking about. And Abraham is willing to be left with nothing after years and years of struggle. He’s able to doubt and willing to accept that at the end of his journey there will be nothing. But his faith is profound enough that he’s still willing to be on that journey.
Ken: What happens when we trust this, what I like to term, nothing whatsoever?
Cara: We become fearless.
Ken: Yeah. This is what I think is at the essence of what Gampopa’s talking about this point. And he talks about it in very traditional language. When I was reading Words of My Perfect Teacher today in preparation for this class, describing one of the faiths as, this is appreciating the compassion of all the buddhas, etc., etc., who make it possible, who inspire us so that we can tread the path—it was just like reading something out of the medieval church. And Tibetan Buddhism is a medieval institution, and it expresses things in exactly the same way as the Catholic Church did at certain periods of its evolution.
What I’m interested in doing with all of you is going beyond the words and looking at what it is experientially. And, for me at least, what I really take faith deeply to heart, there’s just that openness, and I can’t put any words to it or any quality whatsoever. And as some of you have pointed out, there is a kind of knowing there. I can’t even really say it’s my knowing. There’s just a kind of knowing there. And there’s another little piece here which is a bit important, I think. Ordinarily, we think of trust as “There’s something out there that I trust.” But what we’re talking about here is a trust in which there is no sense of separation. That when one moves into that trusting nothing whatsoever, one becomes not-a-thing. One loses a sense of being something separate. So this is different from how we ordinarily use the word trust, which is very much rooted in a kind of duality.
This is one of the reasons why faith is such a powerful and profound aspect of religious practice or spiritual practice, because it is through the experience of faith that we can touch directly into non-separation or non-duality, or what have you. And it’s why, historically, anyway, far, far more people have come to a profound spiritual understanding through faith rather than through insight. And part of the reason there is because there’s so much more emotional energy in it. So this is the main point that I wanted to explore with you this evening, that at the core of faith is this trust or no separation from this empty knowing, which some people will describe as the small voice inside, or something like that. People experience it in many, many different ways. But if you can recognize it in your life, then it’s something that’s very important to culture and nurture. It can be quite frightening to do so—which is why we have that metaphor about the three hundred soldiers—because it may lead you to question any and every aspect of your life. Which is why a lot of people find it very, very challenging to actually do that. But at the same time, another part of us knows that if we ignore this then we’re actually not living our life. Which, if we go to the prayers that we do at the beginning, then we find ourselves living a life in which we do know regret. It’s not a life free from regret.
Harold, you had a question.
Harold: Yeah, a couple. Everything you said this evening I thought, I really enjoyed and was very, very wonderful. I wondered, could you say all those things and never say the word faith?
Ken: What do you have against the word faith?
Harold: I despise the word faith.
Ken: [Laughter] I so appreciate you being quiet all this time. So it has some associations for you?
Harold: A couple of things, briefly. When I hear the word faith I think of one of the great western philosophers, and I can’t remember his name, but he said when you rely on faith, reason goes out the window.
Ken: Ah, yes, I can’t remember who that was either. We can probably look it up. This is actually an expression of the dilemma in Christianity. Are you familiar with C.S. Lewis?
Ken: Yeah, you might read a book called Until We Have Faces, in which is an exploration of the Christian dilemma which felt that reason and faith were opposed. We don’t have that in Buddhism. In fact, it’s one of the things I very much appreciate. I actually don’t think it really obtains in Christianity, but for a lot of people it’s been a stumbling block. In my own experience and study, and practice of Buddhism, I haven’t found any place in which reason and faith are in opposition.
Harold: I’d like to say this—I gave you a paper when I walked in.
Ken: Yeah, I haven’t had a chance to read it.
Harold: What that paper is, it’s an interesting historical document. Some people might like to see it. It’s the speech that the Pope gave at his alma mater. And it was the speech that the Muslims got so upset about.
Harold: Okay. But the title—it’s hard to read, he’s a very, very intelligent man. And what I get out of it is that, his talk is that Christian faith is reasonable—the title of it is Faith and Reason. So, all of a sudden here’s another whole argument for using that word that I don’t like again. That’s another reason I do not like the word faith. You say these wonderful things—
Ken: You got a real problem.
Harold: Let me just end with this. I think your definition—the willingness to open to what arises in experience is a wonderful, wonderful thing. But to call that faith, I want to go bang my head against the wall.
Ken: What would you like to call it, Harold?
Harold: I don’t think it’s my place to call it—
Ken: Actually, I think it’s actually very important that you come up with a term for it. What would you like to call it?
Harold: I would like to call it willingness to open to—
Ken: Well, okay, fine. It’s long-winded.
Harold: You understand what I’m saying.
Ken: I do. I’ll read the paper and get back to you on it. But you have a real problem, you see. Faith is not a four letter word; it’s got five letters. [Laughter]
Harold: I’ve used that one, too. It’s a small thing, what does it matter what a word is. It really doesn’t make any difference if you want to use it, but it is something that irritates me.
Ken: Yes and no. It’s why at the beginning of this discussion I said that they’re some people will use the word belief in the way that we’re using faith, and will use the word faith in the way that I’m was using belief. Usage and language is imprecise here. And the way that I’m using it quite specifically is: faith is a way of opening to a knowing which is not dependent on anything. That’s fairly extreme, but I think I can stand by that one. Where belief is more connected with an understanding of things in a certain way. It’s another distinction I make is between knowing and understanding. Whenever we understand something we actually cease to know it. Because now it just becomes an object.
Robert Irwin up at the Getty, he has this inscribed in stone in the garden that he designed. Seeing is forgetting the name of what you’re looking at. That may not be exactly right, but when we name something we cease to know it. We may understand it, but we cease to know it, because now it loses all it’s mystery; we have an explanation for it. I think that distinction between knowing and understanding is very much connected with the distinction I’ve been making between faith and belief.
I really don’t care what word you use. The main thing I’m trying to get across this evening is that this whole section on faith is very important because—or confidence or whatever you want to call it—that being willing to open to that mystery, that undefinable quality of experience is what puts us right into the potential experience of non-duality, presence, or whatever you want to call it. Many people shy away from it because they don’t want to deal with the level of emotional energy that comes up when they make that effort. And they are often very uncomfortable with the word faith because it has that emotional quality. But it is an emotional stance or posture. And it’s very, very important to have that emotional quality, because the intellect simply doesn’t do it. And many people—once the rational intellect, intellectual or conceptual way of knowing reaches its limits, then they experience fear, because they don’t know how to negotiate the emotions that come up at that point. This quality that Gampopa is talking about, which we’re calling faith, is what helps us to negotiate all that emotional energy so it, too, becomes available to us. That’s quite challenging. Quite challenging.
Susan: I’m trying to understand maybe the overall thrust of what you’ve been talking about this evening. And I’m just wondering is it safe to say that—you’ve been talking about faith—faith starts out as faith in experience and then faith becomes experience? And faith in the path and then faith is the path?
Ken: I didn’t say that, but I think both of those are true.
Susan: Okay. Because I was thinking about the progression that he talks about, trusting faith and then longing and then clear. It sounds in the way you were describing it the descriptions started to change. So suddenly you were talking about faith as a path as opposed to insight as a path.
Ken: That’s a very interesting point. In the Tibetan tradition, faith and insight are regarded as the same path. But in Zen, or Japanese Buddhism, a very strange thing happened about the twelfth century. You had the path of insight, which is Zen, and you had the path of devotion, which is Pure Land. They actually split, even though Chinese Chan—those are very, very much interwoven together. There are basically those two aspects of the path: one is where you’re trying to see how things are, that’s the path of insight, and one where you’re trying to open to how things are, which is much more the path of faith or devotion. But I’m not sure one should regard them as two different paths, particularly in the Tibetan tradition where you use faith to open and see how things are. Okay? But I like what you said earlier, that faith—how did you say it? You have faith in an experience and then faith becomes your experience, and faith in the path and then faith becomes the path. I think that’s very true. Yeah. Any other comments before we close?
Okay. We’re at that time again. The next chapter takes us into very different, well, related territory: meeting spiritual friends. So I’d like you to read this chapter. I would also like you to weigh it against your own experience of working with spiritual teachers. And reflect on what you find true in this. What do you question? Where does it not, where is it different from your experience? Where does it illuminate your experience? In the Tibetan tradition there’s a great deal of idealization of spiritual teachers, and in Tibet itself spiritual teachers were regarded as a kind of aristocracy almost. Very different from our world. I’d like you to think about how would you actually live this. What does the spiritual teacher-student relationship look like in our world? And also. what works for you in that?
In some traditions, there’s a great deal of formality associated with the student-teacher relationship. In others it can be quite a lot more informal. Where does the formality help? Where does it get in the way? Where does the informality help? Where does it get in the way? And so forth. So I’d just like you to explore this whole area very much from your own experience, and then let’s compare that with what Gampopa writes about and see where we end up.
Okay. Susan, Can we do the dedication?