Friday, February 13, 2009

What Is Faith?

Over  at Peter's Monkey Mind a discussion started on "faith".  It is something that has been on my list of things to write about in my 100 days of Dharma and so it seems like a good time to pull out my list and put that satisfying stroke through"faith".

When I was at University back in the dark ages, no make that the ice age (it was Winnipeg after all) I took a religious studies course.  I remember being completely baffled by the concept of "faith".  It made no sense to me.  You believed in something that there was no logical proof for?  How did that work?  I scratched my head and forgot about it.

When I started studying with my Zen teacher, the idea of faith came up again.  Not faith in anything (as we talked about over at the Monkeymind Cafe) but faith as a general disposition toward life.  It can seem like an abstract concept but really it is as practical as any other Buddhist idea, meant to be lived.  My teacher talks about "looking up" which I take to mean trusting or having a positive orientation to whatever the situation, knowing that what is happening, even if it doesn't  seem that way at the time, is for our highest and best good.  It may not be what we'd choose from the smorgasboard of life, but it is perhaps what we need.  She would also say, when asked why some unpleasant thing happened, that "something is working itself out."  Who are we to know what is good or bad really, the why's and the where fors, with our incomplete picture of the universe?  There is so much more to life and situations than we can see from our subjective little gopher holes out here in the landscape.

Sharon Salzberg has written a whole book on faith from the Buddhist perspective. Several of her definitions seem helpful, "to have faith is to offer one's heart or give over ones' heart..... It  is the willingness to take the next step, to see the unknown as an adventure, to launch a journey."   Later she adds to this: "Though we may repeatedly stumble, afraid to move forward in the dark, we have the strength to take that magnitude of risk because of faith."   These ideas reinforce the thought that faith is a way of life, rather than a concept, that we are living it, not thinking about it.

The following words on faith attributed to the Buddha help us recognize what faith looks like: "When faith arises it arrests the Five Hindrances (doubt, sensual desire, anger, sloth, restlessness and worry) and the heart becomes free from them, clear, serene and undisturbed."    Sounds like pure freedom, that ultimate state of faith.  And like numerous other Buddhist practices, it seems clear that faith takes time to cultivate and develop.  Salzberg adds, "The offering of one's heart happens in stages, with shadings of hesitation and bursts of freedom."

I find that sometimes it is easy to have faith, sometimes I forget to have faith and sometimes when I am really afraid I work very hard to have faith.  In a strange way, at these times, it seems,  I am clinging to faith, looking for faith to save me. It seems to me that I remember faith when I am in the toughest of spots and while I recognize that I can do better than using faith as some sort of crutch or band-aid it also makes me see the value of those tough spots.... ah I am learning about faith.  And perhaps sometimes I have faith without even knowing or thinking about it.

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