The necessity of faith in religious life and practice is something the "faithful" take for granted. The "Awakening of Faith2" is considered an essential step in Buddhism, and while Zen may be thought of as nonconformist by some, on this point there really can be no disagreement. After all, taking up a practice that leads towards "enlightenment," a state that cannot be known until experienced, implies a faith that such an experience really does exist. Yet faith, as understood in Buddhism, is a very simple thing. It is gentle, flexible, and does not depend upon belief systems. We can see examples of faith like this in operation all around us if we look. It finds expression in a positive and gentle attitude towards life, and is identical with the acceptance that lies at the base of everything positive we do.
Faith as the basis of everyday actions? Many people would find that absurd, if not insulting. We want to believe that the choices we make are essentially rational ones. We tend to think that others, society in general, the whole world even, behaves that way. But when you think about it, the rational process comes a long way behind more gut level feelings as a basis for everyday behavior. How much reason is involved in a purchase of clothing, a record album, a set of dishes, even a house or car? When we feel hungry, how much of our desire is for calories, and how much is for Chinese food, or Mexican food? Economies and political structures rise and fall on intangibles like hope and confidence, or anxiety and fear of loss. Consider something even more basic. We drive on busy highways with nothing separating us from oncoming traffic but a line painted on the road. We will step out into an intersection with oncoming traffic in full view, with nothing to stop the cars but a red light on top of a pole. In these situations it is, I think, more a matter of trusting that the drivers of those cars hurtling towards us want, and will tend to act, in their own self interest. Without that trust it would be impossible for us to step off the curb, or to keep our minds on the business of controlling our own cars when driving. But underneath this trust is a deep intuition. In these situations we sense that other people, at their very core, think and feel much the same way we do. Accepting that is an act of faith. This simple kind of faith, forming the foundation of action in everyday life, is really the same faith that opens the door to the experience of complete unity with the entire universe. Like fish within the great ocean, we are at all times sustained and supported by this unity. We can never be separate from it, yet we are usually ignorant of it. Realizing this unity is the mystical experience of Zen. Awakening to simple, positive faith is a first step.
While we may not be quite so rational as we would like to believe, faith is much more natural to us than we think. This very natural faith requires no strain, just a little acceptance. So what is this "honest doubt" that Tennyson connects with faith? To hold an honest doubt is to want to know, above all, "What is true?" It is not negative skepticism to ask "Is my understanding of this correct?" or, "Is this really what it represents itself to be?" An honest doubt, with a little humility, is necessary for the recognition that Truth is so immense, so vast, that our understanding of it can only be quite small. While humbling, this recognition leaves us open to endless possibilities. In comparison, a negative, skeptical doubt is confining because with it we lose the sense of wonder so essential for uncovering what is not yet known. With an honest doubt we wish to understand, but not to limit other people, or other ways of understanding and expressing the Truth. So often a "creed" carries the implication "This is the Truth. Therefore, all else must be false." Belief in such a creed can squeeze out the space for questioning "What is True? Do I really understand?" It seems to me that when belief becomes rigid, without gentleness and flexibility, without room for honest doubt, real faith ceases to exist.
With an honest doubt we can recognize the imperfections in things, weigh them against their merits, and understand the value of a teaching or a practice. Eventually an honest doubt, along with gentle faith, will lead to an understanding of the real perfection, which lies hidden in all things. Religious traditions, and Zen is no different, is made up of individuals with strengths and weaknesses, faults and foibles, and, of course, the potential for enlightenment. If faith permits us to see enlightenment manifesting around us, and in the actions of others, honest doubt permits us to accept human nature as it is. The miracle of transformation that Zen training works upon us requires both of these. Gently accepting our own limitations, we can at last come to know enlightenment at work within ourselves too. To understand honest doubt, though, there is something else to consider. An honest doubt is one that is directed inwardly as much, if not more so, than it is toward outward things. To hold an honest doubt is to first say to oneself "I could be wrong," and then, secondly, to admit that "They could be wrong, too."
When I was in training at the monastery, I noticed that sometimes people would arrive there with unbridled enthusiasm and intensity. But often that enthusiasm would dry up in a day or two, and off they would go in search of something else. I remember one man, a university student, who arrived at the gate in the afternoon and announced that he had given up everything. He had come to spend the rest of his life in meditation at the monastery. All this without ever having visited or even written to the monastery before. He was sent to join me digging holes in the garden, which was part of our effort to put in a new septic system. I dug my holes, but his mind was elsewhere. He wanted to talk about Zen. He wanted me to understand how deeply he felt about becoming a monk. He was gone before dinner. His was a rather extreme case, perhaps, for he had the drive and the desire for enlightenment, born of dissatisfaction with his life. But he did not have the patience, the sense of direction, and the caution that comes with an honest doubt. Those seeking a "quick fix" will soon be disappointed with the simple practice of training within everyday life, and so they quickly set off to search for something else.
"When people stop believing in God, the problem is not that thereafter they believe in nothing, it is that thereafter they will believe in anything."
I heard this quote once, attributed to G.K. Chesterton,
English essayist and novelist, and I was struck by the observation
that people will despite protestations to the contrary, tend to
hang their faith on some sort of belief system. On this subject,
Today, instead of "sect," he no doubt would have used the word "cult." Chesterton wrote very skillfully about how our underlying belief systems, conscious or not, affect the way we live our lives4. He then concluded that it is important to choose our belief system carefully. While I agree with him in part, there is a big difference between believing a "revealed Truth," and believing we can discover what is True. Nonetheless, his observations put a finger on something with regard to this matter of faith and doubt that I think is important. And that is, without the flexibility of seeking implied in an honest doubt, we are impaled on the necessity of belief. To me, belief can be a very formidable obstacle. Faith with an honest doubt is open ended, as we constantly search for what is true. When a religious "faith" demands rigid belief, without any doubt, the element of seeking for the Truth is gone. Without seeking, how can there be a spiritual path? To me, real faith embraces honest doubt, and requires very little in the way of belief. So often, when people throw off the yoke of one rigid set of beliefs, they flounder about, grasping first after this, then after that, like the fellow who came to the monastery to spend the rest of his life. Perhaps this explains why people turn to newspaper horoscopes, or authoritarian sects, religious or political, which offer all the answers in neat, simple packages. They trade one yoke for another before they realize what they have done, and this is what Chesterton saw. Simple faith and all-acceptance, with an honest doubt, can be very difficult to balance, but it is the only formula I can see for a truly spiritual life. It is my belief that real faith cannot exist without honest doubt, for without it we loose the humility and flexibility to seek the Truth.
Great Master Dogen, who brought Soto Zen from China to Japan, taught that the mind that seeks the Way, that wishes to know the Truth, is the Buddha Mind itself5. To seek the Way. What a beautiful expression of enlightenment. It is full of faith, for it seeks an understanding that can only come with experience. It holds an honest doubt, for it is full of the humility to know we must always seek the Truth. Dogen also taught that to live by Zen is simply to follow the Way-seeking mind in a normal, everyday life. This means to live morally, and to cultivate charity, tenderness, benevolence, and sympathy in all the everyday ways our own lives present to us at work, at home, with friends, family, and with others who seek the Way. This sums up the essence of teaching and practice in Soto Zen. Why do we practice and teach in such a simple, even mundane way? It would actually be much easier to provide all the answers than to point the way for each to find the Truth for himself or herself in their own everyday lives. Or, as an option, we could mystify, bamboozle, or intimidate rather than instruct. If you emphasize how difficult Zen is to understand, and underline all the reasons why people cannot understand, you get yourself off the hook when they don't understand.
Mystification tends to be the Zen "creed" that gets in the way of simple faith with an honest doubt. But Zen practice is really very simple. It consists of meditation, moral precepts, and sincerity. Within such a practice, deep faith and realization arise very naturally. Why? Because along with the simple faith that we can, in fact, understand, the necessity of questioning with an honest doubt is not only recognized, it is encouraged. What mystery could withstand such a combination?
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