Saturday, November 14, 2009


Transcribed from a talk given Tuesday November 10, 2009. To listen to this talk on a podcast click here.

Tonight I'd like to talk about faith. Faith is a word that comes up occasionally – we might find it in some of the sutras that we chant – and I think it's a really a loaded word for many people, particularly people who are exploring a practice like Buddhism. Faith has a particular meaning for many people and for many people, including myself, the meaning of faith was blind faith.

My personal story I think is, thanks to the marvels of the Internet, becoming a little bit better known to the people who are coming to practice here. A lot of people know that when I was a child I was brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition. A lot of people know that when I was nine, my mother had a stroke and was unconscious for a couple of weeks during which time I did a lot of praying, beseeching, for my mother to be okay, for my mother to come back to me. And that – a lot of people know my mother didn't come back. She in fact died. And a lot of people know that for many years of my teenage years I was very angry about it. That I quite repetitively, quite loudly, shouted from the mountain tops that religion was a waste of time. There was no solace, there was no comfort, there was no function or meaningful purpose in religion. Faith was the practice of fools. So to be here sitting here talking about faith is a very strange place for me.

For me this strangeness began – the realization of strangeness began one time when I was – after I had been ordained as a monk, I was the Jikijitsu, which is the role that Nori is playing, ringing the bells and offering incense – at the main Temple in Los Angeles. And there was an assembly of – I don't know, sixty or seventy people – and I was up there making the incense offering with a shaved head and robes on, bowing in front of this altar, and the thought arose in me, “Wow, this is really religious, how did I get here?”

Faith as I have experienced it in practice, Zen practice, couldn't be farther from how I understood faith before in my life. Faith, however, is a crucial aspect of this practice and there is no getting around it. Faith, however, in Buddhism, is faith in what? It is not faith in some external super-being; it is not faith in things that we cannot see or feel or experience. Faith in the Buddha's first statement, “Wonder of wonders, fundamentally we are all awake but we don't realize it” – this is the first article of faith in Buddhism, I guess you could call it. That we have as our capacity awakening. We have as our very nature unification with all things. We have as our birthright limitless potential.

Now as I talk about this, I think that it's very easy for us to sit around and say, “Huh, I can believe in that. That sounds so much better than all this other crap I hear. I have limitless potential, yeah, I dig that”. But to have faith, from the perspective of Buddhism, is not blind faith. It’s not just belief. It's not just, “Oh, that sounds good”, or “That sounds better than the alternative”. It is gaining experiential insight into that. Realizing it for ourselves. And from the perspective of Zen, there is no acceptable alternative to experience.

The Buddha, in fact, very clearly in the Kalama Sutra talks about this. Don’t believe things that you've been told. Don’t believe things just because they’re tradition. Don’t believe things just because that's the way that things have been done. We have to investigate them. We have to grind them through ourselves in every thought, in every fiber of our beings, to ruthlessly investigate the experience of this moment. What is this? Ah……

So, this aspect, to us heretics, to us nonbelievers – “Now that sounds good! Now we’re getting somewhere! I have as my potential limitless awakening, and I don't need to believe anything without experiencing it first. Wonderful.”

Now, the third aspect of this, or the other corner, is where we run into trouble. This third aspect is also the reason that I found myself shaven-headed and dressed in robes, bowing before a butsudan, offering incense. The third aspect is the aspect of responsibility. We are asked to investigate this practice. We’re asked to investigate the nature of this experience of this moment just as it is. We're asked to investigate the innumerable teachings that we come across in our lives. We are asked to be honest about them, honest about our experience, honest about our insight. Being honest about what it is that we’ve experienced, we have to accept the responsibility to change our lives, to move into harmony with the wisdom that arises out of our practice, out of our experience. That’s the difficult part.

We can enter into a practice with all kinds of ideas about what it is that we need to get, what it is that we should be seeing, what it is that we should be experiencing, what it is that we don't need or don't want. But as we practice, we will meet this moment. We will awaken. We will develop insight in experience of the activity of this moment. And sometimes it is other than what we expected. Sometimes we find our mouths gaping open with what we've seen. Sometimes we experience the vastness of our true nature and it shatters who it was we thought we were.

And we're faced with a choice. We can try to pretend that it never happened. We can try to pretend that we haven't seen the things that we've seen. We can try to pretend that we don't know what has been revealed in practice. Oh, but this is a miserable path. We will find ourselves going to greater and greater ends to try and cover up what it is that we've experienced. To great ends to distract ourself from our own faith. Or, we find ourselves embracing the path. Embracing what it is that has been revealed, what it is that we’ve awoken to. Accepting the responsibility for our own faith. Not a faith born out of ideas, but faith borne out of experience.

For me in my practice, thankfully I was never asked to make any kind of leap of faith. I was never asked to believe in something that I couldn't first experience. I was asked to just do the next step, grasp it, look at it, investigate it, take it apart. Having gained insight into what it was that I was experiencing, my responsibility was to take the next step. That’s it. Just as when we walk we proceed one foot in front of the other.

For me, this path led me to standing before this butsudan as a monk. This path has led me to guiding the practice of the [Victoria Zen] Centre, being in relationship with people who are engaged in practice. It isn't something that I had some great plan about, but rather just a matter of following one foot in front of the other, where my faith led.

So when you come to practice here, you will never be asked to believe something. You already possess all the wisdom you will ever possess. You already possess all the wisdom that there is. The only thing that you will be asked to do is to trust it, to awaken to it, to live by it. And I can tell you that doing that is far scarier than just having blind faith. To do that is difficult. This is why we come together as a community. To support one another to live not out of our thoughts, not out of our concepts, but out of our experience, out of our own awakening.

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