I have a feeling that, for the next few months, these posts will be relatively shorter. The latest semester of Chinese has begun. And, in a phrase, it is jaw-droppingly busy.
However, there is something that has been percolating in the mind in recent days. We recently began an English Dharma Class here at Dharma Drum’s building in Taipei (the monk on the website is, evidently, not supposed to be me.) We’ve had over forty students for both of the two classes so far, which is really great. I’m a little worried that many of them only understand half of what I say, so I’m trying to use simple words and write a lot on the white board in the class room. However, my speling is awfal.
This last class, we had a bit of a discussion on the difference between faith, belief, and confidence. I tried to explain how, in the west, many people who come to Buddhism have a difficult time understanding and coming to terms with “faith,” as the word is used quite differently than it is in Christianity in many ways. In Taiwan, this is not the case necessarily.
The sanskrit term for faith in Buddhism is Śraddhā, which many times is translated as “confidence” in English, in order both not to frighten people, as well as to highlight elements of faith that employ reason, perception, and confirmation. The Chinese term usually used for “faith” is 信 (xìn), which is also the same character used for “letter,” as in “I wrote you a 信.” Go figure.
From that discussion last week, I was reminded of a very interesting and helpful quote I was given, now over five years ago. It is by a writer named Anne Lamott. I’m not sure from which of her books this if from, but the quote is:
The opposite of faith is not doubt: It is certainty.
For any serious practitioner of any religion, Buddhism in particular, this is rings true like a clear gong.
There is a way where doubt can be used very positively in our practice, and in our lives. We probably all all ready know this, for we would not even be reading something written here if were not that the seeds of doubt have sprouted into search, interest, or at least curiosity.
When used in a way that seeks for more than what is immediately visible, doubt is used positively. I don’t mean this is some supernatural sort of way, but rather that we can learn to not always take our immediate reactions, thoughts, and responses with such blind faith, believing them out of habit or out of a sense of obligation of some kind. Our minds are so conditioned by events, fears, desires, habits, expectations, etc., that we so often forget that there is something more. And, it is through the skillful art of attention that we can learn to attend to things in a way that shows their true character.
We are not what we think, though we may think we are (which just proves we are not.)
In one of his discourses, the Buddha says that he saw no other factor that does so much good for a person on the path than “wise attention” (also translated as “appropriate attention”). In Pali, this is yoniso manasikara: the ability to attend to the internal and external factors of our lives in such away that they help us along the path, rather than hinder us. We can learn, through both experience and study, what it is wise to attend to and how to attend to it wisely. So it had two parts: the what and the how.
As a consequence, we learn how not to take certain aspects of ourselves too seriously. In other words, part of attending wisely is doubting and questioning the validity of all the eager, competing, and contradictory elements in the mind. We can learn to use doubt positively and holding these ubiquitous mental flavors with a lighter touch (sorry to mix metaphors.)
Yoniso manasikara is a very important factor in practice, and has been a “favorite” element of the Buddha’s teaching in my own meager life as a monk. There is actually not all that much online that has been written on the subject. If you are interested, though, you can start here.
Of course, there is much more to the use and even the generation of doubt, as is found in Chinese Chan Buddhism. Master Sheng-yen had a powerful book on this subject entitled, Shattering the Great Doubt. But this is a doubt that is beyond nigggles, questionings, or even anxiety. It is, as it says, the Great doubt; the very threshold of awakening.
To end this post, as I need to get back to doubting my ability (and sanity) to survive this Chinese course, here are some other interesting quotes about faith, doubt, wisdom, and us:
The problem with the wise is they are so filled with doubts while the dull are so certain.
— Bertrand Russell
A wise man’s questions contain half the answer.
Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.
Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.
Doubt is an incentive to truth, and patient inquiry leadeth the way.
Faith embraces many truths which seem to contradict each other.
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart. And try to love the questions themselves.
— Rainer Maria Rilke
Faith is the refusal to panic.
–David Martyn Lloyd-Jones
I particularly appreciate the last one.
As always, I hope this finds you well. And thanks for reading.