Identity and Faith

Tonight we’ll continue discussing the theme of identity—this time in relation to our beliefs and our development of faith. My reflections stem from a Dharma talk that Winnie Nazarko gave at Spirit Rock about various kinds of faith. According to the Buddha, faith is one of five spiritual faculties that we can develop, along with mindfulness, effort, concentration, and wisdom.

Most of us start off with a naïve, childlike, innocent kind of faith. Usually we simply accept the beliefs taught or demonstrated by our parents and caregivers. With this first type of faith, we don’t question or investigate whether what we’re told is true or wise.  We just take it in.

Like many of you, I grew up believing that Santa Claus delivered my Christmas presents. My parents told me so, and I resisted listening to elementary school classmates, who had already learned the hard truth about his literal “no self.” My innocent faith was jolted, and I realized that my parents were not always a reliable source of truth. My sense of identity shifted, as I recognized that I’d have to find out for myself what is true.

A second kind of faith, called “creedal fundamentalism,” involves adhering to a specific belief system. Fundamentalists rely on outer authority and on literal interpretations of texts. Followers are discouraged from doing independent investigation, and those who depart from standard dogmas are often accused of heresy or blasphemy.

During the summer after my junior year in college, I had the good fortune to study the piano in France. One of my roommates was an evangelical Christian, who believed that every word of the Bible was literally true. She rejected evolutionary theories as secular falsehoods and refused to consider scientific evidence that humans share a common ancestor with apes. The very idea insulted her. My roommate had been schooled at home, where her parents carefully filtered the teaching materials. To my frustration, I realized that none of what I thought of as very reasonable arguments could sway her fixed beliefs.

There’s another style of faith—Trungpa Rinpoche called it “spiritual materialism”—which views all pursuits, including a spiritual quest, as acquisitions that will free us from suffering. In his book Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, Trungpa referred to three “Lords of Materialism,” which appear to promise long-term happiness but really offer only short-term entertainment.

The first Lord is on a physical plane; we may believe that possessions can relieve our suffering, even while we’re suffering in an endless chase to acquire more possessions. Our identity may be based on misunderstandings: “I’m rich because I own a mansion, and I’m safe because I carry a concealed gun.”

The second Lord is on a psychological plane; we may believe that a particular philosophy or viewpoint will guarantee happiness, when actually we’re only bolstering our egos. For example, by identifying myself as a Buddhist or by taking pride in spiritual accomplishments and initiations, I might construct a narcissistic and solidified identity. In the trance of psychological materialism, our attitude becomes competitive: “I’m a better meditator than you are.”

The third Lord is on a spiritual plane; we may believe that particular, temporary states of mind can protect us from suffering. We can use meditation practice with the intention to create peaceful mental states, or use drugs and alcohol to prolong a blissful or numbed-out state. But when these impermanent conditions pass, our suffering only increases. If we identify with any emotional state—even that of being in love—, we will suffer when it inevitably fades away.

Some spiritual materialists bring a utilitarian view to whatever religion they choose by seeking the quickest and easiest way to be happy. For instance, they may be attracted to bits and pieces of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path because they want to get rid of suffering, without doing the painstaking practice of investigating the roots of suffering. Their attitude might be: “I’m basically fine the way I am, but I’ll meditate as long as I get pleasant results.” Their faith is conditional and depends on mood and circumstances.

The Buddha embodied a different kind of ongoing faith. The key difference is that he asked us to experience a truth, not just accept a belief. As a radical empiricist, he took responsibility for finding his own way to the truth, no matter how long or hard the path was. Only after he left a life of luxury and nearly died of starvation as a strict ascetic monk did he discover the Middle Path and become enlightened. Even though the Buddha went on to teach about the path that worked for him, he encouraged his disciples to investigate for themselves the value of his teachings.

On meditation retreats, we are guided to reenact how the Buddha practiced to reach liberation. We follow his instructions, which have been passed down through generations of practitioners, and we learn through our own experience which thoughts and actions lead to suffering, and which ones lead to freedom. As we observe changing sensations, thoughts, emotions, views and beliefs, we test the validity of the Dharma teachings.

Our faith is supported not by truth possessed, but by truth pursued. In order to develop this kind of experientially validated faith, we need ongoing effort and confidence to investigate what’s true, and to take the risk of letting go of illusions and unskillful habits. A healthy intention for practice is to let go of all patterns and beliefs that keep us from realizing the truth. When we meditate, we’re “being processed” instead of trying to control what’s happening in order to get the results we want. We learn to surrender in an open-ended process with an unknown outcome. Gradually we build courage to let down the walls of self-confinement and to open into limitless experience.

As we practice the Dharma method and test what’s true, we develop faith along the way, starting with the Three Refuges. We strengthen our faith in the Buddha (accepting the possibility of an awakened mind), our faith in the Dharma (accepting the probability that this path leads towards truth), and our faith in the Sangha (accepting that our teachers and fellow meditators are trustworthy companions on the path.) I have faith that all of us here have the capacity to follow the Dharma path, continuing the long lineage of those who have gone before us.