When I was ten or eleven years old, while driving in his car, I had a conversation with my dad that had a big impact on my spiritual curiosity. I had been thinking a lot about death and more importantly, what happens after we die. In Catholic School we had been taught about heaven, hell and purgatory but they seemed so abstract. I asked him what he thought happened after we died. He said something along the lines of 'I don't know. Either there's a heaven and we go there or else there's nothing and that's it - that's the end.' This answer blew my mind. Not because it was something I hadn't already considered, but because he was saying it instead of just handing me the usual Catholic rhetoric that we both had been raised by. This lack of certainty was jarring at first. I said 'But isn't that scary, that we could die and just stop existing?' he said, with typical levity I attribute to his Irish ancestry, 'If we don't exist anymore, we won't be there to be bothered by that.'
(It strikes me as I remember this that some of the best conversations I've had with my dad have occurred while driving somewhere.)
After the initial shock of this statement wore off, I found his answer kind of liberating. Not in the idea that I would have have a reprieve from existential questions when I no longer existed, but that there wasn't one fixed idea I was supposed to comply with. I felt freed to question and consider other possibilities than those offered by the Catholic faith. Which was good, because it had always been my natural tendency. The summer before, I had stayed awake at night, literally giving myself vertigo trying to understand the concept of infinity.
Recently I encountered the work of a poet I was immediately struck with, Arundhati Subramanium. While searching for her books online, I discovered that she had written a book about Buddha. Intrigued, I bought it and enjoyed her approach to the Buddha's life - a mixture of myths and history, her personal experience with Buddhism and an analysis of Buddhist philosophy. Then, I hit a passage that stopped me. She mentioned faith in connection to Buddhism. (I would quote the passage, but I can't seem to find it, even after skimming the book again twice.) My mind balked.
The word faith itself made me uncomfortable. In my mind, it was associated with a kind of lobotomy, a negation of the intellect, a naive submission to some invisible authority. And that wasn't at all how I related to Buddhism. I took a break from the book for a bit. I wanted to swim around in my idea of faith - to feel what my concept of it was before I returned to her point of view.
I had always believed that Buddhism was the spiritual path that worked for me because it didn't demand faith. I've always looked at the spiritual side of my life as being a personal thing, like my favorite color or food preferences. When I meet people who don't consider themselves spiritual, that makes sense to me in the same way it does that I don't like pasta but most people do. We're just different. Different things work for us. I don't have any faith in the color blue. I just like it. It resonates with me so I'm comfortable when I'm wearing it.
I once had a conversation with a friend of mine who is an athiest. It was a really interesting conversation in that it gave us each the space to explain our point of view, our experiences and preferences without feeling we had to convince the other. He said that to him, we're all like toasters and when we're plugged in, we function. When we're unplugged/die, we don't work anymore. We're just a toaster. Having had this conversation in a different sense at the age of ten/eleven, I found that my own perspective had changed. I said 'I don't think we're the toaster, I think we're the electricity.'
This perspective came in part from the Buddhist philosophy but more directly, from experiences I've had throughout my life, especially receiving and giving energywork like Reiki or IET. Yet I understood that his point was valid as well. That my perspective was valid to me based on my experiences and interpretation of those experiences and he, not sharing those experiences/interpreting the same way, was perfectly reasonable to assume we are toasters.
Obviously, because I teach energywork I believe in its power. And because I participated in a refuge ceremony to become a Buddhist, I believe in that spiritual path. I don't do these things lightly or with an idea that they'll prove themselves later and I'll be rewarded for my faith in them. I do them because they resonate with me and feel valid on a deep level, on a personal level.
Still a bit rattled by the pairing of the words 'faith' and 'buddhism', I did some research.
Faith (saddha/sraddha) is an important Buddha's teaching element in both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. The Sanskrit word sraddha is translated as faith; the original word has trust, perseverance, humility and steady effort connotations. In contrast to Western notions of faith, sraddha implies thorough reasoning and accumulated experience.
That last sentence eased my mind. Further:
saddhā , (
Pāli: “faith”: ) Sanskrit Śrāddha,
in Buddhism, the initial acceptance of the Buddha’s teachings, prior to the acquisition
of right understanding and right thought. Buddhism does not rely on
supernatural authority or the word of the Buddha but claims rather that
its teachings can all be experientially verified. The act of entering
onto the Eightfold Path (the Buddhist system of spiritual progress) involves, however, a provisional acceptance, through faith, of the Buddha and his teachings that is later confirmed by direct experience.
Ok, this I could agree with. My concept of faith was as an ending point, a place where questioning is no longer possible or tolerated. This idea of faith being necessary as a 'provisional acceptance'...sure, I can get behind that.
Returning to 'The Book of Buddha' I found several passages which illustrated this definition.
The Buddha speaks to us because he tells us what we know intuitively to
be true. At the same time he does not ask you to drown your rational
mind either. There is nothing anti-intellectual about the buddha's
stance. (.... )he does not ask for our unswerving obedience or any extravagant
act of undying faith. He does not ask for blind faith in scripture,
uncritical allegiance to tradition, or self-abnegating devotion to a
master. He simply never stretches the limits of our credulity.
...Significantly Buddha does not sideline the role of the intellect or
demand blind faith from the seeker. Buddhist thought describes three
graded levels of understanding that broadly seem to correspond to the
distinction between information, knowledge and wisdom. The first stage
is the understanding that is the result of hearing, the second is
understanding through cognition and the loftiest stage is wisdom through
experience.(...)a complete internalization of the idea, when metaphysics
has become part of the marrow, understanding a matter of the gut.
Reading this, I felt an echo of the liberation I felt as a kid in the car with my dad. My truth is that in many ways I am straddling the line between information and knowledge, in a few places I've made forays into wisdom. As much as I might have wanted some definitive answer as a kid, I would have still questioned and felt that curiosity threatened by a pressure to have faith, to believe someone else's definitive answer. I prefer this path - a provisional acceptance from which I attempt my own direct experience.