How Can I Believe?
Buddhism offers a safe way to approach faith. The Buddha invited people to "come and see," ehi-passiko-to come and see for yourself. In the same way, Twelve Step programs don't recruit members but use their members' success in dealing with addiction to speak for itself, a policy called "attraction rather than promotion." Nobody's trying to sell you something with Buddhism or the Twelve Steps-quite literally, since both are primarily supported by donation-but rather they invite you to see how they work for others and yourself before making a commitment.
The Buddha understood the challenge of faith. In the India of his time, many competing teachers claimed to be the repositories of Truth. One community of eager spiritual seekers, the Kalamas, were confused, and asked his advice. In his famous and fundamental teaching, "The Dilemma of the Kalamas," the Buddha explains how to decide whether a teacher or teaching is useful.
The Buddha starts by sweeping away the past as the container of wisdom. It doesn't matter what people tell you or what's been written down; you don't have to believe something just because it's got the weight of history and tradition behind it, he says.
He goes on to assert that it's not enough that a teaching appeals to our intellect, our logic. While the ideas behind a teaching may be appealing, that doesn't mean they work in real life. What's also implied here is that, just because a teaching "feels right" doesn't mean it is right-a critical point, since we are often drawn to ideas that fit with our own preferences, whether accurate or not.
Finally, he warns against accepting an opinion just because your teacher holds it.
The Buddha takes away many of the standard routes to faith: scripture, tradition, logic, authority. And what he says then is that if you want to know the value of a teacher's offering, you have to try it out and see what the results are. If the results are good, keep it up; if not, drop it. But, to guard against bias in your own interpretation of the results, you should also check with the wise. One way to determine if someone is wise is to see if they are living a skillful life. In Twelve Step terms, "Do you want what they have?" To check with the wise means to listen to the advice of those we trust: a sponsor, mentor, therapist, sibling, parent, friend, or teacher. (Although we don't do something automatically because someone else said we should, we do not dismiss out of hand the suggestions of those who are close to us.)
For those of us skeptics who need proof of the value of a practice or belief, this is a helpful invitation. You can try out the practice, study the teachings, sit with a teacher, and see what happens. If your life gets better and if "wise" people approve, you know you're on the right track. For those whose faith has been damaged, this is also a gentle approach that can rebuild trust and help to gradually open to the possibility of a renewed spiritual life.
Faith, the Spiritual Faculty
Alcoholism is a disease of faith. Alcoholics often develop a cynical attitude toward life, not seeing anything to believe in. When you persistently feel the need to change your consciousness through drugs or booze, you are expressing a lack of trust in life itself. And, in some ways, you are expressing a lack of trust in yourself, in your ability to tolerate life undiluted, to find value in your own, unadulterated experience.
This same difficulty confronts the beginning meditator. Meditation is even more unadulterated than sobriety. Intentionally stopping activity and any diversion can be intimidating. Many people say, "I could never sit still for that long-twenty minutes!" Even without drugs or booze, many of us are trying to control our consciousness with food, TV, music, reading, and other daily habits. Stopping all activity as we do in Meditation is like a new layer of sobriety: ultimate abstinence (a new X Game?). Trusting this process is frightening, whether you are an alcoholic or not.
Each day he would go to a park on the UCLA campus near his house. He found a beautiful glen that was usually quiet. There he did walking meditation for twenty minutes. After developing some calm through walking, he then sat on a bench. In the beginning he would just try to sit for five minutes. After some time, he began to stretch the sitting period, first to ten minutes, fifteen, and up to twenty.