2016-06-30
Sharon Salzberg has been practicing and studying Buddhism for more than 30 years. A renowned spiritual leader and meditation instructor, she is the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. The message in her latest book, "Faith," offers insight to practitioners of any religious tradition.

What does faith mean to you?

Faith means several different things to me. It means having the courage to go forward into the unknown. I think we spend so much of our lives trying to pretend that we know what's going to happen next. In fact we don't. To recognize that we don't know even what will happen this afternoon and yet having the courage to move forward--that's one meaning of faith.

Another meaning of faith is an engaged and open-hearted participation in life; it's not standing on the sidelines. So for example we might think that realization, compassion, or any of the beautiful qualities that spiritual traditions talk about are for others but not for us. To step right into the center of that possibility to see how we might evolve, the goodness that we might manifest--that's faith.

The way I use the word "faith" is not in terms of a belief system. When I started talking about faith I got many varied reactions from my students including a great deal of dismay.

As you quote your students in the book, "We came to Buddhism to get away from all this shit"

Right! I think so many people tend to think of faith as blind adherence to a dogma or unquestioned surrender to an authority figure, and the result is losing self-respect and losing our own sense of what is true. And I don't think of faith in those terms at all. I think we all have tremendous resources of faith within, that we can have an empowered faith, an idea of faith that's fresh and vibrant, and our own. So I wanted to write the book in part to help reclaim the word.

The traditional meaning in Pali is "to offer your heart, to place your heart." It is actually a verb, it's an action that we take. So the action of faith is that of opening, of connecting, of participating, and of moving forward.

It's also faith in an interconnected universe. That we are not alone no matter how alone we might feel. That what happens to us, what we do is part of the larger fabric of life. So what we care about, the actions that we take are very important because they ripple out throughout these threads of connection.

Would you say that faith is more important than beliefs?

There's a distinction that can be drawn. My understanding of beliefs is that they come from outside of us, from another person, tradition, or heritage; and that beliefs often attempt to make a known of the unknown. It's crafting a sense of certainty.

Faith, on the other hand, isn't a definition of reality but an active, open state that enables us to be willing to explore life and to meet what comes to us. So with faith we can move forward into the unknown, which is the truth of things--without pulling back or without closing our hearts.

The example from Buddhist tradition is of looking at the sky through the straw. We each look at the sky through our particular straw and we think, "Wow, how big, that's really vast." And we get attached to our straw and we compare our straws to other people's: "Mine's wider, mine has a better design on it." We hold on very tightly to the straw--that's like holding onto a belief--it's just one angle on the truth. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of faith actually to let go of that straw and just look nakedly at the sky. Then we say, "Oh, that's really big!"

From the Buddhist point of view the distinction between faith and belief would lie in the injunction to test what we are told. This is what the Buddha is so famous for saying: Don't believe anything just because I've said it. Put it into practice and see for yourself if it's true. See for yourself if a belief--this way of holding the world, this vision, this idea--actually decreases grasping and delusion and hatred or see if it increases it.

Is this what you mean by "verifying faith"?

In the Buddhist tradition-- I think this idea of faith does cut across traditions and cultures and belief systems, but that's my language--we talk about 3 levels of faith. The first being 'bright faith' which is when we're intoxicated with a teacher or a new way of looking at life. Suddenly we feel uplifted; it's like falling in love--and we all go through that state, hopefully, where we have that kind of inspiration and opening happening.

While this type of bright faith is considered necessary it's also considered very immature. Because we're counting on others for our sense of the truth. Somebody might influence us one way one day and another teacher might influence us another way another day. Our sense of conviction is not grounded in our own experience. So to move beyond that bright faith which could turn to blind faith we have to test and examine and investigate. We have to look at our own experience, we have to explore. When we do that, bright faith becomes verified faith and is grounded in our own experience and our own understanding of the truth. From there that deepens and when we have verified something very strongly, then it becomes unwavering or abiding faith.

Is there a progression or spiritual maturation from bright to abiding faith, or do you go through different stages throughout your life?

I think in different times of your life you go through different stages. I think we're always moving around in cycles.

So while you can learn from teachers you still have to come to your own understanding. How do you know where to draw the line between the two? How can you maintain the right balance between what's useful learning from others and what you learn through your own experience?

It's always a balance--to say that we trust ourselves doesn't mean we never learn from others--that would be a very unfortunate situation. But I think most commonly is the problem that we have is the other way around, so that we don't trust ourselves. We tend to have a strong habit of judging ourselves or belittling ourselves or feeling that we can't possibly understand.

One of the most powerful comments one of my early teachers made to me when I was first practicing in India-- a man named Minindra-- he said in a very kind way, "The Buddhist enlightenment solved the Buddhist problem, now you solve yours." It was an amazing moment. It felt like for the first time in my life someone was saying that you can solve your problem, the confusion, and the suffering that brought you to India to begin with, that brought you to meditation to begin with.

For Buddhists the process of verifying faith would consist of meditation. Is there a way people of other religions, maybe someone who's never meditated before, can reach this level of awareness and understanding of faith?

Meditation is just a little microcosm of life. Certain skills we acquire in meditation we can acquire in other ways. The way I use the word faith, it's not about denial or overlooking what's actually happening; it's about seeing what's happening very clearly and then going on from there. So meditation helps us come into the moment, it helps us let go of habits of the past so that we realize that just because I felt this way yesterday it doesn't mean I have to hold that today. I can be open, I can see what happens.

Meditation helps us see change and this I think is something that whether one meditates or not is a key to developing faith. When we feel that our lives are stagnant or inert, that nothing's going to change for the better--then we feel completely stuck and we're demoralized. Whereas if we can remember that everything changes all the time then we will see that glimmer of opening. We don't know what will happen but even the not knowing is laden with the sense of possibility.

Are there limits to a person's exploration of his/her own truth? Or can anyone through practice and experience gain discernment?

I do. That's what a teacher's for anyway, if you have a close relationship with a teacher or a mentor it's not about their glorification. It's about them being skillful enough to point out to us the compassion and the wisdom we are capable of.

You say despair, not doubt, is the opposite of faith. Can you talk a little bit about despair?

One of the things that faith gives us--because of that open-heartedness and that sense of moving forward into life-- it gives us a sense of connection to others, a connection to the whole of life, the whole fabric of life so that even if we're suffering or experiencing loss with faith, we don't hold back as though we're isolated. We feel that we are connected to the larger picture and to other beings. Despair is the real severing of that sense of connection so that we do feel that we are all alone, we feel that our pain has brought us apart from others.

It's like the quotation I use from the woman in Hiroshima who describes her loss of faith after the bomb dropped by saying, "After the bomb dropped we all become completely separate human beings." That was her definition of despair and loss of faith. So when we lose contact with the truth that we live in an interconnected reality and that we're held by life, that what we do can make a difference to ourselves and to others, then we're in despair, and we need to try to reforge those threads of connection.

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