This is June 26, 2022, and let me say how thrilling it is to see a full zendo again. It's been, I think, hasn't it been two years, at least two and a half years with the pandemic, since we've been able to pack all of us into the zendo this full. It's inspiring. Since the pandemic began, I've fretted a little bit about whether people would get habituated to taking the easy way (I'm talking about local people) and staying at home during sittings, teisho. So maybe this will be a tipping point where people will feel more inclined to come in and actually experience all this in three dimensions, at least until the next wave of COVID.
I'm going to talk about faith this morning. I really got stimulated about faith last weekend when I was attending funeral masses in the Boston area. My wife (very briefly because most of you know this), my wife had her last surviving aunt and uncle, in their 90s, had them die in the same weekend and felt really obliged to go up there from Florida, go to attend the funerals. She had to go through her mother's funeral without me because I was in sesshin. In the same way, her father and her brother, at least that was a workshop I had to be here for on a Saturday. But I at least made it halfway through the weekend to join her.
And when when my father died some 20 years ago, while I was leading sesshin at Chapin Mill, she, without hesitation, insisted that she go with me, cancelled all her patients in a matter of an hour or two. And so it was an easy call for me to join her.
It was quite an immersion in Catholic ritual. She is part of a huge Italian Catholic family. And it involved two wakes, two funerals, and two mercy meals. A mercy meal, she told me, not for the first time, is the dinner that you go to (there were so many people that we had to go to a restaurant), the dinner that follows the funeral and the burial.
And so as I sat there in this really quite magnificent church, twice on the weekend, and heard the funeral mass and took it all in, I just found myself impressed at the faith, the faith of the faithful, the family, to see these hundred or more people, many of them very educated, professional people, line up to take communion. Something I don't have in my past. In our family we never were taken to church. And so it's still novel to me. It's still fascinating.
And so the question came up, What is faith? First, starting with that weekend and those funeral masses, What is faith? How much of it, and undoubtedly some of it, some of it is conditioning as children. Children are taken to church, sometimes every Sunday, sometimes even more frequently, and it becomes somewhat a matter of of compliance. All right, maybe indoctrination in some cases, "in-doctrine-ation" conditioning, and it becomes part of one's identity, I suppose. And you don't question it.
Identity is, in terms of character, one's character is composed of dispositions (that's a good Buddhist word), dispositions that are solidified, that have congealed out of roles that have become habitual. I found the Latin word "identidem," which means over and over. We acquire an identity through repeated actions, involvements.
And I suppose, it appears, that you don't question when taking these wafers that have been consecrated as the body of Christ and wine consecrated as his blood and doing it, no, doing it without hesitation. You know, it would be easy to make odious comparisons in going to a theistic church or mosque or synagogue, but for what end? Different faiths appeal to different people.
And what I found myself doing instead was appreciating the common elements with my own faith in the Dharma. And I found myself just appreciating that what I was part of, in those two funeral masses, was faith in something beyond the self. They call it God. We call it our True-nature, our Essential-mind, our Original-self.
Of course, religion can be a source of terrible violence. It has been throughout history. But it's also something that personally I just admire, whatever the religion is, because it's a way of looking beyond this, as George Bernard Shaw said, this "feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy." There's something beyond this mind-body, this individual identity.
And as I sat there in the pew in that church, as I watched the proceedings, I thought of, I think it was Lyndon Johnson, who said (well, at least it was attributed to him), "We never stand taller than when we're on our knees." The same could be said, I suppose, about doing prostrations. Prostrations aren't a big element in Zen practice, but we do them. I just did them as part of the ritual before teisho, did three prostrations. And we come to realize that there is value in doing prostrations if we can get out of our thoughts about them.
Very briefly, in the prostrating we place the forehead to the floor and raise the hands near the ears just a few inches. And what we're doing really is we're lowering the seat of the small "I," the "I," the "me," and the "my." We're lowering that and raising up with our hands, raising up our True-nature, that is, our True-self. It doesn't have to be done before a Buddha figure but usually is, or some other devotional figure. The Buddha figure itself is a representation of our True-self.
So really, Roshi Kapleau struggled with this when he went to Japan in the early days. He resented going before Harada Roshi and doing the usual prostration. (This is the way that you initiate the one-to-one encounter we call dokusan.) And he must have been terribly disgruntled about having to do that before the teacher because Harada Roshi finally said to him, "You know, Kapleau-san, when you bow down before me, you're bowing down to yourself, your True-self. I'm not apart from you."
And I think some of us have more trouble with that than others, maybe, early in practice. I was never thrilled with it myself. I was fine in dokusan because I had such immense respect for Roshi Kapleau, but bowing down to a Buddha figure? In that early year, that first year, when I was practicing in Ann Arbor at the Quaker Meeting House (I'm forever grateful to them for letting us use one of their rooms, twice a week), but at the end, when we ended the sitting with the Four Vows and three prostrations, I just left. I wasn't gonna be part of that.
And then I started thinking, 'Wait a minute, all these great enlightened masters, this would be natural for them to do it. Maybe there's something to it.' And then eventually you realize that if you're doing a prostration, or a bow, with no thought in the mind of oneself and right or wrong or anything else, when the mind is really free of all that, then there's something really remarkable that you come to experience when you're doing a prostration.
Another thing that impressed me in those funeral masses was the soloist. They really have these rituals down, these Catholics. It's impressive. And what impressed me was that she was so into her singing. She was so undivided. There was no trace of self-consciousness, no trace of two-ness, separation of any kind. Her whole body was into it. I couldn't detect any hesitation. She was doing it wholeheartedly and really embodying her faith.
I once read that Mother Teresa of Calcutta confessed to having doubts about her faith. I know that people have written some unsavory things about Mother Teresa but look what she did, her social work for the impoverished in Calcutta. She was walking the walk. She had doubts about her faith, maybe not often, but sometimes she did. But her faith, she embodied her faith, and what she accomplished there.
It's like a doubt is a thought. We learn, in sesshin especially, that doubts are just thoughts, and we learn not to pay attention to them. It's happened a few times over the years where a sesshin participant has come in some distress and saying, "I need to leave, I need to leave." And they say, "I can't do this." So meanwhile, this is on, let's say, day five. They've been doing it for five days. And they say, "I can't do this."
So I try to get that across to them. "You've been doing it. Stop thinking about it. And you'll just carry on through it." Sometimes that works; sometimes it doesn't. And I've seen too many people. It's not common; it's quite uncommon for people to leave sesshin under those circumstances. But they can be haunted for years by what they did, not following through with the commitment they made in the application form.
I remember Roshi Kapleau saying more than once that faith in Zen means faith that when the Buddha said, "All beings are endowed with original enlightenment," he was neither mistaken nor lying. It's another way of saying it means faith in, yeah, faith in our original enlightenment. And of course, that's a big part of faith.
There's more to it. Sometimes people have asked (I guess maybe in a workshop) have asked how human ignorance or, say, how the ego arose and how it arises in us. But to me the real marvel is the faith we can find in the possibility of enlightenment, the awareness of the possibility of awakening, which is something outside our experience, at least in this lifetime. It's like this. We're like fish that can sense a reality, that is, air or land, can sense this reality and aspire to it, without having had any evidence of it or any experience of it. I mean, that's how amazing it is. So something is cooking.
In all of us, at least people who practice, faith in . . . in what?
In "The Three Pillars of Zen," Yasutani Roshi said, "Buddhism has been described as both a rational religion and a religion of wisdom. But a religion it is, and what makes it one is the element of faith."
"A rational religion." By that I take it to mean a religion not based on superstition. And yeah, it's tricky. You get into semantics with the word "rational." Einstein famously said, "A religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity. Buddhism," he said, "Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism." I don't know if Yasutani Roshi had come across that statement of Einstein's when he described it as a rational religion.
It doesn't have to be a religion, I mean Zen. Buddhism, yeah, it's a religion. It's one of the few world religions, major world religions. And you can say it's a religion because it's based on faith in that which we cannot reach through the senses, hearing, seeing smelling, tasting, touching, or the intellect. It's beyond the reach of our ordinary discursive, intellectual mind.
But you can practice Zen as a non-Buddhist, of course. What's particularly Buddhist or religious about counting the breath or following the breath? So Zen can be practiced just as a practice, a concentration practice, an awareness practice. But then it's pulled out of its roots, which historically are Buddhist.
Early in my practice, I was faintly embarrassed by the word "faith." I still remember just sort of wincing when Roshi would use the word "faith" in teisho, or even the word "religion." Why? I've heard other people, now and then, say, "Well, isn't it trust more than faith?" And, well, yeah, we trust our friends, we trust our spouse. But that's different than faith, isn't it?
I had taken my share of philosophy courses in college. Now, looking back on it, I didn't know it at the time, but I was searching, searching for the truth. And I just found that all these great philosophers, for hundreds of years, there were certain issues they debated and argued, both sides, that they couldn't come to an agreement on. And I came to feel that that just wasn't my way, trying to pursue philosophical thinking.
It had be something more, I thought. It was years later that I read a passage by Francis Bacon where he said, "A little philosophy inclineth one's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth one's mind about to religion."
Does the word "faith," to some of us, suggest some kind of a weakness of mind, maybe based on this scientific ethos that dominates Western culture? Well, it used to. Things have been going so off the rails with conspiracy theories, who knows what comes next.
But again, in Zen practice we're really placing our faith in that which cannot be understood with our ordinary mind, as brilliant as we may be. We're placing our faith in the unknowable, that which is beyond the limits of empiricism.
There's a verse in the Mumonkan collection of koans where Mumon writes, "It helps you cross the river when the bridge is broken down. It accompanies you when you return to the village on a moonless night." What's the "it"? Well, we could say it's these phrases we keep using, our True-nature, Original-nature, Essential-mind. But what does that all come down to? It's nothing. We're placing our faith in no thing, this True-self that is no self.
Those who are devoted to theistic religions, God-based religions, may argue that these terms we use, our True-nature and so forth, they're really synonyms for God. And there's something to that, I've come to see. What's different, I think it's fair to say, is that, in talking about our essential nature, there's really not understanding of any agency. It's not a thing. It's no thing. And this has to be confirmed through awakening. In the meantime, we use those words, our True-nature and so forth, and we too easily substantiate them in our mind, make them into things, "it."
But I have also come to see, I used to have such scorn for people who believed in God, but I've come to see that for people, yeah, if you believe it's a guy up in the sky with a white beard, I can still find scorn for that. But if you have a more sophisticated understanding of God as the ineffable, the eternal, the unknowable, well, then, there isn't such a big difference between our faith in Zen and the faith in Christians or Muslims or Jews.
That statement that faith rests on a belief that when the Buddha said, "All beings are equally endowed with this enlightened nature," that he was neither mistaken nor lying, is that faith required, really, to persevere in practice? I'd say no. Maybe if our aspiration is to awaken, maybe that can be very important. But in practical terms, that is, in terms of practice, the most basic faith is faith in the practice, the breath, the koan, whatever it is we're doing as our meditation practice. That's what it really comes down to, isn't it? And faith that by doing that particular method that we work on, in doing that, we benefit from it.
And I think that's another way, a broader way, to understand faith that applies in many fields, not just religion. If you had no faith that you would get any benefit from doing yoga, why would you do it? There's some faith based in that or practicing a musical instrument. Of course, we have faith. And if you want to really extend it, every time we get out on the road on a divided highway, we have faith that the oncoming cars aren't going to swerve and crash into us. There's a lot of faith that pervades our lives.
So we really, in Zen practice, back to Zen practice, we really only need enough faith to keep sitting. And from that, everything else will unfold. We just said it in the Hakuin chant that we just chanted together, "Upholding the precepts, repentance and giving, the countless good deeds, and the way of right living all come from zazen," zazen, another word for sitting.
This is one of the things that always appealed to me about Zen is we just do the practice, day in and day out, and keep doing it and doing it. And then things will unfold if we can stick to it and not muck things up by stopping and thinking, 'Am I making progress? How long is this going to take?' That's where we really handicap ourselves. That's faith. In Zen, faith is based on experience. It's by doing the practice, that's the experience, by having the experience of practice over a long period of time that we develop faith, we grow our faith.
There's a famous passage from the Buddha where he said, "Don't believe solely because the written testimony of some ancient wise man is shown to you. And don't believe anything on the mere authority of your teachers or priests. What you should accept as true and as the guide to your life is whatever agrees with your own reason and your own experience, after thorough investigation, and whatever is helpful, both to your own well-being and that of other living beings."
He wanted us to find through our experience, develop our faith in this nature, this True-nature of ours, whatever agrees with your own Reason (capital R), at least it has a capital R. In Zen, we're seeing what is beyond logic and reason. But here with a capital R, I think, well, the way I take that is whatever agrees with your own Intelligence (capital I), not just your own IQ and your academic training, but your own (and how do you even define that?) something beyond the intellect, beyond reason and logic, but then your own experience.
With workshops (we just had a workshop yesterday, introductory workshop), all we're trying to do is to get people started, to make enough sense to them that they're willing to give it a try. And then if they can stick with it long enough, they'll find out for themselves that it works.
There's this idea (it's in Japan at least, I don't know, maybe China and Korea) of a difference between self-power and other-power. The usual way this is categorized is the Zen school rests on self-power, self-reliance, no God, whereas other-power is more common in other religions, including a sect, a very popular sect of Buddhism, called the Pure Land school. The idea there is by repeating, in a heartfelt way, repeating the statement, "I place my trust in the Buddha Amida," that this can eventually change us, maybe even lead to awakening. But there, there's no bones about it, I'm placing my trust not in my own True-nature but in the Buddha Amida.
It's sort of the difference between self-reliance and God-reliance maybe, Buddha-reliance. But even in Zen, Self-reliance really means "capital S" Self, relying on our True-nature, not just this ego nature of ours. But when all is said and done, how could they really be different? If it's true that the whole notion of a self separate from an other, if it's true that that's illusory, then it's sort of a false distinction, self-power and other-power.
In Japanese Zen generally, they don't want to mix Zen with the Pure Land teaching. But somehow the Chinese, at least in more recent centuries, they have found that it can be an effective mix. I don't know how that works exactly. But there it is, another difference, religious difference.
And then there's the matter of prayer. That's another word that always used to make me cringe. Who am I praying to anyway, asking, just asking favors of God. But that's, what I just said, that's what we call petitionary prayer. Let's face it, it's very common, you know, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme. I'll be good if you just gimme.
There's a great story in this source of stories called, the original title was "Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart: Parables of a Spiritual Path from Around the World." The new title, the newer edition, is "Soul Food." Anyway, here's the story about a pious man who tried to live by God's will. He lived in a valley out deep in the country. And one day, a downpour came to his valley and floodwaters arose. And the man went from the first floor of his house to the second floor as the rains continued.
Finally, he climbed out onto the roof. (We've seen this, haven't we, in video clips and photos.) Finally, he climbed out onto the roof. And a rescue boat came up and offered to row him to safety. But the man sent him away saying, "I have full faith in God. I pray and believe and trust he will care for me." And so the rowboat left.
The storm continued; it rained further. And soon the floodwaters were up to his neck. And now a second rowboat came to rescue him. And again, he dismissed it in the same way, "I have faith and trust in God. I pray and believe." And they were sent away.
Well, the rain continued. The water got so high that he could barely breathe through his mouth and nose. It was over his lip. And a helicopter flew over and let down a ladder to rescue him. "Come up," they said. "We'll take you to safety.""
"No," he said with the same words as before. "I have faith in God. I pray and believe and I trust and I have followed him." And he sent the helicopter away.
Well, the rain continued to come down. The waters rose and finally he was drowned. So he went to heaven. And after a short period there, he was granted an interview with God. He went in. (Now we're getting into Catholic territory.) He went in and was seated in front of the Almighty and then began to ask, "I had so much faith in you. I believed in you so fully. I prayed and tried to follow your will. I just don't understand."
And then God scratched his head and said, "I don't understand either. I sent you two rowboats and a helicopter." (I know, you saw that coming.)
You know, there's a school of Buddhism (they call it Buddhism) where the idea is if you are prayerful enough, you can pray and ask for a new car or an attractive husband or to win the lottery. Ahh, that's not Buddhism, come on. The Buddha said that the source of our discontent, our suffering, is this craving, egoistic craving, wanting something for oneself.
I really can't think of anything more important in Zen practice than faith. So we have the experience of seeing the benefits of Zen practice and that grows our faith. And that itself helps us persevere in our practice and it strengthens our commitment to continue. And that perseverance and the commitment itself returns to grow more faith and experience.
The great Chinese Master Lin-Chi (Rinzai inJapanese), he says, "Practitioners today can't get anywhere. What ails you? Lack of faith in yourself is what ails you." Really what he means is lack of faith in your no self, that which is beyond the self, which is also us.
Faith is not something that's static but it's mutable. It's growable. It's like a muscle. It gets stronger through practice. So you don't need to worry if you feel you're lacking in faith. Just, if you can have enough to do the practice, it will grow.
Zen master Dogen said, "One who would practice the Dharma must deeply, deeply believe in the passing nature of things and have faith in karma."
"Deeply, deeply believe in the passing nature of things." Who would argue that things aren't impermanent? Who would argue that things don't pass? Okay, granted, a lot of things, the things that make us miserable, they don't pass as fast as we'd like them to. But everything passes. It depends on our timeframe. There have been recent books (I think one of them is "The Better Angels of Our Nature") that talk about how far worse most of human history was in terms of brutality and violence.
So, let's acknowledge that as terrible as things are now, and in my lifetime, I've never seen things worse than they are in this country, maybe in the world, as now. Still, we've been through so much worse, apparently. I wasn't there. Or I don't remember being there.
Impermanence. It's one of the three characteristics of existence: impermanence, no self, and suffering. It doesn't take a great leap to have faith in, well, it doesn't take a great leap to have faith in suffering. Who is free of suffering or of impermanence?
No self is a little more of a challenge. We're so immersed in the cult of self, the "I," the "me," and the "my." Our whole society, it's just alarming how much there's glorification of the self as separate from others. But then again, through practice, we come to see that what we call the self is just kind of a collection, a cluster of memories and associations and images. There's nothing to it. There's nothing fixed, that is. Yes, there's a degree of continuity to our personality, our character, but it's not absolutely unchanging. We are not self-standing entities. And through practice, continued practice, we come to see the truth of this, this realm of no self, this True-self that is no self.
Well, our time is up. We'll stop now and recite the Four Bodhisattva Vows.