Part the Final:
The previous article discussed “spiritual awakening” generally, and particularly with reference to how something along those lines is so often the crucial “mojo” component in successfully ridding ourselves of addictions and other destructive behaviours. It certainly has been for me.
Life can’t be an endless series of huge epiphanies though, and so in-between any such moments, something else is needed to sustain our efforts towards a new, and better way of living. Something less dramatic, and steadier – something like faith. That can be a tricky word for some modern Western folks (as many words are these days) so I’ll conveniently sidestep the whole issue and state here that I’ll be using that word to stand for what Buddha called “Satta”. It is indeed usually translated as “faith”, but many respected scholars of the Pali language feel that “confidence”, or “conviction” might better represent its meaning. Although I personally am fairly comfortable with “faith”, especially if it isn’t capitalised.
But we shouldn’t get too hung up on semantics – that’s another way that philosophy often goes awry. In whatever language we are speaking, words are only signposts to agreed-upon things, such as a “cat” which you would have little chance of deeply understanding unless you had ever tried living with one. At least there is a reasonable consensus on roughly what a cat is though, which we cannot count on with abstract nouns like this. In fact I think it is often misleading to do so, or even dangerous – since often one person may be assuming a particular connotation that another isn’t. This can be no trivial matter – that connotation may be something that they are strongly in favour of, or opposed to, which can easily derail any discussion about even the simplest things. Think of all the current difficulties around the word “woman” for instance. So it is good to define and limit our terms, even on surprisingly basic issues, I have found, before attempting any more ambitious kind of communication.
Alright then – after a couple of decades trying to establish fairly harmonious domestic relations with this thing that could be called “being a Buddhist” – my “faith” – I’ll now attempt to convey what, more precisely, that means to, and requires of, me:
A good place to start is a scripture called Kalama Sutta (which by the way is pronounced KAH-la-ma, not ka-LAR-ma). Or rather with an extract from it, because this Sutta is an account of what happened and what was said when Buddha visited a clan called the Kalamas, which is quite a few things. Right in the middle of that though, is a concise but resounding doctrine, which has been oft-quoted, but in my view can’t be ofted enough.
Where the action has got to, then – is that one of the Kalamas says to Buddha that all of this stuff he has been talking about sounds fascinating and all well and good, but there will be another wandering holy man along next week or thereabouts, who will say something different. They get a lot of them round those parts, it seems, and the tone of the questioner clearly sounds quite exasperated and had-it-up-to-here with the whole lot of them.
The words, as recorded, are polite but this man is no pushover, no suck-up. He is a sceptic who is refusing to go into ecstasies about the eloquence he has just been hearing – which contains some pretty good stuff, by the way, and the other Kalamas have been an easier crowd – because it’s all just talk at this point.
Perhaps second-guessing Buddha’s reply, he adds that all of the holy ones come prepared with a list of reasons why their Dhamma is true, and awesome, and gilt-edged certified, and the other guys are just a bunch of weasely smellybeard lentil-botherers. Instead of something like that, Buddha gives him this:
“Yes, Kalamas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now look, you Kalamas,
do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay.
be not led by the authority of religious texts,
nor by mere logic or inference,
nor by considering appearances,
nor by the delight in speculative opinions,
nor by seeming possibilities.
nor by the idea: “This is our teacher”.
But, Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unskilful, and certain qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering, then give them up. And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.”
The bits about texts, traditions and teachers, particularly, are rather reverberating things to say, although it’s all pretty weighty stuff. It seems to me that, if Buddha himself was too humble to demand belief on the basis of such things, then clearly it would be colosolly arrogant for any subsequent Dhamma teacher to do so.
Some do though, these days. Both in countries like Thailand, which have a prevailing Buddhist culture, and so a profession of faith is often a required statement of cultural orthodoxy, rather than anything more profound; and also in western sects where teachers have been known to run their communities like personality cults. Both might perhaps be adapting their working translation of “satta” to include a large dollop of what might more properly be called “allegiance” in English, or even “mindless deference to hierarchy”. They need to be reminded of Kalama Sutta – that is not how the Dhamma rolls.
There are those who might say that when Buddha said this, he was just being über-cool about it – like when you might indulgently let your teenager feel “heard” or “validated” – before telling them how things actually work, before terminating the conversation. They might say that he was talking about other texts – the smellybeard ones, not his own, which were yet to be written. Now, however, we know The Truth, and have The Word, so we can, and should, save ourselves all that effort and mess of thinking for ourselves and STOP ANSWERING BACK. Now we can have Faith (definitely capitalised). Which is so much tidier.
“A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything” – Nietzsche
I do encounter that attitude sometimes, and I suppose that, in the open and discursive spirit of the Kalama Sutta, I can’t just dismiss it out of hand. So let’s consider it. Let’s take a look at those texts that we now have, and try taking the Word at its word.
Well, we do find – I do anyway – that this message from Kalama Sutta is continually echoed throughout the Dhamma. No, I haven’t read the whole thing – it requires about 7ft of shelf-space in the currently popular Thai edition – I may need backup:
Faith, in the Dhamma, is never exhorted in isolation. There is not a single instance of Buddha speaking of faith as a desirable quality without immediately connecting it to other qualities. And he always does it in a highly specific way. I so much wish I could say that I noticed this, and I do sometimes drop it casually into conversations, almost as if I had, but for the record: I copped it from a talk by Ajahn Jayasaro. [He is an interesting fellow – English, but has been practising in Thailand for all of his adult life. Since the great Sumedho departed, probably the only resident western monk to be widely accepted as a truly heavyweight teacher. Check him out – YouTube, several books, usual channels]
What Jayasaro pointed out was that if you see faith being mentioned, it will always be on a list, and it will be at the top of it. At the bottom you will invariably then find the quality of wisdom. This now needs defining, since it too is quite a vague term in English. To most people it probably means some special kind of cleverness that isn’t much talked about these days, and probably comes with a pointy wizard hat and a big beard. Beards again.
Wisdom, or rather the Pali term “Pannya”, is however, precisely defined as that which is known because we have seen it, lived it, and know what usually happens. A less negotiable kind of knowledge. Cleverness is guessing how hot a potato is likely to be, based on how hot the oven was and how long ago it came out. You could be mistaken. Your reasoning could be good, but your data misleading. You might be persuaded of a more accurate calculation formula next week. If you burn your fingers, you might still be quite clever – just wrong in this case. On the upside, this experience might make you wiser.
Wisdom then, is knowing, as soon as you touch a potato with your bare fingers, whether you’ll make it from oven to plate without getting burned. Both are useful, but it’s wisdom you want in a tight corner. And if you were wrong, then it wasn’t wisdom. And also ouch. Anyway, whatever is on the list in-between faith and wisdom will be the things which tend to produce that wisdom.
That doesn’t sound as immediately earth-shattering as I had hoped. Here’s more context: The Dhamma is full of lists. That’s a very noticeable characteristic of it. Buddha seems to have had a very orderly and specific mind [I have a pet theory that there’s an almost Aspergers-ish quality to the way he speaks and presents his ideas] so things often come out that way. Sometimes he might just want to mention a number of things, so they have to be in some order or other, but very often what we’re actually seeing is a process – a cycle. So you start at the top, and when you reach the bottom; return to the top. Each step leads to, or even produces, the next.
I often find it helpful to consider exercises for the mind much as we do exercises for the body, and this is one such case. In the gym you might go: warmup>stretching>cardio>weights>cool down>shower, or somesuch. There is a necessary logical progression, and also it is understood that this is to be repeated, you don’t just “get it” after one cycle (although many of us seem to suffer from this delusion in early January). So kinda like that. A bit. Maybe.
“No rest for poor Sméagol. He’s been sneaking”
We can see that in the list I mentioned in a previous article, the Four Noble Truths. Buddha suggests that we try to see our experience of life, and the suffering it entails, in a particular way. “Wonderful” one might reply, “I totally get that intellectually, and it does indeed all appear very ‘noble’ as you say, especially when life is pretty good and stress-free. But if I’m really honest, my mind persists in sneakily viewing it in other ways, while I’m still paying lip-service to that, and usually when it matters most – when I’m actually suffering, and especially when there’s an actual ethical choice in front of me, and so it hasn’t really changed anything that matters much. So meanwhile, back in the ‘real world’ – how about that, o wise massster?”
Instead of repeating the First Truth in a louder and sterner voice, Buddha breaks it down: taking us through the Second Truth, encouraging us to look at how exactly the suffering arises until we actually perceive it, and then the third which considers the conceptual possibility of taking power over that process, and then the Fourth which brings it right down into the practical world. The Fourth Truth (The Eightfold Path) breaks down all our physical and mental activities into categories that we can isolate, and so focus on nitty-gritty things that we can definitely adjust, even when looking at the big picture and trying to make that big conceptual shift seems too big, too overwhelming.
Then we can cycle back to the First Truth, and examine whether our view of suffering actually does seem to have changed at all, and whether any changes seem any more robust when tested by actual instances of it. Whether we are in fact any wiser, and better, and whether this supplies mojo to keep practising the Path. Rinse, and repeat until enlightened. Or at least until noble.
There is no expectation – and should be no brownie points – for dutifully mouthing belief in things that you have been told, by people that you are supposed to respect. Many of the best teachers actually are particularly alert to, and intolerant of, any such “good student” behaviour. It is we ourselves that must try to be noble – the Truths won’t do that for us. Proudly, or even self-righteously, proclaiming allegiance to something you don’t yet feel all that strongly is the slippery slope down through pretentiousness all the way to hypocrisy and cynicism. And those open the door to straightforward, good ol’ evil, especially when dressed in the clothes of sanctity. Fortunately, the remedy is equally straightforward: Keep working on the view – but call it like you see it. Humility, sincerity, honesty [we’re back to the primacy of Sajja again. See here if that doesn’t ring any bells]
So anyway – on a specifically faith>some other stuff>wisdom workout, as the cycle rolls over, faith is then the product of wisdom. It’s like the healthy glow that results from fitness, which itself results from all that difficult stuff you did, inspired by that initial faith. It doesn’t just come out of nowhere, or rely on a holy spirit entering you, or from professing it because you heard somewhere that “good people” are supposed to have it, or even being shamed into saying that you have it, and acting like you kinduv do. And we certainly shouldn’t have to resort to any grandstanding, like miracles, to inspire it. Which anyway seem to be in shorter supply these days, and the notion that we’re supposed to have faith inspired by faith that lots more miracles really did happen in the past is just one of the worst arguments for anything that I have ever heard. And I have hung out with record company executives doing cocaine, so I don’t say that lightly.
But then why not just have wisdom? What is the importance of faith, if any? Well, one answer, to brutally simplify Jayasaro, could be that: if wisdom is the result of various practices, then faith can be quite simply the willingness to give those practices a try. That’s why it sits at the top of the list. We don’t then need a lot of faith, it doesn’t have to be a Damascene conversion. We just need enough to get started, and then we can see whether what we learn from that gives us a bit more. There is no line you step over, from being an outsider to being someone who from now on is supposed to be completely bought in.
So am I “a Buddhist”? Well yes, and no, and then yes again, looked at in that light – I believe in tangible results of my own experience, some (much, these days) of which is guided by Buddha. I try not to maintain a “mighty me” edifice, that reacts defensively to any suggestion of personal changes that may flow from that experience. I’m fairly pleased with where this has taken me (especially considering where I started from), and so obviously, I’m intending to keep doing it. Even when I don’t particularly feel like it. And I think Buddha was probably way cool. How’s that?
Should you be? Well – what I am hoping these articles may have achieved is really just to give you some of that thing we have been calling “faith”. Just enough to give something a go, and see what happens. And that, as I understand it, is the only meaningful definition of a “Buddhist” – someone who is at this moment trying to work one of the practices or principles in a real context, as opposed to saluting any flags, or wearing any T-shirts. And I am also hoping that this particular article may have laid out a pretty good case for at least this small kind of faith in Buddhadhamma, being a pretty good place to start looking for something larger and more sustaining, especially for those (like myself) to whom faith does not come easily.
If you already profess another Faith (whatever you may mean by that word, capitalised), then that is no obstacle. Buddha is not God, so Buddha does not argue with God. He presents human insight and knowledge, so you could think of him as like, a doctor or something. Just because you believe that life, death, and pestilence come from God does not mean that you can’t also have a listen to what the doctor recommends, and take it on its own merits – no, wait – poor choice of example in the current climate, but, you know: something like that.
Equally you don’t have to, of course not. As I have tried to emphasize, Buddhism is a response to a need, to a problem. That’s what it was for Buddha, and so it was for me. If you don’t feel the need, or if your current response to the problem seems to be working, then carry on – it’s results that count. It’s the management of suffering and dissatisfaction. The maintenance of integrity, compassion, kindness, and making life workable, bearable, and good for ourselves and others. That is the heart of religion, and that is ultimately the only thing worth putting your highest faith in, not so much the specific vehicle.
That is what it has been for me. The things I have been telling you about, up to the point where I left them, produced some of that faith, that Satta, just enough to stick around a little longer, try a little more, and look a little deeper. That kept happening on a rolling basis, until a point where, somehow, I found myself ordaining as a monk. Then somehow I found myself having been a monk for a couple of years. I was still in my early thirties then, and good as it was in the monastery, the pull of the world was strong. I wanted to try all that stuff again, and see how well I and my fancy new ideas held up. And – they kinda did.
There are no magic bullets. Just because you’re a fancypants Boodist now doesn’t mean you take everything in your stride, of course. It doesn’t mean that suddenly you’re no longer a chimpanzee stuffed with snakes, or no longer an idiot. Kilesa don’t just go away because we have named them (although just that really does help, actually) and neither do addictions. Sometimes they charge back in like an elephant, and then sometimes they dress in swanky new clothes – come back subtler, more sophisticated, or even disguised as something more wholesome.
The wisdom in Buddhism is also practice-dependent, and so it’s a lot like physical exercise again – in that you have to actually do the pushups and keep doing them, and stick to the diet, or all that stuff you learned from your glossy health magazines is not so much use. Possibly counter-productive even, since you’ll pull a muscle if you try to lift something heavy, forgetting that you haven’t been to the gym in a while. You can undo a lot of good work at a stroke with arrogance. Again, that’s why faith, practice and wisdom all benefit from remaining in a tight loop.
So, yes – my subsequent decade back in the world, and then back in the music business, had ups and downs. But never again as far down as I had been, and I always knew there was a way out of the downs, which is essential to taking that first step when you have to, and not taking too long over it. And it can even keep you going when you’re trapped in them for the time being by forces beyond your immediate control. That’s when faith is really needed – when you are having a hard time sticking with supposedly beneficial views, principles and practices, despite not seeing any immediate benefits. Despite negative results and emotions still piling up, from causes both within and without.
When I say “downs” I don’t mean that I resorted back to drugs. That did hold up, and under some testing conditions – I have been dog-tired and grumpy in the middle of the night on endless recording sessions, with people chopping out lines of coke right next to me on the mixing desk, and turned down kind offers to join in. I don’t mean to boast – I’m only saying that to let to-whom-it-may-concern know that it can be done. You can even be cool with it, and cool with the people who are doing it [just ask them to keep it away from the slidy things – rots the circuitry much as it does your septum]. The bad news is that there are plenty of other ways to inflict misery upon yourself.
But these downs – be they vast chasms, or smallish potholes – are surely when the overwhelming majority of relapses happen. Therefore I don’t think it’s a vast leap of the imagination to posit that faith is what usually makes or breaks an escape strategy. There’s all this other good stuff, some of which I have been talking about in other articles, and which can really help. But good stuff is for good days, and – like a rock band on tour – it is by your off-nights that ye be judged. A dozen killer gigs in a row don’t negate the harm inflicted by one heavily-amplified and widely publicised stinker.
Faith, grab as much as you can
So, yeah – go get yourself some, wherever you can find it, it’s good and useful stuff. You can start with the small, and try to build it into some real confidence that your practices are working, and then see if you can get that all the way to some real mojo to make some major personality surgery. Meanwhile, it’ll just be there in the background, maintaining the new alignment of the re-assembled machine [see 1st instalment, Faith Some More], sustaining the existence of a newly-minted self-system that is not emotionally dependent on getting hammered on a daily basis, and not habitually reaching for the chemical cosh in response to dozens of daily triggers.
Keep that going for a while, and maybe it will grow a capital letter, and then that Faith will be in place by the time you confront your first real test – when everything is looking pretty hopeless, and you’re not sure if what you’re doing is making things any better, and that’s when we turn to old friends. Always jostling to the front of that queue will be Greed, Hatred, and Delusion, and we know what usually ends up happening when we party with those guys (the dry-cleaning bills alone…)
And then if you pass that test, then the wisdom that comes of whatever you had to do to get through it, might then transform into some FAITH – by which I mean the confident knowledge that you have reliable access to a source of benign power, that will be there the next time you reach for it. Faith that starts to blow away anxiety, fear, and self-pity. But above all, faith that it will be worth it. That you are on an alignment leading to far more than just overcoming this immediate obstacle. And so it is worth maintaining that alignment even when it is sorely tested.
There’s no getting around it: getting past a chronic addiction, or any other kind of major personality dysfunction, is going to have rough days, and even some bleak winters. When all your other tricks and stratagems and helpers have failed, and there’s nothing left to do but keep trudging on your little frightened hobbit-legs, in the general direction of Mordor, and hoping that somehow you’ll think of something brilliant when you get there – that you’ll rise to the occasion in ways you can’t imagine right now. There needs to be some vision of where you can end up, and certainty that it’s a real place.
For Frodo it was the Shire – a thinly disguised eternal little-England where everyone smokes pipes in their tidy front gardens and says “good morning” to each other. Not glamorous, but more civilised and reasonable than all the things these excitable foreigners were getting up to. That was worth protecting, and sustaining into the future, and developing, and living and dying in. Maybe not your idea of a motivating vision – you could give Nirvana a try – or you could find your own. Because that, ultimately, was the difference between Sméagol, and Frodo. Two similar people, from the same place, facing the same temptations and challenges – one making it all the way to Mordor and back again, and the other down in the depths of the earth with only the Preciousss for company.
Apologies for the absence of audio – it has been a busy week. Thamkrabok monastery is about to depart en masse, in approximately 11 hours, for our annual “tudong”, which is kind of a mobile retreat/camping trip. Things will be a little quiet around here until 16th April, when we shall return, faith hopefully intact.
Dedicated to (of course) Master Samwise Gamgee, the pint-sized personification of faith