Monday, October 30, 2006

"Oh Ye of Little Faith"

I was having a conversation the other day with a friend who is a devout Christian. And I mean that in the best sense of the word. He is a kind, honest, compassionate guy who really tries to live according to the traditional ‘core’ Christian ideals, such as “Love One Another” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

While we were discussing his faith, I let him know that I was raised Catholic, and was not only familiar with the teachings in the bible, but I have actually read the bible, cover-to-cover, twice. Once as a teen-ager, and once as an adult. And as an adolescent, I believed in Christian dogma. Now I do not. He said, “Oh, so it’s not that you are unfamiliar with God’s word. You just choose not to believe.”

I asked him if he chose to believe in God, and he said yes.

Is it just me, or is this bizarre? How can an intelligent, thinking person say, “I choose to believe this, and not that.”

My question applies not only to Christians, but to people of any faith. Do you believe in reincarnation? How so? I don’t mean you like the idea of reincarnation and hope that maybe it’s true. I mean you are absolutely certain about it. I’m talking about real belief and faith. I’m talking about the kind of belief that forms the core of your being, that forms the premise for your life and all the choices you make.

See, I don’t think I have faith in anything. And I think it is impossible to “choose” to believe in anything. To a child, the concept of Santa Clause is very nice, and the belief in the guy brings the child joy. But as soon as they are told Santa Clause does not exist and are shown evidence to the contrary and an explanation that makes more sense, the child ceases to believe in Santa. Can the child “choose” to continue believing?

I don’t think so.

So how can someone choose to believe in a particular religion or faith, if they have access to compelling evidence to the contrary?

Are religious people just faking it? Do they really have faith in Jesus, God, and the Afterlife? Or are so many zealots hell-bent on converting everyone around them just to make themselves more secure in the attractive dogma that they doubt at their cores?

If someone truly believes in Christian dogma, including faith in their afterlife and their place in it, wouldn’t they be completely fearless in the face of death?

Are they?

Like I mentioned, I was raised Catholic. And not just “go to church on Christmas and Easter” Catholic. I studied Catholic history, and considered myself a youthful biblical scholar. I even led retreats for other serious Catholic adolescents. I suppose I had faith in God, Jesus, and all that entails.

However, upon continuing with my more “worldly” education, including Biology, Physics, History, Philosophy, Anthropology, Comparative Religion, Psychology, Sociology, Literature, etc. etc., I found that Christianity as an accurate model of the cosmos made absolutely no sense, but it made perfect sense when considered in historical context, with some sprinklings of psychology and sociology.

I did not choose to stop believing, it was just that my experiences did not align with Christian dogma. Following this shift, as I viewed the world as a young adult without the filter of Christian dogma, I found it mind-boggling that I had ever over-laid this fictional world on top of my immediate experience of the world around me.

Which brings me to Buddhism. As I was learning about science, history, etc., I also learned about Buddhism. The way it was taught at the university, however, also sounded more like superstition and dogma than what I now know as Buddhism. But there was a core to the “religion” that resonated with my experiences: Most people live out their lives filled with delusion; this causes suffering; there is a way out of that suffering, and it involves waking up and seeing things clearly.

Now I know that faith and belief are just thoughts. The universe does not care what you believe. It is what it is, and it is right there in front of you.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Giving up self improvement

How to give up self-improvement (from the Appendix to "The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi" by Susan Ichi Su Moon, Shambala 1988)

I want to talk to you today about the importance of giving up self-improvement. This is one of our hardest tasks, as we train ourselves to follow the Buddha Way. In this modern age, we are met at every turn by new and tempting opportunieis to improve ourselves. We are offered everything from workshops on how to be a better parent to classes in strengthening the quadriceps. We are so deeply habituated to this way of thinking that we do not even recognize it in ourselves. This is the great danger. How many of you first began to sit zazen with the hope that it would in some way make you a better person? For many of us it may take years of hard practice before we are completely sure that we have hoped in vain. Buddhism teaches us that everything always changes, but we must finally admit that it does not change for the better.


...Giving up self-improvement is easier said than done. Each of us must walk this path alone, going nowhere.

...I respectfully ask you not to waste your time. You may delude yourself by promising to give up self-improvement soon, after you have stopped biting your fingernails, lost ten pounds, or learned to jitterbug. This is a trap. Tomorrow it may be too late - in the final stages of the disease, the sufferer loses all control and those around him find themselves hiding course catalogues and health-club brochures. ..

...Remember, you are perfect already, exactly as you are. In a manner of speaking. And if you were really perfect, you wouldn't have a friend in the world.

I love this book - a fictional account of the author learning about zen from a wonderfully entertaining but fictional master, Tofu Roshi.

The appendix on how to give up self-improvement is something I had not really noticed when I first read the book back in the early 90s. Now, having spent more time with zen I see the amazing value in this. The rarity of it alone should spark the reader's interest - what religion or activity sells itself by saying that it should not be used to improve yourself. That trying to do so is besides the entire point?

I also am drawn to this appendix because I am a relentless self-improver. I doubt I could stop, but perhaps this only shows how little experience I have with zen?

For example, I am virtually unable to eat "empty calories" - for food to be suitable to me it must offer some nutritional value (the more the better). Especially good are foods claimed to help reduce the chance of cancer or heart disease. Keeping up with the information of which foods are best etc is time consuming but I enjoy it. Is it a sickness? Is it a distraction from experiencing the rest of the world - an inward focus that prevents a relaxed enjoyment of life? Most would say "of course not" but I sometimes envy those humans whose families and cultures have lived in the same place for centuries and simply eat the same foods their ancestors ate. They enjoy them and don't worry about them - they eat for the pleasure of it, not because they've determined it benefits them health-wise.

Saw the movie "Click" last night. It's got some very Zen-like philosophy in it (about taking time to enjoy a quality life moment by moment rather than throwing away the present to achieve a better future).