When the COVID lock-down descended upon us I had a curious reaction bubble up into my consciousness - it occurred to me that this was an excellent opportunity for introspection, and I welcomed it. Suddenly there was nowhere I had to be, nothing I had to do, and for an indefinite period of time. So I simply watched as automobile traffic went away, heavily polluted cites world wide became sparkling gems in the clearing air, and the biggest hole ever in the ozone layer completely vanished within thirty days. I simply watched all of this, and as I turned inward I found myself in a profound state of prolonged relaxation.
Eventually it dawned on me that another opportunity was being presented to all of us. We had entered, as it came to be said, the 'new normal', which really meant 'normal' had been completely jettisoned. Many of our notions of what defined our lives went out the window. Solid pillars that had propped up our habitual day-to-day functions and expectations now lay around in crumbled heaps at our feet. And I welcomed it. This was an opportunity being presented to us, an opportunity to look at everything with fresh eyes, unmuddied by both conscious and subconscious assumptions and habits.
This new situation had an eerily familiar feel for me. You might remember my writing in a previous posting of the existential crisis I passed through when my own personal self-construction collapsed like so many propped up domino pieces. It wasn't pleasant. In fact, it was downright painful, and it left me in a rather terrifying void, unanchored and with nothing visible on the horizon. It could be said that this current COVID crisis is a macro-cosmic reflection of that personal micro-cosmic situation I found myself in years ago. And you might remember that something astonishing and completely unexpected rushed into this void I had been thrust into, something which over time has remade me. This suggests to me that there is an opportunity here and now for something equally astonishing to fill our mutual void which has been presented to us on the macro level of society and culture by the COVID crisis. We can remake ourselves in ways big and small.
But ya gotta have faith...
I have a tale to tell, and I want to anticipate it by making a distinction between two commonly used terms: belief and faith. In my dictionary at home there is essentially no distinction made; the terms are, generally speaking, interchangeable. But I do want to clarify a distinction in my own mind because I think it's important, and because it is a more subtle approach than the typical use of those terms. You can take it or leave it, of course.
I see belief as the acceptance of a truth without proof or direct experience. This truth usually comes from an exterior source, say our parents, or an authority figure outside the family. It can be based on religious texts such as the Bible or Koran; Buddhism's Four Noble Truths; the Sutras of Patanjali. These truths, greater or lesser, are simply accepted, simply believed without question. I used to see here and there a bumper sticker that read "The Bible says so, I believe it, and that's that!" Pretty much sums up what I mean by belief.
Faith is a little different in my book. I was surprised several years ago, while exploring the ins and outs of Buddhism through various readings, to find more than one source stating that a fundamental tenet of Buddhism was the necessity of faith. At that time I equated faith with belief, and was intrigued to see this emphasis on faith/belief, especially since I didn't interpret Buddhism as being an especially dogmatic orientation - it has always seemed to me more open-ended, less rigid, less insistent on belief than most of the major religious doctrines around the world. And so I asked "What does a Buddhist have faith in?" An answer might be Enlightenment, or Buddha Nature, or simply the end of suffering. But these are rather vague, ambiguously fuzzy terms to those of us who have not achieved these states, whatever they be. Which is to say, fuzzy to most of us. Including most Buddhists.
So what does Buddhist philosophy mean by faith? They don't say belief; in fact, the Buddha himself flatly stated one should believe nothing - as the saying goes, if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him. Here's where I think faith is different from belief. Belief is a statement. Belief is solid. Belief is defining. Faith, on the other hand, is a feeling. Faith is a quality. Faith is a yearning. You don't believe in Buddha Nature, you don't even really know exactly what it is. But you yearn for it, you desire it, you have eros for it. You can't state it, you can't define it, you can't picture it. But you want it. Faith is, quite simply, yearning itself.
And that is what I mean when I suggest that there's an opportunity for us amid this COVID crisis to remake ourselves, and to do that you gotta have faith, you gotta have a yearning. Ya gotta want it. It's in that context that I will spin for you my little tale...but not now. Still some groundwork to lay out.
To be continued...