Of Doubt and Faith and Energy

Of Doubt and Faith and Energy April 2, 2022



Of Doubt and Faith and Energy

a dharma talk by

James Ishmael Ford

Empty Moon Zen


The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty. It is madness. You can tell you have created God in your image when it turns out that he or she hates all the same people you do.”

Anne Lamont

I’ve always liked Thomas the Doubter and his insisting on seeing the wounds and touching them before believing. I’ve always considered him my patron saint. However, as something to be taken as historical or even a reasonable possibility, it’s very unlikely. The story of Thomas only occurs in the Gospel of John, which was written about a hundred years after Jesus’ death.

The gospel is often considered a “theological” document rather than an attempt at capturing the life Jesus. So, in the story when Thomas asserts how he needs to touch Jesus’ wounds before he will believe, we’re being informed about Thomas failing a critical test of the spiritual life. The point of the story as it is presented is how much better it is to believe without evidence.

This is how doubt is usually treated in religions. The most common challenge to doubt is a classic appeal to authority. Which, you might recall given the Latin phrasing “argumentum ad verecundiam” is considered a logical fallacy.

It’s important to notice how there are forms of doubt that legitimately are hindrances along a spiritual path. It’s not hard to create a list. There is a superficial skepticism which flirts with nihilism that is doubt. There is a hesitance, an inability to get in gear, to get on with it that is doubt. There is a lack of trust in the possibility some teacher or teaching might actually have something important for us, and might actually be able to guide us, which is doubt. These are problematic.

But doubt itself, that feeling of uncertainty, can offer rich possibilities on the spiritual path. For instance, in that gospel story, reframing it and making Thomas someone who must know for themselves and has thrown body and soul into the project; all of a sudden Thomas becomes a figure who could fit into a Zen koan. Koan, as in pointing to some deep truth and inviting us into that true. In fact, bringing one’s whole being to the project, including one’s hesitations, one’s uncertainties, is critical.

And more yet. Zen practice suggests that doubt is actually key to our success. Of course, it requires discernment. There is an art to making doubt a spiritual tool. It requires navigating away from those doubts that are unhealthy or at least unproductive and toward a doubt as the great engine of our spiritual lives.

Is God real? What is truth? Who am I? Does life have a meaning or is it meaningless? How do I know God? Each of these questions is in fact a seed of doubt. And I think it fair to say these questions are different from run of the mill doubt, the half-hearted thing that prevents our throwing ourselves into some project. They are aspects of the burning questions of our humanity and are precisely what our spiritual life needs. Given attention, taken on as a spiritual practice, these questions can each of them become Zen’s great doubt.

We need a foundation to take on this practice. This means we’ve set an intention, we’ve made commitments, we have begun a practice, we work with a spiritual director. And we need our own burning question as a deep curiosity, as a lack of certainty, as profound doubt. It might arise from our own hearts, or if we follow in the tradition, presented as a koan.

The Zen way has three maxims framed by the Eighteenth-century Rinzai master Hakuin Ekaku. We find each of them as part of the practice much earlier in Zen’s development, but he put them together succinctly. The work of Zen calls us into great doubt, great faith, and great energy. They’re critically important to the deep pursuit of our heart quest. And each informs the other.

Zen is often called the “way of not knowing.” And this differentiates Zen out from most other spiritual schools including most other Buddhist schools. I find it important how in that saying of the deep way, doubt leads. However, doubt needs to be joined with these other things, faith and energy. Otherwise, our doubt gradually dissipates and ultimately becomes one form or another of nihilism.

Doubt and faith are the great poles of our spiritual lives. But also, there’s Hakuin’s pointing to energy. Great energy is our individual determination and effort as a generative element, a spark that flies within our lives. What we, you, I actually do, or do not do, is critically important. I found one commentator on these three aspects of practice suggest that the word for “energy” could also be translated as “wrath.” There is much to dig into with that phrasing. I could just as easily say it requires great “desire.”

Passion. Determination. Energy. The Zen teacher Koun Yamada tells us “Great determination is a strong resolve that wells up from the bottom of our gut and spurs us on.” Sometimes it is just doggedness, just putting our shoulder to the wheel. Getting up each morning and turning our heart and mind to the project. Much of the Zen way is about taking our own initiative. We put ourselves on the pillow. We turn our mind toward the matter of intimacy.

This determination, this energy should not, and ultimately cannot be divorced from doubt and faith. It joins them. It is where they meet.

With that, there’s faith. Unlike other spiritual traditions there’s not a lot of talk about faith in Zen. When we do speak of it, we often circle around how little faith we need. Among my memories of my youth studying with the late British born Soto Zen priest Houn Jiyu Kennett, was early on asking her a question.

My question was “How much faith do I have to have to do this?”

It was a real question. To be honest, I didn’t have a lot of faith. I had a lot of trouble with any assertions about reality that moved too much from the observable, the measurable, the quantifiable.

She was a large woman with a quick smile and eyes that I felt cut right into the center of my being. She smiled. She looked. And she replied, “All that you need to believe is that maybe, possibly, you can learn something.” And that was my mustard seed, that tiniest of things. As it turns out, she was right. What drove me at the time was my doubt, and my commitment. It was the commitment that mattered most in that moment, and soon after I moved into the monastery.

But it wasn’t great faith. I felt more comfortable with the doubt, especially the doubt that was my personal driving question. It has shifted a bit. It was no longer is there a god, but rather what can the word God mean? To what does the word God point? What I felt I lacked was faith, at least any more than that tiniest intimation of maybe I could find out.

I completely understand the Zen teacher Albert Low, when he mentioned he “always balked at the ‘great faith’ part (of the Hakuin’s three things) because I could not help confuse faith and belief.” And that was my problem, as well. It’s not uncommon. So, let’s look at that a bit.

Our English words faith and belief are in fact synonyms. Faith enters English from the Latin via French, while belief comes out of the Germanic language family. Both carry connotations of trust, and each have other overlays that give them complexity and nuance.

The distinction Sensei Low was reaching for is also one we hear from many Christians, and which I first heard in seminary. It has emerged because there are legitimate distinctions to be found when we talk about what it is we have faith in, what it is we believe. Fortunately in English, as it happens, we have these two words we can work with.

I want to suggest as a working definition that belief be used for those things that are asserted as true by someone in authority, we read it, we were told it, and which we simply accept. How much better it would have been to believe in Jesus’ resurrection without having to see the wounds and touch them. Belief. Spiritually this is the “It’s in the book, I believe it, that settles it” stance on a refrigerator magnet I saw in a Christian bookstore.

Often belief in this sense is presented with a modifier like “mere,” showing this is the lesser term of the two. Although, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can see we believe in all sorts of things in this exact sense. As a practical matter you can’t examine everything. We have to have some confidence in some sources of authority, or we can’t function. For example, we believe the sun will rise whether we have investigated the matter in any legitimate sense of that word “investigate,” or not.

Faith is related to that definition of belief, but it has been parsed out, allowing a more dynamic quality. While we still are talking about trust, we are also talking about engagement and reflection. It is the dynamic of our lives where we accept some guidance, maybe that little bit of “belief that I can learn something.” Then do it. Then reflect on that doing. And maybe finding nope, it wasn’t true. At least for me. Or, yes, there’s something here. At least for me. And, then going at it again from this deeper, or perhaps we can even say, more mature perspective. The process of faith is ongoing.

The Buddhist word that is usually translated as faith is saddha in Pali, and similarly pronounced in Sanskrit. And it is understood pretty fully in that sense of faith rather than belief. It carries the assumption the teachings should only be accepted provisionally. Then we are asked to investigate for ourselves, to taste and know whether, as the Zen line goes, “that sip of water is cool or warm.”

Here’s where the lovely observation by Anne Lamont gets really helpful. “The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty.” Certainty is the killer. When faith is not the opposite of doubt, it becomes the companion of doubt. And taken together doubt and faith open us to new vistas.

Then, as the Flower Ornament Sutra sings to us:

Faith is the basis of the Path, the mother of virtues,
Nourishing and growing all good ways,
Cutting away the net of doubt, freeing from the torrent of passion,
Revealing the unsurpassed road of ultimate peace.

And it continues:

Faith is generous …
Faith can joyfully enter the Buddha’s teaching;
Faith can increase knowledge and virtue;
Faith can ensure arrival at enlightenment …
Faith can go beyond the pathways of demons,

And reveal the unsurpassed road of liberation.

Here we find that little mustard seed planted and growing. And, I hope, we find ourselves invited into that dynamic, where a small belief, through active engagement, opens our hearts to ever deeper contours of wisdom, compassion, liberation.

And there’s another way, yet, into this path of faith. An important angle to notice.

Zen is a path of energy and effort, maybe even wrath. The other great Mahayana school in East Asia, Pure Land goes in an entirely different direction. Or at least it appears to. Its founders suggest we live in the last age, a time of disintegration, where human access to wisdom is lost, and there is in fact no help for us through our own effort. We are all of us too broken, too defiled by our grasping, our aversions, and our endlessly complex certainties. We can’t cut the thread of confusion. Not by our own hand. Me, I’ve felt this. I believe it’s hard to look at the world and our own hearts and not find resonances with this perspective, not if we’re being honest with ourselves.

And, in response to this they tell a story of a Buddha. Not Shakyamuni, the Buddha of history. But, of Amitabha or Infinite Light in Sanskrit, called Amida in Japanese. Amida presides over a Pure Land, think Heaven. And, he has promised if we just call on him, he will carry us to that Pure Land where the way is open and clear and free. It’s called Amida’s Primal or Original Vow. It is the great vow of the heart, to take everyone with us. I believe if we’ve walked the great way for any length of time, we’ve had intimations of what this story points to.

It is a “good news.” We don’t have to have a strong practice. These are upayas, skillful means, they’re tools. Whoever we are, whatever our situation in life, we call on Amida and we will be saved. Period. We give our heart, our trust, and we will be saved. Sound kind of familiar? The whole of the Christian story is about forgiveness and unmerited grace. And from a completely different world, a very similar story. And with it, an invitation.

I believe there are deep connections between the grace of Pure Land and the grace of Christianity. But they are also different. The Pure Land turns on a primal vow, which is itself a kind of mystery. Christian faith turns on accepting an invitation out of a cosmic sacrifice. The details of which are argued over by theologians, of whom the wisest fall back into mystery. It’s in that mystery where those two different stories invite a surrender of our certainties and an opening of our hearts. And with that offering an invitation into a world that exists side by side with this one. Belief is about the world after death, faith is about the world that can be touched here.

What I find mostly is the connection between doubt and faith, between not knowing and the open heart. In the Pure Land as presented by the Japanese schools, this turning of the heart is coming to shinjin. According to the great teacher Shinran Shonin, shinjin means the “mind of reality.” After he had spent twenty years pursing the austere meditations of the Tendai monastic life, he turned to that invocation, calling on Amida, Amitabha, Infinite Light. After a year of whole-hearted calling, there was a moment, a turning.

Shinran awakened to shinjin.

This is the really important part. Most Pure Land teachings suggest you believe and call on Amida, then when you die you will be reborn into that Pure Land. Belief. With Shinran, as I understand him, you surrender into Amida’s original vow, into the heart of love for all beings, into the mother of the world. And at that instant you are born into the Pure Land. For Shinran, this very place is the Pure Land because there is no separation between this place and that.

So. Doubt. So. Faith.

So, great energy and determination.

With that work and play become the fields of awakening.

Our sweat and effort, our hurt and longing, we need it. And we need to let go of it. And, with that we find the universe kindly bending to embrace us.

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