A Leap of Faith

Some further comments on the Zen proverb that practice requires faith, doubt, and determination: For a long time the word “faith” made me uncomfortable. Sometimes even now when I hear the word faith, I squirm just a little bit. It’s because I previously understood faith to mean blind faith, which I took to be willful disregard for reality even when it intruded on something in which one wished to have faith. Is Zen faith different? I think so. In the beginning of Zen practice, I think faith is essentially courage.

You come to a fork in the road, to a gate. It is your Dharma Gate, the place where you might enter practice. Each person comes to his or her gate, his or her personal entry. For one person, it may be something in a book. For another, a meeting with a teacher. For another, a place like a zendo that has a certain feeling. Or perhaps it’s even the smell of incense. Something on the path beckons or opens and we decide to enter. To try it. There may be a rational calculus, but it isn’t ever entirely rational in my experience. And even when we think it’s rational, maybe we haven’t quite entered yet, not really.

The faith, the courage, is what tips the scales in favor of giving it a try. In Zen, we talk about “Way-seeking mind.” It’s called Bodhicitta. It’s that impulse, that feeling, that voice inside that seeks awakening. Sometimes it has the flavor of dissatisfaction with how our life is going. Sometimes it has the flavor of attraction to something we hear or read that beckons us to look deeper. Sometimes it has the flavor of hunger or longing. It shows itself in many ways. It’s this Way-seeking mind that arises as faith and courage to try. I think it’s a kind of courage because there are so many reasons not to enter. Each of us has his/her reasons, either not to enter, to enter but not too far, or not to go too deeply. JFK said courage is not the absence of fear but the decision, the choice, that some things are more important than our fear. I think faith in practice has some of that feeling. Faith is the choice to lean in the direction of “Yes, I’ll try this,” even in the face of reasons not to. We make a leap of faith.