Trust in the unseen

I wrote in a previous blog post that I struggled for quite a while to understand the concept of faith in Zen practice. I thought of faith as “blind faith,” and I was always uneasy with blind faith, which I understood to be trust or belief in something despite an absence of evidence or even in the face of contrary evidence. Reflecting further on how my own faith has ripened, I see a developmental process that has led me to include in my practice a kind of faith that’s not entirely different from the blind faith I used to abjure.

When we talk in Zen about how people first come to practice, we use the term “Bodhicitta” which we translate as “way-seeking mind.” This is understood to be a universal human impulse to find some form of spiritual freedom or awakening. It’s a good idea to be careful about this. There’s a temptation to spell “way” with a capital “W” – to imagine the most authentic expression of Bodhicitta is to find “Our Way,” and that other ways are not as good. We might also consider that some people are attracted to Zen or to another practice tradition without having any concept of “The Way” or even of “a way.” This was true for me. I had no concept of practice or of a spiritual path. Nonetheless, something about Zen attracted me. It was almost at the level of a spiritual pheromone. It was later that I learned about practice, about what we call The Buddha Way.

So faith can begin with just a subtle and mysterious feeling of attraction. And faith shows up in our instinct that the attraction is trustworthy, that it merits pursuit, even if we don’t understand why. Even if we don’t have any evidence yet. If we stick with it, our faith may develop through several phases. At some point, it requires courage. It requires courage to continue in the face of obstacles to practice, of disappointments, even of heartbreak. Over time, as our practice bears fruit, the faith turns to confidence, to trust. It gets deeper and we rely on our practice to meet bigger and bigger questions and challenges. Our confidence in practice outstrips our confidence in habits, tools, and tricks we used to rely on.

In my case, I’ve come to feel that my trust in practice is now based on good evidence. I have some understanding of how zazen works, of how retreats work, of how practice works as a transformational technology, and I can point to changes in my own life which are the fruits of practice. However, despite this rational relationship with faith, with trust, I’ve also become comfortable with a kind of faith that I used to spurn as blind. It’s trust in an unseen dimension of practice that I can’t explain. In Zen retreats, we have a meal ceremony in which the leader begins a chant by calling out “O spirits and powers…” I think of this unseen dimension as the realm of these spirits and powers and I turn to this realm often. I turn to it by simply asking for help. To whom am I speaking? I think it’s not essential to know to whom, in the usual sense. What I am doing is calling on unseen forces that are all around me, all around us, all the time. You could say I’m calling on God, or on the gods if you prefer. You could say I’m calling on the ancestors of my lineage in whatever form they may exist. Or I’m calling on my own deceased ancestors. I’m calling on the angels and the heavenly host. Or I’m taking refuge in Buddha – the true nature of life, in Dharma – the wisdom of life , and in Sangha – the energy of all life forms, past, present and future.

I think when we turn to our breath in zazen as a way of taking refuge in Buddha, this is what we’re doing. The breath is a way to experience the support of “spirits and powers.” Where did breath come from after all? In meditation if we stop relying on habitual thrashing and let go, we get a taste of the support of the spirits and powers. We might feel like we’re falling, but if we have enough faith not to grab back on, we feel a kind of buoyancy. We find ourselves in a subtle and mysterious space with a refreshing clarity and ease.

And I think it’s useful to find or invent ways to invite and activate this domain in everyday life. You know the expression, “Keep the faith?” This is a way to keep the faith. The faith to turn to practice, rather than to our usual habits. Our ceremonies are designed to do this. But we need to find ways that are personally alive for us. There is a version of the robe chant that begins “Now I open Buddha’s robe…” Just this line is one of the ways in which I invoke spirits and powers. I take a breath, say this line to myself, and open the invisible robe that I have with me all the time, as does everyone. It’s just a matter of opening it. I’ve also found that watching leaves move in the air reminds me of the presence of God. These are little ways that I’m personally reminded that I’m supported and nourished by subtle and mysterious spirits and powers, if I just put my routine and busy ideas and reactions aside for a moment.

This is where faith can bring us, to this subtle and mysterious domain of Dharma – of spirits and powers – that’s always available. I believe we hunger for and are incomplete without it, and we can learn to call upon it. It really does help take care of us. It’s not that by asking for this kind of help we relinquish responsibility. It’s that it’s a gift to us to use this resource in the service of living the life we want to live.