You’ve got to have faith

…and grace will follow; or so that is what I have been reflecting on in recent months. “Faith and Grace, Helen…I thought you were a Buddhist?” Yes, these are two words one might associate more commonly with the Christian, and indeed other theistic, traditions. And so why am I pondering on them this week? Well, certainly something like “grace” often comes up in my work with clients, and not just those with a spiritual inclination. And maybe faith is on my radar because of my deepening work with the enneagram and my association with enneatype Six process: one coagulated and orientated around doubt, courage, and therefore faith.

And yet, the further I traverse along the Buddhist path, the more these words come up.

To consider the Oxford definitions of each for a moment…
Faith; complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Opposite: mistrust; strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.
Grace; smoothness and elegance of movement. Opposite: stiffness, inelegance; courteous good will.

And a more theological stance…

Faith, in the context of religion, is belief in (a) God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion. Grace is defined as the divine influence which operates in humans to regenerate and sanctify, to inspire virtuous impulses, and to impart strength to endure trial and resist temptation

I shared with my mediation mentor a few months back that I was finding less motivation to meditate and yet paradoxically feeling more committed to the view of non-duality that Buddhism offers  (among other like “mind” -ed traditions) having been experiencing more and more clarity in my everyday life; by “clarity” I am referring to a more constant presence and awareness in the backdrop of all experiencing, one that I have written about before as a sense of a shift in my allegiance from the world “out there” to that which is knowing “all this”. In short, a collapse in the within and without; a non-separation of the knower, known, and knowing.

When I started out on the Buddhist path, the early stages (the Hinayana if practicing in the Tibetan schools of Buddhism) are associated with a path of individual liberation. The teachings and practices here are concerned with a settling and stabilising of mind such that we do not create harm. There is an emphasis on ethics, discipline, virtuous actions; and a sense that we renounce activities that stir up our minds, and karma. As Chogyam Trungpa is known for saying, “we clean up our backyard”. He was also known for imploring that we should “never forget the Hinayana”, even as we evolve to the Mahayana, the vehicle that has us “raising our gaze” and  bringing others into our line of vision. Non-harm extends outwards and expands into benevolence: compassion is especially prevalent in the teachings of this stage. But with both the Hinayana and the Mahayana, it is strongly communicated that there is no external saviour, not a relationship with an other that will keep us safe. We have to come to rely on a foundation of our own self (Hinayana), and realise we are no different to other, and serve all equally (Mahayana).

How is this related to faith and grace then?

Two books that inspired me a great deal as I traversed these first two phases on the Buddhist path. The first Phillip Moffitt’s book “Dancing with Life” focuses on the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths – the foundational teaching of the Hinayana; and what I appreciate so much about this text (and why it is one of my all time Top Five) is how it fleshes out the Buddha’s intention for those four propositions not to remain conceptual nor doctrines to believe; to the Buddha, they were practices to be trialled, tested…and left behind if not true in our own experiencing. Faith on the Buddhist path is not belief, it is to make life an experiment, test hypotheses and build a confidence based on what we come to experience.

The second book is Elizabeth Mattis Namgyal’s “The logic of faith”; a book that WOULD have been in my Top Five had I read it when I wrote that list!! A beautiful book in which she takes the reader on a journey through a somewhat complex teaching from the Mahayana: that of co-dependent origination. Or how Namgyal describes it “everything leans”. When we experiment in our world, we come to see how whatever we do has consequences – and we get feedback. Everything depends on everything else – aspects “co-arise”. As she describes in the book (and here, if you want a snippet) “the ongoing exchange you have with life takes place all the time”.

Faith in our experience, grace to go with it.

Now, as a Vajrayana student, this is central to my path of practice; or as I was mulling over with my meditation mentor, the non-path that seems to open to us the further we delve into the teachings on non-duality and practices in the nature of mind. And, it has occurred to me that my all-time Buddhist teaching (as I referenced last week) is a pith instruction on this very thing

The bad news you are falling, one thousand miles an hour, no parachute; The good news is, there is no ground

Grace is found in the ability to fall
Based upon a faith there is no ground upon which we will go splat!
The groundless ground that is the offered by the non-dual view
There is no (separate) self to defend, and therefore no threat
We start with the faith in that everything is okay (as Julian of Norwich says, all is well!)
We develop confidence in the free fall
We fall with grace, we can let go of the brakes and surrender to it

To the student of Vajrayana Buddhism, life as an experiment, is central. Shifting allegiance to the backdrop of mind, grace is allowing appearances to the mind come and go (this is falling, nothing to hang on to); and faith is the vastness of space (we don’t have to contract or tighten in anticipation of “splat”). Faith in the empty quality of mind; grace to play with the luminous display that appears.

I was recently discussing something similar with trainees on our counselling course as we were navigating the work of Merleau-Ponty and his writing on ambiguity (within the context of existentialist thought on uncertainty). If we can come to relax and let go of our need for certitude, we can rejoice in the ambiguity, the polarities, the neither nor, the both and. So much of the obstacles that clients bring to therapy come about because they (we!) hold onto to a certain view or expectation of what life should be, what they (we) should be. What if we could live without wondering what is around the corner? How much freer could we be without that energy being diverted to worry or regret?

It also brings to mind English poet John Keats’ notion of “negative capability”, the ability to accept “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. And whilst that might have been directed toward the writing life, why not live a creative, experimental life?

When I was bringing my doubts to my meditation mentor, she shared that it is not uncommon to feel less on an “ist” (the Buddha never intended an “ism” nor that people would follow him). And so it was during those discussions with her that I came to find the work of James Fowler and his “stages of faith”. As I walk within a literal mid-life, I come to encounter a mid-life to my path maybe: allowing my doubts, seeing their inherent health; examining the teachings more critically, reflectively. Faith is an opening up; doctrine is a narrowing down.

I’m not sure how all of this will unfold, but I am starting to get a clearer sense of the mystery and sacred outlook that the Vajrayana invites for its practitioners.

I made mention of Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel – she recently recorded a podcast introducing her upcoming series on “the F word” . I will conclude this post with the conclusion from that podcast episode…

“So I want to conclude this episode by making a request: let’s not write off faith so glibly. Faith carries with it the undeniable tension between our search for security and the limits of our ability to know. Faith keeps our spiritual quest relevant and connected to the heart of the human predicament”

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