I’ve been thinking a lot about faith these last few days. Maybe it is reading about the struggles of some former NKT-ers in the New Kadampa Survivors forum, or perhaps it is coming from my reading of other teachers other than Geshe-la.
Something Pema Chodron wrote in “Comfortable with Uncertainty” hit me hard:
“We sometimes think that Buddhist teachings are something outside of ourselves – something to believe in, something to measure up to. However, dharma isn’t belief; it isn’t dogma. It is total appreciation of impermanence and change. The teachings disintegrate when we try to grasp them. We have to experience them without hope . . . The message is fearless; dharma was never meant to be a belief we blindly follow. Dharma gives us nothing to hold onto at all.”
So, as a Buddhist, what is it that we have faith in?
What initially drew me to Buddhism was its logic. It made total sense to me – no leaps of faith required. In fact Buddha taught that we are not to believe simply because he was the Buddha, but only once we understand to be true for ourselves. I also resonated with the belief that we are ultimately responsible for what happens to us and our own enlightenment. There was no big guy in the sky who would save us. I always felt that to be nonsense, and it was refreshing to know that I could still have spiritual path without believing in any God. I felt that I had finally found a spiritual path that I could completely embrace.
I was quite happy attending weekly our local NKT General Program classes. They were led by a gentle monk who demonstrated a sense of serenity that I aspired to myself. The classes included meditation and a talk on a topic . Being rather shy, I didn’t stay for tea and chatting after class. I just came in, got my fix, and quickly left.
After a few months, the teacher told us about this wonderful event coming up – a Vajrasattva empowerment. I really had no idea what an empowerment was, nor who Vajrasattva was, but I figured this was the next step, so I signed up.
The empowerment started early on a Saturday morning. I was a little nervous as I didn’t know anyone there, except for the slightest personal acquaintance with my teacher. From the moment I got there, I knew this was going to be different than the classes to which I had become accustomed. Maybe 60-75 people were milling about outside in silence. Someone whispered to me that we would be queuing up to enter the hall, and when they pour the saffron water in my hand to take three sips to purify body, speech and mind, then rub the remaining water on my head and maintain silence when I sat down.
When I entered I was somewhat surprised to see a monk already seated in the front. He was muttering something to himself accompanied by elaborate hand motions. My mind started to tighten: oh shit, this is starting to look like a religious ceremony. I looked at the booklet that had been on the chair – it was the words to the chanted prayers. Oh shit shit and double shit. What had I gotten myself into?
I don’t remember much of the ceremony, except how Catholic it felt when we were lined up in front of the presiding monk, kneeled before him, and were bonked on the head with this funny little marzipan figure while he muttered something in Sanskrit, or Tibetan. It could have been Latin for as far I knew. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.
After the ceremony everyone was blissfully happy and quite friendly to me. But, I fled with tears in my eyes. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I felt confused and more than a little duped. My beautiful Buddhism was a religion after all!
On my way home was the City of Cemeteries, Colma. I’ve always been a big fan of older cemeteries as I find them incredibly peaceful and soothing. So, I decided to pick one of the cemeteries and go for a little stroll. It’s hard to say what happened there. I only remember being struck by the thought “this is where we all end up. It doesn’t matter what we believe in the interim, this is where we all end up. So, what if this Buddhism might be an actual religion, and not merely a philosophy? What is so wrong with believing in something?”
And so I headed back to the retreat center to catch the afternoon commentary to the empowerment. And for the next ten years the New Kadampa Tradition was the center of my spiritual life. I’ve never stopped struggling with faith, no more so than the last year. But that is for another post.