Do you need to have faith to be a Buddhist? Must you believe in certain things – and if so, what? Faith may seem unnecessary or irrelevant if you are engaged in a practice-based psychology, which is how many of us regard the Tibetan Buddhist path. But in fact you do need faith – or confidence, as I prefer to call it.
First of all you require confidence in the practices themselves. Just as when training the body, in training the mind we won’t get very far if we aren’t committed to the techniques by which we can improve our concentration. They may have worked for countless other people. But unless we have the will to apply ourselves to them, they will have all the impact of an unused piece of gym equipment.
We also need to be confident of our teacher. Once again, we would be wary of entrusting our gym routine to an inexperienced Personal Trainer who looks in bad physical shape. How much more important to check out the credentials of the person to whom we are about to entrust the training of our mind?
When you saw the headline of this blog, I wonder if matters like karma and rebirth sprang to mind? As it happens, I’ve already blogged about this subject – if you scroll to the bottom of this blog, you’ll find a link.
What I want to share here is an excerpt from my novel, The Magician of Lhasa, which illustrates the role of faith in the practice, and in one’s teacher. It also illuminates what becomes possible when our faith develops very strongly.
During the flight from Tibet through the Himalayas, being pursued by the Red Army, countless Buddhist monks and lay people suffered terrible privations and injury. In this scene, the heros of our book, brothers Tenzin Dorje (the narrator) and Paldon Wangmo find themselves facing a crisis, trying to take care of their much-loved but injured teacher, Lama Tsering. Troops from the Red Army could appear at any moment. They still have a long climb to freedom in India. And Lama Tsering can’t move.
Now, dear one, read on …
Eventually we decide we have no choice but to stay where we are, at least for one more night. If lama’s injury is a sprain, perhaps it will get better with time. ‘Tonight I will undertake Medicine Buddha practice,’ says lama. ‘And to conserve food, I will fast.’
In keeping with our teacher, Paldon Wangmo and I agree that we too will fast and be guided by lama through Medicine Buddha visualisations – because even though we don’t have an injury like him, after a day of fasting we will need all our energy and resilience on the journey ahead.
Despite the show of solidarity with Lama Tsering, as we begin our meditation that evening, with only a few mouthfuls of snow for sustenance, my faith is tested. How is it possible this can be happening to Lama Tsering, who has devoted his life to the Dharma? If Paldon Wangmo or I had been hurt in an avalanche, perhaps that would be understandable. But not a lama as highly realised as our kind and holy teacher! What use is the Dharma, if it cannot protect him from the everyday problems of samsara? And if he is being made to suffer just like an ordinary mortal, what hope is there for a novice monk like me?
‘Faith, Tenzin Dorje,’ my lama says beside me, knowing my thoughts as though his own. Faith is a quality greatly encouraged in the Dharma – but not belief-based faith. In Buddhism, faith is said to arise through listening, thinking and meditating. In his usual, measured way, Lama Tsering is suggesting I meditate, instead of allowing myself to succumb to the swirling negativity of my mind.
In the past ten years, the three of us have often sat together in meditation. As usual, we begin by taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, before establishing in our minds the peerless motivation of bodhichitta. With the wind howling through the mountains and darkness becoming complete, on the cold rock ledge we reconfirm our desire to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.
The session begins like any other, except for where we are – and the fact that we are sitting on either side of our teacher so closely that our shoulders are almost touching. As he often does, Lama Tsering tells us to carry out some 9-cycle breath meditation, to settle our minds. Then, after the agitation has subdued to some extent, he describes how we are to visualise the Medicine Buddha in front of us – his body in the nature of light, a dark, radiant blue, the colour of healing.
Like all visualisations, the power of Medicine Buddha depends not on some external deity, but on the extraordinary healing potential of our own mind. The visualisations are simply a way of helping us realise this potential.
Countless times in the past I’ve visualised Medicine Buddha, who sits, cross-legged with a bowl of healing nectars in his lap. But something is different tonight. Instead of a vague and flickering image which comes and goes in my mind, lapsing with concentration, tonight it is as though I am looking directly at Medicine Buddha – as if he is really here! He doesn’t require my concentration. There is nothing half-formed or imagined about the way he looks. I can study every aspect of his appearance just as I might scrutinise a person with my eyes wide open. In fact, he is more vivid than real life, there’s a quality of heightened reality about him. The colours of his robes and skin glow more radiant, the sensation of the different healing nectars he pours into my body are powerfully vivid. Most of all, the sensation of connection I feel with him is blissful and all-consuming. And as healing nectar streams into my body from his bowl, I feel myself growing more robust, more confident, imbued with greater energy and power than in my whole life till now. Never mind that I am sitting on an exposed rock ledge in the middle of the Himalayas. Or that I’m fasting because we’re so short of food.
And though my absorption in the visualisation is complete, a part of my mind recollects my doubts from earlier in the night and I realise where I’ve gone wrong. Even if Lama Tsering’s ankle is hurt, that doesn’t mean he is unhappy. There is no automatic connection between our circumstances and our personal happiness. Once again I have fallen victim to the superstition of materialism in imagining that our journey through the mountains should be a smooth one. But just because it was difficult, doesn’t mean we had to be miserable. In fact, as I sit here in the radiant presence of Medicine Buddha, my conviction has never been stronger that circumstances themselves have little meaning. Instead, it is our state of mind in the midst of such circumstances which fills us with apprehension – or bliss. It’s not what happens to you that matters, but the way you interpret things.
When lama directs us to end our meditation with the traditional dedication for the benefit of all beings, I wish he hadn’t ended the session so abruptly. Back at Zheng-po the meditation sessions could last for up to four hours, but tonight he’s in a hurry to end.
Or so it seems. Because when we open our eyes, it is to the clear light of morning. Eyes slowly refocusing on the distant peaks of the Himalayas, I discover I have sat, motionless for ten hours. In this unlikely place, and at this unlikely juncture in my life, I have just been the witness to something extraordinary.
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