Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
Some years ago, two friends took me rock-climbing in Colorado. I’d only ever climbed with ropes once before, and that had been many years earlier, so really I was a complete beginner. And nervous.
I found myself suspended half-way up a cliff, in a state of anxiety, with my friends shouting encouragement from below. My breathing was tight, my heart was pounding, and my limbs felt weak and shaky, but I didn’t have time to think much about that. I was holding on to a narrow ledge that ran horizontally across the rock face — really it was more like a crease. The toes of my climbing shoes were precariously holding on to a couple of tiny nubbins that barely projected from the surface. It seemed like a miracle that I was able to hang on at all.
I looked up, and as far as I could see there was nothing but smooth rock all the way to the top. All I could see above me was a featureless expanse of cliff, with no hand- or toe-holds. I was only about a third of the way up, and it didn’t seem as if there was any way forward.
If I hadn’t decided to change something I’d have remained stuck.
My pride wouldn’t let me give up. I took a few deep breaths to steady my nerves and give myself time to think. I looked around, and realized that the only way I could move was sideways. That wasn’t going to take me closer to the top, but at least it was movement, and I’d rather move than stay frozen in fear and indecision. I decided to go for it, rather than remain in my paralyzed state. So I found another nubbin to dig my toes into, and began to inch my way to the left, my fingertips barely keeping a grip on the ledge.
Since moving sideways was all I could do, I did it. And once I moved and took another look at my situation, I could see a handhold above me that hadn’t been visible before. I reached for it, and managed to get a toe-hold so that I could boost myself up. Above me was another hand-hold, and another, and another, and soon there was a clear way to climb to the top of the cliff, which I did, “Like a rat up a drainpipe,” as one friend put it. It was hard to believe that this was the same rock-face that just a few minutes before seemed utterly unscalable.
And here’s the thing: if I hadn’t made that one earlier change in my position, my perspective would never have shifted and I’d never have been able to move forwards. If I hadn’t decided to change something — even though I doubted that what I was doing was going to help in any way — I’d have remained stuck.
Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, is not part of what I do as a Buddhist.
Sometimes, even if the way isn’t clear, you simply have to change something — almost anything — in order to see things from a different perspective. When we’re experiencing a “stuck” emotion, like despair, hopelessness, fear, or depression — those emotions that freeze us in place, unable to go forwards or back — sometimes we just have to try something new. We need to have the faith to take the first step.
And that means having faith in ourselves. And faith in the possibility that change is possible.
Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, and often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. This is not part of what I do as a Buddhist. And that’s quite proper.
Buddhism is not a “faith” in the sense that you have to assent to various unprovable claims. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal. That’s the attitude we should adopt if we are to follow the Buddha — not believe his words but to test the method that his words were attempting to communicate.
Once the Buddha was talking to a clan who were very confused about religious practice. The tribe — called the Kalamas — were in a similar situation to many of us in the West today. They were surrounded by competing religious and philosophical traditions. Due to the discovery of iron, society had been changing. The old religions — which said that the structure of society, with the priests at the top, naturally, was ordained by the gods — were on the defensive because the structure of society had changed, with the emergence of a powerful new class of merchants. Those same merchants had more time for leisure and for asking what life was really all about. And increasingly, new religious movements were taking root, often in the forests, where renunciates would cut themselves off from society in order to explore meditation and other practices (sometimes extreme ascetic ones).
The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal.
So the Kalamas were faced with trying to make sense of the competing claims of dozens of religious and philosophical teachings. Some said that adherence to the old ways of the god was the right thing to do — keep paying the priests to mutter mantras and the crops would grow and you’ll be blessed with many children. Others said that all comfort should be renounced. Yet others said that sensory pleasure was the highest good and that no opportunity for gratification should be passed up. And there were many other traditions, advocating ethical codes, worship practices, meditative exercises, and belief systems.
So when the Buddha was passing through, they took the opportunity to ask him some tough questions about how to decide which teachings were true and which false. The Buddha’s answer was extensive and involved some Socratic dialog, but the most important part was this:
Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.
The Buddha wasn’t saying we should automatically reject tradition, scriptures, intuition, logic, etc. But he was saying that we need to submit these things to two tests:
1. Do teachings, when put into practice, lead to happiness and well-being. This doesn’t mean that we have to try out every teaching, because we can learn by observing others. But the important thing is to see whether or not teachings work in practice as tools for alleviating suffering, and for reducing craving, hatred, and delusion.
2. Are these teachings and practices praised by “the wise.” Now this is a tricky one, because who are the wise? Again, this comes back to experience. Who, in our observation, can generally be relied upon to give good advice? Who, in our experience, is generally reliable, trustworthy, and “walks the talk”?
In this teaching faith isn’t something that comes seems to come first. First is observation, reflection and practice (in short, experience), and then faith follows. We have to take the first step in order to get a sense whether the staircase actually leads anywhere. But in fact we need faith at the very beginning, even before we take the first step. When I was climbing, and found myself stuck, I had to have confidence that there was a possibility of climbing that cliff, and confidence that I could do it. In the absence of a clear way forward, I had to be open to seeing things from a new perspective, and that involved letting go of the handholds I had so that I could move on. In moving into the unknown there’s always a leap of faith.
Enlightenment may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think.
I’ve often thought of the Buddha’s teaching as being like a map. He outlines a spiritual journey, and of course without having trodden the path all the way to the end we can’t say for sure whether the map actually matches the territory. But if we’ve explored the lower reaches of the path and found that the map corresponds to our experience, then we start to have some confidence that the rest of the map might be accurate too.
In the beginning we may simply have some trust in the people who are teaching us meditation and speaking from their experience, while at the same time asking ourselves whether what we’re hearing rings true. But then we need to test things out for ourselves. And fairly quickly we can discover for ourselves that, yes, if we pay attention to the breath the mind settles down and we’re happier; yes, Buddhist ethical principles do make daily life more harmonious and satisfying; yes, there are five hindrances and the techniques for overcoming them do work; yes, there are meditative states that are focused, peaceful, and deeply refreshing, just as described in the texts and by our teachers.
And what about Awakening, Enlightenment? That may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think. When I had my first experience of non-self I was amazed by how easy and natural it was. There was no struggling for a breakthrough, just the gentle slipping away of a veil of delusion. I think if I’d realized how easy it was going to be it might have happened years earlier.
In many ways we’re conditioned to think of spiritual goals as being far off and almost beyond reach, and some later Buddhist teachings even suggest that it might take countless lifetimes to reach the end of the path. But in the earliest Buddhist scriptures people seemed to get awakened at the drop of a hat. Perhaps they were unburdened by expectations of how hard it was going to be. Perhaps they simply made a small shift in the way they were seeing things and found themselves with a new perspective — one that allowed them to go all the way to the top.