Posts by Nagapriya

“Know yourself, Forget Yourself: Five Truths to Transform your Work, Relationships, and Everyday Life,” by Marc Lesser

Know Yourself, Forget YourselfAs a rule, I am not a fan of self-help books. They are often big on promises but small on practicalities; good at telling you what is possible but rarely willing to recognize that each of us has limitations. Self-help books, it seems to me, sell the lie that you can be whoever you want and have whatever you want (Can I really marry Scarlett Johansson?). However, a self-help book based on Zen Buddhist principles might be different.

The book rests on the contention that ‘embracing life’s paradoxes is a powerful skill’ (p.4). Lesser, a Zen teacher and executive coach, proposes that we explore five key paradoxes: First, ‘Know Yourself, Forget Yourself; second, ‘Be Confident, Question Everything’; third, ‘Fight for Change, accept what is’; Four, ‘Embrace emotion, embody equanimity’; and five, ‘Benefit Others, benefit Yourself’. He presents these as a hierarchy of increasingly refined practices resulting in the development of five areas of life: attention, outlook, action, resilience, and effectiveness. This all sounds good, even intriguing.

Title: Know yourself, Forget Yourself: Five Truths to Transform your Work, Relationships, and Everyday Life
Author: Marc Lesser
Publisher: New World Library
ISBN: 978-1-60868-081-8
Available from: New World Library, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

While the book presents itself as designed for ‘everyday life’, it is clearly focused on those working within a corporate context since it was inspired by Lesser’s work as an executive coach. Many of the issues treated specifically concern those working in business and even running businesses. While in some respects this excludes many readers, Lesser points out that each of us can see ourselves as a business; ‘We all have a brand’ (p.252).

It seems churlish to criticise a guy who has set up his own business and been CEO of several others, especially when you don’t know much about business, which I don’t. But I do know quite a lot about Buddhism and, despite Lesser’s impressive Buddhist credentials, I found the Buddhist aspects of the book lacking in depth. Yes, there are plenty of Zen anecdotes but I wasn’t sure how useful many of them were and less sure of the Dharmic foundation that stood behind them. At no stage does Lesser hint at any conflict between the values of the corporate world and the world of the Dharma, which I find surprising. In exploring what we might want and how to get it, for instance, he never suggests that we ask ourselves whether what we want is really worth having, whether it is skilful, or whether it is even realistic. Yes, it can be great to aspire but many things are not worth aspiring to; our aspirations need to be rooted in wholesome motivations.

There are some insightful, distinctive moments where a unique voice can be heard for a moment but these are crowded out by the torrent of generic, self-help advice: ‘communicate openly’; ‘take care of your health’; ‘tell the truth’; ‘have real conversations’. The list goes on and at times is overwhelming. And none of this is bad advice but Lesser seems to assume that these are things that we can simply just do. But change is rarely so easy; if we are not, for instance, used to communicating in an open manner then cultivating this will be no small challenge. The book represents something of a missed opportunity and, to use Lesser’s own metaphor, lacks a clear brand since it is rather swamped by its general, self-help and positive thinking focus.

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Death and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism

Detail of center of Tibetan wheel of life, showing beings ascending and descending from life to life

Buddhist author, scholar, and practitioner Nagapriya shares insights into the Tibetan view of rebirth as a spiritual practice, in this excerpt from his acclaimed book, Exploring Karma and Rebirth.

The Tibetan schools of Buddhism place great importance on the death bardo — the intermediate state between death and rebirth — because they believe it provides a precious opportunity for spiritual awakening. For this reason, a good deal of their spiritual practice is geared towards preparing for it so that the death experience can be put to best use.

Spiritual practice as a whole could well be described as a preparation for death. As we approach death, images of our past deeds supposedly flash across our minds. For instance, if our life has been skillful, then skillful volitions are most likely to be present at the time of death and lead to a favorable rebirth. These schools believe that in the bardo we are confronted by the white light of reality, which is nothing other than the true nature of our mind, but instead of recognizing it as such we become frightened and fall into a swoon.

At first, we don’t even realize we have died. We then undergo a series of experiences in which we are confronted by reality in the guise of different Buddha and Bodhisattva forms. These experiences offer us a series of opportunities to wake up to reality, but without adequate preparation we are likely to misunderstand their true nature, become terrified by the appearance of the angelic figures, and scuttle towards the nearest womb.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead could be described as an instruction manual for the living so that they can help the deceased to orient themselves through the death experience and attain spiritual liberation rather than rebirth. It describes in great detail the parade of Enlightened figures that will confront us in the after-death state. Over a series of “days” we will be faced with a choice between the startling light of reality as manifested through various Buddha figures and the dull light of rebirth that emanates from each of the six realms. The light of the Buddhas is intense, so bright that it frightens us, whereas the lights emanating from each of the six realms are dull and soothing. If we have an affinity with the god realm we are likely to be drawn to its dull white light. Similarly, the angry god realm emits a dull red light, the human realm dull blue, the animal realm dull green, the preta realm dull yellow, and finally the hell realm emits a dull smoke-colored light.

If we are able to embrace the light of reality, we may gain spiritual awakening in the bardo state; if not, then we will seek re-embodiment in whichever realm we feel most affinity with. One way of preparing for our encounter with the startling light of reality is therefore through regular meditation on a Bodhisattva or Buddha figure. During the first few days, the deceased is confronted by a series of peaceful Buddha figures whose beauty and purity may be so terrifying that they swoon again. As time passes, the deities that appear become more wrathful in aspect and in conventional appearance seem demonic, though they are traditionally believed to be less frightening than the peaceful figures.

Spiritual practice as a whole could well be described as a preparation for death.

It is considered important to remind the departing spirit of the Three Jewels — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha — as he or she enters the intermediate state. For this reason, it is usual to place images of Buddhas around the dying person, to recite mantras, and even to read instructions from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. By doing this, the chances of the dying person recognizing what is happening to them as they enter the bardo and responding positively to the experience are greatly improved.

But the teaching of the bardo also has a more immediate, everyday relevance. Not only is death a valuable bardo; daily life also represents a continuing opportunity to embrace the light of reality. At every moment we can choose to understand and live according to truth, or reject the truth and perpetuate our delusion and evasion. At every moment we have a choice whether to embrace compassion, clarity, and equanimity or to reinforce petty selfishness, vagueness, and partiality. We don’t need to wait until the moment of death to experience the clear light of reality – it is present before us even now. It is through making this choice that we can begin to redirect the course of our lives and create a different future. Rather than be directed by what is worst in us, we can deliberately align our will with what is best and break free of the gravitational pull of unskillful habits.

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“Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution,” by David Loy

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Money, Sex, War, Karma

Buy Local: Available from Indiebound (US) and Bookshop.org (UK)

Buddhist author and scholar Nagapriya reviews a new book that takes a passionate and bold survey of Buddhism, how it interacts with the west, and what that means for us individually.

David Loy has established a formidable reputation as a serious Buddhist thinker able to tackle the big issues. He is especially concerned with the encounter between Buddhist ideas and practices and the contemporary world, an encounter that he believes has the potential to be mutually beneficial. In his words, “Buddhism and the West need each other.” (p.3) He adopts a broadly existential approach to interpreting Buddhism through an analysis of what he calls “lack” — an idea that derives from the traditional Buddhist teachings of anātman and Emptiness. In previous publications, Loy has emphasized that “lack” underlies the existential condition and is the driving force behind human suffering.

See also:

Loy’s latest work, the sensationally titled Money, Sex, War, Karma, comprises a series of fourteen essays that continue to address major cultural, political, economic, and spiritual issues from a Buddhist perspective. The book is written in a direct, urgent tone and adopts a conversational style.

…we must renew Buddhism in the light of the needs and challenges of contemporary, westernized life

Although he is a committed Buddhist, Loy is no apologist. His appraisal of traditional Buddhism is sober and critical. He is concerned to “distinguish what is vital and still living in its Asian versions from what is unnecessary and perhaps outdated.” (p.4) Loy argues that rather than simply adopt some ready-made Asian version of Buddhism, we must renew it in the light of the needs and challenges of contemporary, westernized life. A key theme here is that any personal awakening that we may realize needs to be supplemented by what Loy calls “social awakening.” This means that while Buddhist practice aims to transform the individual it must also transform society because the two are interdependent.

In “Lack of Money,” Loy shows how the commoditization of experience can lead us to be more concerned with how much, say, a bottle of wine costs then what it tastes like. The fact that everything has a price tag means that we tend to evaluate quality in terms of expense, rather than experience. Moreover, he argues, the principle of capital investment and return implies that we can never have too much money. The downside, though, is that this can lead to the anxiety that we will never have enough (p.28). One consequence of this is a perpetual future-orientation towards the day when things will be better.

Loy suggests that the problem with money is not that it makes us materialistic, but rather the opposite; we begin to cherish the symbolic value of money above what we can actually buy with it. So, for instance, a wealthy professional may be more concerned with how his luxury car advances his social prestige, rather than with simply enjoying its practical comforts (p.29). Ironically — and I think convincingly — he argues, “the problem is not that we are too materialistic, but that we are not materialistic enough” (p.29). This underlines that there is nothing intrinsically anti-spiritual about enjoying material contact. Far from it, the ability to appreciate sensory experience fully seems to be an indicator of enhanced spiritual awareness.

…there is nothing intrinsically anti-spiritual about enjoying material contact

In “How to Drive your Karma,” Loy faces up to the apparent contradictions between traditional models of Karma and the contemporary scientific world view, which for many modern Buddhists results in an experience of “cognitive dissonance” (p.53). In traditional societies, belief in Karma has led to passivity on the part of laypeople, who defer the challenge of self-transformation to a future life, and a slavish rule-following on the part of the monastic Sangha, as monks are reduced to merit-machines offering opportunities for lay people to gain merit through giving them donations. For Loy, “many Asian Sanghas and their lay supporters are locked in a co-dependent marriage where it’s difficult for either partner to change.” (p.54) More sinister is that Karma can be used to rationalize all kinds of injustice and suffering because they can be interpreted as the natural consequences of previous evil conduct.

Loy argues that Karma, like all Buddhist teachings, must be seen as a product of social and cultural conditions, rather than as some freestanding, absolute revelation. In doing so, he draws on an apposite passage from Erich Fromm:

The creative thinker must think in the terms of the logic, the thought patterns, the expressible concepts of his culture … The consequence is that the new thought as he formulates it is a blend of what is truly new and the conventional thought which it transcends. (p.57)

Loy emphasizes Karma as a forward- rather than backward-thinking principle. In other words, rather than necessarily seeing one’s current situation in terms of one’s past karma, he emphasises “how our life situation can be transformed by transforming the motivations of our actions right now.” (p.61) For him, karma is not something the self has but what it is. “People are ‘punished’ or ‘rewarded’ not for what they have done but for what they have become” (p.62). I would add that we are also punished or rewarded by what we have done.

Our present economic system institutionalizes greed, our militarism institutionalizes ill will, and our corporate media institutionalize delusion

In “What’s Wrong with Sex?” Loy subjects the Buddhist perspective on one of our deepest urges to some much needed scrutiny. Why, he asks, has Buddhism generally taken such a negative view of sexual activity? Intriguingly, he speculates that some of this negativity may arise from a general disparagement of the body in India (p.71). More pragmatic issues, such as the lack of contraception and the expectations of lay supporters, may also have been significant factors in producing a culture where renunciates were expected to abstain from sex completely (p.72-3). Loy argues that our present cultural situation poses somewhat different challenges in relation to sexual desire. In particular, he believes “there is something delusive about the myths of romantic love and sexual fulfillment.” (p.75) Genuine happiness, he argues, has little to do with sex. To paraphrase Loy, we use sex and romantic attachments to try to fill up our lack, but this strategy never fully succeeds because nothing can fill this gap. Our over-expectations of sex and intimate relationships result in suffering, as they ultimately fail to deliver what we hope for.

In “What Would the Buddha do?” Loy tackles the environmental crisis. In a hard-hitting essay, he challenges all Buddhists to face up to the global catastrophe that may result from human activity on Earth. In doing so, he rejects quietist models of practice that aim to overcome one’s own failings before addressing wider social questions, arguing that Buddhist practice consists in doing what we can in relation to such issues right now. As he puts it: “We don’t wait until we overcome our self-centeredness before engaging with the world; addressing the suffering of the wider world is how we overcome our self-centeredness.” (p.82) Loy argues that Interdependence is not just an abstract insight that we must cultivate on our cushions but something we must recognize in our daily lives.

In “The Three Poisons, Institutionalized,” Loy takes a novel approach to the basic Buddhist teaching of the three poisons and explores how they can be applied to organizations. He concludes that “Our present economic system institutionalizes greed, our militarism institutionalizes ill will, and our corporate media institutionalize delusion.” (p.89) As a consequence, the three poisons have taken on a life of their own independent of individual wills. Importantly for Loy, gaining insight into the operation of the three poisons at the collective, institutional level is just as important as recognizing these forces at work in ourselves, which once again emphasizes the linkage between personal and social liberation.

In “Consciousness Commodified” Loy argues that in the present age it is not attachment that is the problem but rather distraction. Our attention has become a precious commodity, which all kinds of agencies compete for. This leads to a “fragmentation of attention” (p.96), which results in having less time to give to what is most crucial in our lives. As soon as we begin to focus on something important, we are distracted by an advertisement, our mobile phone, or an internet message. The degradation of our ability to attend struck me as an especially serious issue; the overwhelming range of choice that we have to negotiate every day entails that living simply can be extremely difficult to achieve.

“Healing Ecology” applies an understanding of anātman (non-self) to our relationship with the planet. Loy argues that in the same way that we, as a self, feel estranged from others, we, as a species, are alienated from nature. Rather than feeling part of the planet, we regard it as a resource to be controlled and exploited. In doing so, we try to build a sense of collective security through consumption, but this strategy never fully succeeds because the self can never be made secure. For Loy, recognizing that we are part of nature, not separate from it, is central to resolving the ecological crisis.

In “Why We Love War” Loy draws on the thought of the war correspondent Chris Hedges who argues that war “can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.” (p.132) In Loy’s terms, it becomes another way of dealing with our sense of lack. Religious fundamentalism in particular is a response to this sense of lack and its sometimes violent manifestations express the need to create a sense of meaning and purpose in a world where secular narratives dominate. For Loy, “War offers a simple way to bind together our individual lacks and project them outside, onto the enemy.” (p.138)

Addressing the suffering of the wider world is how we overcome our self-centeredness

The final essay, “Notes for a Buddhist Revolution,” offers a reflective overview of the themes explored in previous essays. In particular, Loy explores what Buddhism has to offer existing groups and currents that promote peace, social justice, and ecological responsibility. He identifies its commitment to individual transformation, nonviolence, and mutual awakening as key principles. In addition, he believes Buddhism’s insights into impermanence and Emptiness are crucial in resolving global problems. Loy rightly recognizes that for the socially motivated Buddhist there are so many problems to tackle that it is hard to know where to start.

Loy does not pretend to have a blueprint to solve all the world’s ills, but believes that Buddhism can help to open our awareness to some of the deepest problems and enable us to begin to imagine how things could be different. His work succeeds in drawing attention to a wide range of issues facing the contemporary world and the contemporary spiritual practitioner. Two points seem most compelling; first, Buddhist ideas and practices must be renewed in order to deal with the unique challenges of modern life; and second, individual and social transformation are inextricably linked.

David Loy’s is an urgent and vital voice in the Buddhist world, and his latest work is a passionate and bold survey of some of the big issues that face us individually and collectively. This thoughtful, probing work warrants the attention of anyone interested in creative change on either an individual or social level. I strongly recommend it.


Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution by David Loy, Somerville MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008, 160 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0861715589.

Reviewed by Dharmacāri Nāgapriya
Reviews Editor, Western Buddhist Review
https://www.nagapriya.com
This review is published by kind permission of The Western Buddhist Review

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Faith: credible mystery

Photo by Mathijs Beks on Unsplash
Examining the place of faith in Buddhism, Nagapriya outlines why it is a crucial tool for understanding.

“For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but believe so that I may understand. For this too I believe: that unless I shall have believed, I may not understand.”

For St. Anselm, belief or faith was the starting point from which his spiritual inquiry began, the foundation upon which it rested, not its result. He saw his belief as something to understand, confirm and unfold, not something he needed to justify to himself or the world. In an age where reason is king and supreme judge, St. Anselm’s reliance upon faith may seem medieval, even intellectually naive. And yet, for me at least, it is resonant. It seems to encapsulate the essential paradox of faith: that it is the precondition of spiritual understanding, not its goal.

I came to Buddhism as a floundering human being, not as a logician seeking proof of the Buddha’s ‘theories’. Before I knew anything about Buddhism, a seed of faith was already there: I hoped there could be a way out of my spiritual crisis. A dyed-in-the-wool skeptic might consider even this as evidence of credulity, but I think it is more reasonable than resignation or despair. Since I did not know if there was a way out of my existential predicament, I was faced with a choice: to accept there was none, or to hope there was and to look for it. If I had chosen the first the discovery of meaning would have been impossible, the second at least offered a chance. Even the strongest reasons will never persuade a skeptic that a spiritual path is worth undertaking.

Paradoxically, in order to develop faith we must already have faith or at least a seed of it. Faith has, however, become an intellectually discredited source of knowledge, dismissed as the refuge of the weak: for insecure people seeking easy certainties. Exposure to religious cults has no doubt intensified suspicion of anyone who proclaims their faith. We have learned to demand reason, science and hard facts. Faith and reason are seen as opposed: the one naive, credulous and unreliable, the other informed, rigorous and trustworthy. Ironically, western culture appears to have an unqualified faith in reason — especially the scientific method.

Buddhism has been popularly acclaimed as “the religion of reason,” even claimed as a philosophy that can be divorced from contaminating religious features. Buddhism, it is sometimes proposed, is entirely rational, as it does not depend on unverifiable beliefs, such as belief in the existence of a creator God. But such a description, while having an element of truth, knocks the stuffing out of Buddhism. Although Buddhism can be expounded rationally, what motivates the individual Buddhist to practice is certainly not reason. Reason could not have compelled me to abandon previously cherished goals and embrace a life of spiritual discipline. Reason articulates, supports and confirms the commitments that I make on quite different grounds. What inspires people to strive towards a spiritual ideal is not reason but an emotional conviction. Faith moves us to act.

 Paradoxically, in order to develop faith we must already have faith or at least a seed of it.  

But what does faith mean in the context of Buddhism? In what does a Buddhist have faith? And how is it generated? “Faith” is an emotive term: for some positively so, for others negatively. But we should not be put off by a word. It has much in common with such words as confidence, trust and conviction that most of us use happily. I find conviction especially resonant since it evokes the robustness, stability and, above all, passionate commitment that is the characteristic of faith.

Traditionally, the primary object of faith for a Buddhist is the Buddha and secondary objects are the Dharma and the Sangha. Collectively these Three Jewels are the principal ideals of Buddhism. The individual Buddhist has faith that the Buddha was Enlightened and that Enlightenment is an ideal realizable not only by himself or herself but also by all humanity. But how is it possible to have confidence in this? The Buddha died a long time ago, there is no means of verifying his attainment and, besides, how can we have confidence in someone’s attainment of a state that seems wholly beyond all we know? Buddhist faith rests upon three grounds: intuition, reason and experience.

Intuition

Faith is an intuitive conviction that the Buddha was Enlightened, that his teaching is true, and that we can emulate his spiritual achievement. It is not an intellectual conclusion but a passionate assent expressed through devotion, service and discipleship. It is as though, deep down, the potential for Enlightenment within oneself resonates with the testimony of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. At first it is vague, even shaky, but through time it becomes firm, clear and robust. The more one pays attention to this intuitive conviction, in order to understand and then articulate it, the more it flowers into Wisdom.

At the age of 19, I was part-way through a Philosophy degree that — naively — I had hoped would enable me to discover ‘the meaning of life’. After my first year I had a deep realization that intellectual inquiry alone was a futile method for generating beliefs upon which to base my life. Moreover I realized that I did not believe in God and that no-one was going to save me. I was on my own. I could see no way forward until I encountered Buddhism. Somehow, without even knowing what Buddhism taught, I felt a conviction that this was the way out and, as the months and years rolled by, this intuitive faith settled into a steadier, more informed commitment.

 For me, the mystery of faith is not why it is, but that it is.  

Faith often arises seemingly from nowhere, without warning, like a flower blossoming in a wasteland. For me, the mystery of faith is not why it is, but that it is. Based on a fleeting encounter, on a book left lying around, or a chance meeting on a bus, the whole course of a person’s life can be irrevocably changed. This seems almost miraculous.

But is intuition to be trusted? While there can be no proof as to the truthfulness of one’s faith, this does not mean it is unreasonable or unreliable. A characteristic of human life is that much of what we think we know cannot be proved. Logical certainty is a rare thing and has only a small part to play in our lives. Most decisions are based on far less compelling grounds than those which inspired my commitment to the Buddhist path, but this is not to say they are unreasonable.

Reason

Reason functions as a means of testing and clarifying our convictions. While it is possible to have correct intuitions, it is also possible to have false ones, so until our intuitive faculty is sufficiently refined, reason remains indispensable. For example, I may have an intuitive conviction that I am on live television, that all my friends are actors and that my world is no more than an elaborate film set. Being a reasonable person I decide to investigate the matter, only to find that the evidence before me points unequivocally to the reality of the world, rather than to its being a fabrication. In such circumstances, it would be unreasonable not to accept that I am, in fact, living in the “real world” (though it remains a logical possibility that I have been systematically misled, as in the film The Truman Show). The fact that it may be possible for a belief to be false does not mean it is unreasonable to hold it. Most of our beliefs would be discarded by such a measure. The reasonableness of a belief is found in relation to the weight of the available evidence, not to logical certainty.

There may be beliefs, however, for which there seems to be no decisive evidence either way. The belief that the Buddha was Enlightened is like this. There is no compelling evidence to recommend it — it is difficult even to know what it means — while, at the same time, there is no convincing evidence against it. The Buddhist scriptures say that the Buddha was Enlightened, but they may simply represent the wishful thinking of pious followers. Undoubtedly the Buddha (at least as presented by the Buddhist scriptures) exerted a profound influence on many people, but this proves nothing about his spiritual attainment: many charlatans have done the same. Hence, testing the belief that the Buddha was Enlightened using reason alone is inconclusive.

Does this matter? In practice I do not think it does. It is questionable whether one needs to hold any such belief to practice effectively as a Buddhist. Enlightenment represents the highest possible development of the human individual. Perhaps the minimum faith needed for Buddhism to become meaningful is trust that one can change for the better, that such change will lead to greater self-fulfillment and that Buddhism offers beliefs and practices that will encourage this to happen.

Experience

 The relationship between intuition, reason and experience is not always simple.  

Faith achieves its decisive confirmation through experience. Only when we realize for ourselves the truths that Buddhism propounds can we feel fully confident that faith has been justified. This is a progressive process. Consequent upon our initial faith, we decide to practice according to the Buddha’s teaching. After some time our experience begins to confirm the reliability of that teaching as we experience for ourselves the fruits that it promises. This enables us to place our faith in the Dharma more fully and even to trust in those teachings, for example rebirth, that are not immediately verifiable.

But what if experience does not bear out our intuition or seems to contradict it? Do we then abandon our belief? Buddhism teaches that through ethical practice we become happy, but there are surely many people who are ethical but miserable. We could suggest they are simply not ‘good’ enough, but what if they are the most virtuous people we know, yet still unhappy?

The relationship between intuition, reason and experience is not always simple, and it may be a long time before an intuition is confirmed in experience. This suggests that an essential aspect of faith is patience.

Finally, how does faith arise? A Buddhist teaching known as the 12 progressive links, which provides a positive account of the Buddhist spiritual path, offers some clues. The first element in this path is suffering, and in dependence upon suffering arises the second element, faith. To understand the link between these experiences better, I will introduce a term from Pali Buddhism: samvega or disillusionment. Bhikkhu Thanissaro expounds this term well:

Samvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.

The final dimension of the experience of samvega is crucial — the urgently felt impulse to escape from the emptiness of ordinary existence. That there is such a way out and that we can respond to it is what leads us towards the experience of faith and saves us from despair. The experience of samvega is not usually seen as a healthy response to the limitations of the world but as an inability to cope, even as mental illness. People may be told not to take life so seriously, to ‘make the best of it’, even given medication to dull their existential sensitivity. In this way a precious opportunity for faith is lost.

Perhaps it is only through a deep experience of samvega that faith becomes a serious possibility. Until we recognize that ordinary life is a problem, the possibility of a solution does not arise. As Wittgenstein remarked: It would be as though someone were first to let me see the hopelessness of my situation and then show me the means of rescue until, of my own accord, or not at any rate led to it by my instructor, I ran to it and grasped it.

Intuition, reason and experience function concurrently as means of establishing and then testing faith. Faith is not an optional extra but the indispensable ground on which spiritual practice is based. It is the fuel that drives one forward. Faith is an upward leap of the heart; a joyful celebration of human promise.

Without faith we would never take up a challenge or would lose heart when faced with adversity. The conviction that Buddhism offers a path towards spiritual fulfillment is a mysterious impulse that each Buddhist must cultivate, cherish, test and ultimately realize.


nagapriyaNagapriya is a long-standing member of the Western Buddhist Order who, amongst other things, lectures on Buddhism at the University of Manchester, England. His first book, Exploring Karma and Rebirth (previously reviewed on Wildmind), is widely available. His next book, an overview of Mahayana Buddhism, is due late 2008. Nagapriya has a blog at nagapriya.com.

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