“Faith is the beginning of all good things.” The Buddha said.
If you are like me, when you first hear the word, “faith,” a religious connotation comes to mind. Many of us have faith in Jesus or Allah, for example. Typically this form of faith brings with it a willingness to submit to an external authority. So far, so good. But if our authority is different from someone else’s, it doesn’t take long for divisiveness to rear its ugly head. Maybe an argument starts. Or a war. Or a town or country splits in two. At the very least we tend to see people who agree with our brand of faith as a select group that is slightly superior to everyone else. I’ve watched too many arguments erupt among my multi-faithed family to not be troubled by the word.
In her book Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, Sharon Salzberg offers a very different view of faith, one that has the potential for ending divisiveness sooner rather than later. Instead of associating the word with any religious interpretation Salzberg sees faith as the ability to open our heart to the truth of what is happening in our lives moment by moment. When we do this we begin to experience our lives as embodiments of a greater reality. Since this greater reality never goes anywhere we can always trust our experience of it. This sounds so obvious, I know, but when we actually trust this—for lack of a better word—“now” in all of its dimensions, a funny thing happens: Our hearts open. When they do, the feeling that comes is one of being in love. Only instead of being in love with a person, we’re in love with life. Even better, this bigger reality is true for every one of us since it is, after all, reality. So we all get to be in love if we can just have this faith in our own experience.
Before I stumble further into word-hell here trying to describe things impossible to describe, let me just encourage you to sink into the moments of your own lives to see how lovely this form of faith can be. You will find that it is “fresh, vibrant, intelligent, and liberating,” bringing with it more and more respect for ourselves and for each other. This is a faith that welcomes our connections with each other, not our differences.
Even though Salzberg is a much respected long-time teacher of insight meditation, her early life didn’t position her to find this faith easily. Her father abandoned her family when she was four. Her mother died a horrific death when she was nine. When she was eleven, her father, who had reappeared in her life, tried to commit suicide, which led to his spending the rest of his life in a mental institution.
Salzberg discovered Buddhism and was captured by its core promise that each of us can free ourselves from suffering. Her own life has demonstrated the truth of this teaching. In her book, she shares the stories of her path to faith and teaches each of us to “faith” as a verb—i.e. to be willing to see the future as an unknown adventure we’re about to launch.
May reading this little book become a part of New Years resolutions worldwide. And may our responses to its wisdom ring in a bright and joy filled 2014.
In 1999, Geri Larkin founded Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple, in Detroit, Michigan. Her latest book is Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, reviewed here.