Faith in one’s guide
To get anywhere that you have not been before, you need a guide, someone to point out the path to you. Though you must undertake the journey yourself, they cannot go there for you or carry them on their back – still you must be able to trust to their instructions and follow what they say, in order to get anywhere.
In many religions and spiritual practices, we can find emphasised the importance of this quality of faith and capacity to “surrender” oneself to the guide. Yet we are never told how to know who is worthy of this faith, and who is not.
For instance, in the acclaimed Sufi master Attar’s book, Conference of the Birds, there is a passage in which one of the birds addresses their leader along these lines: ‘I am too weak to go on this journey (to see God) of my own will, but I am able to surrender and submit to your instructions. So I will follow you and depend on you to correct me whenever I go wrong.’’ The leader replies that this is perfectly worthy and honourable, and that by surrendering to a good guide, one becomes one’s own master.
Yet, ‘How do you know who is a good guide?” The question is not even asked. No question about being a good guide; rather surrendering and renunciation are praised purely for their own sake. If you surrender to somebody with self-interest who wants to use the power of religion for his own means, will you become your own master as a result? In Attar’s book, the leader is a symbol for a prophet, the one who has seen God and can show you the way to him. But, even supposing we are interested in being led by a prophet of a god, are all prophets truly worthy of our surrender?
According to the majority of definitions, trust based on direct experience is not true faith, which is a quality that is indeed almost defined by blindness. Trust must be without base, without verification, to be called by that name otherwise it’s not trust.
In fact, this trust is not really a quality that we need admire; for it is the automatic, default habit of the human mind to believe without question everything that is heard, to believe what we are told and what we read, to believe especially in all our ideas that we have picked up and taken as our own, without ever putting them under any real scrutiny. We tend, for instance, to have very deep faith, which is completely blind, in all the norms and ideologies of our society, even while criticising the norms, and ideologies of other societies, or of our society in the past. How much of most of what we think we know have we directly found out, seen or experienced for ourselves? Pitifully little. Whether it is god, quantum particles or any ideology, our faith is blind just the same.
Having a criteria and a base upon which one can decide in whom to place one’s faith is incredibly important; because faith and trust, in Dhamma as well as in terms of spirituality generally, implies that one needs to trust one’s guide more than one’s own self, more than one’s own mind.
But this does not mean that we have to abandon our intellect and our judgement and just follow blindly whoever we place our trust in.
The criteria for faith
In the Buddha’s teachings, instead of being told to believe blindly, we are on the contrary given the means to investigate a teaching or teacher, and the criteria for testing them. The means to investigate is essentially summed up in the principals of the Kalama Sutta, and the basic criteria upon which we may test any guide or teacher consists of the five precepts of morality.
Both of these, five precepts and Kalama Sutta, also need themselves to be understood, for if they are seen as mere arbitrary rules that are to be done because someone says so, then it means that if our guide tells us at some point “Actually, in this situation or that situation, it’s okay to lie/steal/kill”, we could believe him and follow blindly, thinking “oh, the rules have changed, okay.”
But if we know and follow the five precepts based on understanding and seeing for ourselves why they are true, right and beneficial, then even if our guide instructs us to do something that is outside of five precepts, to do something that we know by our own wisdom will be the cause of harm and suffering to ourselves or others or both – then we should not follow him. It also means that he was not the right guide and we should look for another one.
We have to test our guide and teaching, then, according to the base of wisdom we already have, in order to be able to place our faith in that teaching and guidance, and grow in wisdom because of it. We should not be afraid to test those in whom we wish to place our faith – for it they do not stand the test, they were not worthy of it in the beginning.
Nowhere in the Buddha’s teaching are we asked to have faith blindly and without any understanding or seeing. We are asked to “Come and see,” and indeed, without seeing by ourselves, we are not true practitioners.
Developing trust based on seeing for oneself
Not only in the beginning when we are looking for a guide, but throughout our practice of working to gain wisdom and understanding, we must not blindly accept and memorise whatever we read or whatever a teacher says, but do our own investigation: look inside and try to find out the true nature of things by ourselves. If the aim is to find wisdom, we need to gain that wisdom for ourselves, not just repeat like parrots the wisdom of others. If you don’t agree with what the teachers says, look deeper. Why does it sound wrong to you? Is your idea truly better than theirs? Why? Give both ideas an equal opportunity to be confirmed or denied.
Anything that is not verifiable should not be accepted right away until it has earned its place. It does not mean to reject completely what you are told, but simply to wait until you have seen something of it yourself before you allow yourself to say “I know this.”
This wish to find by yourself also gives you the drive and motivation to work until you can be completely sure of what you say. You don’t need to have full trust in anything right in the beginning, but you earn it by effort: with meditation, you gradually build up a strong, even unbreakable trust based on all the things you have seen for yourself.
It is somewhat similar to learning mathematics: the more you study and the more theorems and equations you are able to prove to yourself, the stronger the trust you have that all the rest of the system makes sense and is correct. Even if I have not seen the proof for Einstein’s equation “E = MC2, I trust that it is correct, because when I studied mathematics I found that the techniques I was taught worked, and I understood the proofs for some simple theorems and equations.
Doubt attacks easily the one with blind faith
To take another example, if you’ve never been to, let’s say New York, and someone gives you directions for how to get there, you don’t immediately know right away that the directions are correct and that New York is where they say it is. If you have a basic level of trust in that person, you’ll start off driving in the direction you say. Then at some point you’ll start coming across signposts: “New York: 200km.” Then, a little further on: “New York: 100km.” The more signposts you see, the stronger your trust that the directions you were given are correct, that you are on the right track.
But in order to gain that kind of strong trust, you have to move.
If you are given the directions for New York, but you stay still and don’t get into your car, your faith in the directions can be nothing but that: blind faith.
This kind of faith is much more prone to getting knocked down by doubt; the kind of doubt that makes everything feel so uncertain that you are paralysed and unable to move.
Suppose you are standing there hesitating, having been given these directions for New York – the doubt is like another person coming along and telling you, “But that guy who gave you directions was trying to cheat you, he was playing a joke! New York is in completely the other direction! And besides your car is no good, it will break before you get there, and you don’t have enough fuel!” He looks intelligent, doubt, he looks like someone you should listen to, and he makes a very good argument. In that position, won’t you waver and wonder what to do? Now you have to decide who looks more trustworthy, your guide, or the person who tells you your guide is a fake. Now you start to doubt everything, question everything, all is thrown into uncertainty.
But suppose that same meddling man comes and says exactly the same thing to you, trying to tell you that your guide was a cheat and that you are on the wrong track – but this time when he comes, you’ve already driven half way along the path you were directed, so you’ve already seen three signposts telling you that you are on the way to New York.
Now do you give way to doubt? Or do you just laugh in its face?
It’s like that with Dhamma, it’s like that with meditation. It takes a basic spark of trust in order to start to move, to put effort to follow your guide, to go in the direction they tell you to go. The more you move, the more you see for yourself. The more you see for yourself, the stronger your trust, the clearer your aim, and the less room there is for doubt to find its way in.
Eventually at some point there is no doubt left at all. But to get to that point you have to have at least a spark of trust in your guide and in your aim, and with this trust you must work hard with a lot of effort, refusing to give up until you reach your goal.