The god that I was brought up with demands blind faith.

According to this god, or at least the people who preach his word, trust based on direct experience is not true faith: in one story, when a disciple refuses to believe that this god has returned from the dead until he has seen the evidence of it for himself, he is scolded and reprimanded, told that he should be ashamed of himself.

“Belief”; “Faith” as I grew up with it, is almost defined by blindness. Trust must be without base, without verification, to be called by that name.

It sounds difficult, to have a belief like that. To put all your faith in something you have never seen and will never see; even basing your decisions on it and allowing it to shape your actions; I used to have great admiration for people with faith like that – and I do not say that there is nothing to admire in some very strong levels of dedication and trust.

What I did not see until I began to meditate, was that I myself had that kind of blind trust in most of what I heard and read. I would repeat things that people around me told me without double checking them for myself, without looking deeper. How much of most of what I thought I “knew” had I directly found out and experienced for myself? Pitifully little. Whether it was god or quantum particles that I believed in, the faith was blind just the same.

I realised that, in fact, it’s quite easy to believe everything you hear, believe what you are told and what you read and what you think you know. What is much harder – but also much more worthwhile – is to search for the truth yourself, to question everything and hold everything in suspense, until it has been confirmed at least in part by your own direct experience.

Unlike the religion I grew up with, blind faith is not a friend in meditation or in Dhamma. In fact, all belief without direct knowledge to be thrown away, and everything has to be found out for oneself, verified for oneself, seen for oneself.  Don’t go by what you hear, don’t go by what you read, don’t even believe something based on the idea that “the person who says this is my teacher, I have to believe everything he says.”

Instead, you do your own investigation: you look inside and try to find out the true nature of things by yourself. Your teacher is your guide to help you do that; but they are only a guide to show you the way to get where you are going by yourself. If you don’t agree with what they say, 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 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 like 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. 

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 told 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. This doubt is a huge enemy. It comes from inside and eats you from inside, like the rust that comes from the metal itself and consumes it.

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.

2 Replies to “trust/doubt”

  1. Such a wonderful article! Real bravo for this one! The only text I would add is the Kalama Sutta from the Buddha!
    “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
    Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.)

    1. Thank you! And it’s absolutely right to put the Kalama Sutta here, thank you for that. It needs special attention here. It’s also this that is written (in simplified language) at the right hand side of every article in this blog 🙂

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