In 1971, I met the Sixteenth Karmapa for the first time, at his monastery near Rumtek in Sikkim. He was a person of tremendous presence, yet he alternated between laughter and seriousness with bewildering speed. At one point, he looked directly at me and said, "Your faith in Kalu Rinpoche must be the same whether you see him fly in the sky or kill a dog."
The look in his eyes as he said these words has never left me and I remember it clearly to this day. I was taken aback by this directive, and it made a deep impact on me. Was he talking about blind faith, to accept unquestioningly whatever my teacher did? Or was he pointing to something else?
Blind faith is essentially belief, belief in a fixed idea. Belief is based in reactive emotion and usually centers around identity. It takes whatever happens and explains it in a way that conforms to fixed ideas that are already held inside. We see this process play out in fundamentalism, whether political, economic or religious. Blind faith has an explanation for everything. It does away with mystery. No matter the evidence presented, the evidence is always interpreted to reinforce the belief. As James Carse writes in The Religious Case Against Belief, it marks the point at which thinking stops.
It made no sense to me that Karmapa was advocating blind faith. By this point, I had met several teachers and their depth of thought and learning, their responsiveness and compassion, and their humility and lack of pride just didn't point in the direction of the rigidity or forcefulness one encounters with blind faith. He meant something else, I was sure, but what?
I've come back to this directive many times, and though I feel I know what Karmapa was pointing to, I have never been able to put it into words. A few weeks ago, I discussed the incident with a good friend, and asked him what he thought. His response was succinct. "It means that your faith has to be unchanging and to come from a place that doesn't involve reason or judgment."
Blind faith, again? I didn't think so. This friend is about the last person on earth to advocate blind faith, so he, too, was pointing to something else.
When I reflected on his response, I found that it fit very well with my experience. The faith that I have in my teacher is definitely not conceptual. It is not rational, either, but neither is it irrational. I cannot give an explanation or a reason for it. It is just there. It comes from a place in me that does not use or need to use reason, so rational and irrational just don't apply.
"Was it always there?" you might ask. And my response would be, "No, it wasn't." When I started to study with Rinpoche in India, I had been told only that he was a highly respected meditation teacher and one of the few that was willing to teach Westerners at that time. Nothing magical or earth-shattering happened when I first met him. I simply attended his class, studied Tibetan and practiced as best I could. Over the years, a relationship formed, partially through practice, partially through my serving as his translator and seeing how he responded to people's questions and challenges. But I would be hard put to say at what point faith reached the point of commitment and I let go of a conventional life or career in Western society.
Nor does this faith involve judgement. I was never very interested in the supposed miracles and signs that meant so much to other people. Much more moving, I found, was when Rinpoche described his struggles with sleep in the the three-year retreat and how he slept leaning against the door so he would be woken up when it was kicked open in the morning.
Nor did I judge Rinpoche's actions and decisions. On a number of occasions, I disagreed deeply with how he saw things or what he wanted me to do. When that happened, two principles were of primary and equal importance to me. First, I had to find a way to proceed that did not lead to a break in my relationship with Rinpoche (not always easy given the differences between our cultures). Second, I had to find a way that did not compromise my own sense of what felt right to me. When you hold two seemingly contradictory principles in place, you are forced to go deeper. In each case, by holding those two principles firmly in mind, I found something else that I could let go. In one case, it was my cultural biases. In another case, it was my status and position as a teacher. In a third case, it was what people people might think of me. And so on. Difficult as each of those situations were, I am grateful for them as they led me to aspects of freedom I might not have had to consider otherwise.
Karmapa's directive was in a way oddly prophetic. Once they matured, my faith and confidence in Rinpoche never did change. Even though there were periodic tensions in our relationship, when he died in 1989 I didn't feel any separation and never have.
It seems to me that there is a profound connection between faith that does not rely on reason and judgment and direct awareness practices, such as mahamudra and dzogchen. In direct awareness practice, reason can lead you to the door, as it does in the Great Middle Way, for instance. Likewise, pointing out instructions, such as you find in the Shangpa tradition (see Wake Up to Your Life, Chapter 9) or in the Nyingma tradition (see Buddhahood Without Meditation), can and do undermine the operation of reason and fixed ideas, but they don't take you over the threshold, or, to use a Tibetan phrase, across the pass. For that, something else is needed: a willingness to enter what is completely unknown and unknowable to the conceptual mind. That is exactly what the kind of faith I'm describing here does.
That faith has to come from a place that does not rely on reason. Reason and logic keep the conceptual mind in place. They can be used to negate the conceptual mind, but that is all. Many Zen teachers, for instance, place great reliance on "don't know mind" and are skilled in the use of koans and other methods to bring the student to that point. But then what? What makes it possible to arrive at the point of not knowing, and take another step?
Similarly, that faith has to come from a place that is free from judgment. This freedom from judgment is much more than equanimity, though equanimity is a good starting point. Like the "don't know mind", equanimity brings you to the threshold. Again, something else is required to step through. The opening lines of Hsin Hsin Ming's "On Trust in the Heart" apply here:
The Perfect Way is only difficult for those who pick and choose;
Do not like, do not dislike; all will then be clear.
Make a hairbreadth difference, and Heaven and Earth are set apart;
If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against.
How do you find your way here? I wish I could tell you. This is, perhaps, the principal challenge of spiritual and mystical practice. It is a way that cannot be described in words. Each of us have to find our own way. For some, that way can be guided, if not illuminated, by faith, but not the blind reactive faith that won't brook any contradiction. To the contrary, faith must be awake, alive and responsive. Above all, it must enable the trust that allows you to step into the unknown.