Meeting the Buddha: A Dialogue of Doubt and Faith
Doubt is not the opposite of faith.
A doubting mind is in dialogue with faith. A system that does not allow questioning is a doorway to fanaticism, a rigor mortis of the intellect. A fanatic’s faith seems intense, but this is only to compensate for its brittle nature, unable to withstand anything outside of its prescribed limits.
For a fanatic, ideas and concepts have calcified into self-justifying structures that obscure their original purpose.
Although you might not consider yourself a fanatic, crystallizations of belief happen at every stage, sometimes in exceedingly subtle ways.
“God is love,” the Consciousness of Oneness, the pure “I am”—these are all concepts. They will help you. If you hold to them as real in themselves, you will not reach that which they point to.
Although concepts are necessary as long as we interact through the mind, some traditions attempt to minimalize dependence on them by taking an approach of apophatic or negative theology.
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived.” (1 Corinthians 2.9)
“Neti, neti,” spoke the masters of Vedanta. Not this, nor that; whatever you believe, if you can believe in it, it is not the Truth. What you seek is too intimate and too alive to be contained even in the sweetest words.
The Use of Concepts
Beliefs and conceptualizations can be highly beneficial as they funnel your mind in a particular direction. From one perspective, spiritual philosophies function as an asana for the mind. Arrange your body in a certain position, the energy will flow in a specific way, and you have some experience based on this.
Similarly, if you learn to think in a specific way, it generates an inner experience that is alive and quite real, although the process that brought you there is mental and, therefore, in itself unreal.
This is how many different spiritual traditions can be equally valid—they are genuine, functioning routes to an encounter with God—even while proposing wildly different methodologies and philosophies.
The conceptual aspect of spirituality is prescriptive, not descriptive. If you think that all the world’s religions are trying to describe God, then all of them would be wrong. You cannot describe God.
If you think instead that they offer conditions to realize God, a pathway through the labyrinth of the mind, then they are all true because they lead to Truth.
From Mental Knowing to Contact with the Unknown
Along the way, you must be very careful of the innate tendency of the mind to concretize, externalize, and weave elaborate stories around a simple truth. It’s natural to form an emotional attachment to the teachings you follow since they appear to bring you closer to God. Love them, honor them, appreciate them for what they are—but do not mistake them for Reality.
God is the one bringing you closer to God. The teachings are only a means of communicating in a language you understand.
Sometimes our doubts are what Buddhists call “lazy doubt:” You don’t immediately buy into some idea and, rather than taking the trouble to investigate it, you reject it and maybe the whole system that it comes from.
These doubts are a significant obstacle. They separate us from teachings that might be highly beneficial and set up an adversarial relationship between a concretized “me” and an unacceptable point of view.
But then, there is also a healthy doubt that works as a corrosive agent on the structures of the mind. This is the doubt that keeps you asking questions, including questioning yourself and your own perspective.
If something in the spiritual teachings you are following doesn’t resonate, you might ask, is it essential? What is essential in the teachings, and what is circumstantial? Why do I object to it?
What perspective on reality would I need to have for this to make sense?
Doubt shows us our contact with the unknown.
It keeps us from settling into any one position. It keeps the grounding moving underneath our feet, so we must constantly rebalance, reconsider, and approach from new angles. We have to engage with life itself as it happens.
Questioning, more than any answer, keeps us moving forward.
Killing the Buddha
Some advice from a 9th-century Buddhist master: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
Initially disturbing, perhaps—even blasphemous—but that moment of shock is precisely the intended effect, shaking a long-term practitioner’s attachment to the externalities of their spiritual path.
The Buddha himself—who forbade making statues in his image and often gave contradictory teachings or sermons with no words at all—most likely would have said the same, had he believed someone would not write his words down and canonize them as a sutra for young monks to memorize.
In the words of Chris Pacheco, a contemporary Buddhist writer:
“Killing the Buddha means killing our conceptualizations, killing the belief that we understand it all. This might seem counterintuitive; after all, if we let go of our knowledge, what’s left? Total exposure. It consists of the openness of all experiences, the certainty of uncertainty, the security of insecurity, and the comfort of vulnerability. It’s being courageously present, whatever that means, with things just as they are. We are each our own teacher and simultaneously each our own teaching.”
At some point along the path, you may need to radically detach from even the most beloved images and concepts to set your heart on the truth they represent.
The Freedom of Faith
St. Thomas Aquinas said, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
Faith does not spring from having all your questions resolved. It transcends questions and answers, as free as a fresh spring breeze, as spontaneous and unfathomable as the mysterious first pulse of an unborn baby’s heart.
Guiding from within, it depends on no external cause and persists against all reason.
Once you have touched that gentle inner flame, although you may experience ups and downs, no fluctuation of the mind will truly disconnect you from it.
Doubt can take you deeper into faith. It shears away your reliance on externalities and static concepts, leaving you face-to-face with the chasm of unknowability at the heart of manifested existence.
From there, the choice is yours, whether to create a new structure of concept and understanding around yourself, or let yourself go in freefall, trusting not in the mind but in the unfailing grace of life itself.
Naveen Radha Dasi is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.