small stones (10) (11) (12)

Unopened cardboard boxes of belongings are piled in a corner. Out in the hall the telephone brays, familiar and intrusive.

Magnolia catkins silver in the blue winter morning. Boots on frozen dirt. Someone shouts–a last goodbye.

Echo in the attic. Lockers: empty. In the great room, two nuns huddle under a coverlet. Even the bedding is now packed and gone.

After graduation, about half our class stayed on for a special lecture given by the Head of Lecturers from Beomeo Monastic College (for monks) on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana. I’ve been posting small stones each day on Twitter (@seon_joon) but was unable to get them posted here until today.


8 comments on “small stones (10) (11) (12)

  1. Kevin Kim says:

    What word is being translated as “faith” in that title, and how closely/accurately does it map onto Western/Christian notions of faith? Cf. Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the belief in things unseen.”

    • seon joon says:

      Kevin: really good question, since faith in Buddhism has been a nettlesome project for myself, and remains a hazy term that even Buddhists struggle to define, much less understand.

      The short answer is that faith, as is meant in the title of this treatise and as is explained in other sutras and treatises in the Mahayana tradition, is the wedding of correct view with the bodhisattva’s aspiration for enlightenment. Correct view encompasses a number of fundamental doctrines, including emptiness/no self, impermanence (which is no-self as consider viz. material phenomena), interdependence, karma, etc. Some authors and sutras emphasize one doctrinal point over another, but all these and some of their permutations, like the ethical conduct that “believing” in the law of karma entails, fall under “correct view.” The bodhisattva’s aspiration for enlightenment isn’t only the arising of that aspiration (the familiar bal-shim of Sinitic Buddhisms), but the non-regressing effort on the path that both embodies and establishes that aspiration, namely the practice of the ten perfections and the progression along the bodhisattva stages.

      In short, this technical definition of faith doesn’t overlap much at all with the description you’ve given from Hebrews. To guard against the accusation that faith reduces down to a statement of belief that in something one hasn’t experienced yet, faith in other instances is tied to the experiential ground of both correct view and aspiration. (I’ll go looking for sources on this, because this is what I remember from my reading of the Abhidharma Kosa Bhasyam, but I need to double-check.) If you haven’t had an experience of insight in some way, however small, you can’t be said to have faith under this technical definition.

      Notice, though, that I keep qualifying all this as a “technical definition.” Technical definitions have never gotten in the way of other, more practical or common understandings of faith. The way I hear faith talked about in the Korean sangha links actions to faith, so that a congregant who gives either her time or her money to the temple might be described as “having faith.” The nuance I’ve picked up on in instances like these is that this generosity, generosity being one of the six perfections that would fall under “correct view” in the above, is considered an indication that not only does the donor “believe” in practicing the perfections, regardless of having an experiential and correct understanding of them as they relate to ultimate soteriological goals; but that by her practice of generosity proves her understanding of the doctrine. Of course, no one can check whether or not a volunteer has actually attained something, an insight into emptiness or interdependence, but kind of like having material success in life is taken as a sign of God’s favor, someone’s external expression of generosity, morality, patience, effort, etc. are thought to indicate an internal state or orientation that, naturally, accords with the Dharma.

      But then you also get instances where “to have faith (shin-shim)” is taken as a short-hand to describe someone who falls in line. Community members who never question the decisions of the hierarchy; who do not challenge the community’s structures; who do as they are told are said to “have faith.” Those who rock the boat are often vilified as “without faith.” I still have no idea what the relationship between faith by any definition (but certainly the technical Buddhist one as I’ve come to understand it) and the kind of unconditional obedience demanded of by religious organizations is. Some really tortured extrapolations can be made, but if I have to try that hard to make things match, chances are there’s something wrong with the situation. (Just saying. You can guess which side of the have/have not faith divide I find myself on a lot of the time.)

      There are discrepancies between the technical definition and the popular understanding, especially that last bit about obedience.

      This is actually an excellent question, and one that deserves a longer and fuller response. Something with proper quotes from the sutras. I think I’ll try and flesh that response out in a post, especially because I didn’t really address the dialogue between understandings of faith in other world religions. I personally think there is a space to introduce Christian or Western understandings of faith–especially if we take an apophatic approach–into Buddhist practice. (I also think this is a critical exercise for a lot of Western practitioners who have strong tendencies toward a bhaktic (devotional) practice, but struggle to rationalize it to themselves and the philosophical Buddhism emphasized in the West.)

  2. Fiona Robyn says:

    This is a personal-experience response.
    I agree with Seon that here in the West we like our Buddhism to be atheistic/philosophical. I’ve always been wary of religion and so this was my ‘way in’. But since deepening my practice I’ve found faith to be the central part of my Buddhism.
    How would I define it? I have no idea. Does it relate to Western ideas? Again, I don’t know.
    What I do know is this ebbing-and-flowing, settled sense that everything is OK, that I am loved just as I am, and that there is something bigger than my small self that I can take refuge in, gives me a safe place where I can become more wobbly, where I can reach out to others, where I can learn to love more freely.
    Thanks for your reflections, Seon. Very helpful.

  3. Dave Bonta says:

    There must be some reason why Western translators settled on the word “faith,” though it might not be a particularly good one (see “enlightenment”). I think it’s fair to say (as Martin Buber and Leo Baeck have observed) that broadly speaking there are two ways that Western Europeans have thought of what we call faith in English: as belief (in the truth of assertions) and as trust (in love, in Providence, in things working out, etc.). Because Western Christianity has so emphasized confession of the first kind of faith, many people forget about the second, which might perhaps be more relevant to Buddhism? In response to your third-from-the-last paragraph, I wonder if there’s any tradition in modern Buddhism for also acknowledging the importance of doubt and dissent to a robust faith? I sometimes see Catholic theologians emphasizing this, and of course it’s almost normative in Rabbinical Judaism to challenge and question G-d.

  4. Dale Favier says:

    Argh. This is a word that asks for trouble: it is *so* freighted in the Christian tradition, so central. I don’t think I’d translate anything in Buddhist writings as “faith.”

    Jesus made this word carry so many different burdens. When he rebukes Thomas, it’s explicitly “faith” in his teacher that he’s talking about. Couldn’t he trust him (he admonishes Thomas) for even three days, in his absence? (Well, no, he couldn’t, and neither can we.)

    At other points I could swear that by “faith” Jesus means what we mean by “one-pointedness” — radical simplification, bringing everything we have to bear on this, here, now. The faith that moves mountains isn’t a dutiful subscription to a list of precepts or cosmological assertions — it’s a state of blessedness. It’s something like satori.

    At other times, though, it’s the perfectly mundane virtue (?) of following orders and not making a fuss.

    Um, so, I don’t know.

  5. seon joon says:

    Thank you to Dave, Fiona, and Dale. This gives me some good food for thought (after all, the Buddha said to listen, consider, and practice all aspects of the Dharma–and consideration is the brain’s cud-chewing!) and a fuller sense of faith and the thorniness of dealing with it in multiple contexts: Buddhist, Western, Christian, Western Buddhist…

    This comments’ thread will be included in a longer post, since my own response to Kevin was fairly short in that I dealt mostly with the understanding of “faith” (shin in Sino-Korean, sraddha in Sanskrit) as it manifests in the treatise, “The Awakening of Faith.”

    Anyone else want to add something? Leave a comment any time…

  6. Kevin Kim says:

    I appreciate all the responses.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s