. Since faith is necessarily defined as confidence in something that has not yet manifested, does it have a place in insight at all? Since insight is based upon staying with the reality of the present moment and not getting caught up in ideas of future possibilities ('attainments', 'goals' etc), surely faith has no place, since it represents the gap between what is and what I think might happen (or is possible). My experience is that a sense of 'rightness' in what I am doing comes from experience and insight, and not contemplating what might be possible and how to get there with my intellect.
A. Faith isn't needed for the unfolding of a specific insightful knowledge, as these moments are at the end of the journey, so to speak. Faith is needed in order to arrive at those moments. To experience that level of insight we have first to work through our blinding thoughts that have their roots and life in our powerful emotional attachments and experiences anchored in the sense of self. The transformation of those emotional forces is very arduous and at times frightening, and tests the resolve of even the most dedicated of practitioners. By definition we are always going into the unknown on our spiritual journey, so we can never know what awaits us. Faith then becomes the indispensable tool that supports us through those difficult yet essential times that we have to endure and 'stay with'. Don't imagine that faith is just simply a mental acceptance of something not known. It is that, but more crucially, it inspires and encourages us to bear with, thus developing the inner strength that is essential on our spiritual journey. If there isn't faith somewhere in the background of our practice as a support, then the journey will become, sooner or later, impossible to continue.
Q. I am interested on your views about needing 'support' on the path. You strongly emphasis the need for a teacher and sangha to really uncover reality. However, my experience of vipassana meditation is that it strengthens my self-confidence and self-reliance, and I feel both less trusting and less needing of the views of others. I find that I begin to instinctively know what to do, and actually communicating with others about deep meditation experience is rather counter- productive. I can understand the value of a very experienced teacher, but let's face it, most Western Sanghas are littered with wrong views and mis-interpretations of what the Buddha was pointing to. Are these 'support' mechanisms really so important?
A. Among the many virtues of a teacher and a sangha is they act as a counter-balance to check and reaffirm that you are practising correctly and are really on the path. There is, I can assure you, only one thing worse than being lost and confused in practice, and that is being convinced you are on the path when in fact you are well off it. The self and the accompanying delusions are so clever and so subtle that there isn't a person alive, short of being fully enlightened, that can truly know if the path is being correctly pursued. Even those who have returned to their original nature and clearly see reality can still unwittingly wander off, all this being due to the clever subtleties of the remnants of self. Always be on your guard when you say to yourself 'this is it!'. The Buddha (teacher), and sangha are two thirds of the triple gem and are not an option in practice if you wish to tread the Buddha's path wholly and correctly. They are there to see you walk this path, a journey that requires such subtle perception (the word 'subtle' actually doesn't really do justice to the refinement of practice that is necessary). If you are convinced that you don't need the complete support of practice, you can join the large band of practitioners here in the West who are like minded, and I look forward one day to listening to one of their stories oftheir breaking of the root of becoming and going beyond rebirth. Self-reliance and confidence is very important, but be very careful with thinking that your convictions need no airing or challenge. The mind is very clever. Not for nothing have we all been wandering lost in samsara since time began.
Q. In your books your advice is to stick to whatever practice is taken on in a consistent way . My question is how do I know if I have a practice worth sticking to and am not heading up a blind alley as far as the spiritual life is concerned? Also your own breakthrough seemed to come after you had changed your practice from Zen to Theravadin. How do you reconcile this?
A. This is one of the most difficult issues that we have to face in our quest for the practice that is right for our temperament, and made doubly difficult for us in the West because these days we are overwhelmed by choice. Traditionally, in the East, whatever country you were born in decided that issue for you. You just got on with whatever the indigenous tradition was. We unfortunately don't have the luxury of not having to make a decision. My advice is to explore the various ways and then decide which tradition attracts you most via your inner feelings rather than via your head. Proceed, and see how it goes. After some time you may well doubt your decision to follow that tradition and find yourself at a crossroad of carrying on or trying something else. Not easy to know what to do, but I can offer a guideline that may help. If you are having difficulties, stay with what you have committed yourself to, stay with it and see if in a few weeks or months things get better. The problem we all have is that whatever way we decide to go there will inevitably be bottlenecks, and then we doubt the practice. Never make a decision quickly, and never when in an emotional state. Stay with it and see if the problem clears. Wait a good period of time and mull the situation over in a dispassionate way. If you still don't feel right with what you are doing then explore alternatives. Restlessness is our biggest mara and our ability to stay with difficulties our biggest challenge. A need for change may well be necessary, and by sitting with it very often that change will take place almost of itself anyway. Ultimately things can work out OK anyway. Change is mysterious, something can present itself quite unexpectedly if you create space for that mystery to take place, then you can slip effortlessly into the new way. As for my experience, I think it illustrates the mystery of change, although it is admittedly an unusual example. I was happy with my Zen practice and had no thoughts of change. I went to Sri Lanka for a holiday and met a monk who inspired me to become a monk. My initial reaction was to recoil from that idea, but inside I knew that this was the next thing for me to do. There was no restlessness or emotional volition involved, rather an expectancy that it was the right thing for me to be doing. I considered it to be a part of a mystery that I was familiar with. This mystery is difficult to describe, but is something we all can learn to open up to and trust – with time. I have expressed my thoughts and feelings in my first book concerning this event in my life, and could best refer you to that.