Belief

I’d like to talk about belief a little bit. 

When I first got into Zen, the thing that really attracted me to it more than anything else was there was no insistence on belief. Every other religion I had encountered before insisted that I had to believe something. I had to believe that Jesus died for my sins. Or I had to even go further than that and believe that everything in the Bible was literally true. The creation of the universe literally took exactly seven days. There literally was a flood that drowned everyone in the world except Noah and his family, and all of that stuff. I couldn’t believe that. I tried, but I couldn’t.

Then I hopped over to the Hare Krishnas and that seemed pretty good for a while. But pretty soon I found out that they had the same damn thing. You had to believe that Krishna was actually a little blue guy who lived 5,000 years ago in northern India. You had to believe he had sex with hundreds of cowherd girls in one night by turning himself into hundreds of Krishnas and schtupping them all at the same time. That’s an actual belief from that from that group.

I couldn’t believe that stuff. So when I got into Zen and found out that there’s no insistence of a specific belief that was a great relief. A religion I didn’t have to believe in! What a concept!

Belief is kind of a funny thing. All of us have tons and tons of beliefs. There are what we normally think of as beliefs — like a belief that flying saucers are real and are piloted by extraterrestrial beings, or a belief that Jesus died for my sins, and things of that nature.

Then we have beliefs that aren’t so esoteric. In America these days you might be challenged on some of these beliefs, especially on the Internets. For example, do you believe Christine Blasey Ford or do you believe Brett Kavanaugh? Do you believe that there are two genders or do you believe there are infinite genders? Some of these sorts of beliefs can become very contentious.

What I tend to do with beliefs like that is I look at the practicality of them. In my own case, it doesn’t matter very much on a practical level if I believe Christine Blasey Ford or Brett Kavanaugh. My belief won’t change anything about the situation on the Supreme Court or how the hearings went. So I might have a belief about that, but it isn’t important enough to insist upon. There’s no practical benefit in my stating what I believe in that case. It’s the same with whether I believe there are two genders or there are thousands of genders. In day-to-day life it doesn’t really matter which of those options I believe. So I don’t insist on it. I don’t make bold statements about it or argue with people about it. 

I’m not telling you that you have to do this. I’m just saying this is the way I manage my beliefs. I’m not gonna insist on my beliefs about stuff of that nature. I’ll just keep those beliefs mostly to myself and I’m not very concerned about them.

There  is another level of belief, though, that I think is real fascinating. This gets into the Zen thing. It’s the level at which this matter of belief gets really interesting to me personally. 

Once I was sitting in the room at Tokyo University listening to Nishijima Roshi giving a talk. He was about to go on a trip to another country. Israel, I think, but it doesn’t really matter. Near the end of the lecture he said something like, “I believe that tomorrow I am going to board an airplane. I believe I will sit on that airplane for several hours and then emerge from that airplane in a different country. But I’m not completely certain that’s what will actually happen.”

Hearing my trusted Zen teacher say something like that gave me a sense that when we talk about beliefs in the Zen tradition, we’re talking about something much more interesting than believing Christine Blasey Ford or believing Jesus died for my sins. 

What Nishijima Roshi was indicating was something that goes right to the core of what we do every day. It’s about my own real existence on earth. Is my own existence actually what I think it is? Does reality accord with the beliefs I have about reality?

The problem with getting too deeply into something like that before you’re ready for it, is you can drive yourself crazy. This to me is a lot of the problem with what’s being called post-modernism. At least when it gets into the idea that there is no objective truth and we can all just make up our own truths to suit ourselves.

I think there is an objective truth. Maybe “objective” isn’t the correct word, but it’s all I’ve got to work with. There is one truth, and one truth only. There is only one reality. I think that’s true. I believe that. But I also believe that I am incapable of ever properly discerning that truth, at least intellectually. I’m too dumb. All of us are too dumb.

So even though I just told you that Nishijima Roshi didn’t necessarily believe that getting in an airplane and flying overseas was a real thing, he acted as if it was a real thing. He brought his passport, he packed his suitcase, he did the stuff you do when going overseas. He didn’t protest against it. He didn’t make a big deal out of the fact that he had some doubts about the general understanding of what’s happening in the world.

I only ever heard him mention this once. Though he also once said, “The material world is an illusion.” This point of view comes up in the Zen literature too. You can find it in Dogen and  in other places. It’s there, but it’s not usually highlighted or insisted upon very strongly.

Another interesting aspect of belief is that it’s related to identity. For example,  I might identify as a person who believes Christine Blasey Ford or identify as a person who believes Brett Kavanagh. That might be an important part of my identity. So I a plant a flag about myself by stating my beliefs as a way of establishing my personal identity and my group affiliation. 

In cases like that it’s not really about whether I believe these things or not. It’s more important to tell the world something about myself and what kind of person I want to be perceived as. So if I think it will make me be seen as a better person if I believe one of those things rather than the other, then I’ll tell you my beliefs in order to get you to see me a certain way.

Another thing that I find is interesting is that, for most humans, it’s not enough to believe something for oneself. I have to make other people believe what I believe. This is why some people insist on certain beliefs very strongly. They believe that if enough people insist on a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, for example, then it will it will make a change in the world. They might believe that if everyone believed in the Bible, the world would be a more orderly place with a higher standard of ethics.

People who believe in certain political ideas also feel that way. That’s why their beliefs are so urgent to them that they go on social media for hours every day insisting on them and calling people rude names if they don’t adhere to what they believe in. It’s exactly like preachers who insist that if you don’t believe in Jesus you’ll burn in hell. There’s a lot of evangelism on the internet these days.

To me, though, that seems like a big waste of energy and effort. I know I’m not going to convince the world that Nishijima Roshi was right to question the reality of airplanes and countries. So I don’t even try.

So have fun believing whatever you believe and try not to hurt anybody about your beliefs, OK?

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