I look upon the judgment
of right and wrong as the serpentine dance of a dragon, and the rise and fall of beliefs as but traces left by the four seasons.

–Buddha’s Zen, story #101 in Zen Flesh Zen Bones

In Virginia a while back I met with a young college student who was interested in Buddhism. Recently arrived from China, Han Longwei was beautiful, articulate, and deeply curious. We had spent a good deal of time discussing Buddhist ethics and philosophy when he looked at me, head tilted, and said,

“May I ask you an unrelated question?”

“Sure,” I answered.

“Why doesn’t one ever see dragons?” Han Longwei inquired.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been to many zoos in Asia and the United States, but I’ve never seen a dragon. I’ve seen paintings and sculptures of them, but no photographs. Why is that?”

Unprepared for this, I replied without thinking, “Well, because they’re not real.”

This troubled him. “What do you mean, not real?” he asked.

What did I mean, not real? If you believe that dragons exist, if they’re real for you, does your perception of them differ from my perception of, say, pterodactyls?

The question of belief is central to my work as a chaplain, in an obvious way, and also to my life as a Buddhist student, teacher, and practitioner. But it goes further than that. Belief is about how I interact with my physical world, how my emotions manifest, my social life, and the sense I make of spiritual insights. In fact, the more I ponder belief, the more it seems to permeate every aspect of my life save, perhaps, that very first instant of experience that precedes interpretation.

Thoughts are fleeting; faith belongs to intangibles and is not necessarily determined by critical thinking; but belief is the framework that embraces our thoughts, opinions, convictions, perceptions, and views. Belief, simply put, is what we hold to be true or real. It can be explicit (“I believe in elves”) or implicit (“I believe I exist”). Assumptions are implicit beliefs. There are beliefs we debate about, endlessly, and beliefs shared by mentally sound people the world over. Belief is a distinctly human noun; I don’t imagine that other animals are defined by their beliefs in quite the same way. And although beliefs and assumptions are, arguably, the substratum of existence, if you prompt a dinner table conversation about belief, you might be surprised by the effort required to contextualize it.

In its least subtle manifestation, belief is political and societal worldview. I’ve known Bhutanese lamas living in the West who were certain that males of any species were superior to females in every way; that the Buddha didn’t walk, he glided on those wheels beneath his feet; and that the cosmos physically resembled the scriptural description: flat, four continents, eight subcontinents of specific geometric shapes, all laid out around Mount Meru, the axial point. They’d become very agitated if anyone tried to tell them otherwise.

And in my work with patients and families in central Virginia, I meet people who take the Bible very literally, who delight in rebutting evolution, and who earnestly tell me that their family misfortunes are the work of Satan. Signs on their lawns exhort me to “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” According to them, most of humanity is on a fast track to damnation.

As a species, we use our beliefs—in a view, in a rigidly defined higher power and in how the faithful must serve that power, in the superiority of one tribe or culture over others, in forms of government, in our entitlement as humans, in our having been wronged, and on and on—to justify every imaginable abomination. On the basis of our beliefs we create stained-glass windows and space stations and hospitals, march peacefully for a just cause, help others, overthrow despots, chant, and plant trees. On the basis of our beliefs, we study, contemplate, and practice the dharma.

My root teacher and retreat master, Gendun Rinpoche, reminded us often that what we believe determines how we experience our world. Without question, most of us assume that our perceptions present us with a reasonably accurate portrait of reality. We function on the basis of our senses and the processing of those senses: the thoughts and emotions, habits and reactions that arise. Of course, we need to filter, process, and categorize to make sense of our world and thrive in it. But without a deep appreciation for the subjective nature of our experience and the fragility of our constructs, we naturally interpret and judge the beliefs and actions of others according to our own worldview.

Our perceptions and knowledge are exceedingly partial; we tend to notice and retain that which validates our preconceptions. In other words, we see and believe what we already think. Nowadays we call this “confirmation bias,” and it operates in tandem with a whole range of psychological habits—cognitive biases—that hamper the freedom with which we might tune into and work with the bigger picture. Four hundred years ago, the English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon described confirmation bias to a tee:

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

I can easily find such biases in my own habits. And I know that nearly everyone I meet in my role as a chaplain, or while I’m walking the dog, or when I lead meditation practice, harbors assumptions—those tacit beliefs—about me.

Acknowledging these shared cognitive biases can help us accept others’ views and actions. Our current embattled political landscape is so riddled by partisan opinions that it can be difficult to believe in the goodness of the people behind them. But in my work I am constantly called to step over surface inclinations in order to relate to a person on a deeper level. A few months ago one of my favorite patients, a kindly and lovable old Tinkerbell who always wore purple, looked at me wide-eyed from her bed in an upscale assisted-living facility and lamented, “Isn’t it just awful what the press is doing to the president? He says that all they do is lie about him.” A habitually argumentative part of me wanted to protest, but a more useful part could just focus on soothing her through this new distress.

I used to defend my views and beliefs with a good deal of passion. Years ago, at the beginning of my chaplaincy training, it rankled when colleagues would validate me as being an “instrument of God” regardless of my beliefs, my professed godlessness. I felt the need to assert myself. With time, I began to take clearer stock of my own conditioning and assumptions. I wondered what would happen if I set them aside. And I found that when I accompanied people in physical, emotional, or spiritual pain, the need to be present and caring naturally eclipsed dogma. I began to taste the freedom of empathic presence unsullied by belief in a way that reminded me of the freedom of being fully present on the cushion.

After certain patient and family encounters, though, I would lose my footing. An early incident with a dying woman whose daughter had begged me to help her mother reconcile herself with Christ unsettled me for months. With my encouragement, the mother began praying for the first time in decades, and there was such sudden peace in her that it was palpable. During our time together, I acted without thinking about what was going on. But after I’d left the room and the situation behind, it really shook me—the Buddhist—up. I tried to define it, I meditated on it, I wrestled with it, I wrote a poem. It needed time to incubate.

In fact, meditation experiences would often lead to a similar process: I would arise from what I might now call a “state of grace” to instinctively begin defining, comparing, adhering, clinging, and sometimes wrestling. I think that we can learn to expect and live with that. Once we come back to conventional reality, raw experience is always interpreted according to what we think we know. Other practitioners may have a similar experience of clarity, bliss, or emptiness . . . and call it God, or grace, or communion.

When I was in retreat in the ’90s, we recited texts in which mu stegs—heretics—were to be overcome, albeit compassionately. Heretics had wrong views; we had right views. Our beliefs were aligned with the Buddha’s teachings and led to enlightenment; theirs were not and led to suffering. Other texts warned us against falling into “old school” motivations of individual liberation instead of being concerned first and foremost with liberating all sentient beings from the ocean of existence and its turbulent waves of birth, aging, sickness, and death.

It was a given that Madhyamika, the “Middle Way” philosophical school that we followed, was the best, because it was best able to guide us to enlightenment. Such partisanship is quite present within Buddhism in general. In Tibet, for example, monasteries were appropriated, block prints burned, and lineages forcibly assimilated in the service of how certain Madhyamika tenets were interpreted. How ironic when proponents of the Middle Way go at it—ostensibly because of doctrinal disagreements about what, exactly, is meant by emptiness. Imagine the monks glowering at each other and quarreling about emptiness like we argue politics.

In mapping out the path to liberation, the Buddha was famously more concerned with the mechanics of experience than with defining “reality.” Reality is invariably subjective. An expression of this is found in the Buddhist Yogacara—mind-only or consciousness only—school of philosophy. In Living Yogacara, Tagawa Shun’ei writes:

Our so-called cognition, or the action of discerning the meaning of things as they are perceived by us, is never in any case a perception of the external world exactly as it is, but rather a world that can only be apprehended via its interface with our present mental state. In other words, it is nothing other than our own mind that constructs things and determines their content. This is the meaning of “consciousness-only,” or “nothing but the transformations of consciousness.” And, if we turn this around, we ourselves are nothing  other than things that dwell in a world defined by the limits of that which is knowable by the functions of our own mind.  

–trans. Charles Muller

It can be liberating to recognize the ubiquity of subjectivity and belief and accept the limitations of knowledge. Only when I perceive myself as being a “thing that dwells in a world defined by the limits of that which is knowable by the functions of my own mind” can I truly delight in the beliefs and faiths of others, especially when their faith sustains them and brings them peace. Instead of having to define others’ paths, I can walk alongside them on the paths they have adopted, pray with them that their wishes come true, and mean it.

We all believe in something: self, nonself, an omnipotent creator, karma, science, reality, emptiness, dragons, elves. . . . When we see that belief gives color to every stratum of our experience of reality, we can embrace others as kindred believers, regardless of the shades we tend to favor.

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