WESTERNERS PLAY FAST and loose with the Buddhist notion of faith, says frequent Tricycle contributor Thanissaro Bhikkhu. While the Buddha did encourage a healthy skepticism, he nonetheless taught faith. In this issue’s “Faith in Awakening” (page 70), the American-born Thai forest monk writes, “If you sincerely want to put an end to suffering, you should take certain things on faith and then test them through following the Buddha’s path of practice.” He goes on to say, “Just as you shouldn’t give unreserved trust to outside authority, you can’t give unreserved trust to your own logic and feelings if they go against experience and the genuine wisdom of others.”
For Westerners suffering faith hangovers from their native religions, the Buddha’s edict to put his teachings to the empirical test through practice comes as a welcome relief. But according to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, every action we take contains a component of faith: “Even in our most empirically based decisions,” he writes, “our vision is hampered by our position in time. As Kierkegaard noted, we live forward but understand backward.” In other words, we cannot take any action with absolute certainty. Still, with cultivated discernment we can choose whose advice to take as a reliable guide.
The forms of Buddhism followed by most Western converts rely on a heavy dose of meditative practice. A sort of self-reliance prevails, a self-discipline and a commitment that we ordinarily associate with will power. But Pure Land, the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan, relies on a faith in “other power,” which transcends personal will. The tension between faith and self-discipline is something contributing editor Clark Stand has grappled with throughout his spiritual life. A longtime Zen practitioner, Strand ultimately sensed a lack in his practice, and turned to teachers in the Pure Land tradition for answers. In this issue he invites Pure Land priest Koshin Ogui, Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America, to discuss a practice few Western Buddhists consider: reliance on faith alone. Using the idea of shinjin—“true entrusting”—one’s practice becomes indistinguishable from ordinary struggles in everyday life. Leave the rest to faith in the power of Amida Buddha to assure your birth in the Land of Bliss.
Koshin Ogui, quoting a former professor, says, “Instead of going up the mountain, go down. Go to the bar on the corner and talk with the waitress and find out why she has to work so hard every night. Talk to people who are really struggling and suffering in the midst of life itself and find out all about their questions and their problems.” But is faith in “other power,” as the Pure Land Buddhists espouse, much different from a reliance on the monotheistic concept of a “higher power?” This latter question elicits some interesting answers, as you’ll discover in “Ordinary Struggles,” beginning on page 42.
But it’s not all struggle. Summer always calls for some fun, and there’s no shortage of fun in this issue: Anne Cushman takes the plunge into the online dating world, Buddhist-style (here), while Steve Krieger gives a truly hilarious account of his human-waste-composting practice at a rural Zen center (here). Contributing editor Mary Talbot travels to the Texas flatlands to meet with country music trailblazer and three-time Grammy nominee Jimmie Dale Gilmore (here), and writer David Taylor ventures into the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina to track the elusive ginseng plant (here). To top it off, Tricycle’s resident performance artist, Eliot Fintushel, shares a taste of his signature affinity for the offbeat by reporting on pioneering neuroscientist, renowned pianist, inventor, and philosopher Dr. Manfred Clynes (here).
And that’s just scratching the surface of what has turned out to be a diverse and compelling issue. But don’t take it on faith—start reading and find out for yourself.
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