“If you want to master this path, first you need the faculty of great faith.”* It is so obvious and yet it can’t be mentioned often enough. We need a lot of faith if we want to master this path, simply because at this point we don’t really know what this path entails and where it will eventually bring us. We are asked to go beyond what we know and to dare to question our own views, particularly about ourselves. And this is perhaps the hardest bit. We often see ourselves as the number-one experts on our lives, even if this expertise doesn’t bring us very much happiness!
In his famous analogy, Plato describes the lot of people living in a cave without any access to the outside world. The only things they can see are shadows of objects cast on the back wall of the cave. Over the years, they became used to seeing these shadows as real forms. What would it take to cut through a conditioning that is shared by so many others? According to Plato, only great philosophers can manage this – and their task is then to try sharing their insights. In Buddhism, each one of us is invited to take on this challenge and to enter the realm of reality.
But most of us need help. In fact, we need all the help we can get, otherwise we may just not be able to let go of our misconceptions. Fortunately, the Buddhas and ancestors left traces we can follow, at least for some time. The sutras and other scriptures give us very convincing reports of how the realm of reality looks when seen through enlightened eyes, and these accounts may resonate with us on a deep intuitive level. Moreover, they present overviews of practice that many people before us have engaged in – so we’re not the first ones, and we’re not alone!
Forms that have been transmitted throughout the ages can have a similar effect. Buddhist images are often highly inspiring – like the one of Kanzeon with many hands and eyes – while sitting cross-legged or making bows may wake up a mysterious kinetic memory. In fact, Buddhist temples themselves are expressions of faith. They have been built with great inspiration, and they now radiate that inspiration back to us. One simple visit to Eiheiji can transport us to a very deep place in our hearts: the place where we share the faith of the ancestors.
The medieval European cathedrals were built in a relatively short time, and they must have looked even more impressive in their original urban setting where they dominated the landscape for miles around, than they do now. Apparently, the construction workers were very skilled and spiritually inclined craftsmen. They united their artisanal work on the outer building to their highly esoteric work on the inner temple – the one was a reflection of the other. No wonder these cathedrals have inspired millions of Christians to find faith in their religion for such a long period of time.
Of course, it should be possible to do without any of the scriptures and inspirational forms that have been transmitted throughout the ages. According to the Avatamsaka Sutra, we may need the help of a spiritual benefactor but in principle we can find all the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha within ourselves. Yet, as far as I have seen, most of us just won’t find the courage to let go of our conditioned thoughts, feelings and deeply engrained modes of behaviour so easily, and so may run the risk of missing out on the experience that we are all entitled to.
Our Zendo in the back garden may be a humble structure – not to be compared with a cathedral or a temple like Eiheiji – but it has been built according to an age-old design and with the help of donations from many of our members. Maybe surprisingly, the Zendo impresses even visiting monks from Japan and China. Every morning as I step through the door, its inspiration resounds very deep inside me and eases me into the realm of reality. Then, when I bow to Manjushri, my own lineage master and all Buddhas and ancestors bow with me, and great faith follows naturally: what a joy!
*From: The Undying Lamp of Zen, The Testament of Zen Master Torei.