We in the west have a very hard time with faith, we want to be self-sufficient, self-motivated, self, self, self, self. We are very self-oriented. Faith is viewed as a weakness, a pitfall of the ignorant. Many see faith as a form of ignorance in modernity, I assume that it’s partially because of those on the Christian Right ignoring common sense and making morally questionable decisions based on their “faith”. There’s also the idea that faith is a precursor to science. That science is where trust should be placed and that religious faith and devotion is a remnant of times past to deal with the unknown. Regardless of the reasoning, faith is seen as a path of ignorance. It’s also my experience that many Western Buddhist practitioners feel somewhat superior to the many Asian practitioners that have faith instilled at a young age without much understanding. Doing many things that westerners consider to be superstitious. I feel that this is a shame, because pure faith is a beautiful quality. It’s the gateway to the opening of spiritual qualities and accomplishment. It takes us out of our egocentric frame point of reality and opens us up to the possibility of egolessness. We’ll get more into the different kinds of faith later in the week, and why it’s actually a very logical skillful means in Vajrayana that does not make it a product of the two extremes.
When you look to the great scholar/saints of our tradition, they may all manifest very differently in their activity, but there is a very common thread in all of them: devotion. They all, no matter how high their realization, have immense and palpable devotion in their own teachers, in lineage of teachers that came before, in the Buddha, in the teachings and the efficacy of practice. If these great accomplished masters have and display such devotion, certainly we must try to emulate that as well. But faith can’t be manufactured, it’s not just a decision. Oh, I will now have devotion. done.It’s very much a quality and feeling that needs to be developed. But in order for it to develop, there needs to be an opening, a willingness.If a door is closed and locked, guests can’t enter a home. If our mind is closed to devotion, blessings cannot be received. While it’s most ideal for the doorway of devotion to already be open when one starts on the Vajrayana path, if there is a willingness, an crack of openness, then it is certainly a quality that can and will develop through the beautiful practice of Ngondro.One major difference in the western world, when it comes to how we relate to Dharma, is that the seed of devotion that was instilled from infancy in children from Buddhist countries in the past in Tibet, China, India, etc, mostly isn’t present here, even in Buddhist households. In modernity, most have faith in science and “common sense”, and veer toward the extreme of nihilism. Some others feel burned by their previous faith or their parents faith in a theistic tradition that just doesn’t feel right to them and want to get away from that way of thinking. For those coming from different spiritual backgrounds, at least there is a the seed of what it’s like to have faith, and for them the primary obstacle is getting beyond the extreme of eternalism. Rinpoche says very clearly in Cascading that the quality of faith, even if in an eternalist tradition, is much better than the extreme of nihilism because there is an opening there.So, in Vajrayana practice, where faith and devotion are paramount, many of us are somewhat starting at a disadvantage. But that’s fine and the good news is that it’s never too late.Developing devotion will look different for all of us according to our karma. Some can develop confidence in the teachers and teachings through analytical study, by learning the pitfalls of samsara and the skillful means of the Buddhist path to extricate beings from suffering. From that understanding faith and devotion can take root. For some it’s more intuitive. We may encounter a special being and be stopped by their presence and how they live the teachings fully. This was very much my path.Regardless, it will be subtly different for all of us and that’s okay. All that I’m trying to get across here is how paramount faith is on Vajrayana path, and hopefully you will keep an openness to the idea of it’s benefit if the door was previously closed. At the very least, we should not look down on it.If the seed is there, or openness to it, then we can be fertile ground for the practice of Ngondro to till our fields of awakening. If there is no seed, no glimmer of openness, then there is no chance for the bountiful crop of blessings to penetrate our hearts and the positive qualities of this wonderful practice to take root.
Ivan Bercholz of Shambhala Publications is the Executive Vice President and Publisher of Bala Kids. He is also a Faculty Member of the Vajrayana Foundation Dudjom Tersar Ngondro Program