While one year of divinity school hardly makes me a religious scholar, it seems safe to say belief plays a key role in religion. After all, the centerpiece of the Catholic mass is the Credo, a Latin term meaning “I believe.” Similarly, the Protestant tradition in which I was raised features regular recitations of the Apostles’ Creed (Credo, Creed), which also begins “I believe.” The beliefs laid out in these texts are manifold and, at least occasionally, have been deemed worthy of literal fighting.
Despite such esteemed formulations, however, beliefs are not so easily pinned down. In fact, they tend to evolve: I know mine did, although I’m remain unsure how this process works, whether and to what extent we can affect or shape our beliefs. In a recent post, I wrote the following:
I don’t think we can choose what we believe, or love, or want. At this point in my life, I most certainly cannot decide that I am going to adopt conventional beliefs regarding education or religion. Even if I wanted to, I cannot force myself to perceive reality through lenses which no longer make sense to me, even when this poses difficulties.
For me, one of the distinguishing features of Zen, part of its initial and abiding appeal, is the way it doesn’t seem to get very hung up on the subject of belief. To paraphrase one of my teachers, “you don’t have to believe this stuff for it to work.” Countless stories warn of the dangers of excessive belief, cautioning students not to hold the practice so closely that the life slips out of it.
Rather, Zen is both open and pragmatic. While there’s plenty of talk about such things as karma and reincarnation, the emphasis lies squarely on finding what’s useful in reducing suffering and increasing compassion. So it’s not as though what we believe doesn’t matter: in fact, waking up to reality is a process which belief can facilitate—to a point.
In Buddhism Is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs, Steve Hagen points out that “Dharma teaching never says, ‘Here it is: this is what you need to know; this is what you should believe.'” As he reminds us, reality can’t be put into words, only pointed at and eventually seen for oneself.
Actually, Hagen goes much further, arguing that “for religion to function properly…it shouldn’t require belief…All religion needs to require of people is an earnest desire to know, to see, to wake up. That is enough.”
Elsewhere in this remarkable book, Hagen asserts the following:
Reality is not what you think. Reality is not what you can think. Reality is what is immediately experienced.
Unfortunately, in practice, religion makes wide use of beliefs…As Joseph Campbell put it, religion short-circuits the religious experience by putting it into concepts.
Instead of putting faith in what we believe, think, explain, justify, or otherwise construct in our minds, we can learn to put our trust and confidence in immediate, direct experience…This is the great sanity, the great compassion, the great wisdom that religion holds for us.
Thus Hagen would, in some sense, put religion literally beyond belief. Another Zen teacher, Sekkei Harada, offers a similar exposition (with an explicitly pragmatic twist) in his book The Essence of Zen:
During the forty-nine years that Shakyamuni Buddha expounded the Dharma, he never once said, “Believe in me.” Rather he always said, “Believe in the Dharma. Believe in yourself”…Why then do we perform ceremonies in the morning and evening? Why do we make offerings to and prostrate ourselves before the buddhas and bodhisattvas?…We borrow the power of belief…[But] it isn’t good for the belief to remain…you must let go of that which is believed in.
Whatever I believe, it doesn’t change what’s real and true. I’m reminded of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s saying that science is true “whether or not you believe in it.” And so I experience letting go of beliefs—not being weighed down or held back by them—as a tremendous relief, allowing me to be much more open to Reality As It Is.
At the same time, what we believe most certainly matters. Even if we can’t exactly choose our beliefs or make ourselves believe something we don’t, we still bear responsibility here. The choices we make, combined with present circumstances and past experiences, shape not only our views but the reality of other beings, of our very world. What we attend to, what we prioritize…these things are critically important.
As for me, I may never get entirely beyond belief, and that’s okay. I’m more interested in what will help me live a more sane and beneficial life. And so far, my Zen practice seems to be helping me move in that direction.
At least, I believe that’s true.