This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
The Faith To Doubt
This week I wanted to talk about the topic of faith and doubt, specifically the concept of having the faith to doubt. A few weeks ago, while I was in China on a business trip, I had an experience that I think does a really good job of relating or explaining what the whole concept of faith and doubt actually means.
I've been working with a new supplier for almost a year now. In that amount of time we've got to know each other but we've never actually met. In a lot of Asian cultures, or at least in China, people choose their own western name to make it easier to communicate with westerners like me. With this new supplier, it's no different. As soon as we started communicating, they told me that the person that I needed to talk to was Chris. Chris and I got to know each other by email and everything has been going well, so I thought I would take advantage of this specific trip to China to schedule a time and meet Chris in person.
I followed the instructions to the meeting place and I started walking around looking for Chris. I looked for him everywhere but I couldn't see him so I continued to walk around just buying time, and then every minute or two I'd come back to the specific location where we were supposed to meet to look around. I did this two or three times and by then almost ten minutes had gone by and I thought Chris must be running late. I thought I would just wait there for him to show up.
I sat down and there at the end of the table were two young girls on their smartphones. As soon as I sat down, one of the two girls looked up and said, "Hi, are you Noah? I'm Chris." Not once had it occurred to me that the girl sitting at the table might be Chris because in my mind I had already decided that Chris was a man. There was a picture in my mind of how Chris was supposed to be and that blinded me from seeing Chris the way Chris really was. I've been thinking about this and trying to apply it to other concepts thinking, man, in what other ways have I been blind to reality because I already have a picture of what that reality is supposed to be?
Take a concept like happiness or love or success and think about the concept that you have in your mind of what that's supposed to mean; what that's supposed to be. Very much like my experience with Chris, if you have an idea of what that is, you're not going to be able to see it for what it actually is. I think this is the very essence of what Buddhism teaches. Thich Nhat Hanh says the secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate and reveal itself. I like that. To reveal itself.
That's exactly what happened with Chris. Chris was there the whole time but I couldn't see her because of the concept that I had already developed in my mind. I was blinded you could say by my faith in my concept of who Chris was. This is the notion of faith that many of us share in the west. Typically, faith is an idea. You believe in it and you don't doubt it.
The eastern approach to this is what Alan Watts describes as the attitude of being open to whatever is. This allows us to experience whatever is the moment it shows up. We don't have to go through wasting, in my case, ten minutes looking for Chris when Chris is there all the time. In life we do the same thing. Perhaps it's looking for happiness, for example, and having an idea of what happiness is. Then one day happiness looks up and says, "Hi, are you Noah? I'm happiness."
Life has been presenting itself to you in ways like this all along and the only thing blinding us from seeing those things is the picture in our head of how it's supposed to be. I've talked about this on multiple occasions, the idea of there being reality and then the story we build around reality. That story prevents us from seeing reality as it is.
This is the notion of faith and doubt, at least in the context of secular Buddhism. We go through life developing concepts and then we believe in our concepts or we have faith in those concepts. But that's not what true faith is. I like to imagine true faith as just being the attitude of being completely open to whatever may be. In the case of Chris, I couldn't do that. It's not that I didn't want to. I literally couldn't. I was blind and didn't even know that I was. I wonder how many other concepts in life I approach in that way. This experience motivated me to want to approach life with a new perspective, with a new attitude of true faith, of being completely open to whatever might be, and allowing whatever might be to present itself.
This is where doubt plays a pivotal role in understanding the true nature of faith. If the true nature of faith is just being open to whatever is, then I need to be continually doubting the concepts that I create in my mind. I need to question those and think: Is this really how it is or is this the mental picture I've created about how life is supposed to be? I think this is relevant to all things in life. You could take the concept of love, for example, with regard to your spouse or your significant other or your relationship with your parents or your children or siblings. You could look at that relationship and for years you could have been questioning whether they love you. It could be that they did all along and you've never seen it because you have a different picture of what love is. I think this really hits home if you've ever studied or read about the five love languages. You'll learn that love is communicated and expressed in different ways and, if you speak one love language, if you don't know that there are other love languages, you may be blind because you only see love through the language that you speak.
If you haven't looked into the five love languages, Google them. It's a fascinating concept and I think it's very applicable to understanding the notion of how we communicate and experience something as universal as love. If that applies to love, I'm sure it applies to so many other things. If we don't know, if we develop a belief in how things are supposed to be, then we become blind to how they actually are. That's really the essence of the topic that I wanted to discuss today, having the faith to doubt. The key to accessing true faith is complete openness to whatever life is and the key to that is having doubt.
I think that in our society for some reason we've attached negative connotations to the word "doubt" and positive connotations to the word "faith". We're motivated to always have faith; to never question things because somehow doubt is negative. But, in reality, doubt is a very positive thing. Doubt is the thing that makes something like science work. It's because we're continually questioning and exploring that we find new knowledge. Having this in our personal lives, this sense of doubt, this sense of questioning is very much I think what the Zen Buddhism school refers to when it's talking about beginner's mind.
Think about a child. Children approach life with a beginner's mind; with what I guess you could call a doubting approach to life. It's not a negative thing: they're just constantly questioning everything. This approach is what allows you to gain new insight; to be able to see and learn stuff that you didn't know before because you don't operate under the assumption of always having all the information that you need. Instead, you're always operating under the assumption that there's something that you don't know.
Furthermore, you're always operating under the assumption that everything that you believe might actually be wrong. There's not one thing about which I could say with complete certainty "I'm right". I should approach life in the opposite way, thinking that everything I believe could be wrong. That is faith in the unknown, faith in uncertainty, faith in whatever life is going to present. I'm just going to take it as it is.
There's a Zen expression that says, "Great doubt equals great enlightenment. Little doubt, little enlightenment, and no doubt no enlightenment." This is the kind of doubt that I think is being implied here. It's the doubt that we have about the assumptions that we make. Faith is being open to whatever might be and we do that by cultivating doubt about our assumptions.
This is an entirely different approach to faith and doubt than what we're typically used to. The beautiful thing here is that with this doubt comes new knowledge. It's the only way to gain new knowledge. I like to think of science as a good example of the system of doubt. Science is constantly questioning, right? It says, well, here's what we know and it's always asking why. Why does this work this way? Then it investigates. It creates a theory around why and then it proves the theory, and then that's new knowledge. Then we go onto the next thing. Okay, well if that's that, now we ask why again. Why this? Why that? You're always questioning.
This cultivation of doubt, if we can apply it to our own perceptions and understanding of the world, is the key to obtaining new knowledge and wisdom about how the world really is. The assumptions that we have about other people, our in group versus our out group: Us and Them. What if we were able to doubt the concepts that we've created about the people who are in the category of "other"?
Faith and doubt are not negative and positive things. They're actually both positive things that help us to experience the nature of reality; to experience life as it is without being blinded by only seeing what we think it's supposed to be. We should doubt our own stories and we should have faith in being open to seeing whatever just is, outside of those stories.
I want to be willing and able to continually question the assumptions that I've made about life; the assumptions I've made about how life is supposed to be and especially when applied to concepts as important as love, happiness and success. I just want to be open to whatever those things are and not be blinded by the beliefs I have about what they're supposed to be. I think that this will provide many fascinating experiences in life, much like what Carl Sagan describes when he says, "Somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known".
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to the full episode here.