15 – The Faith to Doubt

True faith is the attitude of being open to whatever might be. When we create an image in our mind of how life is “supposed” to be, we literally blind ourselves to seeing life as it is. In this episode, I will explore the concepts of faith and doubt and discuss how doubt is the key to having true faith.

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Transcript of the podcast:

Hello, you are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast, and this is episode number 15. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the faith to doubt. Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This podcast is produced every week and it covers philosophical topics within Buddhism and secular humanism. Episodes one through five serve as a basic introduction to what secular Buddhism is and general Buddhist concepts, so if you’re new to the podcast I recommend listening to the first five episodes in order. All episodes after that are meant to just be individual topics that you can listen to in any order.

Before we get started, I like to remind my listeners of a quote by the Dalai Lama where he says, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Please keep this in mind as you listen and learn about the topics and concepts discussed in this podcast episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to share, write a review, or give it a rating. Now let’s jump into this week’s topic.

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 kind of what the whole concept of faith and doubt actually means. Leading up to this story, just a little bit of background, I’ve been working with a new supplier for almost a year now. In that amount of time we’ve gotten to know each other but we’ve never actually met.

Something that happens in a lot of Asian cultures or at least in China, people choose their own western name to make it easier to communicate with westerner’s like me. I have contacts that I work with there that there’s a Jason and there’s a Wyatt and there’s Mr. Lee and they kind of pick their western names. With this new supplier, it’s no different. As soon as we started communicating, they told me the person that you need to talk to is Chris. I started emailing Chris who’s the head of sales for this new factory and Chris and I got to know each other by email and we’ve placed multiple orders for various parts with this new supplier and everything has been going well, so I thought I would take advantage of this specific trip while I was in China to schedule a time and meet Chris in person.

While I was there, I received the message from Chris deciding where we were going to meet and at what time, and I followed the instructions to the meeting place and I started walking around looking for Chris. I looked for him everywhere and I couldn’t see him anywhere so I continued to walk around just buying time, and then every minute or two I’d come back to that specific location where we were supposed to meet, look around, he still wasn’t there, so then I would keep walking. I did this two or three times and by then almost 10 minutes had gone by and I thought Chris must be running late. I guess I can just wait here for him to show up.

I went over to the specific table where we were supposed to meet and I sat down and there at the end of the table there were two young girls on their smartphones, so I just sat down on the other side of the table. As soon as I sat down, one of the two girls looked up and said, “Hi, are you Noah. I’m Chris.” I was just stunned because that was not what I was expecting. I started to laugh and then thinking to myself, wait, you were here the whole time. I’ve been walking past you back and forth and not once did it occur to me that the girl sitting at the table might be Chris because in my mind I had already decided that Chris was probably a man.

It was just a very mind opening experience to realize how I was in a very literal way I was blinded by my beliefs. I was blinded by the belief that Chris was a man. For days after this experience I’ve just been thinking of the implications of that lesson. There’s a meme that was going around on social media, well, a quote. I guess it’s not a meme. There was a quote that I really like and it says, “What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.” I would put quotations around ‘supposed to be.’

I thought that’s exactly what just happened to me. There was a picture in my mind of how Chris was supposed to be and that picture in my mind blinded me from seeing Chris the way Chris really was. Chris has to finally speak up until I realized that was Chris. It was a really moving experience. 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?

If you think about it, this is actually a really powerful way of understanding reality. 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. You’ll understand 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, to reveal itself. I like that. To reveal itself.

That’s exactly what happened with Chris. Chris was there the whole time and I couldn’t see Chris, and the only reason I couldn’t see Chris was because of the concept that I had already developed in my mind. I was blind you could say by my faith in my concept of who Chris was. This is the notion of faith that many of us in the west, maybe from our cultural backgrounds, have an understanding of what faith is. Typically that faith is here’s an idea, now believe in that idea and don’t doubt that.

The eastern approach to this, Alan Watts talks about faith as the attitude of being open to whatever is. That attitude of being open to whatever is allows us to experience whatever is the moment it shows up. We don’t have to go through wasting, in my case, 10 minutes looking for Chris when Chris was there all along. In life we do the same thing. Perhaps it’s looking for happiness, for example, and here I am looking for happiness because I have an idea of what happiness is. Then one day happiness looks up and says, “Hi, are you Noah. I’m happiness.”

I just think this is not what I was expecting and you literally start to laugh and realize 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 and several podcast episodes, this idea of there’s reality and then there’s the story we build around reality. That’s that world of the story of reality where we get stuck prevents us from seeing the reality as it is. It’s almost identical to this experience with Chris.

This is the notion of faith and doubt, at least in the Buddhist context, the secular Buddhist context. We go through life developing concepts and then we believe in our concepts or we have faith in those concepts. 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. Approaching that table and not having any assumptions of is this Chris or is that Chris. I just know Chris is supposed to be here. Imagine if I would have showed up with the attitude of being completely open to whatever is. I just would have walked up to the table and assumed one of you sitting here must be Chris, no matter how improbable that is based on the picture I had in my mind.

What’s interesting is 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 blind. I wonder how many other concepts in life do I approach that way where I don’t even realize that I’m blind by those concepts that the picture, the story that I have of whatever that thing is compared to just however it is. This really motivated me, 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 like Chris and say, “Hi, are you Noah. I’m happiness or I’m success,” or whatever the concept is that I have in my mind, I want to try to let go of that.

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 what I need to be doubting continually are the concepts that I create in my mind and 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 really relevant with all things in life. I could take the concept of love, for example, and with 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 be questioning do they really love me? It could be that they do all along and you’ve never seen it because you have a different picture in your mind of what that love is. I think this really hits home if you’ve ever studied or read the five love languages. You’ll learn that love is communicated and expressed in different ways, and if you speak one certain love language, if you don’t know that there are other love languages you may be blind, very much like I was in seeing Chris, because you only see love through the language that you speak.

If you haven’t looked into the five love languages, Google it. It’s a really 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 applied 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 seeing 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 which is complete openness to whatever life is. The key to that is having doubt.

I think in our society for some reason we’ve attached these negative connotations to the word ‘doubt’ and positive connotations to the word ‘faith,’ and we’re motivated to always have faith, never question things because somehow doubt is like a negative thing. When in reality, doubt is a very positive thing. Doubt is the very thing that makes something like science work. It’s because we’re continually questioning and exploring why, how, 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, the whole concept of beginner’s mind.

Think about a child. Children approach life with a beginner’s mind, with this doubting, I guess you could say a doubting approach to life. It’s not a negative thing but they’re just constantly questioning everything. Everyone knows what it’s like to be around a kid who’s always saying, “Why?” “Why?” I think this is what it means to have a beginner’s mind. You’re always exploring, you’re always curious. Why? 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 I don’t know.

Furthermore, always operating under the assumption that everything that I believe I actually might be wrong. There’s not one thing that I could say with complete certainty that I’m right. I should approach life the opposite, thinking 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. I’ve talked about this in past episodes, as well, with the analogy of playing a game of Tetris.

Again, imagine that you’re playing a game of Tetris and if you’ve ever played that game you know that the whole premise of the game is that pieces just show up. We don’t control what pieces show up, but when they show up, we have the opportunity to manipulate them and we can move them left or right or you can spin them around to position them into whatever way is going to work best for your game. The one thing you don’t do is you don’t control what comes up next. As soon as you place one, the next one’s on the way and it just goes on and on and on until the game is over.

I think that’s a lot like life. Approaching the game of Tetris like you would the game of life with an attitude of faith means faith in whatever’s going to come up next I just know what’s going to come up next. I don’t know what it is but I know that something is coming up next, and the moment it does I’m just going to have to work with it. That’s what I have faith in. What I would be doubting, what I want to doubt is the moment I think I know a square is coming up next or I know that L-shape is going to be what’s coming up next. I should probably doubt that. That’s where you need to have doubt and think, wait, don’t get caught up because the moment it doesn’t show up the way I want it, now I’m all upset.

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. There’s a quote that says, “No matter what you believe, you might be wrong.” I think it’s really important to go through life with that attitude, the attitude of whatever I believe … It’s fine to have beliefs, but I might be wrong. I might be wrong about my beliefs and that is the cultivation of doubt. It’s what prevents us from being locked in a place with such certainty that we are blinded by that certainty. Blind faith is not a good faith.

Again, I think the concepts of faith and doubt in our society have interesting connotations that are twisted and it’s like doubt is frowned upon and faith is treated as something that’s actually not really faith, and we’re told to just have faith but oftentimes it’s conveyed in the sense of continue to blind yourself around your belief and don’t question the belief, but that’s actually not faith. Faith is being open to whatever might be and we do that by having and cultivating doubt around our assumptions of whatever we think is.

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 new knowledge comes in. 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? It’s always questioning.

This is the sense of doubt. With this cultivation of doubt, if we can apply this inward to our own perceptions and understanding of the world, that’s 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, they are this way, they are that way. Us and them. That whole concept. What if we were able to doubt the concepts that we’ve created about ‘other,’ about these people who are in that category of ‘other’?

Those are a couple of ways to look at and explore the concepts of faith and doubt within the Buddhist understanding of life or the Buddhist worldview. Faith and doubt are not negative and positive things. They’re actually both positive things in the tool set to help us to experience the nature of reality, to experience life as it is without being blinded by seeing, only looking for life the way we think it’s supposed to be. Again, there’s always just what is and then there’s the story we create around what is. We should doubt the stories that we’re creating around what is and we should have faith in being open to seeing whatever just is outside of those stories.

I hope that makes sense. I wanted to share that because I thought that was a really neat experience for me to go through in China looking for Chris. It’s exciting to know that in life that’s happening all the time. We’re always looking for Chris. If we have an idea of what Chris is, then we’re going to spend a lot of time looking for Chris that’s sitting right in front of you when Chris has been there waiting all along. I hope to have more experiences like that in life when Chris will look up and say, “Hi, are you Noah? I’m …” Whatever concept and I’ll just laugh and think, of course you are. That’s how it’s been all along and I couldn’t see it.

That’s the nature of doubt that I want to have in my life. 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, as happiness, terms like success. I just want to be open to whatever those things are and not be blinded by the beliefs I have around what those concepts are supposed to be. I think that will provide many fascinating experiences in life much like what Carl Sagan says where he says, “Somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known.”

Whatever that is that’s waiting to be known, I think that’s faith. I have the faith in that exact expression, that somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known and I can’t wait to see whatever it is, but I’m not going to get lost in the assumption that I have of whatever that is supposed to be. Hopefully that makes sense in explaining the concepts of faith and doubt a little bit more at a deeper level for understanding the Buddhist worldview of faith and doubt.

Again, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast please feel free to share it, to write a review, or give it a rating. If you want to clarify this topic a little bit further with me, feel free to reach out. I’d love to hear what you think about this topic, and I’ll talk to you guys next time. Thank you.