Thoughts on Faith, Buddhism and Thiruvannamalai

What follows are some thoughts on a talk I attended last night on Faith from a Buddhist perspective and my weekend in Thiruvannamalai…

The day after I had returned from my yatra to Thiruvannamalai I had the wonderful opportunity to hear Sharon Salzberg speak about “Faith” at the India International Center. Sharon is a very well known Buddhist teacher in the United States and she is in Delhi this week to attend the Sunyata training given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. If you are interested in questions surrounding faith from a Buddhist perspective (and her book is like her talk) her book “Faith, Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience” would be a great read. She also mentioned a Stephen Batchelor book, “The Faith to Doubt: Glimpses of Buddhist Uncertainty” which seems like an interesting read as well. Hopefully I can track down both books in India and if not I will just have to ask the next visitor from the States to bring them for me 🙂

This past weekend in Thiruvannamalai I thought a lot about “faith” and it seemed only fitting that I would arrive back in Delhi only to attend this particular talk. I completed a parikrama/pradakshina (circling a worshipped or revered place) during the full moon around the sacred Arunachala mountain with thousands of other pilgrims. What drew thousands of pilgrims to this particular place? Why have I not had a strong desire to visit Thirupathi and many other “holy sites” in India?

I came to Buddhism and Nondual philosophy because I didn’t believe in blind faith and never really connected with the Hindu rituals and practices I grew up with and strongly identified with Humanism. But both the Buddha and Sri Ramana Maharshi provided me with the tools I need to question, inquire and discover “abiding faith” so I now appreciate, understand and even love the rituals though it still is not my preferred form of practice.

Amidst all of the chaos in my dear mentor’s (Ramu Mama) life his faith was unshakable and I firmly believe this is because he was a firm believer in the method of Self-Inquiry and employed the correct style of questioning needed for what Sharon Salzberg calls, “verified faith.” Ramana Maharshi provides an excellent form of questioning in his teaching “Who Am I” which I have attached to this email. I read this again for the hundredth time when I was in Thiruvanammali but this time as I was meditating in the caves I finally (gosh, it took me long enough!) realized just how brilliant his method is. If you have the time and are interested do download the attachment of “Who Am I” that I have sent with this email and take your time going through it. Ramana Maharshi much like the Buddha didn’t want others to just believe what he said. He wanted them to practice and discover it all for themselves. Faith isn’t something you have or you don’t. Rather, real faith is something you come to through self-inquiry, wisdom and questioning.

In Sharon Salzberg’s discussion of faith she talked a lot about “bright faith.” Bright faith is something I think we have all experienced (even for a moment). From what I understood it involves having faith in the awakening of oneself and the capacity of the human heart and mind. Bright faith occurs in those moments where we discover the breathtaking view of human possibility and of not being stuck. It is a sense of boldness and daring to imagine you can live in a different way. She felt that “bright faith” is what we experience when we first fall in love and it can be intoxicating. Sharon told a great story about a letter Bruce Springsteen had written when Bob Dylan was first inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Springsteen recalled the first time he heard Dylan’s music. He was a young boy in the car with his mom listening to the radio and it was as if “a giant boot had come down and kicked open the door of his mind.” I think we have all had moments like this but how do you transform “bright faith” into “verified faith” and not fall into fear, doubt or “blind faith.” How can you be fearless and have certainty?

I think all you can really do is practice just like the Buddha and Ramana Maharshi and slowly but surely that unshakable faith will come and then you can understand the nature of possibilities and take risk with ease.

Sharon Salzberg mentioned how important it is to use the investigative power to deepen our faith and my mentor Ramu Mama said the same thing. He thought that his spiritual hero Ramana Maharshi was the reincarnation of a great Greek philosopher! She also said something along the lines of “abiding faith is not a dogmatic holding of a belief. You investigate so deeply that you embody the belief.” Essentially, you become a deep embodiment of lived values that have been investigated and explored and this is what made Ramana Maharshi, the Buddha and my mentor Ramu Mama so very special.

As you climb to the caves where Ramana Maharshi lived for some years there is a spot on a cliff (on the way to Skandashram) where you have the most breathtaking view of Thiruvannamalai and the Arunachala Temple. This being my second trip to Thiruvannamalai I only spent time in the places that I find most special to me which are this particular spot on the mountain and the caves. According to the legends Shiva appeared on the Holy Hill as a column of light in order to settle a dispute between Brahma and Vishnu and it serves as one of the five most holy sites for Lord Shiva in all of South India. As I was leaving the Sri Ramana Maharshi Ashram a dear friend I came with told me that she found out that my teacher, Ramu Mama’s ashes were sprinkled all over the mountain and this reaffirmed my pledge to visit the mountain every year while I am in India to pay my respects.

At the end of Sharon Salzberg’s talk I asked her to speak to nonduality and bhakti since she runs retreats with Krishna Das (a favorite musician of mine that I always try to see when he is in my area). I found it very interesting that a teacher of Buddhist meditation would run retreats with a kirtan master like Krishna Das but she said, “Remember that distinctions are not divisive and there are many ways of opening the heart.”

On the ride to Thiruvannamalai from Chennai my dear friends and I engaged in a fascinating discussion about Fate and Free Will and of course when I arrived in my room at the Ashram the following quote was on my door:

“The debate “Does Free Will prevail or Fate, is only for those who do not know the root of both. Those who have known the Self, the common source of Free Will and of Fate, have passed beyond them and will not return to them. “ – Ulladu Narpadu – 19

I also managed to briefly visit Auroville (an incredibly unique experiment in human unity close to Pondicherry), Aurobindo’s Ashram and the Theosophical Society (in an area of Chennai called Adyar) where many brilliant minds have spent extended periods of time. I definitely need to return and spend more time in these places. Myself and a colleague are trying to organize a trip with students in October to work on an Organic Farm in Dehradun but the folks at Navdanya have been bad with communication so now we may take students to Auroville for a week instead.

Yesterday I took students to a phenomenal Raghu Rai exhibit at the National Gallery of Modern Art “The Journey of a Moment in Time”. Seeing his work is like having a “giant boot” continuously “come down and kick open the door to my mind.” If you ever get a chance to look at his work please do. For Rai “the camera is an instrument of learning. When you look through it, you start achieving a kind of concentration. In these concentrated moments you can penetrate and discover the unseen—the unknown. It’s a learning of the self and the world.”

Lots of fabulous things are always happening in Delhi! The Tagore festival begins tomorrow and Thich Nhat Hanh is coming at the end of September for month. I am on the organizing committee to help coordinate Thay’s visit and will send out details as soon as I get them. The Yogathon I am directing for children’s education with the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is now one aspect of a huge Peace Day Event in honor of UN Peace Day on September 21st. Much to be done but it is all exciting! Thankfully my traveling finally eases up for a bit when I go on a much needed retreat next week,

Sending you lots of love, warm wishes and eternal blessings!

In Faith 🙂


Notes from Sharon Salzberg’s talk on Faith at the IIC, March 26th 2008

Bring bodies into balance, compassion and kindness

Meditation helps us remain connected, aware and energized

There is the “bright faith” of knowing oneself and confidence in awakening, faith in the practice

Two things drew her to Buddhism: The Buddha’s unafraid, acknowledgement of suffering and the Buddha’s invitation to do something about it…the capacity of the human heart and mind and that there are tools (inkling of faith)

The Buddha said don’t believe anything I say. Put it into practice and discover it for yourself. This is a breathtaking view of human possibility. The sense of not being stucks. Meditation can be a pragmatic, personal transformation.

Steven Bachelor – The faith to doubt

Faith is not something you have or don’t have. Self respect, wisdom and questioning

You begin with faith

Sense of boldness, dare to imagine that we can live in a different way

The process of faith

Bright faith – yes! Things can be different! It is like falling in love.

Bruce Springsteen on Bob Dylan – as if a giant boot came down and kicked open the door of my mind

Enter the dimension of seeing the possibilities. This is intoxicating and you are not asking the question

You don’t want to be separate from the door of possibility

Close down and become afraid could turn bright faith into blind faith which is the smaller world

To protect yourself from falling into blind faith and transform it into verified faith you need to put it into practice

Understand the nature of possibilities and take risk

Verified faith involves skillful, correct questioning

Use the investigative power to deepen our faith

Abiding faith is not a dogmatic holding of a belief…you investigate so deeply that you embody the belief…what you see to be true…we simply are

Giving the Dalai Lama the nobel peace prize is like giving Mother Nature an art award. His Holiness is not self conscious or righteous but this did not just happen, he practices!

We wake up in the morning and start writing the story of me…Krishna Das

Deep embodiment of lived values that have been investigated and explored.

Metta, maitri and the capacity of the human heart to connect and care.

Robert Thurman…our lives are interdependent so be there for each other

The quality of faith to suspend disbelief, extended, nourished and enhanced.

Adventure of loving kindness, open beyond the bad and don’t focus on that

Faith is not being stuck or limited

Bakti and nonduality – distinctions are not divisive…the path and the fruit of the path

Taking refuge in the Buddha there is transparency not the other, not the separate, acknowledging something within us…seed for infinite care and compassion…great enlarged view.

Buddha taught a way of life, not Buddhism…the transformative power of every day experiences, compassion and balance.

What arises is less important to how you relate to the experience. Do you grasp?

Reframing our sense of happiness and suffering…the importance of mindfulness

It is about appreciating the possibility of being mindful

Feeling a glass may sound crazy but you are connected and grounded for that moment

Everybody hears something different.

On Kirtan and meditating…Faith is an exploration…make an offering…Holistic picture of possibilities opening the heart in different ways

Not blind faith but faith in the goodness of humans