Faith and Reason,




In my book, Scratching the Itch: Getting to the Root of Our Suffering, I hypothesized the reason for there being so many instantaneous enlightenments reported when reading about the life of the Buddha or of Zen Master Benkei.  I said that people back then were more open to blind faith, to the promise of religion.  Whereas today, people are suspect of blind faith and rely more on reason.  I think, therefore I am.  Also, the ego-mind is much more developed now than in those days.

Recently, in reading Montaigne, The Complete Works, he notes that if faith does not come from some mysterious inner source but instead is founded on reason, then that faith is subject to being constantly beaten down by competing reason.  Whereas faith founded on some mysterious inner source is inviolate, not susceptible to being pierced by the ego-mind.  Reason can be used to support faith, but not to give it birth.

I think this gets to the reason why people have so much trouble walking the Buddhist path these days.  When I think about my own faith, which has been steadfast almost from the start, it definitely was founded on reason.  When I first read Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan book of Living and Dying, the light bulb kept going on in my head, “so that’s the reason!”  It made sense of what had never made any sense before.  I believed because my reaction on reading the book was, “Yes!”

And so for many years, almost 2 decades, while I made progress on the path and certainly achieved substantial calm in my life, my ego-mind was still in control with some regularity.  Then one morning while meditating, I knew from within the truth that fear and all the emotions are just a product of the mind.  (See my blog post, “Proof of the Nature of Mind – Fear, Ego, and Buddha Mind.”)

From that day forward, I have not been subject to the grip of fear or the other emotions.  Instead I experience all things directly, with dispassion, without the intervention of ego-mind, knowing that things are the way they are because it’s just the way it is, and so my mind rests undisturbed.  Fear still arises from time to time, but I am able to say “no” to it and turn to my faith that I will be ok regardless.

On the other hand, early on in my Buddhist practice I had direct contact with my unwounded heart, my soul.  During a meditation, the image of myself as a smiling toddler came to me and I knew that was my true Buddha self, my unwounded heart.  It was a cathartic moment and I cried.

Yet despite that coming from within, from some mysterious inner source, and I have had faith ever since that that smiling toddler is the avatar of my true Buddha self, the joy and happiness that is an essential aspect of that toddler and my heart have generally not been part of my experience of life.  I seem trapped in the ambience of the past, the ambience of my ego-mind which is decidedly unjoyful and not positive.  (See my blog post, “What Blocks Me from Being Truly Present and Radiating My Inner Energy 24/7?”)  And so I have to purposefully conjure up the image of that toddler to experience that joy and radiate the positive energy that is in his/my heart.

Why has my ego-mind generally been successful at blocking my experience of joy and positive energy while the ego-mind has not been successful at pulling me away with its fear and anxiety, doubt and confusion, guilt and shame from my faith that I will be ok regardless what happens?

After meditating on this question, what I have come to realize is that my reasoning supports the truth that my emotions are just a product of the mind, that they are not me.  My reasoning supports my faith.  Whereas my reasoning does not support a statement that the world is a joyful, positive place.  Quite the contrary.

And so for me to be joyful 24/7, radiating positive energy, in order to be in a good space, to feel uplifted, flies in the face of reality and requires the purposeful conjuring up of my true Buddha self, that smiling toddler.  Indeed, if my intent is to experience things directly, that means being aware of the pain and dysfunction which is everywhere around me.  One cannot escape that.   Be free of emotion, but aware.

My smiling toddler, after all, did not have the knowledge of the real world, which I do.  It’s hard to ignore facts, to ignore the truth.  Whereas my emotions are not facts.  They are a product of my mind.  Yes, the world is the way it is; and I experience pain because of it.  But to turn that pain into suffering is not a reflection of fact but the twisted insecurity of my ego-mind.  Similarly, to experience joy and positive energy 24/7 in the face of such overwhelming pain is a craving of my ego-mind, not the true witness of my heart.

Instead, my intent will be to truly experience things directly.  That means that I will be aware of the pain and dysfunction in the world, but I will neither  react to it with emotion nor will I seek to spare myself from that pain by being joyful and radiating positive energy at all times.

But I will at the same time be open to experiencing all the joy that the present moment has to offer.  Where there is joy, I will experience it.  Where I can offer others joy, I will do it.  Where there is not joy, I will experience that too.  This requires being present.

Joy may be the weather, nature, a work of art, loved ones or friends.  Or strangers … I am aware that my primary purpose in life is to offer others joy.  I cannot offer joy if I am not myself joyful.

So for example, when I would be in the subways of New York City, surrounded by every evidence of misery and suffering, I responded to people by radiating loving-kindness, by saying hello in my mind to everyone around me, and seeing their smiling toddler selves.  (NOTE: I did this to offer others joy, not to escape the reality of the subway.)  And occasionally someone would notice and be touched by the energy flowing from me and would smile back.

This is the middle way.  This is my path.

Hanh Niêm, Ronald Hirsch

Ronald Hirsch  has had a varied career as a teacher, legal aid lawyer, survey researcher, nonprofit executive, composer, writer, and volunteer.  Having found Buddhism at age 49, he has walked the path of Buddhism 25 years now.   Along the way, he has had the good fortune to have had some powerful teachers who opened many gates for him. His Zen practice follows no particular lineage but reflects the teachings of his Vietnamese and Korean Zen mentors.

 He is the writer of the award-winning blog,, and the author of three books on Buddhist practice and one ecumenically spiritual work, Raising a Happy Child.  He is also the author of We Still Hold These Truthsacclaimed by James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic, as “a systematic and serious effort to make the [presidential] debate as clear and valuable as it can be. Agree or disagree with his specific conclusions, the questions he is asking are the right ones for the public this year.”  He grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania and resides in New York.


One response to “Faith and Reason,”

  1. Albert Avatar

    I love to ride the NY subways. Humanity in aspic. Carry on loving. (Ed.)

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