Far too often in history faith has been used by righteous followers of one religion or another as a weapon against those who do not hold the same beliefs. Sharon Salzberg sees it in a more positive light. A cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, she has been teaching meditation for almost 30 years. She is the author of Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and A Heart As Wide As The World.
In this stirring testament to faith, she writes: "I want to invite a new use of the word faith, one that is not associated with a dogmatic religious interpretation or divisiveness. I want to encourage delight in the word, to help reclaim faith as fresh, vibrant, intelligent, and liberating. This is a faith that emphasizes a foundation of love and respect for ourselves. It is a faith that uncovers our connection to others, rather than designating anyone as separate and apart.” As a Buddhist, she adds, “Faith does not require a belief system, and is not necessarily connected to a deity or God, though it doesn’t deny one. This faith is not a commodity we either have or don't have—it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our deepest experience."
For most of her childhood and youth, Sharon Salzberg carried a heavy load of suffering, pain, and grief. Her mother died when she was nine years old and she was sent to live with her father's parents. He had a nervous breakdown and entered the mental health care system. Salzberg first encountered Buddhism in 1968 while taking a course on Asian philosophy at the State University of New York. Buddha's offer of freedom from suffering spoke directly to her heart, especially the Four Noble Truths. In 1970, Salzberg went to India as part of an independent study program. A year later, in Bodh Gaya, India, the site of the Buddha's enlightenment, she attended her first meditation course. For the next three and one-half years, Salzberg studied with Buddhist teachers from India, Burma, and Tibet. The author uses these experiences as a backdrop for her discussion of the various elements of faith.
Sooner or later, we all yearn to break out of our safe and secure harbors. The heart is animated in "bright faith" to move beyond the familiar and the convenient into more adventurous realms of possibility. It is a call to leave behind cynicism and apathy for the unknown. The next stage is “verifying faith” when we deepen our understanding and try things out. Doubt can be a skillful means if it helps us discern the truth. Salzberg notes: "To develop a verified faith we need to open to the messiness, the discordance, the ambivalence, and, above all, the vital life-force of questioning. If we don't, our faith can wither. If we don't, our faith will always remain in the hands of someone else, as something we borrow or abjure, but not as something we claim fully as our own." The final stage is “abiding faith” which Salzberg describes as "the magnetic force of bone-deep, lived understanding, one that draws us to realize or ideals, walk our talk, and act in accord with what we know to be true."
Throughout the book, the author ponders the profound spiritual pointers she has received from the Buddhist teachers in her life, including such as S. N. Goenka , Dipa-Ma, Sayadaw U Pandita, Ram Dass, and others. They help her to see that the early suffering in her life qualifies her to teach the path of practice and perseverance. They challenge her to accept her buddha nature and to have faith in generosity, kindness and clear seeing.
This is the best book about faith that we have read in a long time. We find ourselves deeply touched by Salzberg's teaching that it is an animation of the heart. We also are buoyed by her persistent message that we are called to enter the vast space of not knowing. Mystery and faith belong together, and there is no room for the control game. We like the distinctions Salzberg makes between faith and belief. They seem especially cogent in these times when fundamentalism is so popular around the world. And finally, we would like to affirm with Salzberg that abiding faith contains wonder, questing, openness, and connections. Let's end with a quotation that sums up the essentials: "Faith is the ability to offer our heart to the truth of what is happening, to see our experience as the embodiment of life's mystery, the present expression of possibility, the conduit connecting us to a bigger reality."