My Faith and Freedom of Conscience

by John DeGrace

World Religions Conference

17 September 17, 2006

Prince George Civic Centre

 

It is only fair to note, from the outset, that I am not representing an "ism," as in "Buddhism," but rather speaking from a Buddhist perspective - and not on an academic basis but in light of some 15 years of formal training and practice.

There are three words central to the title of today's Conference: faith, conscience and freedom – and I will speak of them in that order.

 

Faith

The Pali word for faith, "saddhà," means literally "to place the heart upon." From a Buddhist perspective, that which we choose to "place the heart upon" is born in large measure from our experience. The Buddha's invitation was along the lines of "Look, here is what I did, and this is what I found. Why don't you try it and see if you find the same thing?" We place the heart where merit is found. In other words, as the Indian sage Nisargadatta put it, "Faith is not blind; it is the willingness to try."

Buddhism offers a path to the end of suffering, rather than a set of beliefs that must be accepted as a prerequisite to salvation. Each practitioner must walk that path, from the first step to the last. As Nisargadatta put it, again, "Of all the thousands of steps you take on your journey, it is only the last one that brings you to your destination; but you would hardly count all the others a waste!"

So our faith – our willingness to try – need only be enough to take the first step; and the next after that, and so on – one at a time.

As we follow the footsteps of that journey, which in Buddhist practice involves a development and maturing of concentration and investigation leading to wisdom, of course our faith matures. At the outset often it is referred-to as "bright faith," a sense of inspiration and enthusiasm over the possibility of awakening, or perhaps from hearing a wonderful teacher. As we see for ourselves the fruits of the path and the accuracy of the "map" laid out for us, we develop "verified faith" which, as the end of the path is neared, becomes "unshakeable faith."

So, in the context of today's discussion it is important to note that "my faith" refers primarily to the fruits of experience and not to adherence to a set of doctrines.

 

Conscience

Our conventional ideas of conscience are bound up with ideas of praise and blame – that is, our conscience is our sense of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of our conduct or intentions, together with the feeling of an obligation to do right or to be good. But, praise and blame imply a set of standards against which we are to be measured, for example in the transgression of a law.

Morality is at the foundation of Buddhist practice, but from a Buddhist perspective the issue is not so much obedience or transgression as it is learning what is termed "skilful behaviour" or "skilful practice." Skilful practice is acting in a manner that tends to liberation or, if you prefer, to enlightenment. Rather than "commandments," then, Buddhists conventionally adhere to what are termed "training precepts," of which there are five basic ones:

Not to take life
Not to take what is not freely given
Not to speak falsely
Not to engage in sexual misconduct
Not to take substances that cloud the mind

Taken together, the precepts amount to an attitude and practice of non-harming. In Buddhist practice one is acutely aware, for example, that "not to take life" is not just an attitude that extends to not killing sentient beings but that, more to the point, there are many more subtle ways in which we "take life" from each other that do not involve killing – through our unkind words and thoughtless deeds, for example.

I have expressed the precepts as a set of "nots" as though skilful behaviour consisted of avoidance. This is not entirely the case. The positive attributes of a life of non-harming are lovingkindness and compassion, and indeed these are absolutely central to the Buddhist path. Lovingkindness is traditionally viewed as the "supreme abiding," and the Dalai Lama, for example, is always at pains to say "My religion is compassion."

So "conscience," from a Buddhist perspective, amounts to "skilful behaviour - the practice of lovingkindness and compassion - born of experience."

 

Freedom

In the Buddhist way of looking at things, freedom is not absolute. We are bound, among other things, by the "law of karma." Now, "karma" is often equated to "fate," as though our lives are completely predetermined. We say, "That's just the way it is. It's my Karma." But this is not really the case. The law of karma was expressed perfectly by Jesus, who taught, "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." That is, if you plant a certain kind of seed, sooner or later you can expect a certain kind of plant.

But where, in our everyday experience, can we plant the seeds that will direct our futures toward awakening? Here we come to one of the absolutely core Buddhist teachings – that of dependent origination.

Dependent origination describes the way in which all conditioned phenomena – that is, all of our ordinary experience – is interconnected. In terms of our personal experience, it is generally taught as a chain of causes; and not all of the links in that chain are of equal strength. This is fortunate, of course, or we might never have a chance at liberation.

The chain of dependent origination takes as a starting point that we are born and we die. As the Buddha put it, "From birth as a requisite condition, aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of suffering." (DN15) The Buddha's personal mission, from the time he left home until his awakening, was that he wanted to know what to do about old age, sickness and death; and a deep understanding of dependent origination was core to his enlightenment experience.

You don't have to take "birth" as our physical birth, of course. In fact, we are "reborn" moment to moment; we are clearly not the same person as we were ten years ago, or last month, or yesterday. But why are we born? Why do we die? It seems like such a lot of trouble for the dubious benefit of "aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair." Dependent origination looks at it this way:

With "mentality/materiality" as a cause, consciousness comes into being. That is, if we don't have minds and bodies, clearly we cannot be conscious.

With consciousness as a cause, contact comes into being. If we are not conscious, clearly we cannot experience things. "Contact" is simply the input to our sense organs: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and (in the Buddhist way of expressing it) thinking.

With contact as a cause, feeling comes into being. "Feeling," in this context, simply means whether what is experienced is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It is a very basic response over which we have no real control – like an amoeba turning away from salty water.

With feeling as a cause, craving comes into being. Normally, we want what is pleasant and we want to avoid what is unpleasant.

With craving as a cause, clinging comes into being. We habitually attach to that which we crave.

Craving and clinging mark the beginning of how we construct our selves. Some years ago the New York times published an article entitled "My Day," and it began something like this: My alarm clock, my slippers, my bathrobe, my toilet, my shower, my soap, my shampoo, my clothes, my favorite cereal, my coffee, my coat, my car, my reserved parking space, my office, my chair, my computer, my... ...and on and on. This is exactly how we think..

So with clinging as a cause, "becoming" arises. If there were no clinging – to sensuality, to possessions, to opinions and views, or to doctrines – there would be no self as we understand the term.

With becoming as a cause, birth – our everyday self - comes into being, and with it "aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of suffering." To see this chain of dependent origination directly and to appreciate it at a core level, not just intellectually, requires a disciplined meditation practice - time spent seeing clearly just what is really going on in the mind and body.

So, to sum up, we have mentality/materiality; consciousness; contact; feeling; craving; clinging; becoming; birth...and all the other things leading to death.

There is a weak link in the chain of dependent origination, and it is the one area in which we can find real freedom in this process: that is between feelings and craving. Is it possible to experience something as pleasant or unpleasant and not to crave it or push it away? Letting go the tendency to crave things is the very heart of Buddhist practice.

In fact, on one occasion the Buddha was asked by a busy executive of his day to "cut the mumbo jumbo, just give me the core of your teaching so I can be on my way." ...and the Buddha replied, "It's just this: under absolutely no circumstances should one ever cling to anything as being 'me' or 'mine.'" Acros s all of the schools of Buddhism in the world you will not find one that says "cling." Indeed, it's all about letting go.

 

Summing Up

The Buddhist "conscience," then, is informed by the skilful practice of letting go what is usually taken as "me and mine;" and letting go, in turn, is supported by an attitude of harmlessness.

The attitude of harmlessness is supported by the cultivation of lovingkindness and compassion, which is the foundation of spiritual practice.

When we come back to the subject of this discussion, "My faith and freedom of conscience," my faith rests in my willingness to take one step after another in learning to love and to let go, and that is where my freedom lies.