The pure water of faith

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If people genuinely practice with right faith, they all attain the Way equally. – Dōgen[1]

Could you talk a little bit about the phrase “right faith?”

Okumura Roshi:
“Right faith” is a translation of shōshin (正信); shō is “true” or “right” and shin is “faith” or “belief.” This Chinese character basically means “trust.” One part of the character for shin means “people” and the other part means “words,” so to believe means to believe people’s words – when someone is saying something, to accept it and trust that this person’s sayings are truth. As a Buddhist term, it’s said there are two kinds of shin or faith. One is called shinge, another is called gyoshin. Ge is understanding, so shinge is a combination of faith and understanding. Gyo means to respect, literally, to look up; so gyoshin is a combination of respect and trust.

Shinge, the first kind of faith, is explained using the example of someone who is digging a well. At the beginning, they can’t see the water, but as they keep digging, they start to see the soil getting wet. When they see that the soil is getting wet, even though they don’t have water yet, they have a belief that, “If we keep digging, then we will surely get water.” We don’t have the water yet, but we trust that if we keep this practice, we will get it. This is faith based on some understanding.

The second kind of faith comes out of our respect for the person who is speaking, such as a teacher; because of respect we trust the person, therefore, we trust his teaching, even though we don’t have any understanding. A typical example of this is faith in the pure land, as Shinran taught. Shinran said that he didn’t know whether chanting nembutsu is really a cause of being born in the pure land or not. He said that because he had nothing to do beside this practice, believing what his teacher Honen was teaching, and believing in the age of last dharma, self-power practice worked. Therefore, this practice of chanting nembutsu is the only possibility. So, even if he was deceived by his teacher and went to hell instead of the pure land, he said, that’s ok. He trusted his teacher’s teaching, because that’s the only hope he had. That kind of faith is called gyoshin— because of our trust in our teacher, we trust the teaching.

The title of Shinran’s major writing is Kyogyoshinsho; kyo is “teaching,” gyo is “practice,” shin is “faith,” and sho is “verification.” Those were all important elements for him, but in his case shin is really the basis of his teaching. In the case of Dōgen, gyo (practice) is the basis, but in this quotation he’s saying that shin is also important. Without shin or faith, we cannot keep this kind of nonsense practice, just to sit without expecting anything. This is a really difficult thing if we don’t have trust or belief or faith. Dōgen’s teaching is really difficult. As I often say, many of his teachings didn’t make sense to me at all. But somehow, I couldn’t stop, or I could continue (either expression is fine) because of my trust in my teacher’s way of life. It was not because of my understanding of Dōgen’s teaching, but because I wanted to live like my teacher, and follow my teacher’s practice based on zazen following Dōgen’s teaching. Whether I understand Dōgen or not is not so essential. But after I started to understand what he was saying, I was very happy, and my practice became more meaningful, and I had more gratitude for his teaching. I feel very fortunate; even though I didn’t understand his teaching I could continue to practice, and finally I started to understand.

So, in our practice also, I think faith is really important. Faith is the energy that allows us to continue with the many questions and doubts we have during the process of practicing for many years. Sometimes I had so many good reasons or excuses to stop, but somehow I couldn’t, because of my trust in my teacher’s way of life. My teacher and my teacher’s teacher had been practicing this zazen so many years, and they never stopped. Their life is already over. I can’t doubt their practice. They completely devoted their entire lives to this practice. So even though I didn’t understand the teaching or dharma taught by Dōgen, still I could continue. So, I think faith is really important.

One of the definitions of faith in Buddhism which appeared in the Abhidharmakośa is, in Chinese, shin chojo; cho and jo both mean to “be clear,” and shin is mind/heart. That means the mind/heart being pure or clear. According to that text, shin is like a jewel. It’s said that in India when monks travelled and had to drink water from rivers or ponds— I don’t know if this is true or not— there were certain jewels which when put in the muddy water, settled the mud down and then the surface of the water became pure. This mud is our doubt or delusions. If there is shin or faith, our delusions or our doubts go down and our life becomes clear and pure, and we can drink. Shin is not a belief in some kind of a system of belief or a doctrine we have to accept, like in many religions. Faith is something which makes our minds pure and clear.

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[1] From the answer to question 18 in Bendōwa. See Kōshō Uchiyama et al., The Wholehearted Way: A Translation of Eihei Dōgen’s Bendōwa with Commentary (Boston, Mass: Tuttle Publishing, 1997). page 40.

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi  about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.

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For further study:

> Other Questions and responses

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