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Lions Roar : November 2012
not to say that science doesn’t make some amazing and useful discoveries. It only suggests that we can and do function in the world, regardless of whether something is “true” or not. We don’t need a sense of “rightness” to respond and be effec- tive in life. In fact, how much does rightness serve us? How has it helped us in the realm of personal relationships, religious dis- course, or politics? Even rightness in the name of altruism—or vegetarianism, or spirituality—can create aggression and divisive- ness. When you think about it, belief and rightness seem extrane- ous to open inquiry, to responding to life in the most basic way. Modern science acknowledges the limitations of holding on to static truths. As theoretical physicist F. David Peat says, “It is widely held that certainty about the real world is a failed his- torical enterprise.” That makes sense. Where does a static truth stand in a world that is dynamic, rambunctious, and open to interpretation? I am not dismissing the value of belief altogether. In fact, the more I thought about Maryanne’s question, the more belief, as an experience, began to open up for me. I started to see that we use the word in many different ways. For instance, a belief can be an idea with a strong sense of direction, a guiding polestar. When we say to someone, “I believe in you,” it doesn’t mean we see that person in a static way. It means we see the potential or goodness in someone and want to encourage her to move forward. I saw the movie Conviction recently, which is based on a true story. In the story a sister who had never graduated from high school took the GED exam and went on to finish law school in order to free her brother, whom she later proved innocent, from life imprisonment. Her devotion to her brother was deeply moving and driven by her conviction in his innocence—a belief. If you look up “belief ” in the dictionary you might be sur- prised by how many definitions it has: from dogma, opinion, and assumption, to love, cherish, or appreciate. There couldn’t be two more different experiences than dogma and love. Dogma is closed and exclusive while love is open and inclusive. So I started to look more deeply into the etymology of belief. In her book, The A Case for God, Karen Armstrong talks about the word’s origin. She says that, in the early translation of the New Testament, the word translated as belief came from the Greek word pistis, which means to love, hold dear, appreciate, or commit to. According to Armstrong, Jesus wasn’t asking his disciples to believe in his divinity; he was asking them to join him in his vision to serve. Here belief has nothing to do with conforming to an idea but serves as a vehicle to move us out of a small, self-focused world into a bigger way of being. Sometimes we have experiences, which make us understand that life is much fuller than the ideas we have about it. We look up at the night sky and feel humbled by its beauty, grandness, and mystery. Yet we might also experience ourselves as part of this vastness, the great nature of interdependence. Such experi- ences transport us beyond the limited constructs of “true” and “untrue” to a fuller way of knowing things. This way of knowing is basic to our humanness. Not everyone is looking at life in terms of whether things are true or not. This is often apparent in indigenous cultures, in which belief expresses itself as a sense of wonder, respect, and appreciation for the mystery of life. In India, you may walk past a tree with an interesting knot in a branch. And you see that some- one has already been there and offered a flower. After hiking to a cave above seventeen thousand feet in Tibet, I met an old man there who had spent twenty years in prison dur- ing the Cultural Revolution. He was missing most of his fingers. He hadn’t received a formal education, much religious training, or instruction, but while in prison he prayed to Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion. I couldn’t see a trace of aggression, blame, or “rightness” in this man—only a deep sense of humility, openness, and love. Clearly, belief for him was not a static idea but a way of accessing a bigger way of being. Many of us have a tendency to dismiss what we can’t see per- sonally as appealing only to superstitious or naïve minds. But that is because we are often looking through the lens of whether or not something is “true,” which reduces the fullness and mystery of life to an idea, a subjective conclusion. How “true” can that be? Belief doesn’t necessarily have to concretize. It can be a feeling of inspiration from within, something we can learn from—an idea with a strong sense of direction. When I look at reincarna- tion in this way, I see that it has a powerful function in the way I understand and live my life. It helps me see beyond my idea of a singular and separate “I” that will, at some unknown point, fall into extinction. This brings me closer to the beauty, fullness, and mystery of life, something that’s truly beyond “me,” or the extinction of “me”—or even the reincarnation of “me.” ♦ I’m about to sigh, but before I do, I want you to know that nothing is wrong. SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2012 18