The Role of Beliefs in Relation to the Concept of
First talk in a series of seven at the annual November Retreat, held at Maitripa Contemplative Center, Victoria, Australia on 27th November 1999.
Many people who come to meditation want to learn about Buddhist meditation but are often very skeptical and uneasy about the Buddhist philosophies that come with it, about certain aspects of the religious elements. People have the notion that Buddhist practice and meditation experiences can be separated from the belief systems in which these practices are embedded. When we come to a Buddhist retreat, people may be afraid of getting converted and they feel that would be seen as a terrible thing. In this day and age many people have this idea that a belief system in general, and religious belief systems in particular, are dangerous. As if someone who believes is dogmatic, not innovative or progressive, is a traditionalist, a conservative, someone with blinkers on and is someone whose mind is shut off from new thoughts and ideas, or that they simply believe but do not actually know, as if a believer is someone who remains a prisoner in their own tradition.
That is highly questionable. As soon as we embark on the practice of meditation we have to make use of certain Buddhist concepts in order to make sense of what we are doing. For example, when we do meditation we already have concepts of enlightenment, spiritual liberation, nirvana, ignorance, defilements and obscurations of the mind that inhibit the realization of our spiritual goal. As soon as we embark on practice, we are already making use of certain Buddhist conceptual tools. This is important to understand.
It is also true that because of what we believe in we may become dogmatic, opinionated and fundamentalist in holding or propounding one's beliefs. But that does not mean we can embark on the spiritual path without believing anything at all. We have to believe in certain fundamentals of spirituality. If we have no orientation we would have no idea about what we are trying to achieve, where we are going ,what kind of personal predicaments we are trying to overcome, or what psychological and spiritual conflicts we need to grapple with and understand. One has to have orientation according to a spiritual approach. We cannot say we should learn to dispense with all of our belief systems. We cannot approach our spiritual practices without approaching it from a particular perspective, a viewpoint.
When we discuss Buddhist meditation, Buddhist practice and Buddhist meditation experiences, we are discussing things from a particular perspective. We are not saying these things because we are Buddhists. We don't think Buddhism is the only way, or superior to all other religious or spiritual traditions. But the Buddhist approach to spirituality and Buddhist way of realizing ultimate truth or even discovering the sacredness of spiritual reality - all of these things can be attained only by adopting a particular viewpoint. This is why in Buddhism we talk about developing proper view - a Noble view - things that we believe in, must come from having adopted the proper noble view. The term in Pali is Samadhiti, in Sanskrit is Samardirshti and in Tibetan Yongpati dawa - meaning the proper noble view.
Instead of believing in nothing, one has to learn to see what should be discarded, jettisoned. We learn what we should stop believing in, spiritual things that may need to be discarded, and what we need to believe in, things can't be abandoned in, order to advance on the spiritual path. This is how we lean how to orient ourselves on the spiritual path. Liberation and our belief systems are intimately related. What we believe in has the ability to lead us to liberation, because having the proper view can steer us in the right direction. Improper view on the other hand, leads us to distortion of our spiritual goals and would only increase our delusions of the mind instead of overcoming our delusions. Improper view can increase our anger, our sense of superiority and pride and our delusions. So it is possible to believe in spiritual matters in a way which encourages our delusory mental states. It is important, therefore, that we overcome our delusions as part of our practice of meditation.
When we embark on the path we need to have proper orientation - which comes from having the correct view. The correct view is the opposite of having the incorrect view or ignoble view. To have the noble view is seen as the same as one's spiritual vehicle. It is the transport that we need to lead us from our samsaric condition, to liberate us, and finally, lead us to nirvana. There's no separation between the vehicle required to arrive at our spiritual destination and the views we need to inculcate. Instead of old views inhibiting us, and as a consequence, tying us to the limited condition of samsara, if we are able to cultivate and inculcate correct views then we find liberation. The views in themselves have the capacity to lead us to our ultimate spiritual destination. So views and liberation are not only compatible and complimentary, but having correct views will produce liberation.
So it is only incorrect views that we need to overcome. We should not be thinking meditation is all about getting rid of views. We do not have to transcend all viewpoints. If we have the idea that in order to achieve liberation we need to overcome all views because they are limiting, we cannot reach spiritual liberation, we cannot make progress on the spiritual path. Even if someone doesn't want to become a Buddhist, and only wants to practice meditation, they already think their life is incomplete. They already think their current situation lacks fulfillment, and that fulfillment can be found in spirituality, and spirituality will uplift them from their present state of being. To see like that already requires a lot of conceptual categories and that person already believes in varieties of things. It is not possible to simply drop what we believe in just like that.