‘You don’t believe in God though, do you? Or reincarnation, I mean that’s just silly.’ For Westerners coming to Buddhism, often from a background of a theistic religion like Christianity or Judaism, the initial appeal of it is that you don’t need to believe in anything. Jaded by their experience of the dogma and the demands of faith in something that hasn’t been proven in scientific terms they become disillusioned with anything that asks them to believe just because they are told to. Buddhism seems like a rational breath of fresh air in comparison, with even the Buddha himself saying that you shouldn’t believe in anything just because he has told you it is the case, you should investigate and see for yourself. But for anyone hoping to escape from any talk of gods, demons, spirits, heaven and hell, and the afterlife will quickly find that gods, demons and devas pop up all over the place in Buddhism .
Take this chant for example, it is from the Verse of Sharing and Aspiration :
Through the goodness that arises from my practice,
May my spiritual teachers and guides of great virtue,
My mother my father and my relatives,
The Sun and the Moon, and all virtuous leaders of the world,
May the highest gods and evil forces,
Celestial beings, guardian spirits of the Earth, and the Lord of Death,
May those who are friendly, indifferent or hostile,
May all beings receive the blessings of my life
In the development of metta and compassion we are directed to send our regard to all beings; the nice ones and the nasty ones, the seen and the unseen, those we know about and those we don’t. This is to help us to develop an unbounded regard for all and without hesitation, so that our natural reaction becomes one of love and acceptance no matter who or what is in front of us.
But if you just don’t believe any of this then how are you supposed to get it to sit comfortably with your practice? You could just ignore it and just concentrate on the things that do make sense to you, and actually that’s not a bad thing to do if you do it wisely and mindfully. When we first come to practice there are a lot of things we don’t know or understand but really all we need to do is to work on the bits that resonate with us right now. The practice builds on itself and as you come to understand more things about it the easier it is to understand the rest of it. So if reincarnation and heavenly realms makes no sense to you right now you can say ‘I recognise that I don’t understand these parts of the teaching, so I’m going to leave them to one side until I am ready to come back to them’. Focus your metta practice on the people and beings that you do believe in, develop your capacity to love those beings and don’t worry about the rest for now.
The thing that is unhelpful though (in practice terms) is to deny their existence, to say to yourself ‘this stuff about celestial beings is just nonsense, I don’t believe it, there’s no proof for it’. Didn’t the Buddha say that you shouldn’t believe anything unless you have seen it for yourself though? Yes he did, but he didn’t say that you should deny anything that you haven’t had direct experience of either instead. Blind faith is not a useful element of Buddhist practice, in fact it can be an obstruction, but to go the other way and deny something is to have a view, an opinion, a position on something. When we have a position on something then every time that thing comes up we automatically go to our position, and unless we are very mindful we will keep taking the same position over and over again. Putting our energy into upholding our opinion makes our perspective biased and stops us from being able to see the world as it really is; we just keep seeing the world through the lens of our opinion. Instead what is more helpful is to not disbelieve it – to be open to it as being possible but recognising that you have no direct knowledge of it, and to accept that you simply don’t know if it is true or not. What though is the difference between this and saying ‘I don’t believe in that’?
Well to take this stance you have no opinion on it, you just recognise that you yourself don’t know – you accept that it could both be possible for it to be true and possible for it not to be true. This might sound really woolly, and certainly we live in a world where everyone is expected to have an opinion about everything – Twitter anyone? – so to take it upon yourself to deliberately not have an opinion goes very much against the direction of the world as it is at the moment. But we don’t practice to be popular, and if you do you will very quickly find that people have as many negative things to say about Buddhism as anything else in the world. We practice initially to gain a clear mind, and the clear mind allows us to go further in our meditation and insight practices until we reach our goal. Until we are very advanced in our practice our aim must be to learn to maintain this clear mind in the face of anything that the world throws at us.
We can quickly see through practice that it is better to uphold the precepts if we want a calm mind; we stop watching action movies because it keeps our minds calm; we dedicate ourselves to a meditation routine because we see the effect of it and it is beneficial to us because it keeps our minds calm. So by this rationale we can eventually get to the point where we see that anything that causes disruption to our mind isn’t worth the hassle, and one thing that causes a huge amount of disruption to our minds is strongly held opinions. Opinions have to be held by someone, so when we have an opinion we attach a sense of ourself to it, a sense of our identity to it. Because the opinion is ‘ours’ any attack on it feels personal, and this can cause all kinds of upset to the mind. It can even lead to the development of hatred, and hatred is one of the three poisons that will rob us of our mindfulness. If you are just dealing in facts – ‘I don’t know if devas exist’ – then people can say whatever they like about it, it isn’t attacking your opinion and your mind can stay calm.
All of this has been about keeping the mind calm but how does that relate to developing metta? If we hold to a view that something doesn’t exist then we close off a part of our heart, we make it impossible to develop love for that thing or being. To have an open heart we need to have an open mind too. If we keep our mind and heart open – I don’t know if they exist but if they do then I wish them well – then we have created no resistance in ourselves, we accept the world as it is (even the parts of it that we have no knowledge of), and we haven’t closed ourselves or any part of ourselves off from the world. The development of metta is a fundamental element of practice because without an open heart we will never be able to let go completely – it isn’t love we are developing as such but a completely open heart that accepts every situation just as it is.
The open and accepting heart supports the calm of the mind too, when we haven’t created an opinion and we haven’t created an identity out of it. The effect that this creates is our mind is at peace and our body experiences no agitation – when we have an opinion, when we are against something, then our mind gets ruffled and our body gets tense. This impacts on our mind, makes it hard to be mindful, makes it hard to sit and meditate, makes it hard to see our thoughts and sensations as things that just arise and cease, not self, and causes of suffering. Just like our training in the precepts isn’t really about being nice to people it’s about creating the conditions in ourselves that make it possible to sit and meditate – a peaceful mind, and a peaceful body free of agitation – then you could say that metta practice has this similar effect.
At some point in your practice you may come to see that the effect of hatred on the mind and body is so toxic that anything that stops it from happening is worth it, and anything that creates it isn’t worth it. At this point it becomes much easier to let go of your opinions and you have less interest in being interesting or clever or popular through expounding your thoughts and opinions. In fact you might come to enjoy being a person who nobody asks for their opinion any more, life is after all so much easier without getting into ego battles and debates. You will still have some opinions but you will be able to recognise them as that, just opinions, you will know the difference between something you know from direct experience and everything else, and you will be able to let them go quite easily. What will become much more important to you than opinions will be care and consideration for all beings, and maintaining the peaceful mind and heart that allow you to generate that love.
"May all beings be released from all suffering"