Faith Hope and Love on the Dharma Path

This coming weekend is Easter. Raised here in England in a Christian culture, I associate this time of year both with a bursting forth of incredible beauty in the natural world, of trees coming into blossom and leaf, and an accelerated awakening out of winter, but also the message of hope contained in the teaching of the resurrection. I’m not a “believer” in a traditional Christian sense and have spent most of my life turned towards Buddhist teachings for guidance. But my dual heritage background has kept me interested in different sources of inspiration.

St Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians, sometimes known as the Hymn to Love, speaks of the three gifts of the Holy Spirit – faith, hope and love. Buddhism has its own “Hymn to Love” in the form of the Metta Sutta, and what they say about the characteristics of love – its humility and unconditionality – is not very different.

In Buddhism, faith (saddha) is the first of the five spiritual faculties, acknowledging that we need some faith or confidence in a teaching in order to begin to try it out for ourselves. Faith isn’t a question of believing in a philosophical proposition but of being willing to commit to trying something (the Buddha’s teaching) out so that we can develop our own understanding. Faith gives us the ground on which to stand, in order to explore. With practice, faith develops into a power, or strength (bala).

Hope is not a word we tend to find in Buddhist teaching and yet in practice it seems essential to me – just think how debilitating is its opposite: hopelessness. Dharma is inherently hopeful: “apparent here and now, timeless, encouraging investigation, onward-leading, to be experienced by each of us for ourselves.” Hope is also the other side of the coin of the insight into impermanence: where the future is always uncertain, the unexpected is forever possible.

At this difficult time, with all the ongoing uncertainties and challenges of the Covid pandemic, ecological crisis and political and social upheaval, keeping the quality of hope alive seems more important than ever. Developing a buoyant, loving and courageous heart is essential for our own well being and a gift we can give to the world. When love becomes unconditional, faith and hope are its natural companions. I’m a way off still, but this is the goal of my dharma path.

Suggestions for practice:

Faith: When confidence and steadiness feel challenged, I like to feel the ground under my feet. I reflect that the earth has always and will always be there supporting me. This body belongs to the earth and will return there. Feeling the ground under our feet or supporting our body lowers our centre of gravity out of the spinning of our thoughts and connects mindfulness with the body and our immediate surroundings. Feeling grounded gives us a kind of embodied sense of trust. Notice how much this kind of trust is already present and operating in just our ordinary activities. In a broader context, reflect on what you do and don’t really put your trust in, and how this shows up in your thoughts and actions. Is there anything in our behaviour we would change, if we really reflected on it?

Hope: What can you do to keep hope alive in the heart? So much news and media is concerned with disaster after disaster. Without denying or ignoring the real suffering that exists, make it a project each day to notice one thing that brings a sense of gladness or optimism into the heart: an uplifting story in the news; an act of kindness given, witnessed or received; some beauty we glimpse in nature. Maybe keep a small journal for this.

Love: Give yourself a regular smile. Try it on others too. Fake it if necessary. Did you know this can actually change your physiology which over time will change your mind? I learned recently that simply raising your eyebrows has a similar effect to smiling. Why not try both together!

Resources:

You can read a wonderfully accessible translation of the metta sutta here.
And St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians here.
For a talk I gave on the topic of Faith and Wisdom, during an IMS 3 month retreat, you can listen here.

Discussion

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