by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Part V
True Conviction

The tangled roots of karma conceal our Buddha Nature.
If we neglect our study of the elementary principles of what is true and what is not,
We will submit to disharmony and harm,
Cutting ourselves off from the deep Truth.

The Act of Believing and the Act of Disbelieving

There is no more important act than the act of believing or disbelieving, for other actions of thought, speech and body follow upon actions of believing and disbelieving. When we say that we "have" a particular belief, we are using a rather confusing mental and verbal shorthand to indicate that we keep choosing to believe that a proposition or idea is true. Suppose, for example, that I say that I believe that the earth is spherical in shape. If I look closely at my constantly changing experience, I can see that each time I think of the earth, I choose to believe a whole set of propositions about its nature, one of which is that it is spherical. At any time, I might make another choice. But once I have been convinced by whatever facts and/or opinions I have taken as adequate proof that the earth is spherical, I say that I believe that the earth is spherical. And then I might just say, "The earth is spherical" and omit any mention of belief.

The same process is involved in the act of not believing. For example, I do not believe that the earth is flat like a pancake. If someone tells me that the earth is indeed flat, I will choose to disbelieve this statement unless some pretty cogent proof can be presented. But suppose someone presents me with evidence that convinces me that the earth is indeed flat. When I choose to be convinced, I say that I have "changed my belief" about the shape of the earth.


The Buddha was concerned about the potentially serious consequences of the act of believing and the act of disbelieving. He told his disciples that they should not do the act of believing with respect to any teaching until they had proved it true in their own experience. But the Buddha did not tell his disciples that they should do the act of disbelieving when they were presented with a teaching that they had not yet proved true for themeselves, for choosing disbelief closes the mind and heart of the disciple.

The Buddha taught the Middle Way that transcends all opposites. The willful act of believing and the willful act of disbelieving are opposites. Like all the opposites, they lead to suffering. Willful belief is dogmatism ("blind faith") and willful disbelief is sceptical doubt. The Middle Way in belief is choosing to keep an open mind and heart, neither professing belief nor professing disbelief until one has proved the teaching to be true for oneself.

This choice to keep an open mind and heart, refraining from both dogmatic belief and sceptical doubt, is trust. Trust and willingness are two sides of the same coin. Trust and willingness are upward-looking and bright. Mistrust and willful insistence (or "clinging", to use the classic Buddhist term) are downward-looking and dark. I cannot overemphasize that trust is a choice, a mental action. It is not a magical quality that some people possess and other people lack. Spiritual training is a process in which the effort to trust is a continuing effort: yesterday's trust is no guarantee that today I will trust; and today's trust is no guarantee of future trust. Similarly, no amount of mistrusting in the past can prevent me from trusting in this very present moment, though habitual mistrust certainly does not make trusting easier.

Imagine a traveller who wishes to traverse a great territory full of hazards. He has never been there before. A guide is available to lead him to his destination. Obviously, the traveller is not going to benefit from the guide's experience if he insists that he already knows the way: if that is so, why hire the guide? This is the problem with dogmatic belief. And if the traveller insists that the guide must be mistaken about the route he has taken whenever the route goes through particularly hazardous terraine, he will turn back or launch out on his own and get lost. This is the problem with sceptical doubt. The guide cannot carry the traveller, cannot do his walking for him, but a good guide can lead a willing and trusting traveller through the perils to the destination. The disciple is the "traveller"; the master is the "guide".

Experience-based Understanding

The traveller who follows a good guide will come to know the landscape for himself. He will learn how to negotiate the perils encountered along the way. And he will be able to lead others as he has been led. How does this education happen?--By learning through one's own experience in the course of the journey. This is what Rev. Master meant when she said, as she often did, that she had found, or proved, something to be "true for me".

There are many questions that spiritual training does not answer. Some philosophical, cosmological, or historical questions are commonly mistaken for genuine spiritual questions. The Buddha called such questions "questions not leading to edification" and encouraged his disciples not to worry about such matters, but to keep their focus on their own training. An example of a question not leading to edification is the question whether the universe came into existence at a particular moment in the past, or whether it has always existed. Even if we ever learn the answer to such a question, neither dwelling on the question nor finding the answer will lead to the real cessation of suffering.

If we focus on doing the actual training, keeping all the questions on the "back burner" and trusting that the training will lead to the answers that we really need to find, spiritual understanding develops naturally--mostly quietly and imperceptibly. Every bit of spiritual experience puts another piece of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle into place until a beautiful and awe-inspiring picture is glimpsed. No one ever sees the whole of this picture--it is infinitely large and infinitely complex. As Rev. Master once told me, "Even the greatest Zen master never knows the whole truth."

No Knowledge, No Attainment

Suppose that tomorrow morning I awoke and found that I had dreamed my whole life of training: Rev. Master never existed in reality; I had never meditated, become a monk, trained--everything was just a dream.--Well, here I am; it was a great dream. Now that I am awake, what am I going to do?--What is to stop me from training today just as I did in the dream?

Relative to this present moment, the whole of my past is just a dream. In this present moment I make my choice: I choose where to focus my attention; I choose whether to look up or down; I choose to turn within in meditation, or not to do so. This present moment is all I have to work with. In this very present moment, I am making a new beginning. I call this the "zero reset": returning to the present moment, letting go of the past, not fretting about the future--"having nothing, knowing nothing, wanting nothing."

Is this "zero reset" a kind of knowledge, a kind of understanding?--Perhaps. But if it is, it is only realized by continuing to push the "zero reset" button--by continuing to return to the mind and heart of meditation. It is not a kind of knowledge or understanding that one can cling to. As Rev. Master often said, it is like holding one's hand in a moving stream of water: grasp after the water, and the hand comes up empty; leave the hand in the stream, and hand and stream are one.

In this present moment, spiritual need arises; in this present moment, help moves toward the need; in this present moment we are shown by the Eternal what is good to do. We do not have to take a great load of accumulated knowledge and virtue into this present moment: the Eternal will show us the step that we need to take; and the Eternal will show us how to take it. In this view of spiritual understanding, insight arises from, and returns to, the Great Immaculacy. There is no such thing as "my" knowledge, "my" attainment, "my" realization. In Great Master Dogen's words, "They travel fastest who are not there."

The "form is only void, void is all form" of the Heart Sutra--the "Scripture of Great Wisdom"--is saying, "Everything you have and are arises and passes continually within the flow of Immaculacy. Do not create and perpetuate ignorance by clinging to external things or by clinging to spiritual experience and understanding. Relax into the Great Immaculacy in perfect faith."

Blood and Bones Certainty

The Eternal is. The "blood and bones" certainty that the Eternal is itself just is.

In one of my favorite movies, one of the characters says, "Even people who hate their mothers love their mothers." And I say, "Even people who do not think that they have the 'blood and bones' certainty that the Eternal is actually do have it. And they--or some other being in their stream of karma--will one day realize it." The certainty that the Eternal is is not knowledge as the world thinks of knowledge. It is not a concept, a proposition, a theory, a mental or emotional state. We cannot comprehend what it is intellectually, and we cannot make it more clear by using more words to explain it. It just is.

Degrees of Certainty

The feeling that we associate with "being very certain" of the truth of a belief or an opinion can be very misleading. Rev. Master often cautioned us, "Be careful when the certainty comes." In general, acting on the basis of emotions is a risky business. Nonetheless, the fact that emotions sometimes attend upon our beliefs does not in itself prove that those beliefs are either true or not true. Feeling is one thing; the truth or falsity of belief is another matter altogether.

We can--and continually do--assess with accuracy the reliability of our experience. In the parallel narrative to this one, entitled How to Grow a Lotus Blossom: Reflections in a Disciple's Life, I describe some key aspects of my training, including a number of spiritual experiences of various kinds. I can look at many of the experiences that I describe in terms of a kind of sliding scale of certainty. For example, I have experienced a number of past-life memories. In some of these memories, I re-lived one or more key events with such vividness and intensity that I could no more doubt the accuracy of such a past-life memory--even though it is a memory of something that happened to another person--than I can doubt the accuracy of the most vivid and intense memories of my own lifetime. Some other past-life memories have had no emotional intensity at all, but just a crystal clear memory of particular events and, conveyed with that memory, a clear and simple teaching. These memories have the same degree of certainty as the more intense ones. Then there are several past-life memories that were less intense and less clear. One or two were sufficiently vague that I have always questioned whether I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing. So here there is a whole range of certainty about memories. Apart from the fact that I am writing about past-life memories rather than memories from my own life, this differs not at all from my experience of certainty with regard to my memories in general. I have very vivid and clear recollection of some events in my life; other memories are less clear; many are vague.

Experience-based understanding provides us with grounds for greater or lesser certainty about the wisdom--or lack of it--of volitional actions. We all know with a high degree of certainty that if we put our hand into a flame, we are going to feel pain. Extend that principle a little and the Precepts pop up. For example, I know with a high degree of certainty that if I lose my temper I will feel awful afterwards. There was a time when I did not know this, but I learned through experience, just as I learned through experience that fire can cause pain. The law of karma is a great teacher.

There are places in the "Reflections in a Disciple's Life" where I say that I was "shown" something, by which I mean to convey the fact that I experienced "pure intuitive insight manifesting in intellect"--a kind of vision. (Please see Part I of these Reflections. Scroll down the page to the essay entitled "On Visions".) I regard such experiences as completely normal, especially for anyone who has done many years of serious Zen training. Such experiences are far more common than most people know. As in the case of past-life memories, people are afraid to talk about their intuitive experiences because they think--and not without reason--that they will be doubted.

We all know that people can suffer from delusions that God, or the saints, or spirits, or the devil, or the Buddha, or the Cosmos are confiding in them, or telling them to do things. The fact that we can be deluded, however, does not prove that we are not capable of experiencing genuine intuitive insight.

In general, some of our experience is highly reliable, that is, conveys accurate information, and some is less reliable. For example, a person can take a hallucinogenic drug and have sensory experiences that have little relationship to the world around him. No one wants someone in such a confused state to be driving a car. When not under the influence of a drug, however, the same person might be able to drive competently on a freeway in rush hour in heavy rain. This comparison between reliable and unreliable sense-experience is not fundamentally different from the comparison between genuine--reliable--spiritual experience and delusive--unreliable--experience. In both cases, "the proof is in the pudding": we find through experience whether or not information has been accurately conveyed. I have found that "pure intuitive insight manifesting in intellect" is entirely reliable. But please note that the fact that a teaching has been accurately delivered via intuition is no guarantee that it will be correctly understood and wisely used. Just as our driver can make a mistake in driving even though his senses are all functioning reliably, so we can be given completely reliable teaching by means of intuitive insight and still make mistakes. The delivery of the message is part of a continuing process of training, not the final step.

True for Me

Religion is about our relationship to our True Nature. This relationship is inherently private. While there are many ways in which we can help or hinder one another in our spiritual life, in the end each of us has to do our own training--or not. No one can do another person's training for him.

When we find what is true for me, it is true whether or not anyone else in the world believes it to be true. Rev. Master used to say, "The real Truth does not insist on truth." It is enough to do our own training and find what is true for me: that others do or do not find it true for them is their business. This does not mean that it is not good to offer teaching when it is good to do so. But an offering can be freely accepted or freely refused. Therefore, "When the Buddha taught, the unbelievers were allowed to depart." Buddhism is a religion for spiritual adults who know at all times that they are volunteers in training.

We live in an age in which dogmatism and scepticism war with one another for supremacy in the minds of human beings. And this is so even though dogmatism and scepticism are both rooted in self-doubt. Yet we always have the capacity to look up. That capacity is rooted in the Buddha Nature Itself and is indestructible. In the long run, it wins out.

"If you want to become one with the TRUTH, as one fire combines with another fire, throw away selfish opinions, old emotions, arrogance and obstinacy and learn the TRUE MIND OF THE LORD with the naive mind of a child."

--Great Master Keizan


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