The Importance of Faith in Mysticism

by Matthew P. Sieradski
Fall 2019

“I wanna say to my sisters and my brothers: Keep the faith!
When the storm flies and the wind blows – Go on at a steady pace.”
—Jerry Garcia Band 

Faith is fundamental in mysticism to both practice and attainment of our spiritual nature. Not only is faith essential to walk the spiritual path, but it grows as we walk it. Our teacher Joel describes how the awakening of faith is the beginning of the path. At its outset, it is like a little flame, started in some dry moss by rubbing two sticks together for a couple of hours. We are sweaty, our whole body aches, but now we must nurture and protect this little flame from the wind and the rain. Perhaps our whole tribe depends up on it! After adding more and more firewood, however, we will have a steady fire that we can cook with and warm our family with. Faith is like this. It grows as it is tended. This is why it is so important to acknowledge faith. If we start the fire and then walk away, through our inattention the flame will go out. We will lose our warmth.

So what really is faith? The campfire analogy isn't perfect because we are not using alien elements to create the fire. We are using our very being. Our heart holds the flame that we are tending. Faith is love, actually. Mystical faith is absolutely not blind belief. It is actually the opposite. Faith is direct knowing in that which transcends all beliefs. Faith is the knowledge that the heart has, beyond the thinking mind, transcending all of the opposites that the critical mind creates. Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist, writes in White Sail: “Love and faith have the same essence of deep caring.” So faith is a form of love, but love that is not directed outwards, at objects. It is directed inwards, towards our true nature.

As we practice, our experience of our true nature of happiness transcendent of the thinking mind increases, and therefore our faith increases. Thinley Norbu also writes: “What is learned from practice causes unshakable faith and is always uncontrived.” Direct knowledge of our true nature gives rise to a faith that cannot be swayed by opinion or circumstance. So through authentic mystical practice, we come to greater and greater faith.

But what exactly are we having faith in? What is this knowing of the heart that bypasses the thinking mind? In general, faith comes in three forms: Faith in the teachings, faith in the teacher, and faith in oneself.

Faith in the Teachings

In the beginning of the spiritual path, for many of us, we are gradually convinced that the mystics are right. We become swayed through our own experience. First we recognize that we are unhappy, and that ordinary worldly means of acquiring happiness, through getting pleasant objects and experiences, and avoiding the unpleasant ones, has never worked – at least not permanently. This begins to turn our attention towards spiritual work, towards inner work. But if we are staunch materialists then we may still be reluctant to completely accept the teachings because they are so radical.

The essence of the mystical message is: the Truth is that you are not who you think you are; you are the divine nondual consciousness that is in essence transcendent Love. This is a lot to swallow, especially when you are miserable and everyone around you during your whole life has been equally miserable. This is why the first glimmer of the awakening of faith is so important. We recognize, from this experience of the heart's flame being kindled, that we do have happiness inside of us, and that it is something intimate, profound. This gets us searching for teachings.

As we explore the teachings, we begin to recognize impermanence: we see that our life is flashing before our eyes, always changing, and that we are heading for certain death! And yet, our essential self – our awareness – never changes. Something mysterious is going on here! Then at some point we may experience a love that has no boundaries – we may have a mystical union experience. During this insight – albeit temporary – we see clearly that all boundaries are mental projections upon something much more profound, something blissful. These two insights – into impermanence and death on the one hand and boundless love and bliss on the other – establish us fully as spiritual seekers. And through them it becomes clear that the inward path towards the heart is the way to happiness.

So we begin to have faith in the teachings, and as our experience and insights grow and deepen, so does our faith. The faith that has been kindled in our hearts – love for the transcendent, for the truth – guides us onward. It is the warmth, the power, of our motivation. This faith in the mystical teachings is supported all the way along by our own experience, and is absolutely essential to walk the path.

Faith in the Teacher

At some point on our journey, we will likely seek out a teacher. This is a really good idea because the pitfalls in spiritual practice are many. Working with a teacher can really speed up our progress. Of course, we want to find an authentic teacher who is further along the path than we are, and who has integrity and teaches in a way that we can connect with. In the beginning, it is important to have faith that the teacher knows what we are interested in knowing. And a good teacher will teach us more than knowledge; they will teach us practices to help us uncover our own inner wisdom.

As we study with our teacher, learn what they know – the spiritual teachings – and practice the methods they teach – meditation, morality, devotion, and inquiry here at CSS, for instance – our faith in them grows. But this is still a bit of a mundane faith. They are a spiritual teacher, no doubt, but this faith is limited to their effectiveness. We may still be shopping for the right personality fit, a comfortable spiritual group, or a better method. This type of seeking is normal in the beginning, but ultimately will limit us to a conventional relationship with a teacher. Because at some point, if we are lucky, we will meet a teacher who is – or become convinced that our current teacher is – fully enlightened. And if this is the case and we really recognize him or her, then we are truly blessed. Because this increases our faith considerably. Not only is it possible to become permanently happy, but here is a person who loves me unconditionally!

Many people doubt that true and lasting happiness is even possible. But an enlightened person knows it is possible, because they are that! And by having found the limitless ocean of consciousness that they are, they love everyone and everything as themselves. So, to be in the presence of one such as this is truly rare. This is why in the East they venerate the teacher as an incarnation of God. In the west we generally prefer to stay on a first name basis with our close relationships, and so our teachers are much more ordinary seeming, without all the robes and such. But the fact remains, when we have an enlightened teacher, that a truly happy person loves us. Perhaps this is really possible for us, as well!

Faith in the teacher, therefore, is a great gift from the divine that should be cherished and cultivated. But be on the lookout for false prophets and charlatans! These people will take your money and tarnish your heart in the process. And this is why the last form of faith is the most important.

Faith in Oneself

Faith in oneself is the most important form of faith because this is the direction of happiness itself. As we grow through life, we develop confidence. This confidence gives us the temerity to walk the path. But faith is special, it is the inner fire that guides us forward. And as our faith in the teachings, our teacher, and our practices increase, we recognize that this true nature we seek is ours! We needn't seek it outside of ourselves. Our teacher merely points us back to ourselves, time and again. If we feel that they can make us happy, we are fooling ourselves. Only we can do that. It is our responsibility.

As we proceed on our path, and our faith grows into a raging bonfire, we must sacrifice every idea, image, and attachment we have to being a certain way. Our personality is not us, our body is not us, our thoughts are not us. All must be sacrificed to the love that we are, so that it may consume all of our ignorance. This process requires great faith! And this faith tells us that deep within us we already have what we seek.

At some point on our path, at least once if not many times, our faith will be deeply challenged. This is called a crisis of faith. Sometimes it is a prolonged period of deep suffering, in which case we can use the term from Saint John of the Cross, a Christian mystic, which describes the experience succinctly: a Long Dark Night of the Soul. Whether long or short, when we encounter deep suffering, the only thing that will keep us from going mad with grief or rage is faith. At this point, faith in the teachings is moot – they can't help us feel better – and faith in a teacher is of no real use either – they can only tell us that we have what we seek. During a crisis of faith we must find deep within our hearts the courage and the spark of divine love to keep going. We must rely on faith in our true selves – on the Divine within us. And when we do this, and the time of crisis passes, we will find that our faith has increased exponentially. Our greatest trials and sufferings will turn out to have given us the greatest potential for our own spiritual transformation.

As faith in ourselves grows, our experience of transcendental love and happiness grows. And as this happens, we transcend the sense of separation that we took to be the reality of the world at the outset of the spiritual journey. As Thinley Norbu Rinpoche said, “What is learned from practice causes unshakable faith and is always uncontrived.” Our unshakable faith from practice and experience is the foundation for the final form of faith: Perfect Faith.

Perfect Faith

In truth, the teaching, the teacher, and our own body and mind are all arising in our consciousness. They are not separate. As oneness dawns upon us we recognize that all along, we were what we were seeking. Our faith, the inner love that guided us towards ourselves, was something that all of our deeply cherished opinions and our deeply ingrained resistance to life were hiding from us. When we drop all effort to attain the perfect state that can transcend these patterns, we find that faith fully manifest as the ever-present source of all being. We, and everything else, are one with that perfect faith, which is Love, and this is the Truth of our being, and always has been. Thus the perfection of faith is enlightenment itself.

As the Christian mystic Brother Lawrence writes: “I no longer believe, I see, for I experience what faith teaches.”

And as the Faith Mind Inscription, an ancient Zen text, says:

Faith Mind is not two 
Not two is the Mind of Faith 
Here all speech is abandoned 
For it is not of the past, future, or present

So, my dear sisters and brothers, please keep the faith! And walk on, because your very steps in faith are the Way, which is both the journey and the Goal itself.

—Matt, Fall 2019