On Faith

Karen Maezen Miller Faith ZenPhoto by Mark Fischer.

As with all things, too much has been said already about the Brit Hume/Tiger Woods Christianity versus Buddhism thing, including what’s been said by me. In the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat opened up another front, suggesting that Buddhists man up to the debate, instead of playing what he calls “the victim card.”

“If you treat your faith like a hothouse flower, too vulnerable to survive in the crass world of public disputation, then you ensure that nobody will take it seriously,” he writes. Talk about faith, he admonishes, so you can “compete with other believers (and nonbelievers) in the marketplace of ideas.”

I’m going to take up his challenge and talk about faith. But I’m not going to talk about my faith, because that wouldn’t serve anyone but me.

The faith that competes is not faith.

The faith that disputes is not faith.

The faith that defends is not faith.

The faith that debates is not faith.

The faith that needs others to take it seriously is not faith.

This is all I know about faith, but it’s enough to get me by. It was taught to me not by my Buddhist teachers but by my mother, a devoted Lutheran and good churchgoer.

Not too long ago I chanced upon a telling of what has become a bit of family lore, that before she died, my mother hadn’t known I was Buddhist. She would not have stood for that, the reasoning goes among my relatives, who had mistaken the strength of her faith for hardness.

True faith is not hard at all. It is soft in its resilience, yielding in its certitude — the vehicle for absolute grace.

I remember instead what my mother said when I told her of my first encounter with my Zen teacher and the peace I had found. What she said then was what I recognize today as the ultimate sanction a mother can give.

“Now I don’t have to worry about you anymore.”

With that faith, I’ll let everything else rest.


  1. says

    Lovely post. It definitely gives the construct of 'faith' a new face. It so bothers me that for many (unfortunately on both sides of my family…) think of faith as being something that requires all or nothing thinking. You are either 'in' or 'out'. I think that if we go back to the teachings of all great spiritual leaders we'd find that faith is so much deeper and transcends boundaries instead of creates them.

  2. says

    What is this "faith" of which you speak, Karen?

    My Pajamas Media piece is one of the ones Ross linked (I'm linked right next to Robert Thurman whoohoo!) and … I guess i'm puzzled because one of the things that appealed to me about Buddhism when I first caught it, 40-odd years ago, was that it didn't require "faith". You read the Four Great Truths, they make sense. You learn to sit, things get easier. Practice the Precepts, drama cuts down. Watch for it, and karma/vipaka shows up all over the place (in fact, one of my commenters made a lovely example of it.)

    So I'm unclear what the "faith" point is about, unless you're simply using it in place of "religion". But it doesn't seem to me dharma need faith; it's just there, to be seen when pointed out.

  3. says

    I love this, Karen. I think you are right. I don’t think faith or religion should be debated, but what I got from the column you linked to is that we shouldn’t shy away from talking about these things too. This is the reason I love NPR’s Speaking of Faith. We should talk about faith and learn from each other. Not say it’s “either/or.”

    • Karen Maezen Miller says

      I'm not shy about speaking, but when I speak of faith I speak to myself. When I live my faith, it speaks to others.

  4. marybeth says

    faith is a feeling. not something to belong or join or be 'faithful' to. my faith changes daily. sometimes it comes to me in all different ways. whatever is it, i like how your mama taught it. faith for me is that mystery, like, wow, how did i end up here? well, there is a reason and whatever it is will be revealed somehow.

    much love

  5. says

    Faith as a way of living is different that what writers like Douthat seem to referring to: religion, dogma, institutions. Faith unites and transcends all of these. As my grandmother, a Jewish Christian Scientist of great faith, always said: God is love. What else is there?

  6. says

    Your mother sounds a lot like mine. She has faith of this character, not hard, not competing, not demanding, not threatened. She is a Christian with a strong personal spiritual practice.

    One day recently when I was describing to her my own practice (yoga) she said something very similar to what your mother said to you. She recognised in my words that I had found a practice that was taking me along the same path that her practice had taken her – and she was reassured.

  7. says

    Affirming Faith in Mind – S'eng Tsan

    With single mind one with the Way, all ego-centered strivings cease;
    Doubts and confusion disappear, and so true faith pervades our life. . . . . . .

    The Way's beyond all space, all time, one instant is ten thousand years.
    Not only here, not only there, truth's right before you very eyes.
    Distinctions such as large and small have relevance for you no more.
    The largest is the smallest too– here limitations have no place.
    What is is not, what is not is– if this is not yet clear to you, you're still far from the inner truth.
    One thing is all, all things are one– know this and all's whole and complete.
    When faith and Mind are not separate, and not separate are Mind and faith, this is beyond all words, all thought.

    For here there is no yesterday, no today, no tomorrow.

  8. Ray says

    I'm a guy. An old guy (grandfather type). Granted, I am a Zen guy, but lady, you're a doll. (I use a word that may sound sexist to remind your audience that you're not just writing for women.)
    I'm celebrating all of us who're waking up, sharing our eyes, alert to our messes, cleaning some of them up, letting others ride.
    May the women who are so thankful that you're waking up, figure out ways to convey it to their partners.
    Mine did. I don't think she worries about me anymore.

  9. R. Kontemblio says

    For me, faith has always been between my God and me. Everything else is theatre. And that's what I feel about people like Brit Hume. Total theatre.

    • Brandon says

      Chris what is evocative about your comment for me is that so many people are cocksure that they know what something "IS" and want to debate you about it. I'm not talking about Buddhism, but about debates on so many issues of the day. It's common that someone says or writes that Republicans ARE X, Democrats ARE Y, Obama ISN"T doing enough on X or Y issue, etc. And people actually believe that their opinion or thoughts about a particular thing are "objective" reality. Of course if one disagrees with an opinion, the common rejoinder is that the person with a different opinion or perspective doesn't understand what's "really" happening. Studying Buddhism has taught me the folly of getting into debates about what "is." I will, and do, discuss thoughts or opinions, but I try to avoid arguments about reality.

  10. says

    thank you…i live in middle indiana where i hear daily, "i ami a born again, christian"
    are you christian and constant debates on who is christian. my husband and i have
    had so many conversations about this. i don't understand any of it. and when i watched
    brett hume on the news i couldn't believe what he said. it hurt.

    what you wrote here is how i want to live. what i hope my children will carry on.

    the light around my heart radiates.


  11. says

    This is wonderful. At first, I was a little concerned (anxious mind) about what your response was going to be. Reading it, I sank into absolute peace, tinged with joy. I took pleasure in what you wrote and felt immediate celebration for this Buddhist path which speaks of gentleness, acceptance, yet strength of position in an openhearted way. Thank you. I am at ease.

    I was also raised Lutheran and, interestingly, it was a Lutheran intern pastor in the sixties who invited us to explore God outside the box. I did and loved what I found. My own mother, who is a Methodist, was not shocked one bit when I announced over the years that Buddhist teachings filled my heart with peace—for the very first time, after 40 years of searching. In fact, when I told her that the Dalai Lama was coming to a state near me for a teaching, she said, "You must go. I will pay your way." I cried with gratitude…..

    May compassion always be the mantle we wear, no matter how baits us to rise to their occasion. Blessings to you.

  12. Kelly says

    My personal practice or idea of Buddhism is more of a verb than a "faith." It is not something I think of and try to convince my mind that it is the right path, as in a religion. I try my hardest daily to be present with everyone I come in contact with and recognize that everyone has a Buddha nature, but we are all individuals tapping into "that" in whatever way we know how, to bring peace to our minds. Whether it be through religion or "faith" or simply practicing kindness and compassion to the best of our abilities and as often as we can. So, to debate which way one gets "there" seems silly to me.