The Faith that Sustains Us
Worldly wisdom tells us that to volunteer time, money, and energy on relief work is naïve and self-defeating. After all, our lives are short and fleeting; death lurks in the shadows and opportunities for enjoyment are scarce. We live in a competitive world where only the tough survive, and our first obligation is to be tough ourselves. So it seems far more sensible to use our precious resources promoting our own interests rather than the good of others, who rarely acknowledge our benevolence anyway.
When personal wealth is the means to maximize the enjoyment of life, and everyone around us is scrambling to get richer, why should we fall behind? Why not take in all the wondrous variety of life, its sweet delights and spicy thrills, rather than charge after windmills, equipped only with broomsticks and garbage-can lids? We know that dragons and demons are nothing but pipe dreams. And so too, we often suspect, are our hopes of improving the world.
To a calculating mind, a commitment to humanitarian service not only deprives us of benefits we could easily enjoy ourselves, but also forces us to face facts we would prefer to avoid. Our minds are conditioned by instinct and habit to seek out pleasure and turn away from pain. We try to steer clear of anything that threatens us personally, but we also feel uneasy when we’re exposed to the pain of others. We like images of laughing children, fields of bright flowers, well-trimmed lawns, packaged breakfast cereals, and dancers gently swaying in pink and purple spotlights. Images of hungry people in distant lands spoil the fun.
To engage in relief work is, in a way, to swim against the current, to go against the drift of those around us. Like Dharma practice itself, it calls for patience, effort, mindfulness, and renunciation. So what can we rely on to sustain us in this work, to help us move against the current? One sustaining quality is expressed by the Pali word saddha, usually translated as faith. In this context, faith doesn’t mean belief in specific doctrines, not even the doctrines of Buddhism. In the sense intended here, faith might best be described as a confidence in the power of goodness. This is the conviction that to do good is inherently valuable, an activity that brings deep gratification and attunes us to a force greater than our individual being.
When we devote ourselves to service to others, inevitably we expose ourselves to risk. There is the risk that we’ll burn out; the risk that we’ll be mocked by others; the risk that our actions won’t be
appreciated; the risk that our best intentions will meet with failure. But despite these risks, when we’re willing to take chances, when we persist in our efforts to serve the good of others, the reason is that we’re sustained by faith. And that means faith in the intrinsic power of goodness: in its claims upon our conscience; in its ability to uplift us, crack us open, and connect us to a greater reality.
To have this kind of faith is to trust that behind the play of surface events, which appear so random and discrete, there lies a hidden power, a unifying force that will enable us to prevail over any
obstacles we meet. Where the intellect dithers, faith invites us to take the leap. It gives us the confidence that this force will bring us more abundant happiness than we could ever find by
pursuing the narrow goals of the ego, be it wealth, power, status, or fame.
We might compare this trust to that of a child learning to swim. At first glance, for the child to jump into the water is a reckless act. Throw a stone into the water and it sinks to the bottom; throw yourself into the water and you’re also bound to sink. Yet, when the child does jump into the pool, and then lets go, something amazing happens. The water supports her and gently buoys her up. She doesn’t sink but floats, and with practice she can learn to swim.
In a similar way, faith in the power of goodness cuts through doubt and hesitation, enabling us to float along on the current of the cosmic process. Common sense is like the person who tells the child she’ll sink like a stone. It tries to convince us that the purpose of our lives is to do whatever strikes our fancy, to consume and discard, to push our way to the top. It tells us that we’re perfectly entitled to use others as stepping-stones to our personal advancement.
But at Buddhist Global Relief, a different way of thinking guides our work. We regard people as ends and not as means. We consider them worthy of respect, as deserving a chance to live with hope and dignity. We rely on the faith that a law, a principle, an inner truth is silently at work behind the field of phenomena, supporting generosity over miserliness, compassion over apathy, and altruism over selfishness. Hidden by the face of appearances, it’s always there, as integral to the working of the universe as the dance of electrons, the binding of atoms into molecules, the ceaseless pulsing of the stars.
When we place trust in this law, we find that devoting ourselves to the good of others casts our own lives in a new light. It pulls down the hard walls of our self-identity; it strengthens our energy and determination; it expands our sense of shared identity until it encompasses the whole. This faith turns labor into love, self-sacrifice into ultimate self-fulfillment. And with that we acquire an enriching sense of purpose, a fountain of meaning more rewarding than all the petty trophies of the ego-self.