Something to Believe In
While belief can be just dogma or preconception, it can also be a guiding polestar that gives us a sense of direction. ELIZABETH MATTIS-NAMGYEL on the power of belief to move us out of a small, self-focused world and into a bigger way of being.
friend Maryanne and I were riding our horses together across the high
open desert of the San Luis Valley when she surprised me with a
question: she asked if i believed in reincarnation. Since i’ve been a
practicing Buddhist for over twenty-five years, it wasn’t the
reincarnation part of the question that got me. It was the word
me, belief describes a static way of looking at things, different from
the more open, inquisitive qualities of mind that i have come to
appreciate through my years of practice. This is not to say I disbelieve
in reincarnation. After all, we seem to enter this world with
already-established dispositions. Why, for instance, did Bobby Fischer
have a predilection for chess? Why do children raised under the same
roof often have such different characters? Why do I always want to be
around horses? Furthermore, I find it difficult to envision life, which
is primarily an experience of awareness, as a strictly material process.
In other words, it doesn’t seem like the mind begins and ends with this
yes, the Buddha, whose teachings have deeply inspired me and opened up
my life, did talk about his past lives. Yet as a Buddhist I never felt
pushed to believe in reincarnation—to reach a solid conclusion. Instead,
I have felt encouraged to stay open, to inquire. So when Maryanne asked
her question, the word “belief ” seemed to undermine my understanding
and experience of practice, which is investigative, lively, and
something is true or not is very important to us. In the world of
science, we continuously strive to discover new truths, and these new
truths render old truths obsolete. That says something about how “true”
they were in the first place. This is not to say that science doesn’t
make some amazing and useful discoveries. It only suggests that we can
and do function in the world, regardless of whether something is “true”
don’t need a sense of “rightness” to respond and be effective in life.
in fact, how much does rightness serve us? How has it helped us in the
realm of personal relationships, religious discourse, or politics? Even
rightness in the name of altruism—or vegetarianism, or spirituality—can
create aggression and divisiveness. When you think about it, belief and
rightness seem extraneous to open inquiry, to responding to life in the
most basic way.
science acknowledges the limitations of holding on to static truths. As
theoretical physicist F. David Peat says, “It is widely held that
certainty about the real world is a failed his- torical enterprise.”
That makes sense. Where does a static truth stand in a world that is
dynamic, rambunctious, and open to interpretation?
am not dismissing the value of belief altogether. In fact, the more I
thought about Maryanne’s question, the more belief, as an experience,
began to open up for me. I started to see that we use the word in many
instance, a belief can be an idea with a strong sense of direction, a
guiding polestar. When we say to someone, “I believe in you,” it doesn’t
mean we see that person in a static way. It means we see the potential
or goodness in someone and want to encourage her to move forward. I saw
the movie Conviction
recently, which is based on a true story. In the story a sister who had
never graduated from high school took the GED exam and went on to
finish law school in order to free her brother, whom she later proved
innocent, from life imprisonment. Her devotion to her brother was deeply
moving and driven by her conviction in his innocence—a belief.
you look up “belief” in the dictionary you might be surprised by how
many definitions it has: from dogma, opinion, and assumption, to love,
cherish, or appreciate. There couldn’t be two more different experiences
than dogma and love. Dogma is closed and exclusive while love is open
and inclusive. so I started to look more deeply into the etymology of
In her book, A Case for God,
Karen Armstrong talks about the word’s origin. She says that, in the
early translation of the New Testament, the word translated as belief
came from the Greek word pistis,
which means to love, hold dear, appreciate, or commit to. According to
Armstrong, Jesus wasn’t asking his disciples to believe in his divinity;
he was asking them to join him in his vision to serve. Here belief has
nothing to do with conforming to an idea but serves as a vehicle to move
us out of a small, self-focused world into a bigger way of being.
we have experiences, which make us understand that life is much fuller
than the ideas we have about it. We look up at the night sky and feel
humbled by its beauty, grandness, and mystery. Yet we might also
experience ourselves as part of this vastness, the great nature of
interdependence. such experiences transport us beyond the limited
constructs of “true” and “untrue” to a fuller way of knowing things.
this way of knowing is basic to our humanness.
everyone is looking at life in terms of whether things are true or not.
This is often apparent in indigenous cultures, in which belief
expresses itself as a sense of wonder, respect, and appreciation for the
mystery of life. In India, you may walk past a tree with an interesting
knot in a branch. and you see that someone has already been there and
offered a flower.
hiking to a cave above seventeen thousand feet in Tibet, I met an old
man there who had spent twenty years in prison during the Cultural
Revolution. He was missing most of his fingers. He hadn’t received a
formal education, much religious training, or instruction, but while in
prison he prayed to Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion. I couldn’t
see a trace of aggression, blame, or “rightness” in this man—only a
deep sense of humility, openness, and love. Clearly, belief for him was
not a static idea but a way of accessing a bigger way of being.
of us have a tendency to dismiss what we can’t see personally as
appealing only to superstitious or naïve minds. But that is because we
are often looking through the lens of whether or not something is
“true,” which reduces the fullness and mystery of life to an idea, a
subjective conclusion. How “true” can that be?
doesn’t necessarily have to concretize. It can be a feeling of
inspiration from within, something we can learn from—an idea with a
strong sense of direction. When I look at reincarnation in this way, I
see that it has a powerful function in the way I understand and live my
life. It helps me see beyond my idea of a singular and separate “I” that
will, at some unknown point, fall into extinction. this brings me
closer to the beauty, fullness, and mystery of life, something that’s
truly beyond “me,” or the extinction of “me”—or even the reincarnation
Mattis-Namgyel is a Buddhist teacher who has been practicing dharma for
twenty-eight years under the guidance of her teacher and husband,
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. The author of The Power of an Open Question,
she asks audiences to join her in questioning the assumptions and
beliefs we have about spirituality. She is an avid rock climber and
horse rider and enjoys a contemplative way of life in Crestone,