Become acquainted with the three non-degenerations.
The three non-degenerations are: faith in Dharma, effort in our practice of Dharma, and not allowing our mindfulness to degenerate.
Many people come into Buddhism motivated by a rejection of faith-based forms of religion. For the modern, scientific mind, Buddhism can easily be understand as an inner science. Indeed, we are encouraged to practice in this way, testing the instructions for their validity and usefulness in our life. Blind faith is rejected, and we are encouraged to develop our own wisdom realizing the truth of the instructions for ourselves. We are explicitly told to not believe somebody just because they are called a Buddha, but instead to examine things for ourselves. Many people think of Buddhism more as a philosophy of life, or a time-tested form of auto-psycho-therapy. All of these things are true, and such an approach very much appeals to the modern mind. I remember when I first started practicing, I told my teacher, “I agree with and have no problem with basically everything in the Dharma, except this whole faith thing.” For me, faith was for people who didn’t know how to think for themselves. It was a convenient means of avoiding having good answers to the hard questions. In fact, faith, to my understanding was where any religion was weakest, and wherever we were told to have faith is exactly where we should worry. When we hear people talking about “faith” and “blessings” and “Geshe-la said this and Geshe-la said that” we quickly become very critical and we wonder whether we have found ourself in some crazed cult!
Many people come into the Dharma with similar attitudes. But there comes a point in our practice where faith and reliance become the giant elephant in the room we can no longer avoid. I had been practicing for many years without really relying or having much faith at all. I was then doing a retreat, everything was going quite nicely, and then all of a sudden I came to a screeching halt. Nothing was working. I was dead in the water. I didn’t know what to do. I then called up my teacher and explained what had happened, and she laughed at me. She said, “you don’t know what to do, do you?” And I said no. She said, “you can’t do anything can you?” And I said no. She then said, “well I don’t know either nor can I help you. You need to start your practice completely over from scratch.” I asked, “how?” And she said, “go sit down on your cushion, generate a wish to rebuild your practice from scratch and then with faith request blessings for guidance as to what you should do. When you get an answer, do that. When you need clarification, ask for guidance again. Continue in this way until you have rebuilt your practice.”
Feeling like I had tried everything else, I then gave it a go. At first, nothing. But then, an “idea” popped into my head, so I started running with that. Then another, then another. I felt like I was being guided by the hand, step by step, being shown how I should rebuild my practice. But this time, the fundamental difference was, I was being shown how to practice through reliance, not through my own effort with my own mind. Instead of reciting the words of the sadhana in my mind myself, I request that the guru practice in my mind for me. Instead of trying to understand the meaning, I request blessings that the meaning be revealed. Instead of trying to understand the points of contemplation myself, I request the guru to explain it to me in a way I can understand. What used to be just me with my mind turned into me with my guru. I realized what still to this day is the single most important thing I have realized on the path: If I am truly intelligent, I will rely upon my guru’s mind alone.
If we have a choice of using a bicycle or a Ferrari, which do we pick? If our choice is between a hammer or a nail gun, which do we use? In the same way, if our choice is relying upon our ordinary mind or relying upon the guru’s mind, which do we do? I consider myself pretty intelligent, but I am a fool compared to the guru. His powers of reasoning and concentration far surpass my own; his heart of love and compassion warm the entire universe; his wisdom illuminates all. In our Tantric practice in particular, the inner engine which makes it work is faith. The guru-deity is already enlightened, all we need to do is impute our I onto his body and mind, and the rest happens effortlessly. Once we have a taste for reliance, we can’t help but ask ourselves, “why would we practice any other way?”
Gen-la Losang said, “at the end of the day, there is really only one practice, and that is faith.” Gen Lhamo said, “we normally pray as a last resort after we have tried everything else, but we are spiritual people. Praying should be our first response, not our last.” I cannot speak to other religions, but in Kadampa Buddhism, with our teachings on the wisdom realizing emptiness, faith is best understood as emptiness in action. Venerable Tharchin said, “what is true or not is not important, what matters is what is most beneficial to believe.” It is because things are empty that we can believe in different ways and actually reconstruct a new, pure reality. If things were not empty, we could not do this, and faith, frankly, makes no sense. But it is because things are empty that faith works. We have faith in things not because they are somehow objectively true, but rather because by believing in them we rewire our minds and karmically reconstruct our world.