In the old days, the Lamrim cycle started with faith and ended with emptiness, but with the New Meditation Handbook, Geshe-la put faith as the last meditation after emptiness. Most people assumed this was done primarily to make it easier for newer practitioners who find faith hard, but I actually think there was a much more profound meaning in this change. Namely, that faith is emptiness in action. Technically, the final meditation is Reliance upon the Spiritual Guide, but we accomplish that primarily through faith. All of the paths of tantra are, fundamentally, practices of reliance upon the Spiritual Guide on the foundation of realizing emptiness.
First some definitions. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe-la explains, “Faith is a naturally virtuous mind that functions mainly to oppose the perception of faults in its observed object.” There are three types of faith: believing faith, admiring faith, and wishing faith. Believing faith is essentially believing an object to be true without knowing it directly ourselves. Admiring faith is admiring the good qualities of holy objects, such as the three jewels. Wishing faith is wishing to have those good qualities ourselves. Emptiness is the way things are, as opposed to the way they appear. Fundamentally, emptiness explains that despite things appearing to exist independently of the mind, in fact they are all nothing more than mere karmic appearances to mind, like a dream, with not even the slightest trace of anything existing from its own side – in other words, everything is created by mind. According to Sutra, we say emptiness appears as conventional objects; and according to Tantra we say the emptiness of the very subtle mind of great bliss appears as conventional objects.
On the basis of these definitions, how can we understand faith is emptiness in action? Believing faith is a correct belief in any object that is conducive to our spiritual development. A lot of people have great difficulty with faith because they still have doubts whether what they are believing in is actually true, and since they cannot be sure, they err on the side of not believing the object. But if we understand everything is empty – in other words, nothing is objectively true (by this I mean truth being established on the side of the object) – then there is no basis for this hesitation, since nothing is “actually” true in the sense we mean it. But if there is no objective truth, how then do we establish truth in the Dharma? Technically, we say things are conventionally true if they are known to be true by superior beings. Practically, though, because there is no objective truth we establish truth by examining what is most beneficial to believe. Venerable Tharchin and Gen Losang frequently have said, “what is true or not true is not the point, the question is what is most beneficial to believe.” If believing in a certain way is beneficial, then we can “choose” to believe it to be true because doing so is “conducive to our spiritual development.”
But the relationship between believing faith and emptiness is much deeper – what is in fact true IS what is most beneficial to believe because what is most beneficial to believe is consistent with how things truly are, namely empty. The implication is profound – it means not only can we confidently believe in things that are beneficial to believe, but the North Star for being able to discern what is true is examining what is most beneficial to believe. This protects us from falling into the extremes of nihilism or relativism thinking because nothing is objectively true then either nothing is true or everything is equally true if people believe it to be. Practically, this enables us to let go of our crippling doubts about whether our objects of faith are true or not and allows our mind to play with the dance of beneficial belief. It is enough for us to see the benefits of believing in a certain way, and then we choose to do so on that basis. This is why in our Dharma books every meditation begins with an explanation of the benefits of that particular meditation.
Admiring faith is the ability to see and appreciate the good qualities of the three jewels. Admiring faith makes us marvel at the wonders of virtuous objects, which naturally leads to wishing faith to acquire those good qualities ourselves. But the teachings on admiring faith and pure view can sometimes lead to a great deal of confusion for people, especially when they see “Sangha Jewels” engaging in inappropriate action or they hear their teachers giving “wrong teachings.” Many people wind up abandoning the path as a result, and many centers or their administrators will try deflect blame away from their mistakes by saying the people at the center don’t have sufficiently pure view. Are we supposed to just look the other way and pretend we didn’t see the inappropriate actions or hear the wrong teachings? No, that would be repression of our doubts and the quick path to becoming cult-like in our relation to the Dharma. Are we then supposed to say what is incorrect is somehow correct because we are supposed to be maintaining pure view? No, because then we are believing things that are not beneficial to believe and we are following wrong understandings.
How does understanding the relationship between faith and emptiness enable us to escape these problems? The functional definition of delusion is our mind projects something mistaken onto an object, and then we mistakenly believe that projection to actually be true from the side of the object. The wisdom realizing emptiness completely undermines the premise of all delusions by showing nothing exists on the side of the object, it’s all just projection of our mind. So if we see fault in a holy object, the fault is necessarily coming from our own mind and not the holy object. Admiring faith uses the wisdom realizing emptiness to differentiate the perception of fault in the holy object from the holy object itself, which is without faults. The more we differentiate the two, the more we can appreciate the good qualities of the holy object and not be obstructed by the perception of some fault inherent in the holy object despite it appearing vividly to our mind. In short, we are able to say, “the fault I am perceiving is coming from my mind and not the holy object itself.” In other words, the faulty thing I am seeing is not the holy object, but my misunderstanding of it. To actually “find” the holy object, I need to find a way to see it without fault.
Sometimes when we hear a Dharma teaching, our understanding of its meaning leaves our mind feeling disturbed. This is a perfect sign we have misunderstood the teaching because all Dharma, if understood correctly, functions to make our mind peaceful and happy. So we can correctly say to ourselves, “I must be misunderstanding what is being said because this is making me disturbed,” and then we ask questions until we can understand the subject in a way that leaves our mind peaceful and happy. When somebody in the Sangha does something inappropriate, we can do the same thing. Obviously we don’t say what is inappropriate is somehow appropriate, but we can ask ourselves, “what is this inappropriate behavior teaching me?” Since it is teaching us what is appropriate, we are receiving a perfectly beneficial teaching from the appearance of the inappropriate behavior. This enables us to call out wrong behavior for what it is without it undermining our faith. Then, no matter what scandal befalls what teacher, our faith and conviction in the Dharma just grows stronger and stronger.
But there is a deeper level still to the relationship between admiring faith and emptiness. Sangha, by definition, is somebody who shows us a good example and inspires us to follow the path. So what do we do when they show a bad example? Emptiness is the answer – when they are showing a bad example, they are no longer “Sangha.” The label Sangha can only validly be imputed onto somebody showing a good example. When they are not showing a good example, they are no longer “Sangha.” Nobody is inherently Sangha, and there is no Sangha that exists from its own side. It is perfectly possible for the same person to sometimes show a good example, at which point they are Sangha; and at other times show a bad example, at which point they are not Sangha. Just as somebody can be a temporary emanation, so too somebody can temporarily be Sangha. In a similar way, when we hear faulty Dharma teachings, even from the throne, it can sometimes lead to great confusion. Should we believe the wrong thing to be correct? Or if we see the mistake, do we lose faith in the teacher as no longer being reliable because they made a mistake in their teaching? Of course not. We can either say, “the wrong thing they just said reminds me of the correct thing,” thus enabling us to receive perfectly reliable understandings even though what is being said is incorrect; or we can say, this wrong thing is not ‘Dharma,’ so I don’t have to take it on board and instead I should listen to and focus on what is Dharma in the other things they are saying. Temporary Dharma teachings. Emptiness enables us to differentiate what is to be relied upon and what is not, thus freeing us from grasping at inherently existent three jewels that somehow need to appear to be perfect from their own side. With emptiness, we understand the three jewels become perfect when we view them in a perfect way.
What is the relationship between wishing faith and emptiness? Wishing faith is wishing to acquire ourselves the good qualities our admiring faith appreciated. Wishing faith then induces effort, and effort leads to attainments. But, if we grasp at ourselves and our faults as being inherently existent and unchangeable, then we develop doubts about our ability to actually change, acquire these good qualities, and become a Buddha. Our grasping at ourself as being ordinary keeps us ordinary. When we realize the emptiness of ourself, we realize we become infinitely (and effortlessly) changeable. Ignorance grasping at ourself is like friction on the spiritual path, letting go of that ignorance creates a frictionless progression along the path.
But again, it goes much deeper. All of Generation Stage and Completion Stage of highest yoga tantra is essentially a giant exercise in the relationship between faith and emptiness. Fundamentally, Tantra is quite simple: we change the basis of imputation of our I from our ordinary samsaric aggregates to the completely pure aggregates of the Guru Deity. We mentally generate these pure aggregates, and then identify with them as ourselves. Our faith in our Spiritual Guide makes the aggregates imputedly “pure” and our wisdom realizing emptiness enables us to identify with them without any residual of our ordinary self. It is said all we need to practice Tantra is faith and imagination. We imagine pure worlds, then believe in them as being true. Because they are correct beliefs, with familiarity of believing in our pure imaginations, they become our living reality. Often times people get hung up on self-generation meditations saying, “this is just fantasy land, I’m not really Heruka.” This completely misses the point and comes from a grasping at us actually being one thing or another. To escape this doubt we need to understand the relationship between karma and emptiness. Karma is mental action. We don’t believe we are Heruka because we actually already are, rather we engage in the mental action of believing we are Heruka because doing so creates the karma for us to later appear to ourself directly as being Heruka. Again, what is true or not true is not the point, what matters is what is beneficial to believe. The correct belief of divine pride is a mental action that creates a karma which will ripen in the future of ourselves being Heruka. So we can believe in it fully and without reservation, even though we know we are not yet Heruka.
Further, we are not saying that our ordinary aggregates are Heruka, that would be a wrong conception. Our ordinary aggregates are a valid basis for imputing our ordinary self, but not Heruka. So if in our generation stage meditation, it is our ordinary aggregates appearing, we don’t say they are Heruka, they are the cloud-like obstructions obscuring the mentally generated Heruka we are trying to identify with. We again use emptiness to differentiate the completely pure object we are seeking to identify with and the self that we normally see. As Geshe-la says, without faith we could practice Tantra for a thousand years and never experience any results; but with faith, Tantra becomes the quick path.
For me, Geshe-la moving Reliance upon the Spiritual Guide to the last meditation of the Lamrim cycle is a profound teaching on the critical relationship between emptiness and faith. On the basis of realizing emptiness, we set our faith free to dance.