PARAVRITTI (Part 8 final): Faith and Courage

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In both turning away and turning toward the element of faith is of crucial importance. Without it the turning does not complete because, panicking inside, we cling on to our old ways. In the case of turning away, one might arrive at the feeling of revulsion, yet still slip back into the bad habit. We might indulge obsessions and addictions until we feel sick and this might give us pause. However, one might then drift back. Think how many people have given up smoking for a short time, but soon taken it up again.

This happens because, however loathsome or foolish the habit, it still served some purpose in our life. It still fed the ego. We tend to dignify our bad habits by calling them “needs” and when we are without them we feel “needy”. To bear this feeling of lack requires faith. Buddhism is about faith in emptiness. The ego fights back and always wants to fill the emptiness, usually with something unwholesome.

Similarly, in the case of turning toward. One might have a generous impulse, but then, as from nowhere, a string of thoughts urging caution spring up. Soon one has talked oneself out of it, or, we might say, Mara has talked one out of it. By then, in any case, the moment has passed. Perhaps one now feels badly about oneself, but, however that may be, the fact is that the opportunity has been lost. To not give in to such cowardly thinking requires faith. Faith means knowing what Mara is up to yet acting anyway.


The life of faith is thus also one of much spontaneity, exuberance and enthusiasm. The kind of Buddhism we are talking about here is not one of cold detachment. It is not by ever greater self-control that one becomes liberated, but by releasing the energy of joy, compassion, and belief in what one is doing and living.

Where does such faith come from, one might ask? The bedrock of our faith is confidence that we - even beings such as we, prone, as we are, to such cowardice, addiction, obsession and destructiveness - are loved and cared for by the Buddhas. The light of their smile is always shining and even though we live in the tormenting realm of impermanence, there is a spirit that is not impermanent that runs like a silver thread through every dimension of existence. This spirit has the feeling of emptiness. It is beyond purity and impurity. It is the light that comes from the Tathagata who glances back.

In Buddhism, we call this refuge. We take refuge from the harm that might otherwise be done by our wayward mind; we find a shelter, a pure abode, where emptiness is experienced, not as terrifying, but as total liberation. Alone, we are inclined to panic, but when we have Buddha always in mind as our spiritual companion, we can turn back, confront Mara, and defeat him, since nothing prevents us. Finding inner silence and stillness, we become invisible to his armies, and this calm is then experienced, not as a loss, but as a lightness and ease - something to be happily grateful for.

Thus, when paravritti occurs, conforming to the precepts ceases to be an effort and becomes the only natural way to act. In fact, we no longer need precepts as our natural action will be what precepts attempt to point out. Self-power means exerting effort in order to conform oneself to the path, but in the condition of paravritti such effort is non-effort.

In this series I have tried to show how paravritti gives us a practical sense of spiritual awakening and the life that flows from the awakening of faith. We can be inspired by the examples of the Buddhas and ancestors. Each of them turned back from the seduction of conventional life and social posing and so were able to live authentic lives. They were each very distinct persons, aware of human limitation, yet free in spirit.

The idea of turning back can be applied in the many different ways in which we can experience natural freedom. I hope this exploration helps us to appreciate many different Buddhist teachings that all inspire us to make a crucial turn in our lives.

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