Faith I

Uposatha Day, New Moon, May 2, 2011

The Buddha asked Sariputta, “Do you take it on faith that these five strengths — faith, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment— lead to the deathless?”

Sariputta answered, “No, I don’t take it on faith. I know.”

Humans live in the midst of a perennial dilemma. This has critical implications for Buddhist practice, but also for everything else we undertake, secular or sacred, worldly or spiritual, in relation to business, to taking care of one’s family, to choosing what to wear for a hot date, to taking out the trash, to picking out a movie to watch this evening, and to voting. We are creatures of volition and virtually every volitional choice we make runs squarely into this vexing dilemma.

The dilemma is that there is a huge gap between what we know and what we need to know. Faith is any strategy we make use of to fill this gap.

Just to take a few examples: If you want to order a movie from Netflix your plan is probably to watch and enjoy that movie. However you have no way of knowing with certainty that you will enjoy it until you have already watched it! Discernment can carry you far in your selection, for instance, in dependence of advice of trusted friends or previous experience with the movies by a particular director or actress. Still your selection requires at least a small leap of faith, a pregnant pause before the click of the button.

If I first embark on the Buddhist path, my plan may be to find happiness or satisfaction in my life. However, Buddhism comprises a very sophisticated set of teachings and practices which to begin with I can scarcely comprehend or even quite imagine. Discernment might depend on anything from vague impressions about Buddhism gleaned from some of the Netflix movies I have seen, to a history of happy encounters with practicing Buddhists, but ultimately, unlike Sariputta above, I am likely to have very little idea of what I am getting myself into. Embarking on this path requires a huge leap of faith, a deep breath before you get out of your car and enter the temple or meditation space for the first time.

The flood waters are rising and huts at the river’s edge are already being swept away. The villagers panic as they recognize the foolishness of building their village against a sheer cliff. Most of them begin running frantically back and then forth along the river bank. The chief, on the other hand, grabbing up his youngest daughter in one hand and his embellished staff of authority in the other, shouts, “Follow me, villagers!” and plunges into the water. Many others follow immediately. Still others, the more timid, wait until they ascertain the chief’s ascent up the opposite river bank, but many of these are tragically swept away in the still rising waters for having hesitated.

George is confused about Global Warming. His TV keeps telling him it is a Liberal plot, or alternatively a hoax perpetrated by rogue scientists greedy for research funding, yet many of his seemingly smart friends tell him that is nonsense, that the threat is very real and broadly recognized by real scientists. Without the research skills necessary to seek out reliable sources, he doesn’t know whether to believe in Global Warming or not, and his decision can make a difference in how he votes in the next election, or ever whether he should stop driving his car so much and start taking the bus to work. He is quite bewildered. However, one day, in a flash of insight, but with no further evidence one way or the other, about the veracity of Global Warmin, George makes a leap of faith and decides that he will believe in Global Warming. His insight had come about this way: He first imagined that Global Warming was real, and then considered what we should be doing about it in that case, and what (Scenario One) would happen if we did not do what should be done. Secondly, he imagined that Global Warming was not real, then thought about what (Scenario Two) would happen if we uselessly did what did not need to be done. He realized Scenario One was far grimmer than Scenario Two, and decided that Scenario One was the one we should prepare for.

Faith is often set against reason in many people’s minds. However, as you see I’ve described and exemplified it, it is actually a necessary complement to reason. Reason and discernment will  almost always carry us only so far — that is the dilemma — and faith is necessary to leap the rest of the way. Also, as the last example points out, wise faith will often contain an element of reasoning, an internal logic in the midst of uncertainty. We can describe faith as para-rational. But we should recognize that it is a critical element of the human cognitive apparatus and one that we utilize ubiquitously in the face of the pervasive uncertainty of our world. There are instances, however, in which faith becomes so rigid it does in fact, generally ill-advisedly, set itself in opposition to discernment and reason. But as a general issue the choice between reason and faith is not an option in our lives; we need both, we use both.

With the permission of my kind readership, I thought I would undertake in the next few weeks to consider this little-studied element of human cognition that we call faith Now, IWe will of course have a particular interest in the role of faith in Buddhism and I would like to describe the Buddha’s very insightful teachings on faith. However this is an open-ended topic and I invite readers to bring in their experiences and thoughts around faith in other religious traditions, many of which treat faith quite differently from Buddhism, or in other aspects of life. like managing your investment portfolio.  I hope we will have some discussion, in fact, of the role of faith in modern science, which I think is considerable.

We will discover, I think, that faith is a very fascinating and complex phenomenon, something that can have qualities that vary in several different dimensions. These qualities may be specific to how faith manifests in particular individuals, and may be characteristic of particular cultures or religions. Let me conclude by pointing to some of the dimensions of the space we will explore for the next few weeks in the form of a few questions.

  1. What is the basis of our faith? If faith reaches where discernment and reason cannot, what is it that informs our faith? Advice of wise teachers and holy scriptures are undoubtedly common bases of faith. Respect and devotion are clearly factors recommended in Buddhism. What is the role of courage?

  2. What is the stuff of our faith? Does faith require belief, or how fixed or provisional can beliefs be as they play a role in faith? Can faith be open-minded, and involve joy in exploring the unknown? What is the role of vows, for instance, marriage vows, in faith? What kind of energy or power does faith possess.

  3. How adaptable and resilient is our faith? What happens in the face of new information that allows us to extend our discernment but contradicts the conclusions of our faith? What happens when our faith is challenged by others? How do faith and critical inquiry coexist?

  4. How conducive is our faith to wholesome and productive, wise, skillful and virtuous, thought and action? What are the consequences for the mind (tranquility, suffering, etc.) when our faith wavers? When does energy degrade in the face of uncertainty, turning to despair, cynicism, pessimism?

Again, I would like to invite readers to participate in the discussion by posting comments. I am gratified that the number of readers of this little blog has been steadily increasing. I now have about 45 visible subscribers and average over 100 hits a day to this Web site overall. This is, of course, not wild popularity, but I have always anticipated a rather select audience. However, at the same time the readership has grown the amount of feedback I receive has diminished; perhaps people sense that we are not such an intimate group as before. I would like to encourage your comments, and also over the coming months suggestions of topics you would like to see discussed here. Thank you.

One Response to “Faith I”

  1. josesiem Says:

    This is a great series — I’m also very interested in faith. In my case, it’s something I always wish I had more of. Throughout my life I’ve tried to be a Christian many times but quite simply can’t supply the faith. However, I admire Christianity very much. I have a devotional nature with a hyper-critical mind: an unfortunate combo!

    I’ve argued before that Buddhism requires a substantial amount of faith — more so than many Buddhists seem to be aware of. This doesn’t count against it, however I bring it up, because many western Buddhists come from an anti-faith background, but many of them will adopt new items of faith, e.g., dakinis, omniscient Buddhas, Buddha-fields, etc. The other extreme is they end up like Stephen Batchelor — Buddhism without beliefs.

    In either case, I think it’s helpful to be aware of how our faith operates and be clear on what requires faith and that faith is essential in almost any worthwhile undertaking. Scientism has an implied faith that nothing exists beyond the five senses and/or if something exists, it shouldn’t concern us. I find this faith troubling and overly narrow. It needs to be pointed out to such folks that they too are operating on faith.

    The faith required in Buddhism is probably the most well-deserved and well-placed faith I’ve found anywhere. And like you wrote, it’s faith only in the beginning and, perhaps, in the middle. After garnering one’s own insights, faith turns into knowing.


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