“It takes a lot of faith to do zazen [Zen Buddhist practice], otherwise you’d never do something so stupid.”
– Rev. Shohaku Okumura
Last week I introduced the notion of faith as a space in which we all spend most of our waking time, the space that exists between our ability to discern and reason and know, and our need to act in all manner of daily affairs and of lifetime commitments. One of the difficulties in talking about faith is that most people have some fixed ideas — generally adopted on faith — about it, often as some kind of higher good, or alternatively as a kind of human weakness, gullibility or laziness in thinking. I hope I impress upon the leader over and over in this short series of posts that whether we have or act on faith is not a choice in the realm of human possibility, only whether our faith is skillful or unskillful. The Buddha’s view is that faith is a faculty of the human mind. As such it is a topic of investigation and understanding as a part of human psychology, and is subject on the one hand to training and development of skill, or on the other to neglect and misuse.
I want this week to open up the topic of the content of faith, that is, what is it we have faith in. In subsequent weeks we will look at the origin of, or influences on our faith, and the emotive properties of faith. To repeat my own definition from last week, anything that can be said to inform our actions and activities and life decisions that is beyond the scope of rational discernment and reasoning fits under faith.
I would like to cast our net far, but let me at least zoom in to make some early reference to Buddhist faith so we don’t lose track of our primary concern. Buddhist faith will also provide some interesting examples of some universal points. The Pali word saddha is generally that which is translated as faith. Sometimes it is said that the primary object of faith is in the enlightenment of the Buddha. A secondary object of faith is in kamma (Sanskrit, karma). These two make sense: If Buddhism is primarily concerned with the perfection of human character, the Buddha’s enlightenment provides the example of what we are all capable of, and kamma is the developmental model that shows how attention to our actions gets us there. (Please keep in mind that karma in Buddhism is quite distinct from alternative models of karma in various Hindu traditions, with which it is commonly confused. Last year I wrote a long series on the Buddhist developmental model, “From Thought to Destiny.”) Saddha is also commonly associated with the Three Refuges, or Triple Treasure. Going for Refuge is a matter of putting faith in the authority of the Buddha, the Dhamma (Sanskrit, Dharma) and the Sangha. When we take refuge in the Buddha we recognize the Buddha’s enlightenment, as well as his wisdom as a teacher capable of accurately expressing what he realized, and of setting in motion a means to propagate his teachings and extending their influence into the future. When we take refuge in the Buddha we place our faith in the accuracy of what the Buddha taught, and in the efficacy of the various practices and of the way of life he recommends. When we take refuge in the Sangha we place our faith in the Buddhist adepts responsible here and now for conveying, exemplifying and maintaining the integrity of the teachings.
The Dhamma is somewhat distinct in that by and large it treats faith as provisional, something that is progressively replaced with direct discernment as one’s practice develops. Recall Sariputta’s (he was the Buddha’s foremost disciple in wisdom) words in the opening quote last week, “I don’t take it on faith. I know.” The Dhamma is a sophisticated doctrinal system, but one open to investigation, ehipassika, “to be seen for oneself.” Investigation, in turn, is a progressive process, a possibility that depends on, and opens up more and more with continued practice. Therefore at the outset one necessarily starts with a lot of faith, faith that the Buddha knew what he was talking about and that it has been successfully conveyed in the Dhamma and through the Sangha to you. But what the Buddha taught included clear instructions that enable you to investigate for yourself, gradually to see what the Buddha saw. As Rev. Okumura expresses in the opening quote above, we start with little discernment — we cannot see for ourselves the sense of zazen — andso without faith we would not start at all. However, through investigation based on our experience of practice, discernment progressively replaces faith, and at the same time the intensity of faith in the rest grows through repeated confirmation.
What enables this development of discernment is that the Dhamma is really a nuts-and-bolts system, with relatively little in the way of lofty and sweeping truths, for instance, about the existence of God or the origin of the universe, rather primarily confined to pointers to elements of present experience, things you can see with a degree of training and practice. But more about this later.
So, now zooming back out from Buddhism, we ask, What are the elements or contents of faith? Naturally much of the content of faith has the form of beliefs, for instance, the belief that heaven and hell are real places, that God is an animate being, that free markets ensure the optimal use of resources, that walking under a ladder or breaking a mirror is bad luck, or that craving is the source of suffering. Notice that for all of us, individually, virtually all common beliefs are matters of faith, for instance, that the moon orbits around the sun or that water is made of oxygen and hydrogen, since we rely on some other authority to stand behind these beliefs whose infallibility most of us cannot generally prove rationally. We believe in scientific “truths” for the most part because we have faith in science, and we trust that scientists discern or establish these beliefs on a rational basis.
What does the scientist have faith in? He has faith in the data provided by other scientists, but further than that, he has faith in the correctness of the scientific method, in the existence of an objective world in which certain propositions are true that humans have the capacity know, none of which can be rationally established with certainty. Moreover, the individual scientist, doing what is known as normal science, works and is invested in a certain paradigm or broad theoretical framework, which acts as a lens through which data is interpreted and given meaning. That individual scientist has faith in that paradigm. It is faith because belief in it is not arrived at rationally by that scientist through considering all possible alternatives, but rather through faith in the authority of that scientist’s elders, usually especially his dissertation advisor. Other scientists will at the same time have faith in competing paradigms, but virtually any scientist has allegiance to some particular paradigm or another. Science is riddled with faith.
If we grant that belief in science can arise through faith, we should also acknowledge the ongoing impetus in science to investigate, including to challenge accepted beliefs or to improve their rational basis over time. This ensures progress over time toward aligning belief with some rational empirically grounded criteria of truth (notice, however, that the existence or nature of such criteria is a matter of faith). There is a trend in science that moves toward knowing and away from faith, but not a accomplished goal. This is not so different from the spirit of investigation alive in Buddhism that Sariputta refers to, but is uncommon in most areas of human interest. This raises an interesting question about these other areas: Are they just sloppier than science about what is true and what is not, or do they have good reasons for believing something without a reasonable basis for whether it is actually true or not? In other words, is faith at least sometimes preferable to knowing?
The human capacity for denial illustrates the tendency to ignore reason to grasp at a more comforting proposition out of faith. For instance, the notion of eternal life protects us from the horror of future non-existence. Or you may choose to tell a victim of a clearly about-to-become fatal accident, “You’re going to be O.K.” to protect him from the shock of a more objective appraisal. And, the implicit and comforting view that “all beef” on the package means something like ground steak, protects us from the uncomfortable recognition about what body parts the hot dogs we are eating really are made of. Buddhism, seemingly in contrast to most religious faith, is not generally prone to encouraging denial, often lending the impression of Buddhism as pessimistic: “What makes you think,” the Buddhist asks, “that you exist even now?” On a cautionary note, I am sure most readers are aware of the often serious dangers of denial, for instance, denial of the lump growing under the skin, of an increasing burden of personal debt or of the accelerating rate of severe weather events.
On the side of more skillful applications of belief based in faith, there are cases in which faith gives rise to truth. William James points out the power of faith to provide its own verification. Most of the cases involve cooperation among people. A group of die-hard strict rationalists would be hard put to exhibit any cooperative behavior at all, or even to develop friendships. Each would think along the lines of, “It is wasted effort for me even to think about doing my part of this proposed collaborative task before I have good evidence that those other people intend to do their part of the task,” then put their efforts on hold to await such evidence. Or they would reason, “Why should I be friends with him when I have no basis for suspecting that he wants to be friends with me?” If they are all thinking like this then nothing gets done and no friendships are forged. These are generally not people you want on your basketball team, in your platoon, among your squad of circus acrobats or in your construction crew. These are also not people prone to have dates on Saturday nights. Why? Because they lack sufficient faith. Collaborative behavior requires at least one person daring enough to have faith in the intentions of others, and then to begin to act on that basis. It is faith that inspires. James states, “Who gains promotions, boons, appointments, but the man in whose life they are seen to play the part of live hypotheses, who discounts [doubts about?] them, sacrifices other things for their sake before they have come, and takes risks for them in advance? His faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification.” In fact, I would suggest a supplementary pattern of human development is to learn to live up to the faith place in you be others.
A notable form of faith would be in that which is discernibly questionable or false. However, these are sometimes skillful as well! All myth falls into this category, but may nonetheless provide lessons and examples that inform skillful actions. In weeks past (see “Buddhism with Beliefs”)I have talked about the skillfulness of the belief in the existence of two pillars of Western culture, whose actual empirical existence is questionable: Money and God. The skill in believing in God can perhaps best be illustrated from the perspective of Buddhism which makes no use of such faith. Buddhism holds that there is a mythical element running through most human thought — in fact, even through virtually all of science — an element whose existence has no support in discernment or reason, but which people consistently accept on faith. Furthermore Buddhism holds that faith in this element is an example of unskillful faith. This is, of course, faith in the existence of things, including in the existence of our selves, as separate entities. As we have just seen in the series on non-self, faith in this myth gets us into a lot of trouble. As we have also seen, it is no trivial task to shake our-selves loose from this kind of faith. One way to look at God is as a means of fighting fire with fire, as a means of offsetting the consequences of an unskillful myth with another myth. Faith in God does for us much of which losing faith in the self does: It dethrones the self from the center of the universe.
In summary, much of faith has the form of beliefs. We all adopt many of our beliefs on the basis of very little hard evidence, often unskillfully but also skillfully and sometimes even as a matter of necessity. I have focused this week on belief, but next week we will see that the content of most of faith does not concern belief at all, but rather values and commitments that are difficult to express propositionally, and which also resist a basis in pure discernment and reason. Next week I will turn to the contents that are not belief. Probably in two weeks I will consider The Kalamas Sutta, a well-known and important statement of the Buddha’s views on religious faith and reason with which many readers will already be familiar. In the pipeline is also a discussion of the emotive aspects of faith. Does this sound good?