The Buddha on Faith
The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. The trite subjects of human efforts, possessions, outward success, luxury have always seemed to me contemptible. — Albert Einstein.
The Buddha had a lot to say about faith, but the broadest overview is afforded by two discourses delivered in response to people not already on the Buddhist path. These are the Kalama Sutta and the Canki Sutta. The first concerns a people called the Kalamas who live in a town called Kesaputta. They are confused by the bewildering variety of religious views and the certainty of their advocates. The sutta suggests that the immediate source of confusion are the questions of karma and rebirth, which confuses people to this day, but the Buddha’s answer answers a far more general question, How does one know where to place one’s faith? The Buddha was, apparently, the latest in a series of religious teachers to pass through Kesaputta, so they challenged him:
“Lord, there are some priests & contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. And then other priests & contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt: Which of these venerable priests & contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”
This is a question that makes perfect sense in modern America, in fact not only in the religious realm but, with a little tweaking of the wording, in others as well; consider politics. Here is the Buddha’s oft-quoted response.
“Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering” — then you should abandon them.
The last part of this is later stated in its positive form:
When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness” — then you should enter & remain in them.
The Buddha then introduces by way of example greed, Aversion and Delusion (the Three Poisons in Buddhism) and non-greed, non-aversion and non-delusion as qualities to test, and the Kalamas agree that each of the first group leads to harm and suffering, while the each of the second to welfare and happiness. Along similar lines the Buddha then extols the qualities of kindness, compassion, appreciation and equanimity (the Brahmaviharas in Buddhism) as sources of welfare and happiness.
The “don’t go by” list and the “when you know for yourselves” lists should be studied carefully. They use reason and discernment, in the midst of uncertainty, to sort out faith.
The “don’t go by” list can be broken into two primary parts: The Buddha disparages unquestioned faith in religious tradition on the one hand, and in inference and logic on the other.
Against religious tradition. The Buddha’s position is states as, “don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, …, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’” In the Canki Sutta (MN 95) a whippersnapper of a brahmin, a sixteen-year-old master of the Vedic literature, asks the Buddha directly:
“Master Gotama, with regard to the ancient hymns of the brahmans — passed down through oral transmission & included in their canon — the brahmans have come to the definite conclusion that ‘Only this is true; anything else is worthless.’ What does Master Gotama have to say to this?”
“Tell me, Bharadvaja, is there among the brahmans even one brahman who says, ‘This I know; this I see; only this is true; anything else is worthless?'”
“No, Master Gotama.”
The Buddha is concerned here with discernment, direct seeing, knowing for oneself, in contrast to accepting something purely on faith. He then explains the problem of religious tradition with the analogy of the blind leading the blind, each great teacher taking the word of the preceding teacher rather than seeing the truth directly for himself, such that no one no matter how far back you look actually knows, sees with his own eyes. He concludes that brahmins can reliably discern, “I have faith in this,” and preserve truth, but not “Only this is true; anything else is worthless.”
This applies to Buddhism as well. One can preserve a belief, for instance, for many generations, without anyone directly knowing it is true. And in practice this happens. The difference is the emphasis the Buddhism as a matter of principle puts on turning faith eventually into directly seeing for oneself. The Buddha is not disparaging faith, only emphasizing that it should be recognized for what it is. For instance, a student of the Buddha might have in faith the belief that suffering arises from craving, but not yet be able to see it directly for herself. Nevertheless, the faith functions as a working assumption which is to be investigated and even challenged, until it is seen directly. Buddhism is preserved as long as there are in every generation people who know the core teachings directly. Others follow along in faith. Modern science also operates under a remarkably similar application of faith.
Against inference and logic. The Buddha’s position is stated as, “don’t go by … logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, …” In the Canki Sutta the Buddha declares,
Some things are well-reasoned and yet vain, empty, & false. Some things are not well-reasoned, and yet they are genuine, factual, & unmistaken. Some things are well-pondered and yet vain, empty, & false. Some things are not well-pondered, and yet they are genuine, factual, & unmistaken. In these cases it isn’t proper for a knowledgeable person who safeguards the truth to come to a definite conclusion, ‘Only this is true; anything else is worthless.’
Keep in mind, the Buddha was a very clear and rational thinker and wielded this skill himself to promote understanding; he could not have meant to disparage all rational thought. I think, rather, the principle here is, Keep it Simple. A common expression of the Buddha was, “a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views.” First, inference and logic produces conclusions that are no better than the premises one starts with, which themselves are mostly based in faith. Moreover there is a strong tendency to move systems of thought toward abstraction to get them to work and thereby away from what is directly discernible, and then to become so infatuated with systems of thought that they become your reality. Finally, we seem to be very adept at rationalization, that is, reverse-engineering our reasoning to derive the conclusions we were already determined to derive for unreasonable purposes. At some point reasoning overwhelms and obscures discernment.
For instance, it is advisable when considering a political issue — maybe a congressman has introduced a bill and you are pondering whether to endorse it personally — to keep in mind: Who are the stakeholders? Who suffers if it is enacted? Who suffers if it is not enacted? Is there a mechanism that will be there counter the suffering? In view of compassion, ideology — whether Marxist, capitalist, libertarian, or whatever — often becomes remarkably specious.
The “when you know for yourselves” list also can be broken into two parts. The Buddha recommends entering and remaining in any quality that is both skillful, beneficial or blameless on the one hand, and approved by wise people on the other.
In favor of benefit. The Buddha’s position is stated as, “When you know for yourselves that ‘These qualities are unskillful … blameworthy … when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering‘… then you should abandon them,” and, “When you know for yourselves that ‘These qualities are skillful … blameless … when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness‘… then you should enter & remain in them.”
“When you know for yourselves …,” shows that the Buddha trusts the determination of this substantially to individual discernment. This, along with the mistrust of religious tradition, gives the Kalama Sutta its reputation as a license to free thought, or even to design your own religion. Notice, however, that the criteria are rather rigorous. First, “knowing for yourselves” is a strong obligation that few are capable of. Furthermore, this recommends that faith should be based on purely ethical criteria; in fact, no mention is made that you must discern that something is true, only that we discern it to be virtuous. The various terms used here are described in many places in the Suttas, but the Buddha’s advice to his own novice son, Rahula, is probably the best known source (MN 61). Skillfulness has to do with not being rooted in Greed, Hate and Delusion. The harm and suffering means for self and other, which in the Buddha’s ethics coincide remarkably.
In favor of approval by the wise. The Buddha’s position is stated as, “[If]… these qualities are criticized by the wise … then you should abandon them,” and, “[If]… these qualities are praised by the wise … then you should enter & remain in them.”
If we have let loose traditional doctrine, who are these wise guys? Since benefit has such a strong criterion for discernment, sometimes in matters that are deep and hard to see, and the untrained mind has such poor discernment, few of us can determine what to abandon or to remain and abide in on our own, unless we have great attainment in the practice. We need help. The problem the Buddha pointed to in traditional religious faith is that it loses its grounding in knowing. The wise are exactly those grounded in knowing, those who see things as they really are, who discern directly and accurately, not people who merely memorize scripture. Recall the Buddha’s recommendation in the Mangala (Blessing) Sutta:
Not to associate with fools,
to associate with the wise,
to honor those who are worthy of honor.
this is the highest blessing.
The question then becomes, How do we recognize the wise? This includes the perennial question, How do we find a teacher? The Buddha gives this answer in the Canki Sutta:
“There is the case, Bharadvaja, where a monk lives in dependence on a certain village or town. Then a householder or householder’s son goes to him and observes him with regard to three mental qualities — qualities based on greed, qualities based on aversion, qualities based on delusion: ‘Are there in this venerable one any such qualities based on [ greed / aversion / delusion] that, with his mind overcome by these qualities, he might say, “I know,” while not knowing, or say, “I see,” while not seeing; or that he might urge another to act in a way that was for his/her long-term harm & pain?’ As he observes him, he comes to know, ‘There are in this venerable one no such qualities based on [ greed / aversion / delusion] … His bodily behavior & verbal behavior are those of one not [ greedy / aversive / deluded ]. And the Dhamma he teaches is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. This Dhamma can’t easily be taught by a person who’s [ greedy / aversive / deluded ].
Once again the Buddha underscores the importance of Greed, Aversion and Delusion and their opposites in discerning human intentionality. These are powerful criteria. For instance, consider that a teacher might be acting under the motivation to secure wealth or reputation, or sex, all instances of Greed and all conflicts of interest in his teaching role. If a teacher harbors prejudice or ill-will toward someone or some group of people, or fear of competing doctrines (all Aversion), or has fixed understandings and strong dogmatic views (Delusion) this should raise red flags. Probably less visible is the depth of the teachers understanding, but time and experience in working with a teacher will either establish confidence or, if the student feels she has repeatedly been unable to verify what is being taught in her own experience then confidence might diminish. Faith in the teacher is a kind of faith and therefore one that should be evaluated ultimately in terms of whether the student is developing in a skillful, harmless way for the benefit and happiness of all.
Notice that in the Buddha’s exposition he has not proved anything wholly in terms of reason and discernment. To accept the Buddha’s account of faith itself requires faith, for instance faith in virtue as a worthy human value, faith in the unskillfulness of greed, aversion and delusion and the skillfulness of non-greed, non-aversion and non-delusion. In modern terms, these faith in these few elements bootstrap the rest of faith. This is a reasoned and discerning understanding of faith.
Next week I would like to provide examples of this systematic accounting of faith, as a kind of workbook to go along with this main text. In the following week I intend to discuss Wielding Faith, that is, how it is used as a faculty, with a strong emotive element, in support of our practice and development.