Faith VI

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, June 9, 2011

Kalama Sutta Workbook

Last week we discussed the Buddha’s advice on faith offered in the Kalama and Canki Suttas, what or who to believe in. In very brief summary:

Don’t place faith blindly in:

(1) Religious tradition (when this is conveyed without knowing).

(2) Inference and logic (when this gets abstract).

Do place your faith in:

(3) What is skillful, blameless, leading to welfare and happiness.

(4) What is approved by the wise (those who are said to know, and who are above any greed, hate or delusion that could lead them to mislead).

I would like, in this post to consider some examples. These examples are not limited to Buddhism or even to religion; I think the Buddha’s advice is quite far reaching. Religion is a Western concept in any case; whereas in the West we seem to organize human affairs into neat disciplines, such as religion, philosophy and science, at the Buddha’s time these distinctions would not hve been intelligible. My strategy will be simply to introduce an example of faith, and the comment on it from what I understand as the Buddha’s perspective, then move on to the next example.

Faith in the Buddha’s Enlightenment. This is said to be the basis of all Buddhist practice, so it is a good starting point.

Clearly faith in the Buddha’s enlightenment is communicated in a religious tradition (1), attested in ancient scriptures that have been communicated from generation to generation. Although the Buddha’s enlightenment can by no means be proven, it has been reproduced in the direct experience, that is, knowledge, of practitioners throughout the history of Buddhism into the present day. In this sense it is outside the criticism of the blind leading the blind. Although enlightenment is relatively rare nowadays (and those who are enlightened will rarely tell you so), the glimpse of enlightenment available to many adepts, those whose understanding allows them to verify the reality of the ultimate goal if not actually achieve it. Such adepts are called stream enterers.

Faith in the Buddha’s enlightenment is beneficial as an incentive to practice, and practice develops qualities that are skillful, beneficial and blameless (3). There are many very wise people who approve of faith in the Buddha’s enlightenment (4). Of course one should take great care that one understands the motives of teachers we have direct contact with, however we can also consider the testimony of many publicly known teachers, like the Dalai Lama, and many historical figures.

The Buddha discusses the difference between faith and knowing with respect to this specific object of faith in the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint (MN 27). The simile is that of a woodsman who initially sees a footprint, then bank scrapings and so on, accumulating evidence about what it is he is chasing, but should not conclude that he knows what he is after until he actually sees it. So faith lives alongside healthy skepticism. We will see next week that neither entail absence of doubt.

In summary, faith in the Buddha’s enlightenment is a working assumption that arises from faith in certain people of wisdom, that is properly recognized as faith and not knowledge until such time as it may be seen directly in one’s own experience, and which is verifiably skillful and beneficial even if not verified to be factual. Similar things could be said about the many other foundations of Buddhism, such as the Four Noble Truths and the Triple Gem.

Religious Fundamentalism. This is a phenomenon first identified in certain sects of Christianity, but also well attested in Islam and Judaism, and probably found in many minor faiths as well. I am alarmed that much that characterizes religious fundamentalism seems to be replicated in the New Atheism (e.g., of Christipher Hitchens and Sam Harris). We should be on guard for any leaning in this direction within Buddhism, for the following reasons.

Fundamentalism generally involves a strict unyielding interpretation of scriptural authority, seemingly with little recognition of the not so subtle difference between knowing and faith, literal and figurative. It is therefore subject to the fallacy of the blind leading the blind (1). Interestingly even the scriptural authority is often bogus. It seems subject to readily generating inferences to create a world view that often seems at odds with what the original scriptures were reasonably trying to say (2). For some reason this often takes the form of a strict demarcation of Good and Evil as forces at work in opposing populations.

Fundamentalist faith tends to be placed in leaders who don’t rank among the wise, insofar as they tend to display a lot of hatred and anger, often greed for fame and wealth, and sometimes an insanely deluded worldview (4). Religious fundamentalism responsible for a great deal of harm, including militant violence (3). In sum, Fundamentalism suffers under the Buddha’s criteria, at least in its most visible forms, in every possible way. This might be why the tendency to fundamentalism has been so weak in Buddhism.

Political and economic discourse is full of -isms that are often accepted on faith with an uncritical fervor characteristic of religious fundamentalism. Often they go back to a scriptural source (like Das Kapital or Wealth of Nations) (1). Interestingly the views attributed to the source are often bogus (Karl Marx announced famously in his later years that he was not a Marxist, Adam Smith, contrary to what most people think, was clear about the essential role of government in regulating business to protect the proper functioning of the free market from the cleverness of big businesses, and to provide an infrastructure that is necessary but unprofitable for the private sector). Often an viewpoint evolves that sees such perfection in theory that the needs of actually people are overlooked (2).

Harm results as loyalty to, or confidence in the benefit of, the theory overrides the compassion that would respond to observable needs (3). The various -isms are often promulgated by pundits who display hatred and anger, mislead, and have greedy motives, or are employed by those with greedy motives (4). For Buddhists this message should be clear: Be very careful and sparse in your views and hold them lightly, seek out the truly wise, and never, never, never let go of compassion.

Boldly plunging into the rushing river. This is a theoretical example I introduced in the onset of this series. Because this serves well, I think, to improve our understanding of the boldness of faith, let me restate the example:

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, gang!” 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 swept away in the still rising waters for having hesitated.

Faith here does not have a scriptural basis (1). It also involves a judgment call, but no complex inferences or derivation of a viewpoint (2). Interestingly, if the chief were to get caught up in thinking about what he is doing he might get cold feet (the other kind of cold feet), lose his boldness and fail to act in the required way.

As I have told the story, welfare and happiness results as a result of this leap of faith (3), at least for most of the villagers. However, at the time the chief made his decisions that was not a predictable result. What is telling about this example is the degree of uncertainty in contrast with the urgency of a decision. Even if the result was less fortunate, the alternative of not making a decision would almost certainly lead to at least as much harm and suffering. Passivity would have been death. This is a clear case, for the rest of the people, of following the wise (4). We can presume if the chief did not have a reputation for wisdom many more would have perished.

Faith in Rebirth. Rebirth in its relationship to karma raises skeptical eyebrows in the West, sometimes through the roof. It is perhaps the sole core supposition of Buddhism that elicits this response, and even in the Buddha’s day seems to have been a matter of contention.

In the Buddha’s day it did not have the best scriptural pedigree; apparently it is not part of early Vedic thought. And the Buddha tinkered quite a bit with the model of rebirth current in his day. Today, of course, it falls under the authority of the Buddhist scriptures (1). But for the Buddha that is not good enough.

The importance of rebirth for Buddhism in in terms of the what it does for the timescale of Buddhist training, and the development of the human character that ensues. A human life is very brief and progress within a human life is typically limited. When we conceive of the practice and the fruits of the practice extending indefinitely into the future, the significance and urgency of our practice is multiplied a thousandfold. This is the benefit of faith in rebirth (3). It is not so important that we know that rebirth is actually true as that we accept it as a working assumption or a mindset that informs our practice. At the end of the Kalama Sutta the Buddha takes up this very issue and tells the Kalamas:

“‘Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.’ This is the first solace found by him.

“‘Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.’ This is the second solace found by him.

In other words, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by living and practicing with rebirth in mind. This is analogous to plunging into the rushing river. Or, for that matter, in praying to God, just in case. It is also analogous to borrowing, spending, repaying and earning money, even though money does not exist except as a conceptual construct. Rebirth is also approved by the wise, beginning with the Buddha, and remarkably continuing to the present day in the teachings of many Western practitioners of advanced attainment (4).

The important point here is that the criteria the Buddha placed on faith is a pragmatic one; it is not one of verifiable truth, even while he sees faith evolving into knowing with the progress of one’s practice. Faith is something we can try on for size, loose fitting clothes we can check out to see what the style and the fit do for us. In contrast to narrow restrictive rigid belief, the kind fundamenalists endorse, Buddhist faith is expansive. Salzburg in her book on Buddhist faith writes,

Faith, … is … an active, open state that makes us willing to explore. While beliefs come to us from outside—from another person or a tradition or a heritage, faith comes from within, from our alive participation in the process of discovery.


Alan Watts similarly once wrote, “Belief clings. Faith lets go.

But will faith in rebirth someday intersect with knowing? Do the enlightened see rebirth directly? If you are at the point in your practice in which this matters, you do not need someone else to answer this. But the question is an interesting one and, though speculative, perhaps usefully explored by those who cannot help but reject it out of hand. Luckily for you I’ve written a previous series of posts on the matter, I suspect with more philosophical speculation and pondering of views than the Buddha would endorse. They are linked from this page.

Consumerism. David Loy calls consumerism the dominant religion in Western society. It provides us with a set of values and principles that inform our behavior at the deepest level. The result has been that it has tended to displace conventional religions, and conventional religions have often responded by adapting (modernizing) their teachings to fit a consumerist mindset. This has been a struggle for Buddhism in Asia as societies modernize. Consumerism is based in the faith that, in spite of what the wise have consistently told us throughout history, we can buy happiness.

Some scriptural passages is Buddhism and Christianity and presumably other religions extol abundance or material comfort (1). In the story of Buddha’s enlightenment it is significant that the Buddha just prior to his enlightenment backed off of severe ascetic practice and indulged in the luxury of being well fed. This is the origin of the Middle Way, tuning one’s practice like a lute to be not too tight and not too loose. However this has little to do with the volume of modern consumerism, and Buddhist scriptures underscore repeatedly the dangers of greed, lust, seeking wealth and fame, all of that. Consumerism has so embedded itself in modern thought that the desirability of economic growth is generally a given in economic theory and policy. By inference this then becomes a further justification of consumerism, since it is on the basis of ever increasing levels of consumption that economic growth is possible (2).

That consumerism is skillful, harmless and leads to well-being and happiness is a natural assumption given that unexamined human impulses seem to work on that principle. However almost any other evidence points the other way if we bother to look at it (3). Consider, who do you know who is truly happy? Something quite striking in my experience is how much happier people are in Burma, one of the poorest countries in the world, than typical middle class Americans. Buddhist monastics, that font of wisdom (4), bely the faith of consumerism in that their lives are based on the exact opposite assumption, yet they are as a group the happiest people I know.

In summary, the Buddha gives us some handy criteria for evaluating where we should place our faith. I have presented a small set of examples to illustrate these wise teachings. These examples could be multiplied at will. Next week, perhaps the end of this series, in a post I thought I would call Wielding Faith, I want to consider faith as a kind of energy or power that is cultivated for its own sake in Buddhist practice, one that has an emotive component, is a motivator of practice, and offsets the Hidrance of Doubt.


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